Let me get straight to the point:
I am calling for the death of all WordPress niche themes
Yes, all “rock band”, “real estate”, “restaurant”, “yacht club”, “yorkshire terrier trimming salon” themes should all go the way of the dinosaur. Maybe there are numbers to back this long standing trend. Maybe the Portland Yorkshire Terrier club will boycott ThemeForest if these tragedies of marketing ploys go away. But I believe it’s for the best of the WordPress community for us to, starting today, simply ignore them as if they don’t exist.
Oh… you’re still reading. I guess you want reasons. OK.
Your website is not enhanced by a theme because of the stock photography it came with. Every theme tries to sell itself with amazing sliders and stock photography and whatnot. The problem is though that you are going to have to replace all of those beautiful images with your own images. If the niche theme is about golf, but you’re a football club, honestly, it won’t matter. Once you put your football images in there, it’s a football theme. But the same is true of the “business” category of themes. These are typically clean and well structured designs. You can easily take a “business” theme and turn it into a church website or parent-teacher association website.
Themes are not for functionality. Some niche themes try to pitch their niche-iness to you by showing how they have these amazing custom post types that will let you populate your site with car posts, or woven basket products with exactly the information you need. The truth is though, you’re not married to this theme for life. You’re going to want to swap it out and whatever custom functionality your Underwater Basket weaving theme came with that makes it perfect for Underwater Basket weaving websites should actually be put into a plugin, not the theme.
Content is King. This should be obvious, but your website CONTENT is what makes it a “Yacht Club for Poor Inner City Kids” website, not the layout or images.
Let me ‘esplain… no let me summup
Let’s take an auto sales theme. Take a look at this beauty. Seriously, this says “Imma CAR Website” like nothing else.
The trouble is, swap out the images and text and now it’s a Produce website:
You see, a niche theme really is just a ploy, targeted at your sensibilities. But don’t fret you have lots of other viable and much more reliable options.
Alternatives to the Niche Theme
You see, a “niche” theme is a theme designed for a niche market. That’s really all it takes to be a niche theme. It has nothing to do with how the pages or posts or categories or anything are displayed. It’s all about the demo presentation. This is just bad practice as far as themes go in my mind.
Instead, a theme should be considered as the frame of your content. But your content is not merely text, it’s videos, PDFs, images, all of the above. Your theme can’t and shouldn’t try to control those things, merely provide a frame for them to be highlighted.
In the world of ways developers can build front-end websites, here’s a few theme related tools available besides Niche Themes:
Parent/Child Themes — This is perhaps one of the most common ways developers build out your design. They take a well designed “parent” theme and create a “child” theme which can be used to override only the elements they want to override of the parent theme. It’s very simple and straight forward and effective. The biggest problem with parent/child theming is how all the styles that are found in the child theme are basically output twice, meaning once in the parent theme and then again as the final version in the child theme. This isn’t a major issue, but developers who want the leanest cleanest code base for their theme steer away from child themeing because of this.
Starter Themes — When Automattic released Underscores, their ideal starter theme, it launched the concept of starter themes into much wider use an adoption by developers (by my recollection at least). These are bare bones code that provide the bare minimum of what you need to get going with building out a theme. A lot of premium themes start with a starter theme like Underscores or their own custom starter themes. This helps development of the theme go more quickly and also ensures the lightest footprint in terms of codebase since the developer is basically building out the whole design from this. The reason why some developers choose not to use starter themes is because it’s almost like starting from scratch. Underscores only provides the bare minimum of responsive design, while other starters like Roots and Bones go much further (some say too far) in providing an almost full featured theme Framework (see below).
Theme Framework — The most popular and well known theme framework in WordPress is Genesis. But Genesis is also a hybrid Framework and Parent Theme. Basically, the Genesis framework is your parent theme, and every Genesis site is then built on a Child theme. There’s a lot of discussion about whether Roots or WP-Foundation are starter themes or Frameworks. Roots calls itself a Starter Theme, so I’m comfortable defining it as such. The consensus though, among WordPress developers seems to be that the main difference between a Framework and a Starter theme is that you don’t touch the code of a framework (like Genesis) where a starter theme is meant to be tweaked and built upon directly to produce your end result.
Drag and Drop Plugin — It may seem odd to include a type of plugin in a discussion about themes, but bear with me. Drag and Drop plugins like Visual Composer or Velocity Pages can be added into any theme you have, including a Starter Theme or Child Theme. The idea here is to allow users to be able to build out complex layouts on any page or post of their website. These tools can be very powerful, but the criticism is often around the bulk of the code required to do the drag and drop functionality, making your WordPress admin slow, or the builk of code they output on the front-end. I have yet to test out Velocity Pages, but it promises to address both of those issues well, at least as far as this guy says.
Builder Themes — The latest trend in complex themes is the “builder theme.” These are a sort of hybrid between a Starter Theme/Parent Theme and Drag and Drop Plugin. They provide a decent looking layout with minimalist colors right out of the box. Then on each page, you have a really intuitive interface for building complex layouts. The big benefit of these is that they put a lot of power into the hands of folks who can’t code, while being relatively well coded. Here’s a few of the top contenders in this category:
- Divi by Elegant Themes
- X by ThemeCo
- Total by WPExplorer (though they kind of “cheat” by shipping this with Visual Composer baked in as their Page Builder)
The Invisible Hand of the WordPress Market is Moving
I’m not the only one trumpeting starters and frameworks and builders. If you look around the latest movements in the WordPress theme world you’ll see this cropping up in really surprising but promising places.
Here’s some really good examples:
- WP Site Care launched “Flagship” with a free starter theme called Compass. It’s a really robust starter theme designed to give theme designers every tool they need to create just about anything they want. Instead of buying that Rock Band theme, get a kick-ass developer who knows how to use Compass to build something serious. The other remarkable thing Flagship will be doing is selling themes built off compass for a serious premium of $199. But look at the package, I’m a big fan of what they are proposing.
- DigiSavvy put out a great starter theme called “Some Like it Neat“. I think Flagship took some notes from that bad boy.
I don’t really know what to call this category, because so far it feels like it’s one “theme” in a category all it’s own. I think I’ll call it a Custo-Flexy-Builder Themes (or CFB’s for short). This whole category belong to ThemeFoundry’s Make theme. I want to call it a category because I’d love to see a lot more of these types of themes. Here’s some of the reason’s why Make is unique and incredible:
- It uses WordPress’s Theme Customizer really well. One thing a lot of premium themes get wrong is avoiding the Customizer. Make doesn’t make that mistake, and instead leverages the Customizer to get a lot of the major layout and content settings done for you right up front. Then, if you have their premium plugin (see below), you get some present “skins” to give your whole site a head start right away.
- The Builder is template driven, not shortcode driven. This means if you move to a different theme you’re not going to be shocked by the shortcode-soup on all your pages like you would with Visual Composer or other shortcode-driven tools.
- It’s completely Child Themeable. This is a big part of what made me be REALLY impressed with Make. The builder itself can be edited via a child theme, which allows you to add in custom functionality to the builder itself if necessary.
- Make Plus. This is how they monetize the theme. But it’s also how they take it all to the next level. Currently Make Plus gives you several additional features in the builder and helps you integrate with WooCommerce and Easy Digital Downloads. These alone are awesome features. But developers will love the fact that they separated them out into a Plugin allows you to hook into it’s filters and actions for further customization without changing the codebase at all.
Lastly, I’ll mention a plugin that I’ll have a full review of in the near future: Slocum Theme’s Conductor. This takes the idea of the Drag and Drop page builder and flips it on it’s head. Basically, instead of putting all the customizations of a builder in-page, Conductor lets you fully customize your site with Live Refresh by putting all their tools in the WordPress Customizer. It’s a really incredible product. Full review to come, I promise!
But I Can’t Code!
I know I mentioned a lot of tools for developer here. And maybe you came here hoping I’d give you the easiest way to build your theme without touching code. I mean, that’s probably why you wanted a Niche Theme in the first place. Well, let me pop your bubble: Hire a Developer! If you care about your website at all, hire a developer. If you want to succeed with your website at all, hire a developer. If you want to throw something up on the screen and “see what happens”, by all means find your favorite niche theme and have fun, a developer can help you clean up the mess when your experiments are all over.
Seriously, there’s just no reason to go looking for an “atomic weapons laboratory” theme anymore. If you’ve got great content, a decent logo, a few pics, all you need is an awesome starter theme or Flexy-Builder Theme and you’re set.
Don’t be that guy who vanishes in dust and wind because you bought a “Harpies for Justice” theme. Choose wisely instead.
A fun Twitter conversation pointed me to Jake Caputo’s DesignCrumbs as a good example of Niche Themes. Take for example his “Stocky” template. It’s targeted at Photographers and specifically Photographers that want to sell their work on their website. But notice that there are no Custom Post Types in the Theme (as far as I can see), and all of the functionality comes from EDD or other extensions. At this point I’d say Jake is doing it right.
I think the key to doing a niche theme well is integrating it with popular, well supported plugins so your customers can leverage them for the functionality they want. More collaboration, less trying to make your theme do what it’s not supposed to do.
— Jake Caputo (@jakecaputo) October 16, 2014