How to choose a WordPress Theme

July 6, 2010 · 8 comments


There are two kinds of people who use WordPress – those who know how to write computer code, and those who don’t. It is safe to say that most people fall into the first category. What this means is, if you don’t know how to hack a theme, you either get someone to do for you, or spend an inordinate amount of time experimenting with a programming discipline you don’t know.

Those who don’t know how to write PHP or CSS tend to use a theme as it is. Popular themes quickly become prevalent on blogs and websites, easily recognizable, with no particular “brand” to make the site visually unique. One of the most popular themes on the Internet is Thesis. In fact, this site is built with Thesis.

The most common complaint about Thesis is, most sites look like they were made with Thesis.

Out of the box, Thesis looks just OK. It is highly customizable, with modification, limited only by imagination. And skill. And knowledge. Even though Thesis can be modified without any coding, the real power of making it look unique lies in writing code. Besides, if you have no idea what color hex codes are, or what a stylesheet is, you have gained nothing by pop and click settings. You won’t know what to change.

The most common complaint about Thesis is, most sites look like they were made with Thesis. In fact, this is true. With little or no customizing, Thesis quickly becomes commonplace and boring.

The most customizable – sans coding – theme I’ve ever seen is Atahualpa. It has 268 options. Looking at all these makes me dizzy. Many people like this theme, and its free. Given time to go over all the options, this could be the best theme for you.

But how do I choose a theme?

First, try WordPress Showcase. You may find a free theme you like. Be prepared to learn how to hack it. Otherwise, forget about being unique. This is true whether you buy a theme or use one that is free.

The most important rule of thumb is, less is more. Look for minimalism and ease for your readers. Avoid color that is hard on the eyes – white text on a red background is a good example of bad design. You can’t go wrong with a dark gray text on white background.

Stick with standards as much as possible. Navigation should be at the top; it can be in a sidebar, but that tends to look so “nineties” and you should keep sidebars available for widgets.

View your site as your readers will see it. You may like bright colors, busy design or things moving. Your readers don’t care, and you add nothing for them with too many elements distracting their attention. In all things web site, use the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid).

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Mari Adkins July 6, 2010 at 10:24 am

I have a hard time choosing themes. right now i’m using the twentyten built-in theme nd it does what i need to do. i just need to tweak it to my own specs a bit more before i ‘m completely happy with it.

Hal Brown July 6, 2010 at 7:57 pm

I’ll stop tweaking when my cold, dead hands are pried from the keyboard. :)
Thanks Mari.

Mari July 6, 2010 at 11:18 am

Thanks for your timely topic, Hal. You are a master at making sense of all the gobbledygook out there. How about delivering a thesis of your own with easy-to-comprehend explanations for implementing basic code?

Hal Brown July 6, 2010 at 7:58 pm

You are too kind – but that’s OK. :)

Kissie July 7, 2010 at 10:11 am

Is it me or am I the only one who thinks Blogspot is perfect for beginners? I’m sorry but those widgets were too doggone simple – even I understood! I used to think I was one of the best when it came to DOS (lol). The thought of that alone is hilarious to me. Now, however, I just cannot figure out the html crap without going crazy in less than 30 minutes so I just give up and miss being unique. The best I can aim for is using my own life stories, at least I know you won’t find that on any other site.

I’m going to check out the WordPress Showcase, wish me luck or something!

Thanks, Hal

P.S. I asked if I were the inspiration for this post because of my site, or lack thereof. ;-)
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Kissie July 7, 2010 at 10:14 am

Hey, it’s me again. Can you recommend a theme for me, I’m NOT paying for Thesis when I can’t customize a free one. Once I’m good at the freebies, I’ll consider moving on….but if I’m too good at the freebies, why should I. teehee

Please Hal, help a sister out.

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Hal Brown July 7, 2010 at 10:58 am

Hi Kissie,
First, if you are serious about blogging then there is only one thing to do – buy a domain and set up the software yourself (or hire someone to do it). I’ve already gone over all this in my free book. With blogger you do not have your TLD (top level domain). You have a sub-domain of blogger (Blogspot?). In other words, you would have This is the same with any free blogging/website I know, Wordpress included.

Your blog now is a TLD or you have it pointed to a domain you own ( You already have a TLD.

About themes:
If ever there was a “you get what you pay for” scenario this is it. A question for you: Why do you think there are premium themes? I’ll answer that. If you know enough to hack a free theme, then you probably know enough to build one yourself.
You need to know at least two programming languages: PHP and CSS. A dash of SQL would help as well. It is assumed you know a smattering of HTML. You don’t need to know much about HTML – it is dynamically generated with database driven sites such as Wordpress.
I’ve looked at hundreds if not more than 1000 free themes. 999 out of 1000 suck, no matter what you do.
What is your time worth? If you could spend say $20 for a theme would you do that?
The only thing I could recommend for free is something very minimalist and easy to hack the files. I hope I’ve answered you, and helped somewhat.

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