Pick the Perfect Theme for Your WordPress Blog: A 2-Part Tutorial

For this 2-part tutorial, we’ll talk about the things you need to consider when choosing the perfect theme for your WordPress blog (or site – given the nature of WordPress, both a blog and CMS platform, we’ll use these terms interchangeably).

We assume that you already know about WordPress and how to install it. But if you need a quick intro or a refresher, our Beginner’s Guide to WordPress will get you up to speed.

Perhaps the most exciting stage after you’ve installed WordPress is dressing it up with a theme of your choice. What makes this process really fun is that there is a dizzying assortment of themes, whether free or paid (premium), readily available from various sources.

However, a theme is more than just the outer skin of your blog. It can make or break your blog, so choose carefully. Don’t make the newbie mistake of grabbing the first fancy or beautiful-looking theme that comes along. And even if you’re an advanced user who’d like to customize or create your own theme, you need to know how to design a well-functioning theme, not just an eye-catching one. You’d want your theme to squarely fit your blog’s overall purpose and advance its objectives.  

A theme is like a costume that helps your blog get in character.
Photo credit: ch.weidinger via photopin cc

In the first part of this tutorial, we’ll look into the preliminary process of deciding which theme is best for you and the kinds of themes you’ll encounter when you start searching. We’ll also apply these pointers to 3 example users so you have something concrete to go by. (part two of the tutorial is over here..)

Plan Your Theme: A Checklist

Ideally, even before you install WordPress on your web host, you should already have a clear idea of what your blog should look like. This will of course also stem from what your blog is supposed to be.

If your concept for a blog is still hazy, the following simple checklist will help you make it clearer. This, in turn, will help you narrow down your requirements for a theme. Asking yourself these questions helps you avoid choosing themes haphazardly and then constantly changing it because you were dissatisfied it doesn’t meet your requirements. Make sure to make notes that you can refer to later:


  • What is the PURPOSE of your blog?What is your blog or site for? Is it for personal, professional, or business use?
  • Who will be your READERS?   What are they like? How will they use your blog? What will they look for?
  • What types of CONTENT will it have?What types of posts will you make? Are you showing videos? Are you combining text and multimedia? Will you be primarily writing text or are you building a full site with different types of content?
  • What FEATURES will you need? What kinds of features are you after? Will you need support for multiple authors, mobile browsers, digital downloads, shopping cart, SEO, social sharing, etc.?
  • How much is your BUDGET?How much are you willing to spend to make your blog look unique? Can you afford to buy a theme or hire a designer to customize one for you?
  • How’s your TECHNICAL SKILLS?Can you customize by yourself basic parts of your blog, such as menus, fonts, and header images? Are you familiar with HTML, CSS and PHP?

3 User Scenarios

Let’s look at three situations where we’ll apply the questions above. At the end of this tutorial, we’ll suggest a theme that is a good match for each scenario:

1) A Professional Photographer – To showcase your work and to get clients, you’d want a theme that does not only make it easy for you to upload and manage your photos, but also supports high-quality images and puts them front and center. This way, visitors to your site will immediately see how skillfully you’ve taken photographs and prospective clients can quickly decide whether to contact you or not.

2) A Webmaster – If you’re setting up a business blog for your company or clients, you’d likely select a practical, user-friendly theme that matches the branding of the business. You’d probably have a budget, or you may know enough WordPress to make alterations yourself. A simple theme options panel that allows basic customizations without dealing with any code would also be ideal, especially if you will hand over the blog to other non-techie users.

3) A Personal Blogger - And of course, if you’re creating your personal blog, you’d have greater creative freedom to pick a theme that matches your personality best. Themes suited for personal expression come in a great variety – it’s all up to you.

Classifying WordPress Themes

Now that you have a crystal-clear idea of what your blog is about, let’s look at broad categories of themes. Note that these themes often have a lot more features than you’d need for simple blogging. But because WordPress is still a blogging engine at its core, most of these themes have blogging functionality. While this classification isn’t exhaustive, it gives you a good overview that you could use for narrowing down your search.


General-Purpose or Multi-Purpose Themes These themes often have standard layouts and features, or are highly customizable and can be applied to most kinds of blogs and sites. Themes began this way but when WordPress use became widespread, many developers started offering specialty themes targeted towards certain kinds of users (e.g., realtors, gamers, mommy bloggers).

Specialized Themes These are themes designed specifically for a purpose or a niche. WordPress now cover a very wide spectrum of uses and niches, such as magazines, portfolios, tumblogs (Tumblr-like blogs), ecommerce shops, real estate, events registration, knowledge bases, and a whole lot of niches.

A freelance application theme, a classified ads board, and a job board by Appthemes are examples of highly specialized or niche themes.


There are themes that are made especially for giving primary focus on a certain type of content or media. This goes hand in hand with what purpose or reader type the theme is designed for. Examples are video themes, photography/photoblog themes, music/podcast themes, etc. If your blog will be particularly text-heavy, you might want to check out themes with enhanced typography.

Frank by P.J. Onori and Smashing Magazine is minimal and uses tasteful typography to put focus on the content.

There are too many different kinds of features to list down here, but know that most theme directories allow you to quickly filter and refine your searches. We’ll discuss this more in Part 2.

WordPress.org now features a tag and filter interface to help you sort through more than 2000 themes in its repository.


Free – Free themes are, well, free (although the developer might ask you to link back or subscribe to their site, tweet about it the theme, or make some kind of a token “payment.” Both established and new theme providers often provide free themes to promote themselves and to test the market. This is one way you can get beautifully designed themes with premium features at no cost. Expect, however, that it comes with limited features or little/no support.

Premium These are paid themes that often come packed with features like advanced theme options panel, granular customization, easy integration with other services (e.g., email newsletters), and many others. Prices range from almost free to over $100, although it really depends on the market demand.

A screenshot of some premium themes sold at Envato’s ThemeForest marketplace, where WordPress themes cost between $25 and $60.

Next: Searching for a Theme

This ends the first part of our tutorial. We hope that by now you have a better idea of what theme you’d like to pick for your blog. In Part 2, we’ll talk about how to do a quick online search for themes, where to reliably find high-quality themes, and other things to look for in your prospective theme. And of course, we’ll match a good theme for each of the 3 hypothetical users mentioned above.

Written 2014-07-24 (Updated 2016-10-10)
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Written by David Walsh

David Walsh is the editor in chief here at Web Hosting Search. Having been in the industry for many years now he knows pretty much everything about everything. At least that's what he keeps telling everyone at the office. So, don't hesitate to drop him a line  if you've got a question - david(a)webhostingsearch.com.

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