A brief introduction to WordPress Theme Frameworks
WordPress Codex provides two meanings for the term “Theme Framework”:
- A “drop-in” code library that is used to facilitate development of a theme – A drop-in code library is not and can never be installed or used as a theme. Instead, a code library is included to a theme using the functions.php file. Examples of frameworks that qualify as code libraries include Hybrid Core, Redux Framework and Options Framework.
- A stand-alone base/starter theme that is intended to be forked into another theme or else to be used a parent theme template e.g. Genesis Framework.
To simply things for normal users to understand, a WordPress theme framework allows you to build WordPress themes the same way Volkswagen builds its cars. They use only a handful of platforms, on which they can build dozens of different models for their four major brands. Each car model has a common set of components like engine, power train or suspension. But when it comes to designing the interior and exterior, each brand gives its own flavor to make it unique.
For example, if you replace ‘engines’ with theme functions, ‘assembly lines’ with code libraries and ‘interior styling’ with design hooks, you get the idea of these shared components. Frameworks lay the foundations for a theme, so you can focus on building layouts rather than rewriting entire code all over again.
Frameworks do have one major drawback, which is also seen with automobile platforms. They limit flexibility and creativity and the themes based on frameworks have the tendency to all look the same. Also, as a developer, it may take some time before fully understanding the framework.
If you put in enough time you will see that it is possible to make your theme stand out from the crowd. Just like we all want a unique design, most of us would rather drive an Audi A3 than a Volkswagen Golf. If you learn your chosen framework, at least you can always be assured that your foundation is properly built.
Main Characteristics of WordPress Theme Frameworks
- It consists of a parent theme designed to be used with child themes. In some cases the parent theme can also work as a stand-alone theme, but in others the parent theme only works in conjunction with child themes – the WordPress Codex defines these as ‘Base/Starter Themes’ and ‘Code Libraries,’ respectively.
- It includes hooks and functions which can be leveraged by child themes and plugins. Your theme framework is the basis of an entire ecosystem you will be working with, and that includes the plugins that will hook into your framework.
- If designed to be accessed by non-coding users, it will include theme options pages which enable users to customize the theme according to their needs. These can be extensive, incorporating design, layout, functions, content and more. In some cases, functionality may be provided via the Theme Customizer.
- It may include multiple widget areas so that non-technical users can add content or code via widgets (including widgets added by plugins you write specifically for the framework).
- It may also include script library functionality, such as a jQuery slider or lightbox. Depending on your needs and those of your users, you might incorporate these in the framework or provide plugins with the code which hook in to your framework.
- It is extendable, with hooks allowing you to extend its functionality via child themes or plugins.
The first two of the points above are the most fundamental – without a parent theme, you don’t have a theme framework. And a parent theme without those hooks and functions is just a basic parent theme, not really a framework.
Advantages of WordPress Theme Frameworks
- Time efficient – WordPress theme frameworks speed up the process of development since they come prepacked with starter code. This means, as a developer you don’t need to code your theme from scratch. Just pick a framework of your choice and build your designs on it.
- Faster page load speeds – Most WordPress theme frameworks load a lot faster than typical themes. This is because frameworks are generally free from heavy graphics and junk code. The code quality of WordPress theme frameworks is generally good compared to most stand-alone themes.
- Support – All (or most of) WordPress theme frameworks including the free ones come with lifetime support. You will get answers to most of your questions in the support forums or on the developers’ sites.
- High web standards – WordPress theme frameworks are written by diligent WordPress developers following strict web coding standards. Other than that, frameworks are peer reviewed, which means you get the best standards and more awesomeness. Lastly, most developers comment-out their code, which helps you to modify anything with ease.
- Easy to upgrade – On top of getting a lifetime of updates, WordPress theme frameworks rely on child themes, which let you keep all your custom changes when upgrading.
- Community – Popular WordPress theme frameworks have huge communities of like minded people. Having a community by your side as you develop your online business is always a great plus.
- Ease of development – Some frameworks ship with massive code libraries. Some frameworks come with drag and drop interfaces that remove the need for programming knowledge. You don’t need to be a pro developer to craft amazing themes using a WordPress theme framework. As a novice, you can create a professional WordPress site in no time.
- Increased functionality – WordPress theme frameworks come with built-in functionality including widgets, extended functions and so much more. Often, frameworks provide more functionality than normal themes not to mention they (frameworks) are way easy to customize and extend.
- Plenty of design freedom – If you pick the right WordPress theme framework, you can develop any design you set your mind on. You can create simple blogs thro’ to dynamic portals with multiple layouts. Once you understand the workings of your framework, you will be able to achieve so much more than just simple blogs!
- Search Engine Optimization (SEO) – You cannot ignore the value of SEO in online marketing. Your online business will benefit greatly when you optimize your website for search engines. Most WordPress theme frameworks have built-in options for search engine optimization.
Everything that has pros comes with cons as well. Let’s look at some demerits of WordPress theme frameworks.
Disadvantages of WordPress Theme Frameworks
- Cost – While there are a few free frameworks such as Thematic and Cherry Framework, the majority of WordPress theme frameworks are not free. You either pay a one-time fee or a recurring annual fee. In some cases, you might even be forced to pay extra to receive updates and support. Prepare your budget in advance by doing some comparison shopping but then go for a framework that suits your needs.
- Time to learn – Each WordPress theme framework is unique – they are coded differently. Any framework comes with its own unique set of functions, filters and hooks, which means you have to invest time to learn if you’re to take full advantage of the framework. Nonetheless, once you learn the ropes, you will be coding child themes like a pro.
- Framework limitations – WordPress theme frameworks are not flawless. Each framework has its own limitations that might force you to overwrite core files to accommodate your needs. This calls for vigilance on your part during the shopping process.
Top 3 WordPress Theme Frameworks
Support: Unlimited support included
Genesis is one of the most popular WordPress theme frameworks at the moment. It is developed by the Studiopress team at Copyblogger Media, a professional marketing company who are highly regarded content marketers as well as offering a range of WordPress-related services. They’ve put their own experiences into this framework, which translates into some interesting features like:
- Detailed SEO options, where you specify the most detailed settings, with support for Schema.org
- Responsive design, based on HTML5
- Tons of (very pretty) pre-made child themes (for an additional payment) which you can base your own theme on
- Developer friendly with lots of documentation to lower the learning curve
- Unlimited support and updates
Genesis is definitely worth a try based on its pricing and support alone. It has many popular sites running on it, including the famous Problogger.net. The Genesis developer community is also very active, so it’s a great framework to start with if you are new to developing themes.
Price: $197 for the recommended version, Professional.
Support: Unlimited support (Professional plan and up)
Thesis is a advanced WordPress theme framework, offering more control over design and functions. But with the increased flexibility comes a higher learning curve if you want to write your own code. Luckily they also offer a drag-and-drop layout tool with a visual template editor, so non-developers can create custom designs without the need for leaving the dashboard.
The main Thesis features are:
- Boxes, which are kind of like template plugins which you can use to add a ton of integrations for newsletters, Facebook Like boxes etc.
- Focus on typography, giving you almost unlimited control over your fonts
- Easy integration of search engine goodies like Authorship and Google Webmaster Tools
- Ability to really dive into the code with the Thesis API
Thesis is the perfect framework for the more advanced theme developer. Its pricing is quite high compared to the other frameworks, especially if you want a few base skins to work with (as these are not included in the cheaper $87 Basic license). The Professional license comes with unlimited support and updates as well as a few extra Boxes and skins. Don’t expect to skip ahead by using one of these base skins though, since in my opinion these are quite ugly to be honest.
Support: 1 year of support and updates
Canvas framework developed by WooThemes which is one of the leading theme shops in the WordPress world. They build all of their themes on their own framework, called ‘WooFramework’. The framework can’t be bought on its own, so they developed a base theme called Canvas. This will serve as the foundation of your own theme, with Canvas being quite a decent theme already.
WooFramework and Canvas combined offer the following important features:
- WooCommerce ready
- Portfolio functionality with advanced display options
- One-click updates from within the dashboard
- Very solid foundation, being the framework WooThemes builds its own themes on (of which they sell many thousands a year)
The Canvas theme is loved by many developers around the world. It is already attractive itself, which makes it easier to start with. It already includes some popular features like portfolio functionality and custom shortcodes. The only downside is that you only pay for one year of support and updates, while with the other paid frameworks this is unlimited.
There are many more frameworks available than just these four, although these are among the most popular. There are many competing theme framework projects, many of which look very interesting. In the end it is all a matter of keeping up with current trends, best practices and listening to your audience. Some frameworks suit designers more than developers. Some are more lightweight than others, and some have more support and community options. In the end the best framework for you is the one that best fits your needs and workflow.