When off-the-shelf WordPress Themes are a bad idea

published April 17, 2015

WordPress becomes more popular each year and something I run into often now are clients already using the platform who are unhappy with the WordPress Themes they purchased off-the-shelf. Sometimes the theme doesn’t work anymore because half of the two dozen required plugins haven’t been updated in years. Sometimes the theme itself hasn’t seen a revision in that long and the developer is nowhere to be found. For me it comes down to this:

By trying to be everything to everyone many off-the-shelf WordPress Themes strip the platform of its simplicity, stability, and joy

These WordPress Themes are like a Swiss-Army knife with an absurd number of tools in it- heavy, clunky, and difficult to use. While it’s true they can do just about anything, the experience of using them is unpleasant. Think about doing real work with a utility knife’s tiny scissors or toothpick or magnifying glass. Wouldn’t you rather have a dedicated tool in every case? I can read code and some of these themes take hours of reading and emails to the developer to make them work anything like their Demos. I have no problem understanding why clients are pulling their hair out with these things.

Sometimes off-the-shelf works just fine

That’s not to say you can’t have a good WordPress Theme unless it’s custom built for your needs. I think photographers, for example, have it made when it comes to spending very little and getting a fit and trim portfolio theme that is near-perfect for their needs without a lot of extra junk they don’t need. There are several reliable developers selling excellent themes on services like ThemeForest. In general I would say that if the theme has a specific audience like photographers or bloggers in mind, you’re probably okay.

Sometimes though, off-the-shelf is a disaster

The problem is that many people don’t have such straightforward needs. Many people and projects have a very specific wish list that’s impossible for a developer to anticipate beforehand. A common solution for developers selling multipurpose themes is to build them with every last feature they can think of. What could go wrong? In many cases: lots.

Developers love WordPress because it can do just about anything they imagine, but at the end of the day WordPress wasn’t intended for just developers. According to WordPress Creator, Matt Mullenweg, the whole point of the platform is to democratize the web. That means WordPress, and the themes built for it, should always serve the end user first. That means you. Not me or anyone else building themes. There are lots of things a developer can add to a theme, but if those additions can’t be added in a way that makes the end product as intuitive and simple to use as WordPress itself it doesn’t belong there.

Conclusion

Read the reviews of any off-the-shelf theme you’re interested in buying. Contact the developer and ask them about required plugins and support. Ask them about frequency of updates. Ask them about the Demo. Ask them about required shortcodes and how customizations are achieved. If they have answers and a good attitude, you’re probably in good shape.

There’s an incredible allure to spending $58 for what appears to be a beautiful WordPress Theme that can do everything, but what’s your time worth in dollars? You’ll be using it for years. If you’re spending hours each week configuring and adjusting and jury-rigging just to get content online all you’ve gotten is a really great deal on a few years worth of headaches.

UPDATE:

I have come across this now notorious theme several times lately. It is one of too many kitchen-sink WordPress Themes that are extremely difficult for normal people to use. They’re not even straightforward for developers to use. My biggest warning for those buying off the shelf is to be very cautious when selecting a theme. Don’t be seduced by the promise of “features” you don’t need. Using themes like this is a nightmare and in short order you’ll wish you spend a little more for something that actually fit your needs.

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