Have you ever wished that you could design your entire WordPress site using a visual, drag-and-drop interface? Like a page builder plugin…but for your entire theme?
That would give you pixel-perfect control over every part of your site’s design and layout…but without requiring any special technical knowledge. Cool, right?
With Thrive Theme Builder, that dream can become a reality. You’ll be able to design everything, from your header down to your footer, using an intuitive visual editor.
In general, it’s an excellent option for bloggers, solopreneurs, or other casual WordPress users who want more control over their site without getting bogged down in technical details.
In our hands-on Thrive Theme Builder review, I’ll show you exactly how this plugin works, how it helps you make better WordPress sites, and how its approach stacks up to other WordPress theme building tools.
Ready to get started? Let’s dig in…
Thrive Theme Builder: What is it?
Thrive Theme Builder does what the name says – it lets you “build” your entire WordPress theme from the ground up.
Basically, if you’ve ever felt limited by off-the-rack themes, Thrive Theme Builder gives you a chance to tweak everything to your liking.
Unlike a lot of other tools that call themselves theme builders (Elementor Theme Builder, Beaver Themer, etc.), Thrive Theme Builder is an actual WordPress theme – it’s not a plugin.
There are both pros and cons to this approach, which I’ll discuss a little later on.
The upshot is that Thrive Theme Builder blends the quick setup of an out-of-the-box theme with the flexibility of theme building.
That means it doesn’t feel as overwhelming as some other theme builders. In fact, Thrive Theme Builder is user-friendly enough that even a casual blogger should be able to figure it out in not much time.
You’ll start with the Shapeshift theme, which automatically sets up your core content pages and templates according to your preference. For example, the design of a blog post or your header layout.
Then, you can use the visual, drag-and-drop interface to:
- Edit all of your core templates.
- Create your own core templates.
This interface is basically the same as the Thrive Architect page builder, if you’ve used that tool.
With the template builder, you can edit every part of your site including the templates for your:
- Singles (e.g. an individual blog post)
- Lists/Archives (e.g. the page that lists all of your blog posts)
For example, if you’re editing the template for a single blog post, you’ll get widgets that dynamically insert the title of a blog post from the WordPress editor. If you want to change the location of a post’s title, all you need to do is move this widget around.
You can also insert content from other parts of your site, like a user’s name (if they have a WordPress account) or their referring URL, which opens up some neat personalization opportunities.
Or, you can insert information from custom fields, which gives you a ton of flexibility for building custom WordPress sites.
For example, you could create a template for your review posts and automatically fill in a star rating with a number that you add to a custom field in the WordPress editor (I’ll show you how this works later on in our Thrive Theme Builder review).
This would essentially eliminate the need to use a dedicated review plugin and give you more control over your front-end review box to boot.
Overall, Thrive Theme Builder helps you build a custom WordPress site without requiring any special technical knowledge, which is a powerful value proposition.
Hands-on with Thrive Theme Builder
Now, let’s go hands-on and I’ll show you how you can design your theme with Thrive Theme Builder.
When you first launch Thrive Theme Builder, it will open the Site Wizard, which is where you can configure the basics for your theme.
For example, you’ll start by uploading your logo and choosing your primary brand color.
Then, you can choose some basic templates for key parts of your site. For example, your header and footer.
You’ll be able to use drag-and-drop to customize these later on, but choosing pre-built templates helps you quickly get started by eliminating the need to build everything from scratch:
When it comes to your homepage, you can choose from three options:
- Pre-made templates – these look great – I’m a huge fan of the template styling
- One of your existing pages
- A list of your blog posts
Next, you’ll choose the default templates for your:
- Single blog posts
- Blog post list
Again, you’ll be able to customize these all later on, but having a starting point makes that a lot easier and removes the sometimes overwhelming feeling of staring at a blank page.
Once you’ve gone through the wizard, you have a fully working WordPress site using all of the pre-built templates that you selected. Now, you can really dig in and customize things to perfectly match your needs.
Templates control how your content looks.
With a traditional WordPress page builder, you design the content of a post one-by-one. For example, you create the layout for “Blog Post #1”. Then you open up the editor again for “Blog Post #2”.
With a theme builder, you can create one template for all your blog posts (or your header, footer, etc.). Then, WordPress will automatically fill in the information for each blog post.
With Thrive Theme Builder, you can also create multiple templates and apply them to different places. For example, you could create one template for tutorial blog posts and another template for review blog posts.
You’ll be able to choose which template to use from the WordPress editor.
When you go to the Templates section, you’ll see all of the default templates that you selected during the Site Wizard. Then, you can either:
- Edit one of those templates.
- Add a new template from scratch.
Either way, you’ll be launched into the template editor, which is a lightweight version of Thrive Architect. If you’ve ever used Thrive Architect, you’ll feel at home right away. Even if you haven’t, it’s still pretty intuitive to pick up.
To change the design, you can use drag-and-drop on the visual preview, just as if you were working with a page builder:
You can also use the sidebar to edit styling and spacing settings.
To let you visualize how your template looks when it’s filled with content, Thrive Theme Builder will automatically use one of your actual posts or pages. If you want to change the item that you’re previewing, you can use the drop-down in the top-right corner.
If you go to add new content elements, you’ll notice that, in addition to general content elements, you also get dedicated widgets to dynamically insert various types of content.
For example, if you want to add the name of the author of a blog post, you can use the Author Name widget:
In addition to these dedicated widgets, you can also connect other widgets to dynamic information on your site, including custom fields that you’ve added with a plugin such as Advanced Custom Fields.
For example, if you create a “Rating” custom field that accepts a number value, you can then use that number to populate a Star Rating widget in your template.
This would essentially let you create your own review box that’s dynamically populated with data from custom fields.
Here’s what that custom field looks like on the backend of my test site:
And then here’s how I can use the value from that custom field to populate the widget:
You could also populate regular text widgets. For example, you could automatically fill in a Pros/Cons section or the text of a button.
While this concept of custom fields might take a little effort to understand, it unlocks the power to build truly custom WordPress sites and the use cases are pretty endless.
Easy full-site editing
Another useful feature is the ability to quickly edit any part of your template, from the header to the footer, without leaving the interface.
Most WordPress theme builders force you to use separate interfaces for each part of your site, which complicates the process. Thrive Theme Builder, on the other hand, lets you do everything from a single interface.
Overall, the template builder is the meat of Thrive Theme Builder and I think that Thrive has done an excellent job of making it easy to use, while still giving you access to advanced features, such as being able to dynamically insert information from custom fields.
Thrive Theme Builder vs other WordPress theme builders
As I mentioned earlier, there are two approaches that you’ll see WordPress theme builders use.
First, you have Thrive Theme Builder’s approach, which is to use an actual WordPress theme. Another popular tool that somewhat uses this approach is Divi, though Divi’s theme building is not as integral as it is in Thrive Theme Builder.
The other popular approach is to make the theme builder plugin. This approach is used by tools such as:
So which approach is better?
I don’t think there’s a clear winner…it’s just different.
Advantages to the theme approach
One advantage of the theme approach is that you ensure that every style is unified. For example, Thrive Theme Builder lets you easily switch up your brand color across your entire site – it’s all linked through the theme.
I also think this theme-based approach is a lot easier for casual users to grasp.
With the plugin-based theme builders, you need a basic understanding of the WordPress template system to get the most from the tool.
By using the theme-based approach, Thrive Theme Builder is able to abstract a lot of the WordPress template terminology beyond more user-focused terms.
For example, Thrive Theme Builder calls the page that lists your blog posts a “List”, whereas the WordPress templating term is “Archive”, which is a little tougher to grasp.
Additionally, by letting you start from a cohesive base theme, Thrive Theme Builder also keeps things accessible for casual users because you aren’t forced to design every template from scratch.
Advantages to the plugin approach
The main advantage of the plugin approach is that you can still rely on a theme in situations where a theme might perform better. For example, most theme builders don’t tackle WooCommerce’s cart and checkout pages.
So if you wanted to use a theme builder plugin with a WooCommerce store, your approach is to normally:
- Use a theme builder for shop and product pages.
- Use your theme for checkout and cart pages.
Similarly, you might already like your theme’s header and just want some flexibility to design a template for your blog posts. A theme builder plugin lets you more surgically target where you want to make changes and where you’re fine relying on an out-of-the-box theme.
If I had to pick bones with Thrive Theme Builder, it’s that Thrive Themes’ marketing copy tries to set up Thrive Theme Builder’s approach as inherently better than plugin-based theme builders.
However, if you’re an advanced user who has some familiarity with WordPress templating, I think you might appreciate the flexibility that the plugin-based approach offers.
Thrive Theme Builder pricing
You can get Thrive Theme Builder as part of the Thrive Suite, which costs $90/quarter and gets you access to every single Thrive Themes product, including Thrive Leads, Thrive Architect, and more.
Final thoughts on Thrive Theme Builder
Overall, one of the things that struck me about Thrive Theme Builder is how beginner-friendly it’s made WordPress theme building.
It’s not the most flexible WordPress theme builder that I’ve used, but I think it might be the most user-friendly and accessible theme builder that I’ve used.
Thrive Theme Builder is something that the average blogger could effectively use, while I see tools such as Elementor Pro and Beaver Themer to be more for power users or implementers who are building client sites.
For example, being able to start from the cohesive Shapeshift theme and then use theme building to adjust things to your liking is a lot less intimidating than using theme building to design everything from scratch (but at the same time, it loses some flexibility, which is the trade-off).
Overall, I think that if you’re a blogger or solopreneur who wants more control over your site, Thrive Theme Builder’s approach is a great balance that still gives you all the flexibility that most bloggers/solopreneurs need, while also keeping things simple enough that you won’t feel technically overwhelmed.