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What is a WordPress Theme Framework? Pros, Cons, and More

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What is a WordPress Theme Framework? Pros, Cons, and More

Recently, one of our users asked us the question what is a WordPress theme framework? Before answering her question we did a quick search, and the results were surprising. There was not a single comprehensive article that explained what is a WordPress theme framework. Majority of the articles were sites listing the top free WordPress theme frameworks or WordPress theme frameworks compared etc. Then there were some theme framework websites ranking among the top. In this article, we will do our best to answer questions like what is a WordPress theme framework, what type of theme frameworks exist, why do people use WordPress theme frameworks, advantages and disadvantages of using a theme framework, should you use a theme framework, and lastly what is our pick for the best WordPress theme framework.

What is a WordPress Theme Framework?

The term WordPress theme framework often refers to a code library that is used to facilitate development of a theme. In the old days of WordPress, there were some crucial problems with the way how themes were developed and maintained. There was no good way of upgrading WordPress themes without losing all the custom styling options. There was no way to prevent copying and pasting of the same functionality code in all themes. While these two issues might not seem like a problem to an average user, these can be disastrous for a few reasons. What if you realized that the same code that you had been using in all of your themes had a security exploit. Even more important, what if this theme was something that you publicly released for others to download and customize. Yes, that’s chaos waiting to happen. The core team and community decided to fix the issues mentioned above by introducing the concept of Parent Theme and Child Theme.

WordPress theme frameworks are intended to be used as a parent theme template where all the functionality resides. Developers can then create a child theme to add custom styling while leaving the functionality aspects of it to the framework. This allows for a centralized location where all the functions are hosted. If the core development team decide to deprecate a WordPress function, or there is a bug found in a specific theme framework, then it is extremely easy to push out an update without modifying anything the child theme has. This method allows you to keep the “framework” of your site strong without modifying how it looks.

What type of Theme Frameworks exist?

Well there are Free one and paid ones… Ok seriously, there are a few type of frameworks that exist. There are complete drag & drop frameworks like Headway Themes that empower users to create everything visually without any knowledge of code. Then there are pseduo-drag drop frameworks like Pagelines and Thesis. These frameworks allow users to drag and drop pre-define sections (similar to how WordPress widgets work). Obviously anyone can define custom sections using the available hooks and filters offered by the frameworks. Then there are theme frameworks that are full of options. Themify and most others fall in this category. Lastly, there are the theme frameworks that are built for developers to get a head start without the clutter and bloat like Genesis by StudioPress.

Why do people use WordPress theme frameworks?

The main reason is to speed up their development. Theme frameworks drastically reduce the development time. The development time is improved because all theme frameworks offer a great deal of functionality and customization options, so the user does not have to code everything themselves. These features can range anywhere from (drag-drop functionality, sliders, SEO widgets, and more). Instead of creating a theme from scratch and modifying all the files, creating a child theme can be as simple as creating a new style.css file and customize a few functions using the functions.php file.

What are the advantages and disadvantages?

Like with most things, there are advantages and disadvantages to using a WordPress theme framework. Let’s take a look at both.

Advantages

  • Community – Most popular theme frameworks have a huge community behind it. This makes it much easier to get your support questions answered.
  • Ease of development – As we mentioned previously that using a theme framework can drastically reduce the development time and make things easier over the long run.
  • Built-in functionality – Theme frameworks comes with built-in widgets, and additional functionality.
  • Code Quality – Often theme frameworks are peer reviewed, so it is much more likely to follow all best practices.
  • Upgrades – The ability to upgrade without losing any styling functionality of child themes is a great plus.

Disadvantages

  • Learning Curve – Most frameworks have their own hooks and filters. To utilize the full power of the framework, you must familiarize yourself of the framework specific lingo. So your first few child themes might take you longer just because you are learning things.
  • Unnecessary Code – Frameworks come with tons of built-in functionality which you may not use. This is not such a huge deal because it doesn’t directly influence you.
  • Framework Limitations – Often frameworks have limitations. Sometimes to achieve super customizations, you might have to override core files or submit a patch to be included in the future updates.
  • Price – Most theme frameworks are not free. There is either a one time fee or an annual fee to receive updates and support.

Should You Use a Theme Framework?

Even though there is a learning curve, and they cost a little bit of extra money, in our opinion you should use a theme framework. Overtime, they speed up development time. It allows you to follow industry standards. Last but not least, you get great support from the developing team as well as others who are part of the community.

Our Pick

There are tons WordPress theme frameworks that are available. WPBeginner is powered by Genesis framework by StudioPress. You can read more about why we use Genesis. It is a great framework for development. It is not bloated like others with tons of options. You get just what you need. It plays nice with most other plugins that exist. Yes, you do need to have development skills to code a child theme for this.

For beginners, you should consider using a framework like Headway Themes. They have a drag-drop interface that lets you create websites using a visual interface.

We hope that this article helps you understand what is a WordPress Theme Framework, and if you should use it or not. If you think we missed something, then please let us know in the comments. If you are using a framework on your site, then let us know in the comments which one. Why do you prefer to use the framework that you do. Looking forward to hearing your responses.


Editorial Staff at WPBeginner is a team of WordPress lovers led by Syed Balkhi. Page maintained by Syed Balkhi.

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  • Patrick

    Quote: Our Pick

    There are tons WordPress theme frameworks that are available. ….. Yes, you do need to have development skills to code a child theme for this.

    You can use the Genesis Extender Plugin which has a CSS Builder and PHP Builder so that takes care of development skills.

    The Genesis Extender Plugin is by Cobalt Apps. You can design any Theme with the Dynamik Website Builder if you don’t have a Genesis Child Theme.

    The Genesis Extender Plugin is as Powerful as The Dynamik Website Builder but If you have a Genesis Child Theme then use The Genesis Extender Plugin.

    The Dynamik Website Builder has three components: Dynamik Settings, Dynamik Design Options and Dynamik Custom Options. The Genesis Extender Plugin has two comp: Extender Settings and Custom Options which are both the same components as in The Dynamik Website Builder.

    I haven’t seen anything that’s as powerful as The Dynamik Website Builder or Genesis Extender Plugin. The next closest might be DMS (Drag And Drop Design Management System) by PageLines.

  • Shreyans

    Something I wanted to know for long. Thanks.

  • Kamran Abdul Aziz

    Nice n meamingful post to let ppl understand what a framework is.
    As am new to web developing. Can I still use Genesis framework ?
    I have say zero knowledge of codes n all. Can I make a robust n decent website using genesis ?

    • Srihari Thalla

      As you said you “have zero knowledge of code”, I wouldn’t recommend Genesis at this point of time. Go on with Headway Themes. It is a complete drag-and-drop framework and you don’t need any knowledge of coding.

      Later, when you develop your coding skills, you are ready to move on with Genesis :)

  • Lori

    Hi!
    Thank you for sharing this informations. What I can’t understand ’bout framework and parent themes working with child one is:
    1) when I’m building a new theme to sell, for example, do i zipped both parent and child theme together and make them two installing as one is based on the other? Or do you develop the new theme overriding the parent one (but in this way all future updates of the parent theme can’t be done correctly)?
    2) A framework isn’t actually a theme and i guess is not a standalone theme, so how can developer use it? Pasting code needed? Or putting the framework folder INSIDE the new theme folder and include and calling functions needed?

    Sorry, I’m just starting right now developing with wordpress and i’m quite confused :D
    However, i’m building my first personal parent theme :)

    Thank you for anwser!

    • http://www.wpbeginner.com Editorial Staff

      1. Most companies offer the parent theme as a separate download. If you own both the parent and the child theme, then might as well go the same route as others. If you are selling a child theme of another framework, then you should send people to get that framework (whether it is free or paid).

      2. Frameworks are themes themselves, but they have hooks that other developers can use to customize things without overriding a theme file.

  • Martin

    This is all very well, but you dont actually give a definition of “Theme”. Youve sold me on the framework, but what is it a framework of? What actually IS a theme?

    • http://www.wpbeginner.com Editorial Staff

      Theme is the design that you see on your WordPress site. It is also called a skin or a template.

  • Robin Jennings

    Genesis is a great framework. Just ensure you get a mobile responsive theme straight up as not all of them are.

  • Pat Fortino

    Have used genesis, woothemes, yoothemes, and twentytwelve. Twentytwelve is the is easiest to understand and very fun and easy to work with. Genesis is the most difficult to understand. woothemes canvas and yootheme warp are in the middle. For the life of me, I cannot understand the love for genesis. I hate it. Using genesis is like building a ship in a bottle: you can never get your hands on the code. Instead, you spend most of your development time scouring studeopress site and the web to find out how to do simple code changes. Also, genesis is the most expensive of all and i have not found the support to be anything other than OK.

    Yootheme templates are very powerful, but their support is aweful. Mostly volunteer answers.

    • Utkarsh Bhatt

      The love for genesis is because of its referral program. I have used Genesis, Woothemes and pretty much any framework available for WordPress, and I have to say that Genesis was pretty hard to understand, at least in the beginning, Like you said, the best theme for development is Twentytwelve.

      • http://www.wpbeginner.com Editorial Staff

        Actually referral program for other themes convert far better than Genesis because most folks buy their themes based on how it looks on the outside rather than the code itself. Ofcourse creating a standalone theme works and is probably easier in the short run to just tweak something like twenty twelve. However, to speed up development time and not reinvent the wheel in every single theme… it is much better to just spend some time on how Genesis works, and then simply start using it across your site.

  • Bradley

    I use the Woo Framework. I love the themes, they offer a lot of useful plugins (such as WooCommerce) made specifically to work with their themes, support is great, and I can customize the backend for users.

  • Lara

    Hi. Thank you for the post. I am a beginner web designer and I designed my sites the hard way by modifying other people’s code without too much knowledge of css or php. Can you guys recommend a framework that has visual editor and does not require to much coding. I do not want to modify existing themes. I want to build my own. I checked Headway and genesis. Genesis doesn’t have a demo. Headway is not bad. Is there anything similar to Headway besides the ones mentioned in the comments that you would recommend? My issue with headway is that you can not overlap boxes and there has to be 1 pixel in between them and so I’m a little perplexed as to how to execute certain design elements where overlapping is necessary. Perhaps there is another way to do it? Any help or advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks you.

    • http://www.wpbeginner.com Editorial Staff

      You will NOT find a solution that you are looking for. Headway is the closest you will get. If you are looking to design sites, then we would recommend investing some time in learning the platform. That will vastly improve the overall quality of your work. I learnt by trial and error (exactly the same thing you are doing). Modifying existing themes to make it work for me. After a little bit of time, I was able to create my own themes. I would highly recommend you to not give up. The founder of genesis and StudioPress learnt the same way.

      -Syed Balkhi
      Founder of WPBeginner

      • Lara

        Thank you!
        Any advice on how to make boxes overlap in headway?

        • Chris Howard

          Hey Lara

          Just stumbled unto this.

          If you still want an answer, Headway allows you to “Nudge” blocks. That should solve your problem. Look for it in the block’s Design Mode stylings. http://d.pr/i/NTJA

          Also, do you the Headway support forums. You should get an answer there.

          All the best

  • Bernie Roseke

    “There was not a single comprehensive article that explained what is a WordPress theme framework.”

    YES! Thank you! I am a small time blogger that read Darren Rowse’s book, “Problogger” and he is a pretty big supporter of the Genesis framework. So naturally I went to check it out, but I could not for the life of me figure out what a framework was. I’ve done probably 3 hours worth of web surfing (over many days). The StudioPress page is the worst. You would think if they wanted you to buy it they should tell you what it is. But all you get is “WordPress is the engine, Genesis the body, and the child theme is the paint job”….. what on earth does that mean?

    Thanks for clearing this up. This post deserves higher search engine rank. Good luck.

  • Mick

    No mention of any Automatic frameworks?

    Personally I LOVE the _s framework. Yes it is a little more advanced but it has everything there to start building your own custom themes!

    • http://www.wpbeginner.com Editorial Staff

      Again, this is not a list of frameworks. There are tons of amazing frameworks out there. The point of this article is to educate users on what is a framework.

  • Roland

    Ok, you’re right. You have to spend some time to learn the special hooks of the framework. But afterwards the framwork can save you a lot of time. I use Xtreme Theme and I never regret.

    • http://www.wpbeginner.com Editorial Staff

      Agreed, the first few times it takes longer. But once you get used to it, it speeds up your dev time significantly.

  • Martin

    As far as frameworks go there is nothing at the moment that is as powerfull as Ultimatum. I have been using it for a while now and the drag and drop part gives you the abillity to create great looking sites but if you want more you can easily add custom styles and so on. I have tried several others, but none of these even comes close to the power of the Ultimatum framework.

    I would look out for this new contender in the framework market, because it’s going to be big.

    The community is also excellent and very responsive. All in all, the best money I have spend over the last year!

  • Chris Rouse

    I’ve been using Standard Theme by 8BIT for a while now. It’s a fantastic framework to work with and has taken me from not knowing a thing about CSS to building child themes for it (that are actually being used other Standard Theme users!).

    I started off with pre-built free themes and always hated something about them. They were tough to customize because I didn’t know where anything was or how to tweak it, and as you said, upgrades broke everything. Switching to a framework has been a game changer for me. Rather than looking through thousands of crappy free themes, or wishing I could afford the premium theme that looks cool, I can just build the theme that I want for the most part.

    Another thing to point out about a number of frameworks, including Standard Theme, is that a number of them are now being built around Bootstrap (formerly known as Twitter Bootstrap). This means they come with built-in responsive layouts for different screen sizes. This saves a lot of work building mobile sites, or having to sacrifice design to use a mobile site plugin that converts the site for you into something that doesn’t look at all like your site.

  • Melissa M. Miller

    I use WooThemes Canvas and I love it!

  • Debra

    Child themes make perfect sense now. I finally get it! Thank you! Now I can get on to steps 2 through 2000….

  • Aditya

    I have been using themes from themify for long time…..but with lot of recommendations I am thinking to move towards to genesis….but as you said in the post that genesis is for developers but I am not a developer but I really love themes from genesis…..and I also intend to learn somewhat things about coding….
    So should I go with studiopress or can go with drag and drop frameworks like headway or thesis ?????

    • http://www.wpbeginner.com Editorial Staff

      If you like the child themes from Genesis, then use that. You don’t have to be a developer to use it. You have to be a developer to customize the themes unless you go with something like Headway.

  • Tushar

    Thanks for this article however I could think of 2 things
    1] This topic has a very large scope whereas this post could very well be a part 1 of that
    2] This article seems very limited around Genesis / Headway towards the end.

    Also, one must not forget about good free frameworks such as Theme Hybrid and Gantry Framework.

    I am using Theme Hybrid since a year or so and the kind of support I received is phenomenal. I have also tried Gantry for few couple of client sites and that too is very good for developers.

    I don’t mean Genesis is bad, its great too but when we talk about WordPress in general (and not just Blogs) – Genesis is not the last stop.

    Thanks again :)

    • http://www.wpbeginner.com Editorial Staff

      Hey Tushar,

      The topic “framework” is very broad YES. However, we covered exactly what the title said. It is intended to explain what frameworks are. It doesn’t say that we will list ALL frameworks that are out there. Surely there are tons of amazing frameworks out there. We haven’t tried all of them. We can only write and recommend the ones that we have tried. This is exactly why we asked users to tell us which frameworks you are using. Yes, we have heard great things about ThemeHybrid however we haven’t tried it. This is why we cannot recommend it in the article.

  • Zimbrul

    This is one comprehensive article about WordPress frameworks, what they are and what they do.
    I’m using Headway Theme, a bit of iBuilder (not quite like it), Thesis and of course, Genesis. As with the release of Thesis 2.0 Genesis became my favourite WordPress framework and the reasons are simple: clean code, easy to alter, easy do do basic modifications without getting your hands dirty with CSS, simple to understand even for someone with little or no experience with frameworks. The nice thing you can say about Genesis is that the more you get it to know the more you want to learn. And of course it the support. Support for Genesis framework is the best I came across in the market. Never closed a support ticket without being answered and the problem clarified.
    Headway Theme is amazing, you can do great things with it IF YOU HAVE ENOUGH IMAGINATION IN DESIGN (not my case).

  • Karen F

    Why did you leave out the Builder Framework? It’s really fabulous with a first rate community and support staff. I sound like I’m shilling for them – I am not! But it’s really great – and widely used – and I’m baffled that you don’t mention it! In addition, I’d love to hear you evaluate it’s pros and cons and compare it to the other Frameworks. And Builder has a wider reach in a way, between their BackUp Buddy plugins and their WebDesignUniversity.com from which I have learned SO much with their webinars on everything WordPress. Honestly, you are doing a disservice to the WP community to exclude them. And again, I am not associated with them as anything other than a customer!

    • http://www.wpbeginner.com Editorial Staff

      Hey Karen,

      We know the folks from iThemes, and we are good friends with them. Yes Builder is a great framework. This article is not meant to list all frameworks that are available. Plenty of other articles do that just fine. The point of this article was to highlight what is a framework, why you should use the framework, pros and cons of the framework, and then our pick. We believe that we did a pretty good job at covering what the article intended to cover. This is exactly why we asked users to suggest which framework they use and love. In a sense that is doing pretty of service to the community. A reader can come to learn about frameworks, and then see what others are using and recommending.

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

    • Karen F

      LOL! You are right! When I reread your post — you WERE asking for everyone’s experience with Frameworks! Well, let my ruuuusssshhhh to wave the flag for the iThemes team be a testament to their fabulous community and the loyalty they inspires! Sorry for jumping the gun there. And, it would be great for you to evaluate the strengths of the top Frameworks.

  • Pandoon

    And what about speed? There are a lot of unnecessary code, so does it load lower?

    • http://www.wpbeginner.com Editorial Staff

      It depends on which framework you are speaking of.

  • Rusho

    All the theme listed in this article are commercial. You should mention some free framework such as Granty or Thematic Framework. Anyway, the topic is helpful.

  • chris kluis

    What about Roots?

  • Fred Romano

    StudioPress and Genesis rock! I will never go back to other frameworks after using Genesis. The code is clean and “bloat free” compared to the competition. These guys also provide amazing support!

  • Carrie Dils

    I stumbled on Genesis about 18 months ago and have never looked back. The pro you mention of community”really takes the cake. I can’t speak for other framework communities, but the group of users and developers around StudioPress is TOP NOTCH.

    Regarding flexibility, I haven’t really been bothered too much by this. Again, the StudioPress core dev team has demonstrated a continued desire to grow and expand Genesis capabilities.

    If you can’t tell, I’m sold. :) Thanks for the write-up. All that said, Genesis is a framework more geared toward developers and it’s nice to know others that might be better suited for a different kind of user.