Just how easy is it for bloggers to use a theme framework? Theme frameworks are generally created so you don’t have to mess around too much with the basic code. In fact in many cases you can use the theme options in the WordPress dashboard to fix your settings and get the look you want. Sitting on top of the framework (depending on the one you choose) can be a so-called ‘child theme’ which gives you a fresh look while leaving the underlying architecture untouched. I first came across the theme framework concept with Justin Tadlock’s Hybrid themes, which are still going strong, though somehow I never quite achieved the look that I wanted.
Next, I tried the Thesis theme. It’s amazing how much you can do with this theme (which is really a framework) without having to touch a single line of code. I love the fact that you can setup your layout, customize colors and tweak the search engine optimization options from within the dashboard. What I love even more is that any changes you make are stored in one of two files, a custom stylesheet and a custom functions file. (As long as you keep a backup of these files you will never have to lose your customizations.)
However, this is not to say that using Thesis is straightforward. When I first started customizing this site I spent hours running to research the things I wanted to do on the DIYThemes site. Often, the explanations were straightforward but occasionally I ended up breaking something and had to start again. Although it’s said to be easy, Thesis really isn’t that simple unless you already have great design and coding skills. However, if you want a search engine optimized theme that will look pretty good (if plain) as soon as you install it, then Thesis works. I have seen some awesome customizations of this theme, but mine wasn’t one of them so I decided to try something else.
My most recent foray into working with theme frameworks has been the Headway theme. This theme seems more promising because you can drag and drop boxes on the page you are editing, save and see exactly how your site will look. Unlike Thesis, when you first install Headway, it doesn’t look that great, as you have to set up some options first.
The Headway theme offers many of the same options as Thesis but with the added advantage of a visual editor. I’ve found this theme the easiest for someone who has limited design or coding skills. You can select every element and see how it will look when you change it. If you don’t like something, just exit without saving and start again. Having said that, if you really want to fine tune your design you will have to make some customizations in the style sheet or functions file.
Choosing A Theme Framework
So how do you decide which one to choose? As I said before one of the key issues when choosing a theme is support. The DIY Themes forum is active and you can get advice on almost any topic related to the theme. There is also a large community of thesis users who are always willing to help. Although the headway forum has less to offer, the online support from other users is excellent. To give an example, I asked a question on Twitter and in 10 minutes I had five people offering to help, one of whom created a video. (Since both themes work using hooks, I sometimes find the help I need via the Thesis site and apply the tips to Headway; it works 90 per cent of the time.)
Sitting On The Fence
If you are comfortable messing around with the custom files, then the real question to consider is whether you want the instant gratification of drag-and-drop or whether you are happy to wait a while and see how it all looks together. I couldn’t decide, so I use Thesis on one of my sites (which I hardly tweak) and Headway on the other (which I tweak a LOT). My one niggle with Headway is that the drag and drop can be buggy, occasionally randomly loading an image on another page and forcing you to start over.
Finally, there is one thing that I have learned from this whole process. Web designers really are worth their hire because even with the help of killer theme frameworks like the ones listed here you still have to spend a lot of time – and patience – to get exactly the look you want.