WordPress is free, and many of its plugins and themes are, too! OMG, that’s almost as exciting as free ice cream! But how do you tell which free stuff is good, and which is junk? Take themes. There are huge numbers of free themes available here. The problem? Some of the themes are bad. They may have:
- Beauty, But No Brains: pretty design, but with all kinds of code problems.
- Brains, But No Beauty: well-coded, but no visual appeal.
- Bad Design and Coding. The Bifecta! Fortunately, there are fewer of these since WordPress started enforcing some mild theme standards, but that’s only themes that were submitted after the standards went into effect.
Can a layperson determine what a top quality theme is? Honestly, probably not. If a theme has a huge number of downloads and an excellent rating, that’s at least a start. Maybe you’ve been lucky and wise enough to find a theme that looks good, and works well when you’re building your site. Yay! You’re ahead of the game. Now there are still some important things to be aware of.
More Features, More Failures
If shoppers come across two products that are comparable in price, they often choose the one with more features. It sounds plausible, you get more for your money, and more is always better, right? Wrong. The problem: the more features you have, the more things there are that can break. So the fancier theme may have more bugs than a comparable one with fewer features.
Most free themes have no support. If you’re running your business using a theme with no support, I don’t envy you. Even if a theme author does do some free support, would I rely on it? No. Do I use free themes? Sometimes, yes. But I’m in the business and have loads of experience, so I can fix or code my way around problems that arise. You can hire support from elsewhere, but I find that after getting something for free, many site owners have strong resistance to paying for anything.
It’s downright depressing, at times, to see the level of entitlement some people feel, although that’s human nature. They get something for free that has hundreds of hours of work in it, but then complain bitterly that they don’t get free tech support, too. It’s ample proof that no good deed goes unpunished.
Themes Cannot Read Your Mind
Despite cool feature lists, glowing reviews, and zillions of downloads, no theme can do anything you can dream up. None. Not even expensive commercial themes. I know that the hype always says, “do everything you want with no coding skills”, but that’s nonsense. People prove my point by continuing to come to me when their Magic Theme does not do what they want it to do.
Finally, The Good News!
Sorry to be the grim reaper with all these cautionary tales. They’re similar to the many warnings I give to my clients, some of which they’re actually willing to listen to. 😉 Here are some free themes that are several cuts above the norm. I can’t guarantee that you’ll love them, especially if you’re super picky, you’re a tinkerer, or you love to design things (whether or not you have a design background). Also, some of them have the audacity to have a link to the theme creator – oh, the humanity! – but it’s really a small price to pay for some nice software.
That said, these themes not only have the obvious good features that anyone can see, but also goodness that a serious developer can appreciate.
Customizer Or No Customizer?
If you’re a WordPress coder, here’s a technical point that you may be interested in. The WordPress mothership is pushing theme developers to use the built-in Customizer in place of the giant theme admin panels many themes have. Quite a few of the themes here still have these monster admin panels. Some exceptions that have fully embraced the Customizer include GeneratePress, Make, Toivo, and Virtue (which has a huge number of options in its Customizer!). Kathmandu is halfway there, with a notice that their next update will move all admin features into the Customizer.
If you’re not super-geeky, no need to worry unduly. Theme admin panels should continue to work indefinitely. It’s just that the powers-that-be want to advocate for some standards in admin panel creation.
For this list, I’m only including responsive themes. Here they are in some particular order:
Vantage – this is a great-looking theme with nice features. The author also offers a pagebuilder plugin for those who like to tinker.
GeneratePress – very impressive! Plenty of nice features, but not an excessive amount. Clean and modern design. They have lots of paid extras, but even those are very reasonably priced. It has loads of fans and quite active support. This theme manages to be great for a coder to work with, yet still have a good number of options that a user can change without coding – that’s very rare!
Toivo – Excellent AND has accessibility features! (still rare in themes so far) Clean, attractive, and some very original features, such as the display of child pages in some templates. This is a standout.
Stargazer – This impressive theme is built by one of the top WordPress developers anywhere, Justin Tadlock. It also allows just enough color customization without resorting to bloatedness. So much thoughtful styling and clever coding, it’s truly a standout for blogging. As of July 2015, you’re looking at it right now! 😉
Modern – it most certainly is! It does a great job of handling a very large photo slider (at that size, pro quality photos required!). Very nice layout. Clever code under the hood. Coded to handle retina images.
Auberge – a very modern and gorgeous-looking restaurant theme! Menu display with many fancy touches. Extensive setup instructions. A paid upgrade version adds recipe functionality. It has large image sizes for showing sumptuous food pics – they can be altered if you’re a coder, but I decided to keep them. As with any large pic theme, use top-quality, carefully edited photos or they’ll look bad and amateurish.
Enlightenment – A staggering number of features! It’s the only theme here that supports a megamenu for all you giant menu freaks (you know who you are). Remember: with any theme having scads of features, it may take significant work to set up!
Editor – an unassuming name for a clean, minimalist theme with sweet typography. Its developer has made many excellent themes.
Decode – very minimal in style, partially achieved by having a big off-screen menu that you can bring in.
AccessPress Lite – clean styling, a very large feature set for a free theme, Woo Commerce-ready. They offer chat support and I had a very pleasant chat with them.
AccessPress Ray – another very stylish and feature-rich theme from this company. Built to work well with WooCommerce, BuddyPress, and bbPress.
Flat – a very nice flat design (!) with a slight hipster feature: a gear icon reveals the sidebar, which may put off non-hipsters. It uses Bootstrap.
Kathmandu – Catch actually has several nice free themes. This one is feature-rich, and has a versatile, professional look as well as Woo Commerce support.
Make – a very clean look from an excellent theme company. It has extensive options and per-page features. It’s frequently updated. Very impressive.
Spacious – many features, very attractive, and they have other nice themes, too.
Customizr – Lots of options to play with, and uses Bootstrap. I’ve dug pretty far into this – if you’re a programmer, you may enjoy its nice selection of hooks! Gee, I wonder if now that WordPress has a built-in “Customizer”, there will be brand confusion with this nice theme?
Virtue – nice for photos, has Bootstrap, is WooCommerce ready, and has many options.
Moesia – many features for making a very fancy home page, including parallax bits. Quite the hipster set-up! It does take some fiddling to do all the fancy homepage custom bits. aThemes also offers the Sydney theme, which is very popular and just about tragically hip!
Attitude – a fresh look and a nice variety of options.
Pinboard – Pinterest style, very attractive.
Masonic – Like that staggered box layout that generally means the Masonry script is at work? This is a nice-looking one with lots of features.
Hueman – very innovative, it handles 3 columns and 2 big menus at responsive size without sucking – a minor miracle! Very stylish, too.
Parabola – Loads of features. Many built-in color schemes. It’s responsive menu can tame even overly-large dropdown menus.
Storefront – a free WooCommerce theme from Woo itself. It’s very clean-looking, and looks leaner than older Woo themes. For you WordPress geeks, it’s built on Underscores!
Mystile – A nice clean look, supports Sensei and WooCommerce. Recommended by Sally below. Free but you need to sign up with Woo.
Base Themes, Frameworks
Friends, please keep in mind that the themes below are for mostly for us geeks who build themes. They’re not so much for the site owner who wants to throw together a site quickly, although Omega may be an exception*.
Tiny Framework – this is really nice, especially for developers! It’s a blend of characteristics of Underscores along with features from the newer default WordPress themes. It also has quite extensive documentation, something many free themes don’t have. I already built one of my own sites on it.
*Omega – A different animal: a free theme framework (for building themes). Having said that, there are a bunch of nice child themes for Omega on wordpress.org, so potentially a non-developer could use Omega along with one of those. Its basic esthetic is simple and clean.
WP-Forge – Another developer’s base theme – very bare-bones, awaiting your styling. Built on the Foundation framework, which offers loads of interface elements and other goodies. Also offering a starter child theme with even more goodies!
I’m a Genesis developer, so why am I not recommending any of those here? There are a bunch of free Genesis child themes, many of them very nice. However, the Genesis framework (needed to run these child themes) is not free.
Besides, I understand that some people’s budgets are maxed out, and I wanted to point out some freebies that actually have serious quality. That said, if you need massive customization on your site, not just light tweaks, you’d best hire a developer anyway. You can hire me for that – we can modify an existing Genesis theme, build one from scratch, or use any other theme as a base.
Last fun tip: even some developers don’t know this, but now WordPress.com, the commercial arm of WordPress, offers a variety of themes for free that you can download if you sign up with them (and sign in). I admit that some have a “last year’s model” vibe, and some are not responsive, but they are pretty nice and good quality. If you’ve found any other great free themes, please let me know in the comments.
This list is subject to constant change due to various factors such as how often they’re updated, new themes coming out, sunspots, etc.