A Guide to Premium WordPress Themes

Jul 4 2010 by Sacha Greif | 29 Comments

A Guide to Premium WordPress Themes

The premium theme market has really exploded in the past few years. There are now many of premium themes sites (i.e. WooThemes) for WordPress alone, and that’s not even counting the hundreds of authors who publish themes on marketplaces like Themeforest or Mojo Themes.

With so many options out there, it can be hard for buyers to know which theme to buy, so here are a few key elements to pay attention to when shopping around.

Although this article applies mainly to WordPress themes, most of the advice here can be applied to any theme out there.

Whether you’re a designer looking to put up a blog or portfolio, a developer looking for a quick way to get a client’s WordPress site up, or a WordPress theme developer wanting to know how to make your theme more attractive to theme buyers, this guide should help you see what makes a premium WordPress theme great.

Popularity

Popularity

Whether you’re shopping for a car, a computer, or a WordPress theme, popularity plays a huge role in your decision, often subconsciously. Psychologists call it social proof, and it’s a simple principle that states that when we’re not sure how to act, we take our cues from our peers’ behavior.

Sites like ThemeForest publish weekly popularity rankings, and you can usually assume that if a theme is popular, it’s because of its high quality. But other sites don’t publish rankings or sales number, so you’ll need other criteria as well.

Design

http://themeforest.net/item/c3-clean-classy-corporate-wp/106021?ref=SachaG

The second most obvious criteria on which to judge a theme is its appearance. After all, that’s what the word "theme" originally described: alternate graphics that let you style an interface the way you want. It’s only later that themes began to include advanced customization options.

Although everybody has their own taste, you can look for a few common elements.

Make Sure the Text is Readable

Many themes look good at first sight, but poor color combinations can make it hard to read your content. This is especially important for a blog or any other site with large quantities of text.

Pay Attention to the Typography

This is an area that a lot of theme authors still overlook. Watch out for insufficient leading (or line height) and tiny font sizes.

Does the Homepage Have a Clear Focus?

Most themes these days use a homepage slider to put a few key elements forward, and although it’s starting to get a bit overused, it’s a good way to ensure that your featured items stand out.

Will the Design Match Your Branding?

 If you already have a logo and company color scheme, make sure that the theme’s colors don’t clash with it or make sure that the theme is easily customizable to fit your brand.

Features

Features

A lot of the latest WordPress themes include extensive back-end options panel. Some of them even use customized user interfaces to the point that it doesn’t even feel like you’re in WordPress anymore.

You should be careful not to assume that more features will automatically make a theme better. And after all, more features will also mean more time spent reading the documentation and configuring the theme.

Now that you’ve been warned, here’s a few useful theme features to look for.

Multiple Color Schemes

Being able to switch between multiple color schemes is a great way to make sure the theme will match your branding and message.

Shortcodes

WordPress shortcodes are codes that you can include in your posts. They get automatically replaced when the post is displayed, which makes it very easy to include buttons, drop caps, and other elements.

Unlimited Sidebars

With unlimited sidebars, any page you create can receive its own custom sidebar with different widgets. For example, a Google map widget on the "contact us" page, a Flickr widget on the About Us page are just a couple of benefits of having unlimited sidebars.

Custom Widgets

Themes sometime include their own custom widgets that you can place in any sidebar you want. This means you won’t even need to install a plugin.

Multiple Page Templates

The best themes include multiple page templates for maximum flexibility: with sidebar, full width, contact page, about page, etc.

Contact Form

There are tons of WordPress contact form plugins, but a lot of theme authors like to include their own working contact form. This way, they can control the markup and make sure it looks as good as the rest of the theme.

Flexibility

Flexibility

You’ll quickly find that a theme is not much use if it can’t be customized to your needs. No matter how great the theme looks out of the box, there will probably be a lot of things that you needs to tweak. Here are things that indicate a WordPress theme is flexible.

Logo Uploading

Is it easy to upload your own logo instead of the default one?

Custom CSS

If you have to manually edit one of the theme’s CSS files, your edits will get overwritten every time you update the theme. Instead, look for themes that provide a theme option that stores your custom CSS code inside the database.

JavaScript and CSS frameworks

The theme author is probably a JavaScript and CSS pro, but you might not be. Themes that use frameworks such as jQuery (for JavaScript) or Blueprint (for CSS) make your life much easier because there’s already a lot of documentation for those libraries.

Sliced PSD

If you ever want to change some of the theme’s graphics, it can be a real pain to find the right Photoshop file, extract an element, modify it, and export it. It’s much easier when the author provides you with a pre-sliced Photoshop file, or even better, separate files containing only the elements.

Documentation

Documentation

This is probably one of the most overlooked aspects when selecting a theme. After all, when buying software, you typically don’t read the documentation first, you just assume it will exist and provide all the required answers. Sadly, this is not always the case for themes.

The ideal documentation should include a description of all theme options, as well as walkthroughs of the most common tasks (installing the theme, adding an item to the homepage slider, etc.).

The best themes even include screencasts. You can convey as much information in a 5-minute screencast versus a 3-page article, so they’re a really good way for the user to quickly get up to speed.

Support

Support

Even the best theme authors can’t anticipate every possible bug, and even the best documentation can’t answer every question. Responsive and helpful support is a must and will make your life much easier.

Of course, if you’re a buyer of premium WordPress themes, you shouldn’t abuse customer support either and understand that although authors are usually ready to help, it’s not their job to teach you basic CSS or WordPress skills, or help you customize the theme to your liking.

The best way to get support is probably forums. Contrary to email, you can see if someone else already asked the same question, and you can also see how fast the author usually answers user questions. And a big advantage over emails is that you can have sub-forums, so bug reports don’t get lost among feature requests and other inquiries.

Price

Price

I hesitate to include this as a criterion for selecting WordPress premium themes because it’s so obvious, but price, of course, plays a big role in every purchase we make.

Different sites use different pricing schemes, but you have three common ways to buy a theme.

Single Theme Purchase

This is the most common and simplest way to buy a theme. Prices range from $10 on the low end all the way to $80 or $100 for the most expensive premium WordPress themes. $25 to $75 is a fair price for a theme these days.

Subscription Purchases

You pay a monthly or yearly fee, and you get to download as many themes as you want. This is a great deal for web designers who resell the themes, but if you’re buying a single theme for yourself, the first way is usually cheaper.

Non-fixed Prices

Some sites (like TemplateMonster) also give you a unique price that lets you buy the theme for your own exclusive use (of course, people who already bought the theme can still use it, so it’s not really exclusive). This is not really worth it in my opinion, because for that price (in the thousands of dollars) you can either get a regular theme customized to your needs, or even maybe get a custom theme built from scratch.

Adequacy

Adequacy

The last thing you need to ask yourself after you’ve found a popular great-looking theme with great documentation and support that’s also flexible and has tons of features, is simply, "Is it really what I need?"

It’s easy to be so dazzled by a beautiful theme that you forget to even consider what you’re going to use it for.

Don’t pick a theme with a huge homepage slider if you don’t have any images to put in it. Don’t pick a blog theme if you don’t plan on writing a lot of content. Don’t pick an experimental theme with lots of JavaScript effects for commercial purposes.

For the same reasons, beware of flashy themes that look really impressive. They might look so impressive that they end up overshadowing your own content. Sometimes simple is better.

Wrapping Up

So there you go, these principles are key to picking a good theme. Of course, part of the fun is also falling in love with that perfect design, so feel free to disregard everything I just said if this ever happens to you.

And if you’re looking for themes to buy, here are a few links to get you started:

Related Content

About the Author

Sacha Greif is a web designer from Paris, France who specializes in user interfaces and theme design. Visit his personal site at sachagreif.com. He blogs about design at AttackOfDesign.com and his latest WordPress portfolio theme is Silverio. Follow him on Twitter: @SachaGreif

29 Comments

Jennifer R

July 4th, 2010

I see that you have included your ref link in the post :(

jeprie

July 4th, 2010

I really agree with the theme option for CSS. That’s really helpful for me, who know nothing about coding.

Sacha

July 4th, 2010

@Jennifer R, what’s wrong with including my ref link?

Marcell Purham | Webdevtuts

July 4th, 2010

Great post! I think wordpress themes are going to catch up with joomla themes one day but wont be as complex. Theres so many places to buy them also.

Corbax

July 4th, 2010

With so many choices can be difficult for us to know what item to buy, so are a lot of lements to consider before.
Thanks, an excellent guide!

Tookangweb

July 4th, 2010

Today, is too many premium wordpress theme provider, but it’s OK :)

wwebz

July 5th, 2010

Okay may be i am wrong but my question is some time we buy a design which is good in weekly popularity rankings. Means that design is already bought millions of time? and you gonna use same design for your self which is already there in millions. Its like mass copying.

Sacha

July 5th, 2010

@wwebz so you won’t buy a car if other people already bought the same one? ;)

The era when every website was unique is over, I think themes are here to stay. After all it’s better to use a really great theme than a crappy unique design.

fwolf

July 5th, 2010

Well, the most important point you did miss ENTIRELY is: Is this theme properly written? Is it administrate-able? Ie. any good looking theme may contain HORRIBLE “php” spaghetti-code and HTML crap with divities etc. By now, I’ve seen A LOT of so-called “great premium themes” which under the hood looked like some 5 year old child tried to glue lego bricks with building blocks together, using snail slime and spit.

So, if you’re going to use a premium theme AND what to modify it – or are going to let a professional (web developer / programmer) do that for you, the most important part is: Is the back-end properly done, is the underlaying code well-formed and PROPERLY commented? Else it’s going to be a customization (and administration) nightmare, costing you much more than you wanted to spend while gaining a lot less of that what you originally wanted to GAIN with this theme-switching idea!

cu, w0lf.

Tuomas Leppänen

July 5th, 2010

Idea for next article here: Tutorials for creating premium themes, none really exists around web. Esp custom options page tutorials are scarce and havent seen really many good ones.

Sacha

July 5th, 2010

@fwolf That’s a very good point, I should’ve mentioned it. But on the other hand I think that the majority of people looking to buy a theme simply don’t have the skills or time to verify the quality of the code. And even though you can usually see the html/css source before buying, there’s no way to look at the underlying php code.

And to be completely honest, it usually doesn’t make a huge difference to the end user and the site visitors if the theme is properly coded or not. Of course, it makes customization much easier but then again if you’re looking to customize a theme then you’re already an advanced user and this article isn’t really for you.

Felix

July 5th, 2010

@wwebz, @sascha » Part of the Premium Themes Community is building Themes that can be customized and made unique via the build in option panels. This way you save tons of time and still end up with a half way unique look of your site. Extending the the functionality of the option panels is one of the big trends in the market at the moment.

Blueprint

July 5th, 2010

Great Article. I have been using wordpress themes for some of my clients for the past couple of years. I also use most of the guidelines that you have outlined in this article. It all really depends on how you use the theme in my opinion. If you use it right out of the box like you said you better be ready with some good stock images and excellent copy. But themes can be even better if you use them as a starting point and really build on the ideas that are already in a theme.

Gadsden

July 5th, 2010

I would add iThemes to this list. They’ve got great, professional looking themes which are easy to customize. My favorite is their latest, Builder. I bought this theme because with it, I’ll probably never need to purchase another theme. It can be customized to the point of every page/post having a different layout. And their support is excellent! (No, I don’t make any money by recommending them, I just love their work)

Namila

July 6th, 2010

nice post.thank you sharing this info :D

erkan

July 6th, 2010

I think poll system is also missing…

Ram

July 7th, 2010

Very Nice Article Sacha Grief, This will help many peoples!

Nottingham

July 7th, 2010

I agree with erkan…

Sacha

July 7th, 2010

@erkan, what do you mean about poll systems?

Gabriel Hristea

July 7th, 2010

Great article. Thank you very much for all the info!

Eve @ Designing WIth Eve

July 8th, 2010

You used your ref link? What is the problem with that?

In my opinion this post is informative and helpful, and it would be silly NOT to include ref links, afterall- time is money and you spent your time writing this up to help us- if the least we can do is use your link if we do buy one of these then that is fine. The whole thing now with people getting upset over using affiliate links is silly- as long as you are not spamming them it shouldn’t be an issue.

ardianz

July 8th, 2010

i’am still working with my web project at my office., thx for this article., its very useful for me.,

Carol

July 21st, 2010

Thank you very much for yet another first-rate article. I am always searching for original themes to suggest to my readers. Thanks for creating this article. It’s exactly what I was searching for. Truly great post.

Robbie

September 12th, 2010

The problem these days with wordpress themes is they are all to generic, in a sense they are all so similiar. If you check out themeforest, all the all the latest themes looks like the other ones released earlier.

abdulaziz

November 18th, 2010

it’s very nice

thank you

Keith Davis

December 18th, 2010

Hi Sacha

Good summary of what to look for in a premium theme.

I use Elegantthemes and have been very pleased with the themes and more importantly… the support forum.

If you aren’t a coder, you need good support or you can spend ages trying to get the effect you are after.
That is the main reason that I use a premium theme – well worth paying for.

David

February 13th, 2011

Sacha, have you tried out wpMosaic? If so what did you think of it?

La Noapte

March 1st, 2011

very usefull , thanks

Jaki Levy

May 5th, 2011

These are great WordPress resources – I actually just started digging into a really really solid book on WordPress 3.0. It’s got some really nice code samples, and is written by a few pro WordPress developers (including some from Envato). I’m actually giving away 2 copies of the e-book on my site – check out the details about the e-book and the giveaway here – I think you’ll dig it : http://bit.ly/lq20Ff

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