After you’ve spent a little bit of time working with a WordPress website – particularly if you’ve ever shopped around for a new theme for your site – you’re likely to come across the term “Theme Framework” or “WordPress Framework”.
A theme framework is a library of code that makes it relatively easy for a user to develop a unique look on their WordPress website or use a design straight out of the zip file. It often makes using certain plugins obsolete, and it can decrease page loading time. A framework can only be used on self-hosted WordPress websites, so if your site ends in .wordpress.com then you'll be unable to use them.
Do I need to use a WordPress Framework?
I think when you are starting out using WordPress it's not essential, but as you start to grow your blog and increase usability and functionality then you'll hanker after a framework. If you're an existing client of mine, you'll already know that you have a framework in place and are reaping the many benefits of using one.
So what does a framework do?
Theme frameworks generally make use of the “parent theme” and “child theme” capabilities of WordPress so that you can create multiple custom themes and variations without permanently altering the foundations of the theme (or messing with the code), so when you want to create a new look it's much faster, and you don't lose much (if any) of the functionality you have in place.
This list of frameworks is in no particular order and where I've used the framework I'll share my experiences with it.
1. Genesis. Genesis is one of the leading premium WordPress frameworks, and for good reason. The code is clean and optimized for SEO purposes, and the framework follows the best WordPress security practices. The Genesis framework automatically updates itself, so your website code will always be current and fully optimized. Sarkemedia.com is built using Genesis and the Minimum Pro Child Theme.
There are many tutorials and educational resources available on the StudioPress / Genesis website to get you up and running quickly. Of course the real bonus to this WordPress framework is that it comes with unlimited lifetime support – this can be extremely valuable for a website owner who isn’t completely comfortable with the ins and outs of WordPress and needs extra support.
SEO and Google Authorship are built into Genesis, making it easier for you to benefit from better search rankings. Genesis can be taken further with the Dynamik theme and the Genesis Extender plugin. Both of which I recommend highly.
Many of the child themes are HTML5 ready, mobile responsive and have rich snippets ready to be activated. SEO is built in, and you can pretty much use one of the child themes straight out of the zip file. When you purchase the Studiopress pro plus pack, you get all the themes they have available plus the ones they add in the future. There's also a community of developers that sell the child themes that they create for Genesis.
Some of the child themes take a background image and no sizing is given, this can make it very hard to get the right sized image as your background. You may have to experiment a bit to get the look that you want. Not much of a downside, but the creators have spent a lot of time and effort to make things as easy as possible for it's users.
2. Thesis 2.0. Thesis is another leading premium WordPress Theme Framework. Thesis was my first love of all the WordPress Frameworks. The Thesis framework is built upon a three-pronged approach to site design: “Boxes” allow you to add discreet elements of functionality to a new website you are creating without having to write any code yourself.
“Skins” provides you with a drag and drop interface for creating exactly the type of look and feel you’re after. One of the skins on offer is the “Social Triggers” skin, so if you are a Derek Halpern fan, then you can hack up the Social Triggers skin to look awesome. I don't recommend that you use any design based on someone else's blog straight out of the box, always add your own branding and customisations so the skin is completely yours.
“Packages” let you make precise CSS customizations without having to know any CSS code or ever have to dig into a single stylesheet. Thesis was the first framework to include Rich Snippets. Rich Snippets will become more powerful as time goes by and is something that gives Thesis the advantage when it comes to search. In short, I've found Thesis to lead the way when it comes to functionality and the speed of which things are implemented into their framework.
SEO is built into Thesis, along with typography and Google fonts, so you can pretty much hand customise any area of your website…
The downside? Thesis can blow your head up with the functionality and time that it takes, using a skin will help speed things up a lot, but I've found when I use Thesis I spend hours in WordPress heaven just tinkering… Our transport website was on Thesis for a very long time, I recently moved it to Genesis so that my husband could tinker with it. When it comes to downsides, there's not much of one.
3. Thematic. Thematic is a very popular free and open source WordPress theme development framework. Thematic contains a top notch starter theme, and can also be used to quickly build custom themes from scratch. The framework contains 13 widget ready areas in the basic framework, a grid layout and the possibility for even more in a child theme. The framework is fully compatible with leading SEO plug-ins such as All-In-One SEO and Platinum SEO. Thematic also offers options for multi-author blogging which is very handy. There are paid child themes available if you don't want to create something yourself.
Thematic is created by Automattic, the creators of WordPress, so you can expect this framework to be incredibly powerful and versatile with no loss of performance.
Downside? I've not had the opportunity to use this theme, so I cannot say. And yes, that's a valid downside!
4. Reverie. Is another popular free design framework for WordPress. Reverie leverages the power of the increasingly popular HTML5 Boilerplate standard to help users create fast, dynamic and responsive WordPress themes.
The framework allows for tight and easy integration with bbPress 2.0, which can be extremely valuable if you anticipate wanting to include bulletin board functionality on your WordPress site. Reverie automatically uses a media query to adjust the display for smart phones and tablets, and the framework is particularly optimized for the iPhone and iPod. You may wish to consider this framework if you anticipate a significant number of your users visiting your site from these devices.
Downside? This framework has a very specific aim – mobile users. If you are not getting a lot of mobile traffic, then this may not be useful to you at all.
5. WhiteBoard. Speaking of frameworks optimized for mobile devices… WhiteBoard is another powerful free option. WhiteBoard is built using the leading CSS3 and Less Framework standards, which ensures that your WordPress site content will be as attractive and functional on smart phones and tablets as it is on a traditional computer monitor.
The underlying WhiteBoard code is well noted and commented, so if you or your development staff ever needs to take a deeper look inside the inner workings of the framework, it will be easier to get the information you need. Finally, WhiteBoard claims to utilize more dynamic Classes and IDs than any other WordPress framework, which has the potential to help you with your SEO efforts.
Downside? If you are not familiar with classes you might not appreciate what this framework can do.
6. Howling Dog Theme Framework. The Howling Dog Theme Framework (and its “K9 Control Panel”) is a premium framework that provides a great deal of control over visual aspects of your custom theme. You can quickly adjust virtually any layout parameters in order to achieve exactly the look you have in mind, and your typography options are extremely broad with built in support for the Cufon library of free fonts. This framework also has a particular focus on making sure that whatever themes you come up with will display properly in just about any type of browser your visitor may be using.
About 2 years ago I put Howling Dog through its paces, and I didn't find it lacking in anything! I found it very intuitive to use, and the support is extensive. Genesis Dynamik reminds me a lot of the Howling Dog Framework, and if you want the functionality of Dynamik but don't have the budget then get Howling Dog, and start saving for one of their premium themes or the paid version of the framework to have even more functionality.
Some of the functionality that you might like is in the paid version, that said Genesis and Thesis are both paid (premium) frameworks, so it's not really a downside at all.
7. The Upthemes Framework. Upthemes is a free WordPress framework that takes a different approach to custom theming. Rather than starting out from scratch, you can use the Upthemes Framework in conjunction with a WordPress theme you already have. You can use Upthemes to customize the layout and color schemes of your theme, quickly change the header and background images and colors, and take a quick live preview of any changes to make sure they’re exactly what you’re looking for. If you are completely new to working with a framework, this makes a great starting point, although truth be told you'll never really want to leave.
I can't think of any downsides to Up themes other than there's a small cost, as it's a premium framework. But you shouldn't let cost put you off, if helps pay for amazing support and keeps your framework in good working order.
8. PageLines. PageLines is a popular “drag and drop” premium framework that makes it easy for users who want to stay as far away from the code as possible to create custom themes for their sites. Pricing is on a monthly basis and of course includes awesome support. The framework is mobile ready, uses Google Fonts and has good eCommerce capabilities. The overall effect from Pagelines is a sleek and responsive WordPress website.
The monthly subscription may be offputting for some, but the design options will probably make up for that! I think there may be a free version with limited functionality, but never having used Pagelines I couldn't find it on their website. Having said that, this could be the framework for you if you want a simple, sleek design that looks professional without having to touch a line of code.
9. Woo Themes. Woo Themes are incredibly popular with the WordPress/eCommerce crowd. The Framework is free with certain themes and there of course is a range of premium themes that are easily customisable. Woo Themes operate a club system as well as the option to purchase individual themes. They also have a range of premium WordPress plugins that will enable you to create online courses etc.
I've done a little work with Woo themes and their Framework, but I think I've been spoiled by Genesis and Thesis and I prefer working with them. But there are a huge amount of people that totally adore Woo and all the things it can do (custom shortcodes and auto thumbnail resizer etc), so it's worth checking out. They also have extensions for Amazon payments so that your customer never has to leave your own site… yes the extensions are well worth checking out.
Cost could be a big factor with Woo, new licensing means support is payable after your license expires, but don't let that stop you from trying out their framework and a huge range of themes. The Canvas theme is popular with a lot of bloggers and small business owners.
10. Headway Themes. Headway was one of the original drag and drop frameworks like Pagelines. HTML 5 ready, you can drag and drop things till your heart's content. I had a thing with Headway a few years back, but sadly we never lasted. Like Thesis, everything is customisable from the dashboard, and if you have a bit of time you can create something really spectacular. Like Thesis, StudioPress and Woo, the code is search engine friendly, although I have to be honest and say that if any of the frameworks I've mentioned weren't search friendly with good, solid code, then they wouldn't have been mentioned. Again, support is good and the visual editor is highly recommended!
Getting used to the grid layout after using Thesis / Studiopress was awkward and time consuming, however a lot of people pick it up quickly and have found it quite intuitive.
WordPress frameworks can make your website or blog look pretty awesome in a short amount of time, they can improve how you're found in search and they can enable your WordPress website to do pretty much anything. All you need is the time to create :)
Which framework do you love, and why?