WordPress Theme Frameworks: Options You Should Consider

Jul 16 2010 by Saad Bassi | 49 Comments

WordPress Theme Frameworks: Options You Should Consider

There is no doubt that WordPress is an awesome piece of open source application, and in addition, creating custom themes for it is very intuitive and relatively easy with the WordPress API.

With that said, creating your own custom themes from scratch can be very time-consuming, with plenty of unnecessarily repetitive tasks.

WordPress theme frameworks–which are themes that you can use as a foundation for the creation of your own themes–can drastically boost your performance and efficiency.

To help you learn about WordPress theme frameworks and make your job as developer a bit easier, we are going to review the best WordPress theme frameworks out there.

By the way, this article will not be covering WordPress theme frameworks that don’t use the General Public License that the WordPress core has, as this is the supported licensing type of WordPress.

Why Use a Framework?

In a web developer’s life, a framework helps the speed of production. Much like JavaScript frameworks like MooTools or jQuery, CSS frameworks like the 960 Grid System, or server-side scripting frameworks like Ruby on Rails or CakePHP, WordPress theme frameworks achieve the same sort of efficiency, reduction of errors through cross-browser compatibility, and the provision of useful and common functions.

Let’s draw out the pros and cons of using WordPress theme frameworks.

Pros

  • Time savings
  • Easier development
  • Support via communities built around the WordPress theme frameworks
  • Typically has optimized CSS, HTML, PHP functions, and SEO
  • Typically has code that’s written with WordPress standards and best practices
  • Ease of updating for future releases of WordPress

Cons

A disadvantage of using frameworks is at the beginning, where there is always going to be a learning curve as you adopt new stuff to your development workflow. Though the learning time is relatively short compared to, for example, a new server-side scripting language, you will still have to account for this time when considering the use of WordPress theme frameworks.

However, the best way to look at using any web development framework is that it will be a long-term investment. The time you spend learning the technology at the start pays off in the end in terms of development speed and efficiency.

Another possible disadvantage is that themes built on top of frameworks, depending on the skill of the web developer, could be slower in performance than building themes from scratch, since all frameworks, not just WordPress theme frameworks, provide an additional abstraction layer.

The Concept of Child Themes

Before we start reviewing each framework, it’s important that all of us understand what child themes are in the context of WordPress.

WordPress, by default, supports child themes. Child themes look exactly like their parent themes, unless you make modifications to them. Child themes inherit all the templates, functions, and CSS of parent themes. This compartmentalizes variations so that you can make changes without affecting the integrity of the parent theme.

A child theme is usually contained in a folder having a styles.css (required) and a functions.php file. functions.php is not mandatory, but you will need it if you want to include some custom functions on top of your parent theme (which, in this scenario, is the WordPress theme framework). Both the child theme and parent theme folders will be in the themes directory of your WordPress installation. You can override the inherited traits from its parent by modifying its own styles.css and functions.php files.

Here is how you declare a child theme (this goes inside styles.css, at the top).

/*   
Theme Name: Child Theme
Theme URI: http://sixrevisions.com
Description: A child theme description.
Author: Saad Bassi
Author URI: http://addictivefonts.com/
Template: My Framework (e.g thematic or Hybrid)
Version: 1.0
Tags: theme
*/

The Template attribute above instructs the WordPress core to inherit all the templates of "My Framework," which is the name of the parent theme in our hypothetical scenario.

WordPress Theme Frameworks

Now let’s review the five best WordPress theme frameworks that you should consider if you are planning to take advantage of them.

1. ThemeHybrid

ThemeHybrid

ThemeHybrid is a popular, free framework developed by the equally popular WordPress developer, Justin Tadlock.

ThemeHybrid is free, but to get support on its forums, you need to sign up for an Exclusive Membership to their Theme Club, which is $25 per year.

With a massive community, you will never get stuck on an issue. ThemeHybrid has many child themes available for download on its website, which you can use to give your WordPress installation a new look without much coding.

ThemeHybrid

ThemeHybrid comes with plenty of WordPress widgets and page templates.

Want to extend the framework? Sky’s the limit and your only real limitation is your imagination (and WordPress theme development skills, of course).

While many people say that frameworks are bloated and slow, ThemeHybrid will change their mind as it is lightning fast and optimized for high performance.

ThemeHybrid

2. Thematic

Thematic

Thematic is a theme framework by WordPress theme developer, Ian Stewart. Thematic is completely free; from forums to child themes, everything is free!

Though the documentation of this theme is not as comprehensive as ThemeHybrid, you can get insightful tips and tricks from its forum.

Thematic

Thematic has 13 widget areas that are more than enough for most of your needs. With the WordPress theme framework’s many filters and actions, you can customize your child theme in any way that you want. Its out-of-the-box simple and clean look can even be used without any aesthetical modifications–and it will still look great.

3. Canvas

Canvas

Canvas is a premium theme framework from WooThemes. As to be expected with any WooThemes product, it has a huge number of options and customization features.

Canvas is best for novice developers and those that don’t want to be bogged down by the ins and outs of coding, but still want to take advantage of the many benefits of using a theme framework.

You can style each element of Canvas differently from its Theme Options panel. The theme framework supports child themes and also has 5 built-in page templates for your home page, including a magazine-style layout and a business site template.

Canvas also supports 6 CSS layouts for your blog and even provides you an option for choosing distinctive layouts for each post and page.

If you are a web designer that doesn’t want to mess with code too much, Canvas should be your pick. To witness the real power of Canvas, watch this video.

Canvas

4. Genesis

Genesis

Genesis is a premium theme framework that was built by StudioPress. Genesis has a child theme marketplace where you can buy all additional child themes. Genesis has native support for search engine optimization (which it focuses on). You can set all the options in the Genesis backend panel, just like with most good WordPress theme frameworks.

Genesis

Similar to the Canvas WordPress theme framework, Genesis gives you the option to select separate layouts for each post and page. Genesis is intended for developers, as opposed to designers, because you will have to learn its hooks and filters before getting started with it, and thus, will need some coding proficiency.

5. Elemental

Genesis

Elemental is a product of ProThemeDesign. One of its unique features is that it comes bundled with an admin menu bar that stays on top of your WordPress web pages if you are logged in. The admin menu bar allows you to go to the most common places inside the WordPress admin dashboard. The framework comes with 12 page templates and 7 custom widgets by default.

Genesis

Conclusion

After reviewing these five WordPress theme frameworks, I pick ThemeHybrid as my personal choice–the helpful community coupled with the excellent set of features make it a clear winner in my book.

For WordPress themers just starting out and those that would like to take advantage of WordPress theme frameworks without being bogged down by code, I highly recommend you to go for Canvas, which allows you to modify everything right from the Theme Options panel.

Genesis

The other three frameworks are also awesome, and the final selection will depend upon your needs and tastes (and, hopefully, this guide will have made making that decision easier for you).

Related Content

About the Author

Saad Bassi is a 20-year-old web developer from Pakistan. He is the Co-Editor at CrispyTech, and blogs about Windows at Windows8Geek. Don’t forget to give him a "hello" on Twitter. Last but not least, make sure that you check out hist latest project, Addictive Fonts which focuses on free high quality font downloads.

49 Comments

Benjamin

July 16th, 2010

I’m surprised you didn’t include iThemes’ Builder.

Jordan Walker

July 16th, 2010

Thanks for the overview. I have been looking into this type of framework recently.

JG

July 16th, 2010

This is right on time! I’m moving from Joomla into WordPress and I’ve been looking for frameworks and guides like this. Thanks much.

Christopher Masiello

July 16th, 2010

Saad,
Nice roundup. I’m using Hybrid at the moment. It’s pretty easy to work with and there are some nice child themes available.
Thanks,
Chris

Riyaz

July 16th, 2010

I use Thematic Child Theme for my blog. Good thing is its free and now the Framework developer Ian has joined WordPress development team.

Brian Gardner

July 16th, 2010

Saad, great review of WordPress theme frameworks – and thanks so much for including Genesis. Our team is very proud of what we’ve built, and we have a lot of exciting things for the future!

Cliff

July 16th, 2010

This article is SO helpful to me. I never even thought about using frameworks for wordpress things…silly me.

THANKS

Quick question – when you say genesis is more for developers as opposed to designers, is the coding proficiency we need just PHP, xHTML and CSS?

Byron Corrales

July 16th, 2010

If I dont want to create a child theme of this framework, and just want a simple or minimalistic theme for add my custom features , wich will be the best options?

Marc

July 16th, 2010

I haven’t tried all of these different frameworks yet, but I can tell you that Genesis Rocks!

Saad Bassi

July 16th, 2010

@Brian

Thanks for stopping by Brian. Sure, no doubt Genesis has one of the most awesome guys behind it specially nathan. I love his code.:)

Ben

July 16th, 2010

Hey Saad – thanks for mentioning Elemental. I’d love to know more about what you like/ dislike about the theme (how I could improve it to rank higher in the future). Feel free to drop me an email if you have any extra feedback

Thanks

Sridhar Katakam

July 16th, 2010

Saad: Have you tried iThemes Builder?

Mark Fulton

July 16th, 2010

Good options. Have you heard of the new PliablePress Chameleon framework? It’s brilliantly designed with very innovative admin controls and lots of features.

My thoughts and video demo here:
http://www.dotsauce.com/2010/05/10/premium-wordpress-themes-pliablepress/

WPFuss

July 16th, 2010

Starkers is also a good one you missed. Good article.

Mike Key

July 16th, 2010

I am so glad you DID NOT include Thesis. I hate Thesis. And I’m so tired of clients who’ve bought it and want me to customize it. It’s not a framework!

Jacob Gube

July 16th, 2010

@Mike Key: But I think the reason Saad didn’t include Thesis was because it isn’t licensed under GPL, which is what WordPress is licensed under. Not to knock on the quality of Thesis, which is, as I understand, a great theme, especially for non-devs.

Saad Bassi

July 16th, 2010

For all those folks who are asking about Builder, Yes I have tested one of its older versions and can recommend you with full confidence. If you are a non tech savvy person and want to have a unique look for your blog then you should buy Builder. The most awesome thing about them is that you can create different layouts in matter of minutes.:) And sorry for missing them in article as I was not sure whether they are gpled or not. Just came to know that they are gpled so here are my thoughts about them

Saad Bassi

July 16th, 2010

@cliff

Mostly you just need to know css and you are good to go with Genesis. But if you want to highly customize your site then you should must know php and WordPress core functions

Danny Brown

July 16th, 2010

Great review and comparison. Perhaps an update or new comparison, now that Headway (my favourite) is GPL-compliant?

Joe

July 16th, 2010

I use Hybrid to develop child themes and love it. The support is great!

Shikeb Ali

July 16th, 2010

Nice article Saad, however you missed the Buffet framework not so popular but very handy indeed even new developers can handle it.
http://wordpress.org/extend/themes/the-buffet-framework

Ryan

July 16th, 2010

Hey Jacob and Saad

Thanks for the tweet, and I am happy to comment. I totally understand it is a matter of opinion and I mentioned in my first tweet that my comments were in my opinion.

First off Justin Tadlock is one of the WordPress community members that I have learnt the most from based on some really great in depth posts he has done over the years and Hybrid was the framework that sold me on the concept of Parent/Child themes. However some of the reasons why I feel Genesis should be the better choice are;

1. Genesis like Hybrid has great features such as awesome hooks and filters, great structure, clean code and does some great work with built in SEO. (To name a few)

2. The community is awesome and the support forums are even better. In the time I have been on the forums I am always amazed when I check in to see how quickly posts get responded to.

3. Some might argue that Genesis comes at a price and Hybrid is free, however to be part of the Hybrid support forum you need to pay (and that is a good thing by the way). So to compare apples with apples we have to say that Hybrid and Genesis are two great frameworks with the one costing $25 per/year and the other costing $59.95 once off. So in 2.5 years Hybrid would end up costing more.

4. Again in my opinion I also feel that although Genesis is a far newer framework, it will be the framework that going forward is developed upon more often. I base this on the fact that Genesis is a fundamental part of StudioPress has someone like Nathan working on it as full time job.

5. So I guess where I am going with this is that if you were to make a decision on a framework to build your business around I would choose Genesis, and not just because it is a great framwork right now but because I believe it will be the best framework going forward.

Oh and by the way lets not forget some of the really cool child themes available for Genesis.

Mikael

July 16th, 2010

Very helpful article !

I have used Thematic for a few months and it is just perfect !

Sahan

July 16th, 2010

But Thesis is not that hard to customize (the design) if you have firebug :)

Jarret

July 17th, 2010

Saad, good article! I appreciate articles that raise consumer awareness of some of the great theme frameworks available. I myself am pretty picky and I never could find a theme that fit my needs. I ended up stumbling upon Theme Hybrid and have built four sites using it.

In short, yeah, Theme Hybrid rocks! Great forum. Excellent support. For $25.00 you get support from the Theme creator for a year, that’s a great deal in itself.

Because it’s open-source, you can run the Hybrid on multiple sites without needing a developer license too.

I switched one of my friend’s sites who was running a very basic WordPress theme over to Hybrid and it actually ran faster even with a slider and thumbnails (confirmed with pingdom).

I can’t say enough good things about Theme Hybrid, but I agree with your choice for #1.

Mike

July 17th, 2010

So I just wrote a quick rant on why I think Thesis is a garbage theme. (http://www.mikemeisner.com/notebook/why-the-thesis-theme-is-complete-garbage/)I’m glad (and surprised) you didn’t mention it here. I personally really like Thematic and have used it many times over the years. I really dislike Thesis, mostly because of the way they market it. These frameworks are NOT easy to modify unless you understand hooks, actions and filters very well, not to mention some PHP, CSS, and HTML of course.

Regardless of these frameworks, I find myself usually coming back to Sandbox, or some other blank canvas, to construct my new themes. To each his own.

Jacob Gube

July 17th, 2010

@Ryan: Thanks for stopping by Ryan and sharing your thoughts. You bring out some great posts about Genesis.

Saad Bassi

July 17th, 2010

@Ryam

Ryan I agree with most of your points and you missed out one great point about Genesis that It was checked for security holes by WordPress core contributor “Mark Jaquith”,

The Problem is I am already used to Theme Hybrid so much that I don’t want to change my theme framework now. The problem with Genesis for me was that It came out late in the market.

Personally I am a fan of Justin Tadlock. I have learned a lot from him in this journey to learning WordPress Development so Its also one of the reason for me to choose it.:)

@Mike

Completely agree with you mate.:)

Gianpaolo D'Amico

July 17th, 2010

in the last 3 years I tried a lot of wordpress frameworks themes and I they are wonderful tools if you want to work seriously with wordpress stuff. I prefer Thematic, by which I used to create some medium projects like: http://www.acmmm10.org/ or http://www.mmm.unifi.it/. At the beginning Thematic is a little bit hard because the documentation is poor, but the forum is wonderful and, when you understand the logic of filters etc, it becomes very easy to create new projects and save time

Justin Tadlock

July 17th, 2010

Thanks for including my Hybrid theme in this list. There’s a lot of great competition here.

@Ryan – Thank you for the kinds words. I’m happy I’ve helped you learn a few things about WordPress. I’ve always just tried to give as much as I can back to the community that has given so much to me.

3. Some might argue that Genesis comes at a price and Hybrid is free, however to be part of the Hybrid support forum you need to pay (and that is a good thing by the way). So to compare apples with apples we have to say that Hybrid and Genesis are two great frameworks with the one costing $25 per/year and the other costing $59.95 once off. So in 2.5 years Hybrid would end up costing more.

I just wanted to quickly respond to this so others might not get confused. This isn’t necessarily an apples-to-apples comparison. Hybrid doesn’t have a standalone support package. The support membership offered at Theme Hybrid currently covers 11 themes and 16 plugins (I think I got those numbers right) for $25/year.

Scott Bolinger

July 17th, 2010

I am a designer, and I use Hybrid for all of my personal and client sites. I’ve never tried the other frameworks, but the theme, features, and community of Hybrid are awesome. Hybrid is perfect for a designer like me who doesn’t do a lot of PHP.

tripdragon

July 17th, 2010

The real question. When do we get a new admin view or custom edit in place admin setup? Instead of well named boxes and organization can the admin view just look like the viewers render?

Al

July 18th, 2010

Hybrid also has built in SEO.

Studiopress Genesis is basically a beautiful theme in of itself.

Eric Granata

July 18th, 2010

+1 iThemes Builder
-1 Thesis

Paul

July 19th, 2010

Just want to share my personal experience with Hybrid.

Hybrid’s support forum is very active, it’s the best 25 bucks I’ve ever spent on web dev edu. I get all my questions answered, and for those that are not, they are merely not the applicable ones – not to mention that 75% of what I need are already available in the exclusive tutorial.

It’s hard to leave Hybrid, really, each time I tried out other frameworks, I ended up coming back to Hybrid.

mattun

July 19th, 2010

I want to try them.thanks!!

David

July 19th, 2010

Thanks for posting this useful list of WordPress frameworks, they can really speed up development time and come with lots of added benefits. Themeshaper is the one that i have used most, i find it very easy to work with.

Shivanand Sharma

July 21st, 2010

Nice roundup here. Actually you could extend it into a tabular format comparing the features of each.

Tinh

August 9th, 2010

Great collection, I still stick with Thesis

Salvador

August 22nd, 2010

Thanks for the list of frameworks. The only ones I have tested have been thematic & elemental. Yet to try theme hybrid, will visit their page now. Thanks for this great list of frame works. I wonder what the future of frameworks holds for us in the future? thanks Jacob, take care

Corinne Claypool

November 4th, 2010

I am fundamentally a graphic designer and not a programmer but I felt like I needed to get more control over the sites I was building and not just taking a pre-made theme and customizing it. So I am just starting to learn frameworks … and I ended up selecting Headway (2.0) So far it is awesome … it has let me come in at a beginner level (my php skills are at a super basic level right now) but it seems to let me get more fancy as I get better at php. Do you have any thoughts on Headway?

Ed

November 5th, 2010

New to wordrpess…What is the difference between a premium theme and frameworks? Does framework have less code and is even more customizable? Thanks for the help!

Lalo Marquez

December 13th, 2010

Yes, I’m also curious about headway and how it compares to canvas, genesis, elemental, hybrid, and thematic.

Adam

December 18th, 2010

This is a great no-BS article. I have a site that aesthetically looks and functions the way I want it to, but I built it using the Atahualpa which is bloated, and I decided it was time to rebuild it with better framework.

I bought Thesis thinking it was the only way to go, but I’m quickly realizing how steep of a learning curve it has to change things which I think should be easy to change. The whole option menu confuses me as well… and I don’t get why font sizes are in terms of pt or em… I want to use pixels god dammit. :P

I’m now looking at all the themes you suggested and see if they’re any easier for customize. I’m sure Thesis is great in terms of clean code and everything, but getting accustomed to the hook system is going to take some time, and the other themes you mentioned might be more practical for getting the job done.

Alex

January 11th, 2011

There is a new WordPress Framework available. Compares to some other frameworks it is very flexible and easy to use. See it here: http://xtreme-theme.com

Hasitha Prabhath

August 22nd, 2011

Thesis still rocks!

KC

October 17th, 2011

Hi Saad, I am quite agree with your thoughts and tried this new framework – http://wordpress.org/extend/themes/rtpanel .It is proven effective so far, as I am a start-up businessman want to try out a framework without spending too much. So feeling lucky that I got this open source theme.

Saad Salman

October 24th, 2011

Great resource! Thanks!

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