A list of my favorite WordPress themes and why! I also include my most hated themes(for better context). If you’re looking for pagebuilders, go here.
WordPress “themes” (as they are called) are individual extensions that give your site a different look. Some themes are simple and come with one standard look right out of the box. Other themes have a few basic settings allowing you to change the colors or fonts. And then other themes are labyrinth of options, allowing you to change almost every little detail (colors, fonts, animations, even switching up layouts to make it look like an entirely site altogether). Obviously: the more options, the more complicated.
WordPress (PREMIUM) Themes & Frameworks:
- GeneratePress – great performance theme and well supported with many dev features. Cult favorite among coders and DIY’ers. I love their “elements” feature for replacing pagebuilders (but without the bloat of one).
- Artisan Themes – love the unique designs and ease-of-use of this little known company. Incredible “modules” feature without the bloat of pagebuilders.
- ElmaStudio.de – from Germany. If you love that European minimalist Bauhaus design, Ellen and Manuel’s work are incredible.
- ThemeBeans – beautifully coded, lean and sexy minimalist designs.
- Marketer’s Delight – beautifully-coded theme for “internet marketers”. Highly recommended over the better-known Thrive. Is this generation’s Thesis.
- Genesis Framework – my old “best” WordPress framework (used by respected developers). Well-coded, fast and easy-to-use with many great themes. Great community of A-level devs. It’s quickly falling out of popularity and IMO being replaced by GeneratePress. I feel the community shifting over as well.
- Thesis Theme – clumsy UI, tricky to customize (for beginners AND developers). Popular theme back in the days and still many loyal users familiar with it.
My personal recommendation:
Premium themes cost money and while they aren’t always better than free themes, it’s usually the case. It’s no surprise that free themes tend to be simpler with fewer options while paid themes are fancier-looking with more customization options. The free themes don’t usually come with support and are made to help the theme developers market their paid themes. If anything, their feature sets tend to be castrated a bit to encourage you to upgrade.
Paid themes have not only more features but also more support. As the years go by, these themes are also more likely to be updated to keep them compatible with newer servers, WordPress updates, and other plugins. And while not ALL paid themes are quality, they are a much safer bet for future-proofing your site. Updating themes takes a lot of work, so how do theme developers make money with only one look? Trends come and go, with users chasing a new “cool look” elsewhere the moment a theme gets too popular and it used everywhere.
The worst theme developers, IMO, are the ones that stop supporting their old themes when creating new themes. The best theme developers use what is called “frameworks”. Instead of building a completely new theme and rewriting the code from scratch each time. They use the same base code and then change only the design. This was formerly known as “parent theme” (the main theme) and “child themes” (the customizations). But now the term has been changed to “framework” and “child themes”. If you’re going with a premium theme, try getting a framework or at least a paid theme that has many users and lots of ongoing development & support.
WordPress (FREE / FREEMIUM) Themes:
- GeneratePress – my current favorite framework at the moment. Has a beautiful free version as well, and the premium version is only $59! Incredible support and thriving community of newbs and pros. Highly recommend this one!
- KadenceThemes – nice UI and awesome template library. They also have a KadenceBlocks plugin. I like their clean design vibe that doesn’t have that generic stock look.
- Blocksy – awesome theme. Great coding, super fancy starter designs, awesome header/footer builder. Officially now a top player with big user base.
- Neve – nice designs and UI, all trendy features, nice cloud library, amazing customer support. Big company with resources to really support newbies.
- Astra – very customizable free theme, lightweight and runs fast, good for those using pagebuilders. The most popular free theme at the moment. Only problem is many bugs, slow support, autoloads in their other plugins!
- OceanWP – free starter theme, beautiful and comes with a pagebuilder. I like their area where you can granularly disable all scripts/styles (but I wish it had more explanation). Requires paid plugins to get full functionality. I personally dislike their aggressive pricing for every little add-on and it’s no surprise Astra is more popular. :/
- WordPress default themes – yes, they look like every other theme out there but they aren’t bad. Nicely-coded, just personalize the look a bit and you’re all set!
- JohnnyTheme – just kidding, hehehe 😉
My personal recommendation:
Free themes are almost never a good option for serious websites. You’ll always get to a place where you want a design-change or feature that isn’t provided in the free theme. And now you’re stuck at the crossroads deciding whether to install bloated plugins, custom-code this extra feature or migrate to a premium theme that does everything you want and more. At the very least…if you’re going with a free theme, pick one that has a “premium” version you can upgrade to.
Be careful with overly minimal themes. Minimal may be fast, but that’s sometimes because it’s “unfinished”. There’s no point in choosing an unfinished theme that requires a dozen more plugins to really do the job, essentially nullifying all your speed savings.
BAD (or mediocre) WordPress themes:
- AVADA – bloated, slow, poorly-coded, many issues. The designs can appear incredible to beginner website owners but actually very gimmicky and generic-looking to professional designers.
- Electro – crazy bloated! Don’t use it. Requires a lot of processing and many queries (1000+ compared to under 100 for other) even without anything on the page.
- Envato theme market – lots of junk themes with a few goodies in between.
- Flatsome – it’s not bad looking, just still too bloated. Sorry!
- Jupiter X Theme – slow and bloated!
- MyThemeShop – lots of generic mass-produced themes. Some are obvious ripoffs. Their latest “Schema” looks like the GeneratePress default child theme (which I think Astra ripped off as well). Even some of the showcase sites in their testimonials look very amateurish
- ThemeForest – The7, BeTheme, Enfold, X. These are all the same junk as AVADA. While truly professional sites are working hard to cut down on non-essentials and cleaning up their sites more and more, these junk themes are piling on more and more features to be everything to everyone. They will always be a poor fit for your site for that reason. But yes, you can buy it for the sexy generic out-of-the-shelf look!
- Qode – bloated!
- Redux framework – anything with Redux framework.
- Thrivethemes – I’m especially turned off by their gimmicky marketing that does so well with “internet marketers”. They’re not bad, but simply not how I would recommend serious internet marketers to build their sites. (FYI: just about everyone on the internet is an “internet marketer”.)
- ZigZagPress – nice look, but not so nice coding. Or at least that’s what many programmers say.
My personal recommendation:
I think these themes are great if you’re just wanting to learn WordPress and play around with options. But realistically speaking, they are an absolute waste of time and money, orrrrr…there’s way better options out there. If you planning for a serious website and want to have thousands of users, you’ll soon throw these themes away and pick another. Why? They are slow, cumbersome, and have many compatibility issues with other plugins that you’ll need in the future as website owner.
Oh, and I’m not done yet. They are awfully difficult for professional developers to work with. I hang out with developers on a regular basis and everyday, they’re mentioning about yet another “client that had an AVADA/X/DIVI theme”. And they all laugh because they know what the inside joke is. The funny thing is clients soon find out as well. The reason why they chose the theme in the first place was because it “looked cool”. But you soon realize the “cool look” isn’t cool at all, and in fact is extremely generic, because you now look like the million other amateur sites with the same look. That theme was marketed to the masses for a reason.
Still not done. The themes are also not that easy to use. They CLAIM to give you this amazing look out of the box but guess what, try to change anything or shift things around and you’ll see how hard it can get. Simple changes are ok but doing anything more than a minor change will require either a programmer or help from the developers or community. The developers will be slow to answer because guess what, they’re buried under thousands of other beginner requests and the community won’t be much help either because very few professional developers will be using these themes. So while they might be popular and have many users, they have many BEGINNERS users that won’t be much help to you.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THEIR LOOK?! “But these themes look so cool!” you say? You can copy any look you want with any other framework, almost even without coding.
What WordPress theme should you choose?
TRUTH #1 – you need to go with a popular theme.
Why? The true support for a theme comes from the community, not the official theme developers. The more popular it is, the more support you can find for it (written guides, video tutorials, etc). It’s easier to get free tips from people who’ve used it before and also easier to find professional developers who know how to work with it efficiently. There’s also more 3rd-party extensions. And also continuing development for the theme to keep it alive, updated with trends, and compatible with future plugins. The theme keeps getting better and better with time when the community for it grows (and developers are rewarded for ongoing development).
Going with some obscure theme from some unknown company will always cause you problems (no matter how much “support” the official theme company claims to offer). Nobody will know how to fix problems or make customizations. Developers will be unfamiliar with it and take twice as much time to make simple changes. Does this mean you should NEVER try a new theme or theme company? If you’re on an important production site, I wouldn’t take that chance.
TRUTH #2 – you need to go with a framework.
Frameworks allow theme developers to re-use functional code while staying flexible with design code. Aside from aesthetics, themes needs to be coded for compatibility with plugins (shopping, multi-lingual), Google search engines, social media sharing, accessibility, WP customizer integration, DNS prefetch, and many other areas beyond my awareness. To re-code this for every new theme would be time-consuming and probably overlooked!
But if you’re going with a company that uses a framework, you can bet their themes will always be coded well and supported since they all share the same base code. You could be using one of their older themes but still have the updated base code and maximum compatibility/security. Not only that but if you build your theme design off a framework, you’re free to update the framework as often as needed without worry that your design may break or lose compatibility one day. It’s an incredible idea!
I never liked theme developers that keep jumping from one theme to another, cashing out each one for a short period before abandoning it to chase their next cash cow. This contributes to a wasteland of abandoned code…leaving a trail of vulnerable sites full of issues that other developers have to clean-up. It’s unethical wasteful coding and cheating customers out of a more futureproof solution.
TRUTH #3 – when in doubt, pick something more neutral.
This is the hardest part. Many beginners see a billion different themes, each one super cool-looking in its own way and they know longer know what they or what their brand should be. When in doubt, remember that it’s about the content and not the theme. What text do you have, what images do you have? Where will your stuff go?
Don’t waste your time trying to pick the coolest design and then later trying to stuff your content or even worse—creating content to fit your design. There’s an even worse possibility than that, that the design is distract users from appreciating your content. That bold red theme looks great on the previews but throw in your content and now it feels like that red is all over the place, clashing with your images, and you get sick of it. The more exciting your content and logo, the more neutral your design can be (to let your content shine). And the more simple your content is, the more bold your design can be.
Pick a theme that won’t bore you out so quickly. Strong colors get annoying after awhile and become a branding dilemma later when you want to switch to another color. Unique layouts can also get boring when you want your site to just function like a normal site. Side-scrolling might be fun for artsy portfolio sites but not for daily blogs, shopping, business when readers just want to get to your content!
Why are some themes so slow?!
Haven’t you noticed many themes on Envato, ThemeForest, or Code Canyon are slow as hell?
Why do you think that is?
It’s because they’re coded for newbies/non-coders. They load every CSS/JS library ever invented, so that people don’t have to learn how to code.
Think about it like this:
- DEVELOPERS prefer to work on blank sheet of paper…drawing up only what they need.
- NEWBIES are different, they buy the whole store…buying every song on every CD even when they only like a few. And then they spend the rest of their lives trying to unload/prevent unwanted items from loading.
It also helps A LOT to not have a pagebuilder. If all you need a pagebuilder for is just the homepage, you can custom-code it for like $300-1000. So worth the money. Design it in Elementor first if you want, then show a programmer and say “I want you to hardcode this”.
We build so many custom themes/plugins in house because of this. We want it to load ONLY what we need and nothing more. That’s why our sites break speed records. We have fancy WooCommerce sites loading in 200ms.
Now maybe for smaller clients, they only have a few thousand dollars…not a big budget. That’s fine, pick a clean theme, and custom code the home page. and you should be able to get under 1 sec pretty easily with only a few thousand spent.
Other WordPress themes coming up (and my thoughts):
- OllieWP – cool name (especially if you’re a skateboarder). Looks super nice and polished. Is it enough for me to switch off from GeneratePress or Kadence, which are more established? I’d say no. The pro version isn’t even out yet. So I’d say it’s at least 1-2 years away from me taking it seriously. If you’re new to the WP game and don’t care to follow the crowd, give Ollie a try. It looks fun and promising.