Monday, March 28, 2011

WordPress Theme Smackdown: Free, Premium or Custom

We're migrating our corporate website to WordPress. After a year of searching for the perfect WordPress theme to style our site I've decided to get a custom theme developed. It wasn't an easy decision. My original intention and true wish is to do the whole thing myself. Now I see that DIY could stall the project forever. It's time to reach out and get some help.

Static Version of
I created the current version of our website over a year ago. Since then I've done everything in my power to make it look and act like a dynamic WordPress site. I added Twitter widgets, a blog and hooked our site up with an RSS feed and social media. This keeps our content fresh and pushed our Google page rank up a notch. But now it's time for the real deal.

The illusion.
I believed that if I found the right WordPress theme it would just be a simple matter of plugging in our content. Then Presto! I'd have a dynamic WordPress site at my command. I wrote 10 Reasons I Jumped on the WordPress Bandwagon to share this magic solution.

Reality Check.
Turns out isn't that easy. I've dressed up our content with a series of themes. I gave Elegant themes a whirl. I tried the Thesis framework on for size. I read every roundup of theme reviews that I could find. But I now I have to face reality. I'm never going to find the perfect off-the-shelf theme for our site.

The Smackdown.
Here's the smackdown part of this article. AKA my humbling journey from free themes, to premium themes, to frameworks, to hiring a custom theme developer.

Free Themes
    The BlueBubble Theme Template
  • The Good: They're free! They're part of the beautiful sharing opensource WordPress community. I used the free BlueBubble theme for my e-learning course Build an e-resume portfolio site with WordPress. If you want a personal blog or e-resume/portfolio site, then a free theme might be the perfect solution for you.
  • The Bad: It's free so you can't expect the same level of support that you would receive with a premium theme. Plus the developer may abandon the theme and stop updating it for new releases of WordPress.
  •  The Ugly: Free themes can hide malicious code so be careful. It's best to get your free themes from the Free Themes Directory.
Premium Themes
  • The Good: You get a professionally designed template for an extremely reasonable cost. Here are a few premium theme solutions that I recommend: Elegant themes and Woo Themes. But there are hundreds of great premium theme sources.
  • The Bad: I'm often attracted to premium themes with beautiful photographs. But when I add my own content the theme suddenly looks plain and cookie-cutter. If you have your own beautiful photos or artwork, this won't be a problem for you.
  • The Ugly: If you use a popular theme then thousands of sites out there will look like yours. Unless you have enough programming and design skills to customize the theme.

Theme Frameworks
A theme framework is designed to be a flexible foundation for faster WordPress development. 

Stafflink Styled with Thesis Folio

I tried the Thesis theme framework along with the Thesisfolio skin. People liked the look of our site dressed up with Thesisfolio. But when we compared the job list, the blog and landing page of our current site side by side with Thesisfolio, the consensus was that our old site was more friendly, approachable and engaging.

Someday I aspire to have our site running on a framework. But right now I need to expedite this project so it's time to hire a pro.

Custom Theme
  • The Promise: Experienced web developers design an original theme to showcase your business. You get a unique online identity for your business and expert support for migration and SEO.
  • Our Choice: We've hired a local Toronto company to develop a custom WordPress theme for us. We'll see how it works out in a month or so when the project is complete.
  • The Risk: Having a custom theme designed is expensive but after of year of unsuccessfully seeking a DIY solution, I think it's worth it. The biggest issue for me is that I'm not doing this development myself. But so far Will Webb, the owner of IMG, is responsive to my questions and I'm hopeful that his team will produce a beautiful site for us. And when it's all finished this baby will be mine.

Who wins the Smackdown? Free, Premium or Custom
It all depends on the purpose of your site, and your level of design and technical skills. For Stafflink, custom theme development is the winner today. But this story isn't over.

Enough about me already.
What's your take on this whole thing?
Do you think I made the right decision to hire a custom theme developer?
What WordPress themes do you recommend?
What's your favourite framework?

Related Links:
10 Reasons I Jumped on the WordPress Bandwagon
Build an e-Resume Portfolio Site with WordPress
WordPress Theme Framework Comparison
WordPress Free Themes Directory

Laura Upcott
Stafflink Solutions Ltd.



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I agree with you. Thanks for your comment and best of luck with your WordPress development company.

  3. I learned some stuff about this post. I get some useful information about blogging software. It's not hassle with Web Development Los Angeles. I'm my pleasure to stopped by here. Thanks!

  4. Thanks Samantha! I'm so glad you found the post helpful. And all the best with your web development business.


  5. Great post Laura. Yet another Blogspot goes Wordpress. I love the comment spammers too. Don't they know it's a waste of time..? their LA web development companies will not profit from these comment spam links in any way. Yes its my belief that links under anchor text in comments on a Blogspot or Wordpress blog (or any blog platform) are just slightly better than useless.

  6. Yeah, it's nice to have a meaningful comment from you Rob. I guess the spammers find some value in the embedded links. At least their comments were somewhat related to the post :)

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  11. Hey thanks a lot for enlightening me with the category of various WordPress themes. These were really awesome, appealing and knowledgeable.   

  12. Hi Deepak, I really appreciate your comment!

    I wrote this post a couple years ago. Premium themes have really improved. I'm a big fan of premium themes WordPress themes now. Using a premium theme is a huge shortcut if you are not a coder. The biggest challenge is choose from all of the themes that are available.

    Most important thing is to get your theme from a trusted source.