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Are Theme Frameworks only suitable for Designers?

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Theme frameworks such as Thesis, Carrington and Frugal have grown in popularity within the last few years. I’ve used Thematic and Theme Hybrid themes for sites of mine in the past and I purchased Headway to help me build mini sites quicker last year too.

Like many WordPress users, it didn’t concern me that the themes I used for my sites were child themes of the Thematic and Theme Hybrid frameworks. The themes were exactly what I was looking for so it didn’t really matter. If the framework helped the designer create the themes then I’m all for it.

However frameworks such as Thesis and Headway are being marketed towards WordPress theme developers and WordPress novices. And I can fully understand why as both of these frameworks allow complete beginners to change many aspects of their design such as the background colour, anchor link colour, website width, tabbed menus and more.

The problem is, it’s very difficult for newbies to customise their blog design beyond these basic modifications, which is why so many novice users end up with a generic theme which you you can spot a mile away. This is in no way criticism of framework themes, I just don’t believe that novices need all the bells and whistles they’re paying for, nor do they understand how to use them wisely.

Advanced users will undoubtedly get great value for their money and save a lot of time by designing themes using frameworks. The question is: are framework themes are a waste of time and/or money for newbies?

I believe that they would be better off using a good free design or purchasing a premium theme which does exactly what they want rather than purchase a a utility which they don’t know how to get the most out of.

One person who shares this view is Nicholas Z. Cardot from SiteSketch101. Nicholas wrote an article a few days ago entitled ‘Is Thesis the right theme for you? I say No‘. In the article Nicholas stated that the Thesis theme was not good value for most bloggers:

I believe that Thesis is not a good value for most bloggers and after having done a lot of research into it, I can’t honestly recommend Thesis to my readers, to my followers, or to my friends and I would strongly encourage you to steer your business away from it as a business model.

Their framework is incredibly bland fresh out of the box. From a design perspective it really doesn’t offer anything that really makes you say, “Wow” when you see it and in my opinion, that is the most important reason to purchase a WordPress theme.

It doesn’t offer a single SEO feature that you can’t get for free from All-In-One SEO Plugin or HeadSpace SEO Plugin and both of those plugins are free.

The article seems to have polarised WordPress users though the general consensus appears to agree with my view. There were many fantastic comments on the article but for me Sushant from Smart Bloggerz summed it up the best:

Well, I suppose Thesis is best for those who can code and make it look good..otherwise for people like me, I will prefer ready-made themes which doesn’t requires too much technical expertise.

Again, I reiterate that many theme developers get great value from frameworks as it can really speed up their design process once they know the framework well. Though novices won’t generally change their design much once it has been setup and they won’t realise the full potential of the framework though, so premium frameworks offer less value to them.

However I’m sure some of you will disagree with me on this so I’d love to hear your view on this, particularly from those who have used framework themes before. So what do you think: Are theme frameworks only suitable for designers?

Thanks,
Kevin

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Comments (18)

Comment by How to manually nest a comment under another in WordPress says:

[…] Baird left a comment on my article on WordPress theme frameworks the other day. We both replied to each other a few times using threaded comments but then Adam had […]

Comment by Adam Baird says:

Threaded comments only go 5 deep, so I have to reply down here…

Thesica is coming within the next month or so :)

You’re right that design isn’t worthless…just trying to make a point. Honestly though, you could spend 30 minutes just using the design options panel for Thesis or Genesis, and end up with a professional looking website, that won’t turn someone off.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that content/structure/performance are infinitely more crucial to a website’s success, yet most newbies spend most of their time on design and ignore those things (I know I did).

Comment by Kevin Muldoon says:

Thanks for noticing that Adam. I updated the comment and changed the thread comments setting to 10 (I’ll publish a small tutorial about how to do this for beginners tomorrow). :)

Content, structure and performance are definitely all important, and it’s something where frameworks shine.

Though I still think that they look generic.

Take the revolution theme by Brian Gardner. That was one of the best themes available in 2007. I modified it and used it on my old blog Blogging Tips. It was a good design and the content was easy to read.

However, anyone who had ever saw a blog which used revolution before would have known right away that I was using the same theme. The font family, size and structure of the site was all the same.

3 years later frameworks have improved upon this so that certain elements of a site can be changed. Though you can still tell a thesis or headway site very easily, particularly when it hasn’t been modded by a top designer.

This isn’t a criticism against frameworks though. I just think beginners don’t know enough about styling to stop the theme looking the same as other framework designs.

Comment by Adam Baird says:

Honestly I held this exact point of view when I started a couple years back (would assume most newbs do). I just wanted the best looking design and I knew nothing about SEO, page load time, or anything else that you should generally be concerned with when it comes to the design of your blog/website.

The reason Thesis/Genesis/etc. (Headway isn’t my favorite for performance reasons) are so crucial for newbies is they provide a solid basis with good performance, great SEO options, and the newbie won’t have to change their HTML base down the road when they get serious about their blog.

I know Theme Forest has some absolutely stunning themes for very reasonable prices. Some of them are great. Some of them look great, but have markups that aren’t optimized for SEO, and take about a half hour to load (search Theme Forest for Hyperion). Good luck trying to differentiate as a newbie…and you still have the problem of changing your HTML base on down the road when you want a different theme.

At the end of the day, Stunning design gets you nothing. People visit websites for the content. Generally they don’t care about design. If you ran a test of two sites with identical content, one having a bare framework layout, and one having the most visually stimulating layout known to man, conversion rates and bounce rates would be very similar…actually bounce rate would probably be lower for the framework unless the stunning design were set up optimally (some would leave because of page load time).

I’m not saying all themes other than frameworks are horrible…just that frameworks are the best choice the overwhelming majority of the time.

Comment by Kevin Muldoon says:

You’re right about theme forest coding. Some of the themes I have downloaded have had a lot of redundant code in them (i.e. referring to classes which are no longer there and classes in the stylesheet which are not being used).

Rajat from BlogDesignStudio said the same thing. As he put it – they see the nice design and click buy, not realising the code behind it is slow and hard to edit.

Most frameworks do have good SEO options, though I wouldn’t say they are better than a good SEO plugin (like all in one or headspace2).

I’d have to disagree about good design not getting you anything. When a new visitor arrives at a site the first bite is with the eye. Sure content is very important, but by presenting a professional image you are projecting the image that this is an important site that they should subscribe to.

Would big blogs like mashable or smashing magazine have as many subscribers if they used a theme like kubrick?

By the way Adam – when can we expect to see Thesica? :)

Comment by Kevin Muldoon says:

Firstly, thanks for the comment Chris. I appreciate the time you took to make contribute such a long comment :)

You also made some very good points.

I checked my email and I purchased headway on 28th December 2009. I have heard very good things about headway being developed more recently, though I’m sure that it works much the same way as it did a few months ago.

Again, I do like headway, I just found that some things were overcomplicated, particularly copying certain elements between pages etc. I’m more used to creating templates etc and customising things that way.

Though I think you are right. I am perhaps set in my ways a little because I am used to doing it the ‘old’ or ‘hard’ way. And perhaps it was ‘over complicated’ for me so that it was easier for beginners.

I have to disagree with your opinion of pasadenaviews. It’s been skinned really well, the header in particular has been done well. Though I can tell that it is using thesis or headway. The fonts, layout, menus etc all look like a framework theme.

Obviously this doesn’t matter one bit if the target audience doesn’t notice this. However, this site does illustrate my point. Other than changing the header and a few colours, most headway and thesis sites look much the same. You can tell by the font sizes, family, colour, layout and menus etc.

You do make some very good points about thesis and headway giving users more control over how their theme is designed. If a novice feels daunted using a theme because of all the code etc then they will feel a sense of freedom and control when they use a framework because they understand how everything is controlled.

But again, even though they can move things around and change colours etc, most of the designs look similar. Which is not usually a problem for a lot of people as the text is easy to read and the content is laid out properly.

However if they are looking for something different an off the shelf solution might be better. It’s worth mentioning again that most premium themes now come with their own options page to change certain details of the theme. They don’t offer you the wealth of options a framework does though.

Sunday341 looks good. How have sales been so far?

Once again, thanks again for the long comment. It was good to hear from someone with a lot of experience with headway. I did use headway for a few weeks (even had it at wp mods at the start) and thought it was a good framework.

Comment by Chris Howard says:

LOL – I got so much to say on this! Where to start?

Background:
I am a moderator on the Headway forums and have very little experience with Thesis.

Re: Your experience,Kevin
If you used Headway last year it’s quite a different animal this year and improving all the time. I do find it a little unfair when people judge Headway, Thesis or any other software based on old experience.

Re: Novice unfriendly
Agreed. Basically, I do agree with the premise of your article. That is a reasonable generalisation.

However, Thesis and Headway, we must remember, exist for the very reason that WordPress is difficult for novices to make themes for it and there’s plenty of novices who do want to “DIY”, but don’t want to have to become coding ninjas.

Both Headway and Thesis do an admirable task of making that a bit more approachable. Builder is another, by the way.

So yes, if you’re a novice who doesn’t want to put in any effort – Headway, Thesis etc are a waste of money and you would be better off buying an off-the-shelf theme (and hope it’s not a popular one that is being used all over the place!). But if yo do want to do it yourself, keep reading.

Re: Hard to learn
I found Headway like Macs. Often it does things the easy way but I’m so in the habit of looking for the hard way, that I make it hard for myself. (I do have an example that doesn’t spring to mind – hopefully will before I finish writing)

As an experienced WP designer/developer, I was ready to ditch Headway after the first day because I found it did everything a different way and I was a bit set in my ways. Obviously, I persevered! I do think all frameworks are hard to learn because you have to get your head around each dev’s way of doing things.

I think Headway, once you do attune to its way, is great. I just love that so many things are already done for you, and that there’s very little limitations on the layout – no other framework can claim to make layouts as easy as Headway. With Headway I can spend more time on design and less on development.

Likewise the novices. Maybe they will have to learn a bit of design, terminology and custom CSS, but they won’t have to become developers.

Re: Headway complicates things
Not sure what you mean there. But I have used it so much, so am familiar with its way.

Maybe it does for the experienced developer because they are looking for the “hard” way, but I don’t think it overly complicates things for the novices – but could make it less complicated.

Headway still uses a lot of language only experienced folks are familiar with. (As does Thesis). Eg Your novice will be saying “What the heck is a wrapper?!”

Re: Cost (or free vs premium)
Lol. Cost is nothing! Free may be all well and good, but it usually comes with limited support. Plus it devalues design. People see a hot free theme and then wonder why a designer can’t do a hot design for a couple of hundred bucks.

Plus they also assume that that’s what they are going to be able to make themselves using Thesis or Headway with very little effort.

I did a Skin for Headway (Sunday341 in the Marketplace) and it took dozens of hours of work. I will have to sell heaps to pay for the time I spent developing it.

A nice theme does cost money, serious money.

And and average one, still costs. The least I would charge for a theme done with Headway would be about $300. It would look reasonably nice, but still have that “Headway look”

If a novice can do it their self for just $87 and a bit of time, then they’re going to be pretty happy.

Re: Headway limitations

From my experience with novices on the forums and Headway, it falls down in three places:

1) Expectation
Headway (and every other premium framework) paints itself as much easier to use than it really is.

2) Documentation
There’s a large gap between many user’s ability and the documentation for Headway. It assumes quite a bit of knowledge. We are working on that tho – and it is one of my assigned tasks to develop stuff to fill the gap.

3) Customization
Headway still has quite a limited element design set. For example, want a line under your nav bar? Easy! Want a line above the nav bar – sorry, time to learn CSS. I actually think Thesis still does a better job of giving users broader customisation options than Headway.

What alternatives do I recommend
When someone can’t come to grips with Headway, I send them to places like Squarespace.com and Wix.com. I don’t see much point in sending them to any other WordPress theme or framework because I think they will always want to poke, pull and prod it. And if you want to do that in WordPress, you’re always going to have to get your hands dirty.

For wannabe developers, and anyone who’s serious about learning to develop for WordPress, any framework is *not* the answer. Frameworks tend to be full of hooks and lack design elements. Much better to tear up someone else’s free hot looking theme first. Grab your fave theme and see how they do it. You gotta get right in and dirty. Then move onto free frameworks, and then – if you haven’t written your own by that stage – look at the premium ones.

Overall
I am continually surprised by the work that novices do do with Headway. For example, I love this site http://www.pasadenaviews.com/ Not a single line of custom CSS! She has got a little custom HTML in the easy hooks, but really just links. And yet her site doesn’t look like a Headway site nor has she had to learn CSS.

Remember too, WordPress itself is user-unfriendly. I know Matt and the guys are working hard to address this – with v3 making some good progress. So, any novice who uses WordPress is going to struggle somewhat. And if they want to start customising – then they’ll struggle a lot-what if they don’t have the right attitude and patience.

Again, Thesis and Headway exist for the very reason that WordPress is difficult for novices to make themes their own themes. And both do make that task a little easier.

There are plenty of novices out there who do want to cut their own sites – as witnessed by the sales of premium themes.

Headway, Thesis, Builder et al are all trying to make that easier for them whilst also still giving power to the hardcore developers.

What is the alternative? Pick apart and customise a free theme? For a novice? Probably not.

Nope. If you’re a novice who wants to use WordPress (and that’s key here), wants to make your own theme without having to become a coding ninja, but is willing to learn a little bit about the backend of themes, then grab Headway or Thesis, or Builder etc – they are made for you.

Comment by Adam Baird says:

There seems to be this myth that frameworks somehow limit your ability to do things that WordPress can do outside of a framework.

This is simply not the case. I can only speak for Thesis, as I haven’t used other frameworks beyond a few tests, but there is nothing that Thesis can’t do within the confines of WordPress functionality.

Yes, there is a learning curve, but there is a learning curve regardless of whether or not you use a framework.

Also, this notion that $87 is too much to pay is just crazy. You should get the best product. If you think that’s Thesis, and you are deterred by the price, I wonder how serious you are about your business.

Comment by robert phillips says:

Points are all well-taken. Thesis has enormous power if, and only if, you know how to use it. BUT….

You read all over online that newbies should get Thesis. And, interestingly, a fair number (by NO means all!) of those recommending it are also those who make their living by designing for Thesis. Downright incestuousThe newbies don’t know that, they find out, and are stuck. Rock + hard place and so forth.

Not just my opinion. Follow #thesiswp for awhile, and the evidence is there

Comment by Kevin Muldoon says:

Kodos need to go to Nicholas Z. Cardot from SiteSketch101 for the post idea :)

Yeah I think you are right. I am stuck in my ways in some respects. I usually try and edit the code myself when I see a problem, so it was frustrating not being able to do this with headway.

Though headway is a good script. The visual editor does make some simple tasks more difficult in my opinion, but I have no doubt it helps a lot of people out.

Comment by Danny Brown says:

That’s a good point. It’s funny – when I was on Thesis, it was newbies like me that “struggled”. Now with Headway, it seems to be proper developers and designers that, while not “struggling” as such, seem to prefer the harding coding. Which Headway still offers – maybe they just need to make that clearer ;-)

Cheers for a thoughtful post, mate.

Comment by Kevin Muldoon says:

Hi Danny,

You make a very good point about support. Support tends to be very good with the framework themes. Generally speaking, there is little to no support with free themes. Plus support for themes from themeforest is patchy (depends on the designer).

I purchased the developer license of Headway last year and built a few sites with it, so I know that framework well. The visual editor was easy to use, however I must admit headway complicates a lot of things. I’m so used to just manually editing templates myself but many things had to be copied from page to page using the visual editor, which was a real pain.

Perhaps this is because I am used to editing code myself and don’t know the framework inside out. A beginner may not have this problem.

Comment by Danny Brown says:

Interesting post, and raises some great points. However, as a non-designer or developer and just a “simple blogger”, I’d have to disagree that frameworks aren’t for ordinary WordPress users.

Yes, there are a ton of great free, ready-built templates out there, but you tend to find support for them is very lacking (which, fair enough, they’re free – but if you get stuck on something, good luck!).

You’re also limited to the design of a standard template – one sidebar, two sidebars, no custom header, same design as everyone else, etc.

With a framework, you can really go to town and separate your blog look from everyone else’s. I use Headway (previously Thesis, but the coding aspect of it sucked for a non-tech guy like me) and although I now use some CSS, I managed to get a great (and different) looking site up with just the basic Visual Editor. With my new use of CSS (something that was a pain in the ass with previous themes), people have mentioned how the design stands out from others.

At the end of the day, you get what you pay for. If you’re running a business, you wouldn’t go for the quick fix cheap-and-easy approach – why would you do that if you’re serious about blogging?

Even if you’re not serious about blogging, frameworks can still offer great benefits. I’m mainly talking about Headway here. My wife is a sometimes blogger, but she loves how she can mix things up with no coding. A couple of clients also love the flexibility of the theme, and they’re technophobes.

What’s interesting about Nicholas Cardot’s point is that he’s heavily pushing Elegant Themes at the minute, so perhaps (only perhaps!) there’s a slight bias against any other theme? ;-)

Comment by Kevin Muldoon says:

I think you are misinterpreting what I am saying.

I have used 3 or 4 frameworks. I know what they are used for and why designers use them. Headway works a little differently as it was geared more towards newbies with their drag and drop interface, though the concept behind it is the same.

The argument isn’t about whether frameworks are good are not. I personally believe that they are incredibly useful. In fact, the current WP Mods design is using an ‘all in one’ framework from Blog Design Studio which they use in many of their designs.

The argument here is whether frameworks are suitable for absolute beginners i.e. people who don’t know much HTML, PHP or CSS and cannot do basic edits of a theme. With a framework like thesis they can change colours, change the widget of the content areas, add their own tabbed menus etc.

However, they will really struggle to customise the theme to distinguish it from other framework themes. Which is why so many of them look the same.

If more free designs were released for thesis and headway then I would recommend them more frequently to beginners. As it stands, I think $87 is a lot for a personal license if you are not using it to it’s full potential.

Especially when you consider the hundreds of designs at sites like themeforest which sell for under $30. Most of these themes have their own option areas too in the admin area which makes it easy for beginners to install the design. Plus they can choose a great design of their choosing rather than purchase, say thesis, for $87 and then a thesis design for an additional $45.

Anyone who knows HTML and is comfortable with CSS etc will be able to utilise a framework theme much better than a complete newbie. However, I do think complete beginners would be better picking a design they like which has an options page in the wordpress admin area.

Comment by Rick Wolff says:

If the purpose of getting a framework is to limit your blog’s design range to a few factors, because your interests lie elsewhere, then a framework makes sense. Then you’ll live with the menu of customizations given to you, and not have time to be curious beyond it. But what a newcomer to WordPress (such as myself) needs is to begin the learning curve, the sooner the better. It’s easy to think a framework will ease that transition, but all it does is postpone it, since the frameworks have their own learning curve. I elaborate in a blog post: http://bit.ly/90EKbZ

Comment by Are WordPress Frameworks Crutches? | Rick Wolff says:

[…] and I go to the average WordPress sophomore or junior for help (such as @RentAGeekMom, whose comment on today’s WPMods post deals with this same subject), I fear they’ll take one look under the hood and go, […]

Comment by Kevin Muldoon says:

Skins are something which are missing from the thesis and headway communities, so it’s good to hear that Headway is releasing some.

All of the thesis skins I have seen though have cost in excess of $50. When you add this to the cost of the thesis framework itself it makes it quite expensive for a design. Another few hundred dollars and you could get a custom design created somewhere.

Comment by Rent a Geek Mom says:

I think that novices can still get a lot of use out of a theme framework – and even make it look better than the standard output – with a little help from an active community. I know that for themes like Thesis and Headway, the user communities are incredibly active, and you can find a code snippet or someone willing to explain it to you for nearly anything you want to do. So while they may not be able to do it “by themselves”, I think that with the support of forums, tutorial sites, etc. the average or novice WordPress user can really get a lot out of these theme frameworks. Headway is also now offering skins to help users get up & running even faster – some are paid, some are free, so it may be an additional investment, but the benefit is that with a framework, they can add a sidebar, or customize a page template, whenever they want – without paying a designer or developer on an hourly basis to make simple changes.

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