If you’ve been using WordPress for any length of time, you’ve probably heard of frameworks like Genesis or Thesis.
At first glance, you might not see the point of running your site on a framework instead of an individual theme – especially because frameworks tend to be more expensive.
But if you’ve heard of frameworks, you’ve probably also noticed their booming popularity.
So, what gives? What exactly is a theme framework and how does it work? And more importantly, should you be using one for your WordPress website?
What is a theme framework?
A framework is a type of WordPress theme. But unlike a standalone WordPress theme design, a framework is used to provide structure and function so developers can easily use it as a springboard to design their own unique theme looks without reinventing the wheel.
Often, frameworks are meant to be used as the parent theme, with a child theme necessary to complete the design. (You can read all about how parent and child themes work in our post, The Beginner’s Guide To WordPress Child Themes.) Others use “skins” within the framework theme itself to change the look of the theme.
According to Genesis:
“It’s probably easiest to think of WordPress as the engine of your car, Genesis [framework] as the frame and body, and StudioPress [child] themes as the paint job.”
Though different theme frameworks function in different ways, that analogy still applies.
Pros & cons of using frameworks
Why use a theme framework? Isn’t it simpler to just use a standalone theme?
You might think so at first glance, but there are actually plenty of advantages to using frameworks.
WordPress in general has a great community of supportive and enthusiastic website owners, designers, and developers – but how many of them are experts in your theme of choice?
When you use a framework, you gain access to a community of experts in your theme.
While each standalone theme functions differently, a framework functions in the same way even when the look is made completely different using child themes or skins. It’s much easier to troubleshoot and make custom modifications when there’s an entire active community who understands exactly how your site framework functions.
If you stick with a framework, but you want to switch child themes for a new look, there’s no learning curve. You already know exactly how it works.
Instead of taking the time to learn a brand new theme, all you have to do is change the child theme or skin. Everything on the backend still works the same way.
3. Quality code
Investing in a new theme is always a risk. When you’re not a developer yourself, it’s hard to judge whether the theme is coded well or not.
A poor quality theme might:
- slow down your site with bloated code
- make it difficult for search engines to parse your content and rank it appropriately
- open up your site to hackers with glaring security vulnerabilities
- not play nicely with your favorite plugins, causing errors
With a popular framework, you can rest assured that your theme is built on a solid foundation, even if you want to change the look of your site.
Frameworks often come backed by companies, not individual developers. Often they provide more reliable customer support, and more frequent updates, than individual theme developers, since they are more able to keep up with WordPress core updates and the demands of their userbase.
Frameworks aren’t a perfect solution. There are a few drawbacks as well.
1. Learning curve
Frameworks often use their own custom code, so making modifications to your code may work a little differently. You’ll have to find out how your framework takes care of the structure of your site before you can modify it.
Some frameworks are much easier to use than others, of course. While they do a lot of work behind the scenes, you may not notice much of a change to your WordPress dashboard at all.
2. Issues with child theme modifications
If you’ve read our beginner’s guide to child themes, you know that when you make modifications to your theme, it’s smart to create a child theme so that you don’t lose those changes when the parent theme is updated.
But what if you’re using a framework that uses child themes? When the child theme is updated, you’ll lose any modifications you made.
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to create a “grandchild” theme. When modifying your site, you may want to consider creating a plugin instead of adding code to your functions.php file. At the very least, you should make note of whatever changes you make, and always backup your site before updating your themes to the latest version.
The top 2 WordPress frameworks
As mentioned above, Genesis is one of the most popular WordPress frameworks. StudioPress, the company behind the Genesis framework, was founded by Brian Gardner. Many top blogs, including ProBlogger, Copyblogger, Pinch of Yum, and Extraordinary Mommy use Genesis.
The Genesis framework is built using responsive HTML5 code that’s designed to be mobile-friendly, accessible, and secure. Genesis is built to be search engine optimized, and supports schema markup code by default. It’s also designed to be lightweight for fast performance, which can affect your search engine rankings as well.
Genesis is easy to install and use without much of a learning curve, because it does most of its work behind the scenes. You can keep using your WordPress dashboard just like you always have.
One great thing about Genesis is their pricing model. Instead of expensive subscriptions or developer’s license options, you just pay a low one-time fee, and get lifetime support and updates, and can use the theme on as many sites as you want.
Price: $59.95 for the framework, with most child themes at $44.95. Returning customers get a 25% discount when purchasing new child themes.
Thesis by DIYThemes is a popular framework with a large community behind it. It was launched in 2008 as one of the first SEO-focused WordPress frameworks, and quickly became popular.
Like Genesis, Thesis is designed to be lightweight and fast, and SEO-friendly. Even without any coding knowledge, you can easily customize the look of your website to look completely unique.
Unlike Genesis, Thesis uses “skins” instead of child themes. The skins are contained within the parent theme folder, meaning you can create your own child themes to add customizations.
With Thesis there is a bit of a learning curve to install it and set up your blog, since it makes a lot of changes to the WordPress dashboard menu options, and they use some unique terminology.
Price: Thesis starts at $87 for the framework and one child theme licensed for 1 website, plus 1 year of support and updates.
Should you use a theme framework for WordPress?
If an active community, quality code, and readily available support sound good to you, then a framework might be a good choice.
Bottom line: theme frameworks are a great way to be confident and secure in the code that’s running your site, while still getting flexible design options.