Over the last few years, WordPress frameworks have seen a lot of growth. Not so long ago, WordPress themes were rather simplistic and there was but a handful of frameworks available. However, with more and more people using WordPress for more than just a blog, not only did the themes get more complex in terms of features, but the WordPress framework market developed as well. Nowadays, there are dozens of WordPress frameworks available. Some are free, some are paid, but all of them share the same main premise: To provide website owners with the basic functionality of a theme while giving them the flexibility to design the theme’s appearance however they’d like. In this blog post we will take a look at WordPress frameworks and cover:
- What are WordPress frameworks
- Why you should consider using one as well as when a framework is not the best choice
- Their performance – speed, security, and load time
- Pros and cons of using a framework
- Best frameworks for WordPress, with pros and cons
- WordPress framework alternatives
What Are WordPress Frameworks?
In a nutshell, WordPress frameworks are the foundation for a WordPress theme. Typically, the framework contains the core code which covers the basic features and design elements. Once a framework is in place, it can then be used as a starting point for a new WordPress theme. New features and design elements are added to the framework to create the finished product. There are two main categories of WordPress theme frameworks. There are in-house frameworks which were built for use by a specific theme shop like in the case of TeslaThemes. Each of their themes is built on top of their own framework. And then there are frameworks that anyone can use as the foundation for their projects which range from free to paid. Examples include Genesis, a commercial framework, and Beans, which is available for free. It’s worth mentioning that when it comes to using frameworks, you need a child WordPress theme that goes with it. The reason behind this is that frameworks facilitate rolling out the necessary updates similarly to parent themes. Once a framework is updated you can safely apply the update to your site without having to worry about custom changes you made to the code disappearing. There is a wide variety of both free and commercial themes that were built upon a specific framework. For example, with Genesis (which is the most popular framework – and the framework we use). You can purchase the framework on its own and then either build your own custom child theme design or opt for a free or commercial built Genesis child theme. (FYI we use a customized version of the Altitude Pro child theme).
Why And When Should You Use a Theme Framework?
One benefit of using a framework is the aforementioned ease of updates. Another benefit is that using a framework can make switching themes easier. If you stay with the same framework but decide you want to try a different child theme, the migration can often be a lot easier. A framework can also be a good indicator of the theme quality. While some standalone themes are well-coded, there are quite a few of them that don’t employ WordPress best practices and include a lot of bloated code. Some frameworks, on the other hand, have a reputation for being well-coded, secure, responsive, and more. By opting to use a framework with a great reputation, you can rest assured that the child theme will be built on the same principles. Another case for popular frameworks is that they have built up great communities around them. That means if you ever run into problems or want to customize your theme, chances are you can find the answers within the community itself. Finally, with the best WordPress frameworks, you can also find additional tools and plugins built specifically for use with that framework. Usually, they add new capabilities and features to your site. Having said that, not everyone should use a WordPress framework. If all you are creating is a simple website or a splash page, a framework is definitely an overkill. For those of you looking to start or modify a simple blog, it’s best to go with a premium WordPress theme. If you need a powerful framework for a big website, then a framework is a wise decision. And finally, if you’re the type of person who likes to change your code and other elements of your website regularly, a framework is your best option.
Pros and Cons of WordPress Frameworks
As with anything, there are two sides to each coin and WordPress frameworks come with their own set of pros and cons. Let’s examine them briefly.
A well-coded framework will adhere to the WordPress coding standards and it will be compatible with well-written plugins. Naturally, there is no guarantee that every framework abides by these practices but as long as you choose a framework that has a large user and community base, you can rest assured you picked well.
Most theme frameworks, whether they are free or paid, include support from the theme developer or from a community of users, or in some cases a combination of both. Before committing to a framework, be sure to check what is covered by support and if comes with an extra cost as some frameworks can be free but require a payment for access to their support.
Ease of development and updates
Using a framework can significantly reduce the development time and make switching themes easier, as well as eliminate the risk of losing all your styling and code changes when theme updates are pushed out.
Theme frameworks usually come with built-in widgets and additional functionality such as custom layouts which reduce the need for plugins.
WordPress frameworks are more complex in their nature than regular themes. More often than not, they have their own set of hooks and filters and to utilize the full power of the framework, you have to get familiar with their terminology.
Some frameworks come with a plethora of built-in functionality, some of which you may not even use. For a regular user, this doesn’t necessarily impact them in any way, but for developers, it plays a more important role.
In some cases, frameworks can be limiting. If you need a particular customization, you might have to turn to a developer and have him override the core files to achieve it. Another approach is to submit a request for a particular feature or submit a patch of your own and have it included in the future updates.
While there are some free WordPress frameworks out there, the level of support cannot be compared to a premium framework. With that in mind, the pricing can vary greatly between different frameworks. Some of them have a one time fee, and some require an annual fee to continue receiving updates and support.
WordPress Frameworks Performance
When it comes to frameworks performance, the best frameworks on the market have taken particular care to make sure their product is optimized for SEO. They also include lightweight code which makes them load fast and achieve great results in terms of speed. There are slight nuances in the performance scores as Chris Lema points out in his extensive test results, but overall; frameworks have been found to out-perform many popular standalone themes. Here above is a summary of his WordPress Framework performance comparison, in which concludes that when looking at performance only, there isn’t a clear winner.
Top 5 Best WordPress Frameworks
As noted before, WordPress framework marketplace has significantly evolved over the years. There are dozens of frameworks available. Here is our selection of the 5 best WordPress frameworks.
Genesis Framework is one of the most popular premium frameworks on the market. And with good reason. Genesis is currently used on more than 271,000 websites and takes up 9.1% of the theme market share. Genesis Framework is lean, secure, SEO friendly, future proof and all of their themes are mobile responsive. It is designed to always be used with a child theme – be it one of StudioPress child themes or creating your own. Genesis also has a very active developer community and many WordPress/Genesis developers have their own blogs where they share helpful tips and tutorials. One of the greatest things about Genesis is that it offers unlimited updates, unlimited support, and unlimited websites and the framework itself costs $59.95. A framework plus a child theme will set you back $99.95 and finally you can purchase the developer’s bundle which includes all of their current and any future theme for $499. There are also a handful of free Genesis child-themes to choose from.
- Lightweight code
- SEO support
- 91 child themes from StudioPress and plenty more from third-party developers
- More advanced customizations and tweaks can be difficult for a complete beginner
Headway is another popular framework powering over 47,000 websites and a perfect solution for those who want full control over their website’s design without having to learn the code. It’s a drag and drop framework that allows you to control almost every aspect of a theme’s design, such as layout, colors, and fonts, by simply pointing and clicking. Once your layout is complete, you can add custom styles to your site with the Design Editor. Headway has been built with the latest standards in mind and features responsive design. Pricing options include a standard package for $89 which allows you to use Headway on up to 3 sites and receive a year of updates and support; and a deluxe package for $199 which allows you to use Headway on unlimited sites and receive a year of support and updates.
- Easy to use WordPress framework for beginners or non-coders
- Developers can use it to speed up their development process
- Design Editor and Drag and Drop builder allow for a completely custom and unique design
- Includes a starter theme that’s a great starting point for a design
- The number of child themes is significantly smaller than some other premium frameworks – currently only 8
Thesis remains one of the most well-known WordPress frameworks and for years it was the only direct competitor to Genesis. Its main focus was SEO however, the relatively recent release of Thesis 2.0 brought interesting new features to the framework. As a result it is now attracting more novices and DIYers who want more than just a beautiful site: currently, Thesis powers 57,000+ websites on the internet. Three new features include boxes, skins, and site tools – a terminology that might be confusing to some but it translates to widgets, child themes, and general settings which allow you to add Google Authorship and markup schema. The pricing for Thesis starts at $87 for the basic package which allows use on one domain and a year of updates and comes with one skin; $164 for the Basic Plus package which allows use on one domain, a year of updates, 3 skins and email optin boxes. Finally $197 for the Professional package which allows use on unlimited domains, lifetime updates, all the skins, and all the add-on boxes.
- Strong focus on SEO
- Beginner friendly WordPress framework
- Easy to make style changes and add extra functionality via Boxes
- Learning curve
- Currently only 5 skins available
- The drag and drop features are not as intuitive as the ones in Headway
Cherry Framework is a popular free framework that is extremely easy to use and comes with almost the same features as premium frameworks. It includes automatic updates, backup and restore function, responsive design, and plenty of customization options.
Cherry framework pros:
- Ease of use
- More than 300 child themes available
Cherry Framework cons:
- The Slideshow feature can be a little challenging for complete beginners
- Child themes are not free
Gantry is a free framework from RocketTheme which is available for both WordPress and Joomla. The WordPress version consists of a both a plugin and theme and requires both of them to be installed on your site. Once that is done, you can access a wide selection of page builder features which include a drag and drop page builder and widgetized areas which make use of various Gantry’s own widgets and third-party widgets to add content to your pages. Gantry features a fully responsive design built using Twitter Bootstrap for maximum compatibility. Other features of Gantry include maintenance mode, adding custom CSS to existing tags to quickly modify the styling of your site; and support for creating multiple templates for all the different views and page layouts on your site. Gantry is free to install and use.
Gantry Framework Pros:
- Options screen is intuitive and easy to use
Gantry Framework Cons:
- Limited amount of child themes
- Limited support
- Steep learning curve
Alternatives to WordPress Frameworks
As we mentioned before, sometimes using a framework is not a viable option. However, there are alternatives which you can use to help your development or to get a website up and running quickly.
Parent themes and theme frameworks are easily and often confused. The difference is that technically any theme can be a parent theme which is then used in conjunction with a child theme, while a theme framework will include much more such as template files, options screens, different add-ons and/or its own API.
A starter theme is usually very barebones – it’s meant to include the bare necessities to speed up the development process and you add to it as you create a full-featured theme. A starter theme, such as Underscores, is a great example of a barebones theme meant to be used as a very basic starting point.
Code libraries or drop-ins are a set of files which are meant to add extra features and functionality to your theme. You usually import them into your own theme or a downloaded theme. As such, they don’t include template files but they might include an API which can help you extend your theme. Code library might give you some framework-like functionality, but it isn’t a framework in an of itself because it won’t work without an existing theme. Code libraries can come in handy if you are coding your own framework.
Theme Clubs / Vendors
There are some theme clubs who refer to their product as framework but this isn’t always correct. If they sell a standalone theme which can be used immediately as is, then it’s not a framework. Some of them sell themes, which share a common code base but this code cannot be purchased as a standalone parent theme so technically those aren’t frameworks either. Purchasing a theme from theme clubs or vendors is a viable option if you need a professional theme with a range of features for just one site build and don’t plan to use it as the basis of a number of site builds in the future.
WordPress Frameworks offer a lot of benefits: from flexible design options and robust code down to powerful SEO options and secure code base. On top of that, they also help improve your page speed making your site load faster. With that in mind, if you are building a complex site or are constantly changing the functionality of your website, then WordPress frameworks are the perfect solution for you.