Should I use Free WordPress Themes?

Underscore S by Automattic

Is it worth paying extra for a premium WordPress theme, or will a free theme do the job? That really depends on what you want out of your site. It also depends where you find the theme if it is free.

If you’re not sure what to do, here is a brief list of resources to get some good free or premium themes:

Free Themes:

A good place to get free themes is to go to a reputable supplier that is possibly offering a free version of their premium themes, or runs a theme shop with some free options.

Theme Horse (pictured below) is a good example of this. They offer some good free themes. Have a look around online and find other sites that offer free versions of their themes, or free options. Sites that generally offer themes for sale with free options are a good way to go, as they are generally legitimate.

If you search online for free themes, be wary, as some places offer free theme downloads hidden with malicious code, so don’t just go for any old free theme. Check the author site out thoroughly. If in doubt, stick to the WordPress repository of free themes here

Theme Horse

Free Base Template Themes:

Personally, I love building my own themes. Creatively, there’s nothing better. I’m a graphic designer and can code. I often design and build one off premium designs for clients.

However, building your own theme doesn’t necessarily mean you need to build from scratch. If you’re a skilled graphic designer and can design a top-notch web design, then why not turn that into a theme?

I’ve begun using base templates more and more. Firstly, when building themes, there’s a lot that is repeated through every theme. Core functions, code, css declarations, etc. Essentially, using a base template means that most of the PHP functionality is sorted. You may need to enhance it depending on what you want your theme to do, such as custom post types, sliders, extra page templates, and so on, but overall, with the PHP sorted, you can concentrate on converting your web design into a theme.

Skills need:

• Graphic design: Adobe Suite is best. Most people use PhotoShop to build a site skin, but I use Illustrator.

• CSS coding. This is really essential. A good grasp of CSS is a must. Get to know some web standards, and get to know browser compatibility.

• HTML. The is a real must – again, the PHP files contain HTML, and _underscores (below) is HTML5. However, you may need to add extra ‘div tags’, etc, depending on your needs.

• Some PHP. Some PHP knowledge is useful. If you have it, the better. Most of the PHP code is written on the links below.

• If you know javascript, jquery, etc, that’s useful. The ones below come with the files.

If you are a highly proficient PHP coder, then you’d probably want to build your own, or use these base templates below and enhance the code further.


_underscores: (Under Score S). This is probably all you need as a base! It’s free, and it’s aimed at the developer. In fact, it’s actually built and supported by Automattic themselves, the people behind WordPress.

As far as a theme base goes, it comes with heaps of functionality, which you can strip out where needed. Before you download it, you give your theme a name, and the site generates all the files for you based on your theme name. So all the function declarations are based on the theme name.

Download it, load it up and activate it on WordPress, and, well, it looks like nothing special – a greyish screen with a few bits of text, and a couple of links. Don’t expect any design or graphics to be done for you at all. There are none – that’s your job. Do expect functionality, mobile responsiveness and great code along with a minimal CSS file to get you started.

It’s aimed to be used to create something great! You will need to build your CSS styles, and do your graphic design work. If you have a solid handle on graphic design and CSS, then you have 90% of the tools ready to use it.

Some developer skills are required, as functions, although built in, are hidden behind comments (for example, it comes with a logo upload option, but you have to add it to the header template). The source files are well commented.

I now use it as a base for all my WordPress themes. In fact, if you’re into theme building, I highly recommend it. I really do!

Bones: Bones (along the lines of bare bones), is another free theme base. Aimed at the developer, again, like _underscores above, it comes packed with the base files needed. Bones makes use of SASS for CSS development as well. If you’re into SASS, that’s a bonus. If you’re not, it’s probably worth getting to know. In a nutshell, SASS is a CSS preprocessor, which, as CSS files get more complex, helps you to manage your CSS file with predefined variables that you can re-use in the stylesheet to make the stylesheet easier to manage, reducing time and work needed. It then generates the required CSS file. Think of SASS as being to CSS as CSS is to HTML!

Personally, I haven’t moved to it yet. I know I should, but I’ve just been too lazy!


Premium Themes:

*Disclosure: All links marked with an * (StudioPress and Elegant themes) are affiliate links. If you purchase via those links we will receive a commission from those vendors. We use those vendors products in our other projects, so they also come highly recommended.

The list below is not an exhaustive list. There are many premium providers. Here are a few providers that I’ve used for premium themes.

studiopress*:  StudioPress creates themes powered by their Genesis Framework*. The Genesis Framework, along with StudioPress has become an industry standard for some WordPress powered sites and WordPress site developers.

With StudioPress, you purchase the Genesis Framework and then purchase themes as child themes built for the framework. The Genesis Framework is highly supported and updated by StudioPress. Featuring Solid Security, fast performance, Out-of-the-box SEO tools, and solid foundation coding, the framework does most of the heavy lifting for your site with built in functionality, leaving the front-end design to a child theme, making it easier to update site themes.

As described on the StudioPress site, when comparing a website to a car, they describe WordPress as the engine, Genesis as the frame and body, and the StudioPress theme as the paint job.

You only need to buy Genesis once, and you can then buy their themes individually, or you can buy access to all their themes.

I often use StudioPress powered sites for clients who need a site but are on a much cheaper budget, and will suggest to them an existing child theme which I usually re-skin to suit their business / colour preference.

As a result of the popularity of Genesis, there are also some third party providers who sell themes that can run on Genesis. It’s also less work to build your own child theme for Genesis rather than building an entire WordPress theme, as Genesis handles the majority of functionality required for the theme, leaving the child theme itself to handle the front end design (or paint job!). Genesis child themes hook into the framework using Genesis hooks and filters. The site has a good support forum for this if you join.

Elegant Themes Premium WordPress ThemesElegant Themes*: Elegant Themes is another premium provider. They operate on an annual fee basis for access (with an plan for Lifetime Access). They have 87 themes at the time of writing, and many of them are well designed. Not all of them appeal to me personally, but there are some nice ones. They don’t use a framework like StudioPress above.  I have used a couple of their themes for personal projects and found them relative easy to re-skin to a new design for my own needs. For a smaller business site or personal blog, one of their themes might just suit out of the box.





Organic Themes: These have made their way up and moved over to the package price option, but you can still buy them individually. Starting 2009, Organic Themes also now offer users some of their themes. However, all their self hosted WordPress site themes are available on their site.

They have some nice designs, and good responsive options.

Store Front Themes: This site offers themes mainly for e-commerce WordPress sites, and are built to work with WP-eCommerce (GetShopped), WooCommerce and Jigoshop. The offer a good range of themes, including a free one called Paper. The People behind Store Front Themes have also created a responsive WordPress framework theme called Skematik (which we wrote about here). Skematik is based on Twitter’s Bootstrap, and  _underscores which was discussed above, and has been built to work out of the box on the e-commerce plugins above to provide a responsive e-commerce site.

Skematik is a framework, so child themes can be built for it, but it also has a built in Theme Customizer, so if you purchase it, and install it on your site, you can use the customizer to modify the site colour scheme, fonts, and to a degree, it’s design.

Theme Forest: Theme forest is a site that allows theme developers to sell their themes. It could be a useful place to go, however, check with the developers as to the kind of support they provide. Personally, if buying a $40 theme from someone, I wouldn’t expect lifetime support for that price – some may provide that – but it’s not something I would do myself.

I’ve also heard that some themes out there package premium plugins with their themes, when really, they’re not meant to do that. Check for things like that. A situation like that could spell support issues as the plugin supplier will most likely not support a plugin where the license is not included.

Template Monster: Template Monster provide themes for a other CMS’s as well as WordPress. I’ve only ever purchased one theme from them, and it was very good (and is in use on a site). The purchase I made was licensed for use on one site only and was provided to me by a client who wanted me to use the theme, but re-skin it to their brief, and it came bundled with the Cherry Framework. The purchase I made also came bundled with layered PhotoShop files of the theme, so I was able to modify that file to show the client, and then create my relevant graphic files to re-skin the theme.

They cost a bit more, but you get more.


In a nutshell, there are many places to go to get your next theme.

My personal opinion is that it is worth paying some money for a good, solid and well supported theme. My opinion is that the theme market place is actually too cheap, and people currently expect a lot of additional support for a one off price. Eventually support will drop for the cheaper themes and the solid, well built and more expensive, but well supported ones will shine through. As with everything else in life, quality costs a bit (or a lot) more.

Another way to get a theme for your site is to pay someone to design and build one for you. There are many in the market place, but a lot of them are looking the same. They are built for mass appeal, and common use. A custom designed theme stands out.

Don’t expect a custom one to cost the same thought. It will cost a lot more. Good graphic design costs money, and custom built means custom built. A solid, well designed, custom theme can take 15 to 30 hrs or longer to design and build (I know, I’ve built heaps). They’re not built via drag and drop tools either. Each graphic is designed, and the entire theme then is coded up; a heap of time goes into the CSS and cross browser testing. 30 hrs work for one person will cost you 30 hrs.

If engaging someone to build a custom theme, then be clear from the outset. This is a premium service you’re after for a bespoke product just for you and no one else – it’s costing you much more for that reason because it’s custom and the professional you have engaged is working just for you on the project.  Make sure they’re not trying to give an existing purchased theme a slight facelift! Custom should mean just that. Just like a custom built piece of furniture, custom designed homes, and so on! Ask to see initial design proofs. A web designer worth their salt will do the graphic design prototype first and will then show you the flat files as a proof. Engage with them what you want, if you need to make design edits, ask to see a new proof. Have a written agreement with the inclusions, what level of design edit/alterations are included and so on. After the design stage, there will be a sign off for development to begin. Ask to see a prototype installation of the theme once development is complete so you can sign it off, then get the original completed theme files on handover or have the theme installed on your site. Be sure to backup your site as well afterwards in case anything happens.

However, should you still use a free theme?

If you’re just starting your site off, are not sure how it will go, or want to build it up a bit then look at design or premium themes later, then I’d say to go out and try and find a nice free one. The design might not be the best, it might not have much functionality, but design can done later. If you’re starting off, and just want to get your site going to begin with, then really, good content would be your goal to get your site off the ground and running.

At some point your site will need updating, and your free theme may no longer be compatible, and possibly not supported, so that’s worth bearing in mind.

If you’re concerned about visual appeal, how you are perceived, or business branding, then you should invest in design or a good solid premium theme with good support. That’s not to say that you won’t find a free theme that hits the mark.


*Disclosure: All links marked with an * (StudioPress and Elegant themes) are affiliate links. If you purchase via those links we will receive a commission from those vendors. We use those vendors products in our other projects, so they also come highly recommended.

About Paul

A graphic and web designer from the UK, based in Australia. Specialising in WordPress Theme design & development, print and online graphic design and illustration.

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