One of the wonderful things about WordPress is that its users face a staggering array of layouts and designs, ready-made. They can be installed from within WordPress itself, and activated with a single click. Voilà—a totally new design for your website in one minute!
These site templates are called “themes” in WordPress lingo. Two excellent themes come pre-installed with WordPress, called Twenty Ten and Twenty Eleven. If you like their appearance, one of these will work perfectly for you. If not, there’s a wealth of options available.
A theme basically controls your site’s colors, layout and user interface—where your content goes, how it flows from one element to the next, where you can place text and images, and what kinds of navigation are available.
Themes are often designed for special purposes. There are ready-made designs for blogging, of course. There are also designs for almost any kind of site you can imagine: retail, magazine, real estate, gallery, automotive, news, crafts, political candidacy…. I could keep going for a full page. The more complex and specialized your site is, the more care you must take to select a theme that works with the kinds of content you have in mind.
If you’re brand-new to WordPress, take a few minutes to get your feet wet by searching the free themes available through WordPress itself, and loading a couple of new ones just to see how they work and what kinds of elements change. Who knows, you might find the theme of your dreams!
[Tip: once you've found "the" theme that you're going to stick with for awhile, it's a good idea to delete all themes you're not currently using (keep a backup copy on your computer if it's something you want to save). Deleting unused themes helps eliminate site bloat and can protect your site from potential hacking.]
In the beginning, all WordPress themes were free. Now, the trend is towards premium, or paid, themes. I’ve become a convert to paid themes, because, as I’ve written elsewhere, they tend to be more professionally designed, more intelligently constructed, and offer documentation and customer support.
Premium themes also tend to have more longevity: that is, as the WordPress core continues to develop and improve, a theme that’s not upgraded will at some point become inoperable. Premium theme developers tend to keep their themes upgraded in concert with WordPress itself, so these themes generally remain viable.
Some themes offer user-controllable options like choices of color palette, or changing the placement of specific elements. Others don’t, and require digging into code and CSS to make modifications.
If a significant portion of your users browse with a smartphone or tablet, look for a theme that is “responsive.” This means that the theme scales well with different devices, from phone to tablet to laptop to desktop. If you browse a responsive site with a phone, for example, the site will adapt: images will automatically shrink and text blocks will rearrange themselves to be more easily readable on the small screen. You can see some examples of responsive themes, and how they display on different devices, here.
If you’re a total WordPress beginner, before you buy any theme, make sure that you either like the theme as is, or that you can easily alter it to appear as you wish using your own skills or the built-in settings of the theme itself. Customizing themes can become quite involved—modifying CSS, altering PHP code… dive into these kinds of changes only if you’re prepared for some intense head-scratching!
If you are up for trying your hand at customization with minimal pain, I recommend starting with a theme framework like Thesis. Frameworks tend to be much more versatile than simple themes. Customizing them is usually more straightforward, and there tends to be support documentation as well as a responsive user community. I’ve written about two of my favorite theme frameworks here: Thesis (see post on Thesis) and Genesis (see Genesis article here).
The truly great thing about WordPress themes is that completely changing the appearance of your entire site usually involves nothing more than finding a different theme, installing it using the WordPress installation interface, and activating it with a click.
Which leads me to my final tip: don’t get hung up on choosing the “perfect” theme. First, because as you familiarize yourself with the possibilities of WordPress, your vision of what is possible for your site will evolve. And second, if you just can’t find a theme that suits your needs, you can always hire a designer to customize a site that will make your business sizzle.