I got into WordPress soon after graduating college in 2010. I quickly learned that themes were an essential component to any well-designed website that can be scaled. Seven years later, I take a look back at how I got where I am today with theming.

2011 – My First Client Project, the Premium Theme

Still unsure of my abilities as a WordPress developer, I looked to premium themes as a starting point. My colleague and I chose Aleyska and modified the theme directly to meet the client’s requirements. Here’s what we learned:

  • Modifying the theme directly prevented us from ever updating it without overriding our customizations.
  • We ended up farther from the original theme than we originally thought, leading us to question the merits of starting with a stock theme rather than building one from scratch.
  • We didn’t effectively communicate the business case for a responsive website and the client wanted the responsiveness disabled. Thankfully, the theme easily allowed for this option. Now that mobile has taken over, I don’t see this situation repeating itself. It was very much of its time, but it speaks to the value of keeping clients in the loop and showing them not only what are the best practices, but why they became best practices.

2012 – My DIY Theme

My next theme was my own creation. And boy was it a mess. It was based on Bootstrap, but the responsiveness left a lot to be desired. Many elements appeared “off” in different screen resolutions and different browsers. The site no longer is live, but here are some of my takeaways:

  • Responsive design can mean different things to different people. My clients often convey responsiveness as a design that looks good on any device. But what does that entail? I understand now that the devil is in the details. For example, responsive design can include hiding a home page video slider from tablets and smart phones because it is too resource intensive.
  • Moving forward, building my own theme from scratch was out of the question. With nostalgia goggles on, I can say I enjoyed the artistic process. I know I didn’t feel that way at the time.

2012 – Premium Theme, Round 2

My third WordPress project was a prototype for the Ohio Department of Education. I did more due diligence on themes this time around and chose one in the spirit of the organization called Pekaboo for WordPress – Children WordPress Theme. Almost immediately, there were problems. The most recent theme version had undergone a significant code rework. Big changes don’t always entail bugs, but in this scenario, that’s exactly what it meant. It was also very rigid, using widget areas to accomplish the home page design. It’s a great theme for a client who wanted close to what’s shown in the out of the box configuration. Here’s some of what I learned:

  • New doesn’t necessarily mean better. A lot of times it means untested. I prefer things that are a little older but are thoroughly tested and so do clients. There’s nothing more unprofessional than buggy software. My newer version aversion excludes security patches, which are always a must.
  • I thought I had found the right theme for the right client. It turns out I had the right idea, but I had dove in too early. I should have better fleshed out the requirements. Knowing that would’ve saved me the headaches of changing a niche theme.
  • The responsiveness leveraged Framework. I was familiar with Bootstrap. I’m not a masochist, so I still don’t know why I subjected myself to learning more.

2013 – The ‘Do Everything’ Themes and their Visual Builders

Projects four and five were all about versatility. “Multi-purpose” themes were drawing huge popularity. Most could be configured in every conceivable manner right down to 10 different looks for the logo depending upon screen size, device, and theme (typically dark or light). It blew my mind and I bit. I purchased Bridge and Avada for these two projects and went to work configuring them. The clients would say, “Can I do this? Is this possible?” Instead of saying, “I’ll get back to you” or “yes, but it will involve many development hours,” I could tell them “hell yes it is” in so many words. But there were come catches that were too big to ignore:

  • The hours I saved in development I made up for in configurations. These themes gave you everything under the sun, and I would fall down the rabbit hole, spending hours on settings, reading the manual. God, everything was a setting.
  • At the time, the UI for these themes (Bridge, Avada, X Theme, etc.) was clunky, and one point of dismay is that I had to learn a new visual builder for each theme.
  • Performance suffered. The sites were slow, and end users are getting less and less tolerant of slow sites. Even Google punishes sites that don’t perform well. Ultimate flexibility cost us valuable page loading times. For those adding content in the backend, the visual builders were often un-intuitive and took a while to load.
  • Clients were very wishy washy because I had set unrealistic expectations that everything was possible. There were not stakes because nothing would take hours of development time. They could ask for design intricacies afforded by the themes, and then change their minds three days later, and it would be all good.

2015 – The Framework and Child Theming

I didn’t get another crack at a WordPress site until the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority. This when I started truly getting the hang of things. Instead of searching for a theme, I found a framework in Genesis. Genesis is a parent theme that is lightweight, secure, and responsive. You customize it by creating a child theme, which is the best approach. I built the next few websites using Genesis and the projects were all successful. The Genesis license is a lifetime one, and the community is active, both big pros. That said, I still had stuff to learn.

  • Everything was a plugin. You need columns? Plugin. You need to disable page titles? Plugin? You need…well, you get the picture. The framework could use to include some more options, just not the cluster that the multi-purpose ones provide.
  • Continuing on the first point, I felt the Genesis framework left something to be desired, especially in the long-term. I like empowering clients to take control of their websites if they have the time and don’t have the resources to pay me for continued support. If they wanted to create a flashy new page, their options were limited because at best, they would need to know shortcodes, at worst, html and css. That, I felt, was too much to ask.

2016 – The Dream Theme

Finally, I arrived at Divi and its maker, Elegant Themes. Before Divi, Elegant Themes had pumped out many moderate to sub-par themes that were great for small, niche sites, but nothing that would wow anyone. The company stepped their game up with Divi.

I give it high marks. The intuitive visual builder, the extendability of the theme, the great community, Elegant Theme’s responsiveness to new ideas, and the lifetime support are all reasons I will continue leveraging the Divi framework for my WordPress projects.