If you have some development experience and you want to create a unique WordPress site, a theme framework is often the best way to go. When you buy a theme from a theme marketplace or download one from a free theme repository, many design decisions are made for you. Frameworks offer more opportunity to make your own choices.
Most themes come with some degree of customizability, and some promise a great deal of flexibility (often at the cost of slowing down your WordPress site), and if you consider getting up and running quickly of more importance than rolling up your sleeves and digging into the PHP and CSS that constitute a WordPress theme, a traditional theme is probably the best choice. But if you’re willing to put some work in, theme frameworks are a great option.
Before I discuss four of my favorite theme frameworks, I want to make it clear that a framework is not enormously different from an ordinary theme — in fact, they are ordinary themes that are built to be more flexible; many of the frameworks we’ll look at were created by theme developers as a foundation for their own themes, which are called child themes.
Theme frameworks offer a solid foundation for building child themes: they often come preconfigured for responsive design, with modern web technology like HTML5 baked in. That makes it much easier to get up and running with theme development than starting from scratch.
Genesis is probably my favorite theme framework because of its extraordinary flexibility. It provides a solid foundation for building customized themes, and it makes adding new functionality to pages easy because it provides a comprehensive array of hooks. Want to add some content above the post list or a new widget area? Genesis provides hooks for that and many other possibilities.
Genesis is a premium theme framework, and it’s not inexpensive, but if you want a truly flexible framework that is relatively straightforward to build themes with, it’s probably worth the price.
Underscores is a free starter theme from Automattic. Unlike Genesis, Underscores is quite minimal. It provides users with the basic scaffolding of a theme and then gets out of the way. For some, that’s great because it means you have to spend less time overriding existing CSS styles. For others, it can make development more challenging.
Thesis is a modular theme framework that ships with a number of skins, which is the Thesis name for child themes. The design of the available child themes is excellent, and the standard responsive skin makes a great base for building your own child themes.
Many people prefer Thesis to Genesis, although I have generally found it easier to achieve what I want to do with Genesis. The basic Thesis package is slightly less expensive than Genesis plus a child theme, but the professional tier that comes with all the bells and whistles is significantly more expensive.
I’m including PageLines in this list because it’s quite popular, but it’s not really directly comparable to the other theme frameworks we’ve considered. Genesis, Thesis, and Underscores are designed to be relatively minimal lightweight frameworks that are best used by developers. PageLines provides a drag-and-drop page builder and is intended to be easier to use for those who want to create bespoke sites without having to code.
The result is a framework that’s much easier to use for those who have minimal development ability, but that can be frustrating for more experienced users who want the framework to get out of their way.
Which of these frameworks you choose depends largely on your level of experience and what it is you want to achieve. I strongly recommend taking a look at the child themes and skins that are available for Thesis and Genesis so you get a feel for what is possible before choosing, and since Underscores is free, you’ve nothing to lose by giving it a spin.