If you know anything about WordPress, you’ll probably know that sites based on it use plugins and themes. Plugins are used to extend the core functionality of WordPress and themes are used for the presentation (layout and styling) of the website.
We love WordPress here at Fellowship but a few years back we found ourselves getting increasingly frustrated with the direction that theme (and to a similar extent plugin) development was heading in, here’s why.
What you really need to know about third party WordPress themes
WordPress is the most widely used Content Management System (CMS) in use on the planet powering around 33% of the entire internet†. It attracts vast numbers of both users and developers. The majority of WordPress theme developers usually create themes for two reasons, recognition and reward, neither of which really benefit the end user’s business / organisation.
† Stats from W3 Techs as of February 2019
Introducing a well designed and well coded theme into the WordPress community is a great way to get your name ‘out there’. If lots of people download and install your theme then you the developer gain kudos or, as the web now knows it, ‘props’. Developing a theme is also a great way to learn how WordPress works at the programmatic level and to put your existing web development skills to use within such a widely-used and well supported environment.
Selling WordPress themes has become big business. The installed user base for WordPress is so vast that attracting even a fraction of 1 percent of its users to buy your theme can make you a lot of money. ThemeForest, the webs largest online marketplace for Wordpress themes has seen several of its contributing developers cross the $1,000,000 sales mark with a few of those going on to make even more.
The biggest problems with third party WordPress themes
One size, fits none
The primary goal for a commercial WordPress theme developer is to make their themes as appealing as possible to as many users as possible. By doing so they maximise the themes earning potential. One of the ways they do this is to add in popular features and functionality. Logo uploader, colour picker, Google font selector, multiple sidebars, news feed, super slider with 101 animation options the list goes on. Unfortunately though, for most users there will be many more features that they don’t need in the theme than there are features that they do need.
There will also usually be at least one feature that the user really, really needs the theme to do but that it has no built-in functionality to achieve!
Also, the wealth of features makes the back-end of the website cluttered and confusing for the administrator (website usability is not just about the front-end you know). For example, if your theme includes a slider but your site doesn’t need it, why is there still a section to administer it in the back-end? If your site doesn’t need a slider, there should be no slider, end of. No slider on the front-end, no administration options for a slider in the back-end and no code included anywhere to power a slider.
Lots of code but very little consideration
As we’ve established, theme developers want as many people to use (or buy) their themes as possible. So, the more enticing the themes are, the more downloaded they are and the more popular they become. To achieve this, theme developers use a lot of glitz and eye candy in their theme designs because at the end of the day, most businesses, understandably want their website to look great. It’s also very easy to design a series of web pages using stunning stock photography and latin placeholder text and that have no specific business objectives in mind. Designing in this way is known as ‘carte blanche’ and it’s something that you never actually get in a proper design brief!
As mentioned above, third party themes often include functionality which allows you to change the theme’s fonts and colours. This is great if you have an understanding of typography and graphic design. If you don’t though, your website will very quickly start looking like a dogs dinner.
Sample content that fits the theme but not your business.
Function always needs form
As I mentioned above, invariably you’ll need to install plugins to achieve the functionality that the theme doesn’t provide you with. The problem is that the plugin developer is very seldom the theme developer. At the minor end of the scale this might mean that your FAQ section appears in a different font to the rest of your site. At the major end of the spectrum, the plugin might inadvertently stop parts of the themes functionality working. I think the most frustrating thing about this is that the website administrator has to learn the intricacies and peculiarities of each plugin. For me, adding a news article or case study should be as similar to adding a page or post as possible as they are very similar content types but this will not be the case if you use one developers’ plugin for news and another’s for case studies.
The real kicker
For us though, the biggest problem with a third party WordPress theme is that it’s actually pretty disposable. What I mean by this is that once you’ve paid for a theme and spent many hours trying to get it to work and look good with your content you come to the conclusion that ‘your type of site isn’t really suited to that theme’ and you’ll just install another theme and try again with that one. After all, you only spent $49 on the theme so it’s not like you’ll be massively out of pocket or anything.
There is another way!
So with all that born in mind why do we still use WordPress? Well for starters we don’t use third party themes on any of the websites we build. We took the decision in 2013 to build our own WordPress framework called Aquarius that we base all new site builds on. Aquarius provides a base layer of styling to ensure all of WordPress’ built-in formatting options (heading 1, heading 2, preformatted etc.) and image sizes look great from the get go. Better still, we developed our own range of plugins that provide regularly requested functionality but that are tied to the theme. So, the theme is aware of the plugins and the plugins are aware of the theme. They work together to provide only the functionality required for each individual website that we work on but are infinitely extendable. We then customise both the Aquarius theme files and any of its plugins that are being used to a design language agreed with the client and that’s inline with the content, requirements and objectives of the business. This leads to a lean and efficient website with a simple and consistent administration area. Most importantly though the theme and plugins are built around the content and requirements of the specific website and not the other way around.
If you’d like to know more about Aquarius or our content-led approach to web design we’d love to have a chat with you. You can call Alex on 01284 830888 or email him here.