• The WordPress themes' repository from WordPress.com

    Quick Summary: With the advent of website builders, the traditional role of WordPress themes has become more unclear. This article tries to provide a general definition of what a WordPress theme does. After we've established this definition we compare it to three popular themes out there: Astra, OceanWP and Hello.

  • Comparison between thumbnails and actuall look-and-feel on a clean install. From left to right: Hello, Astra, OceanWP. Thumbnails are the top three, screenshots the bottom ones.

    You're in for a little surprise!

    WordPress themes are confusing for newcomers to WordPress. That's because WordPress themes are provided with enticing thumbnails displaying a fully-fledged website layout and design with content.

    However, with only a number of rare exceptions, WordPress themes, after installed and activated, are bare and empty shells of a website. Just take a look at the image which is a compilation of the Hello, Astra, and OceanWP theme thumbnails vs. how they actually look after being activated on a clean install of WordPress. Especially the Hello theme is nothing short of scary.

    So it becomes clear immediately that activating a WordPress theme alone is just the beginning of a website. But what then is a WordPress theme used for?

    The difference between WordPress and a WordPress theme

    What exactly is the difference between Wordpress and the theme you install onto WordPress?

    The difference between WordPress and the theme is the difference between content and design. You use WordPress (or rather can use WordPress) to create content for your site. A WordPress theme is used to show that content to the outside world.

    In other words, you use the WordPress backend to create pages for your site and fill them with content: text, images, videos etc. The theme determines the overall layout and look-and-feel of your site: headers, footers, sidebar, color, fonts. width etc.

    When you install WordPress there's a very small amount of filler content available right from the start. This filler content is displayed in the browser (when viewing the site) with the help of the default WordPress theme (currently the Twenty Twenty). This theme is just as barebones as any other theme like the Hello, Astra, or OceanWP theme.

    The Customizer options in the Twenty Twenty WordPress theme

    Designing the look-and-feel with the Customizer

    A theme ships with a design interface called the Customizer. The Customizer that comes with the default Twenty Twenty theme gives you very little options to customize your site design.

    I would argue that only very rarely will a business website run the Twenty Twenty theme. Everyone wants more control over the look-and-feel of their site. To fulfull that need thousands of WordPress themes have been made available and are vying for attention.

    The difference between the default WordPress theme and other themes: very little

    If you compare the default Twenty Twenty theme with either Astra, Hello or OceanWP there's remarkable little difference in terms of customizability. What I mean by that is that the other themes, with Astra maybe being an exception, are still fairly limited to create the average business website.

    And that's where website builders and starter sites come in

    Astra's overview of starter sites

    The role of website builders and starter sites

    The last couple of years have seen an enormous rise in popularity of website builders. To the extent that WordPress itself has incorporated functionality into their software to add more flexiblity to what used to be a very limited way of designing a page layout and filling it with content.

    What I've seen happening, and what we've been doing all along, is to focus not so much on the theme, but to start focussing more on the end product: a website. To achieve this, certain themes like Astra, OceanWP and Hello, give access to full-blown layouts as a foundation upon which to build your site.

    Astra calls them "starter sites", OceanWP "demo imports" and Hello doesn't have any but is made by the people that also make the website builder "Elementor" (and Elementor has "kits"). I'll continue to call them starter sites.

    You see where this get's more complicated.

    In the case of Astra, you'll be asked to install a dedicated WordPress plugin to import their starter sites. While the OceanWP theme has this option within the theme itself. Hello will probably be used by people who know of their companion plugin "Elementor", which currently is the most popular site builder plugin. So using Hello also means using Elementor.

    Starter sites from Astra and OceanWP are built with Elementor. So choosing any one of their starter sites meaning you'll be forced to work with Elementor as well. That's not a bad thing because Elementor has a large community and is well supported. But it is a tool for web designers, which means that for the average end user it has a very steep learning curve.

    It definitely doesn't stop with Astra, OceanWP and Elementor. Every mayor theme brand has starter sites, some with their own proprietary way of updating and maintaining them.

    - Elegant themes, one of the oldest premium theme providers, has removed their entire catalogue in favor of Divi, their flagship theme and builder wrapped in one.
    - Avada, the best-selling WordPress theme on the premium theme marketplace Themeforest, has starter sites (demos) built with their proprietary Fusion Builder.
    - The7, Themeforest's #2, has been integrating WPBakery (the oldest website builder plugin) for years, but has recently switched to start building demo websites with Elementor and WordPress' Gutenberg.
    - BeTheme, Themeforest #3, boast having "450 pre-built websites". Largely based on the WPBakery plugin, but some made with the Muffin Builder 3 plugin.
    - GeneratePress, another popular free theme, has a premium "site library" with 28 general layouts based on either Elementor or Beaver Builder. - And Nexus Themes' no different, having built 350 individual business-related WordPress themes with a proprietary Nexus Builder.

    And the list goes on and on and on.

    WordPress themes are freemium strategies for theme suppliers

    I'm not going to discuss here what theme and / or builder to choose. To I'm acutely aware that that is a question I often encounter and understandably so.

    If I look at WordPress themes today, they are mostly empty shells. The web design community very quickly moved away from designing with the help of a theme, towards designing with the help of a website builder (theme or plugin).

    This relegates the original role of the theme to basically nothing else as a connection between the theme supplier and the client. A connection within which the client can be upsold. Starter sites come in premium packages, as well as the builder with which they we're made.

    One prime example is Astra that offers a premium "sticky header" feature in their starter sites. This feature is shipped in a bundle which cheapest option is 59 USD for a single year.

    Now, I'm not going to argue about whether or not this is a lot of money. But with free themes, premium starter sites and premium website builder features, theme suppliers are trying new ways to get people to take that first (free) step before being enticed to go premium. E.g. a theme is a freemium strategy for a theme supplier. That is obviously not the case for all themes on the premium marketplace Themeforest.

    The upside of starter sites and website builders

    Whether or not you like the commercial side of WordPress and how people are trying to make money, the fact remains that starter sites are incredibly powerful in getting newcomers up and running with their own site.

    Where the traditional way of doing things (before site builders) forced hiring a designer to create a custom theme for you, theoretically that's no longer necessary. WordPress now has Gutenberg to enhance the standard content creation within the backend. Elementor has a free version of their plugin that's already incredibly powerful. And a lot of starter sites are built upon and work with this free version of Elementor.

    I don't see any reason why you couldn't fully create your own website for free if you invest a little bit of time in coming to grips with your preferred builder. It basically means we no longer need WordPress themes.

  • About the Author

    Johan van Seijen


    Johan van Seijen is co-founder of Nexus Themes and our lead designer. After gaining a Master's Degree in Information Science he decided to try his luck in the illustration industry, working for clients as Avantgarde, Cosmopolitan and Glamour. With the return to the software industry grew the desire to create something to be truly proud of and which could spearhead his ambition of having his own company. And this company is what followed. He lives with his wife and daughter in Amsterdam.