When I redesigned my sites earlier this year I struggled with some concepts that later drove me away from child themes and into the arms of custom plugins. The issue at heart is that the term ‘theme’ is used in far too broad and encompassing a manner, which confuses people when they find out there are different types of themes. And no, I don’t mean responsive vs static vs mobile. I touched on this earlier in the year when I reviewed the very concept of managed themes, but apparently I didn’t do it well enough.

After some talks on WP-Hackers, I’ve got a better list.

  • Theme – The traditional theme.
    • Child/Parent Themes
  • Theme Framework – Can be used as a traditional theme, normally used as a parent.
    • Starter Theme – Never used as a standalone theme, only used to build themes.
    • Managed Theme – A theme that acts like a framework and a child at the same time.

So let’s look at them in order.

Theme

Example: TwentyEleven, Buttercream, pretty much anything in wordpress.org

This is the most basic, simple, normal theme in the world. It works right out of the box. You can make a child if you have to, but most people don’t. Themes may or may not be built off of a Theme Framework, but they can all be used as is, no alterations needed.

Child / Parent Themes

The short version here is that child themes are built off a parent. A parent can be any of the themes here (Theme, Managed, or Framework). A child theme can never be a ‘theme’ however, it can never stand on it’s own. And there are some themes that don’t support children at all. The parent/child relationship muddies the waters quite a bit when it comes to understanding what type of theme you have, but I would go with the basic rule of “If a theme requires another theme to be installed separately, it’s a child theme.”

Theme Framework

Examples: Hybrid, Genesis

These themes are crazy robust. It’s like taking a normal theme, giving it steroids, and then handing you toolkits to expand it. Theme Frameworks can be used as a theme themselves, but often are treated as either Starters or Managed (see below). Frameworks come with a bunch of new, extra functions, along with documentation. Oh yes, these babies are documented so the theme guru can carry on, or the newbie can learn all about how themes work.

There are two types of Frameworks (and this is where people will disagree with me a lot).

Starter Theme

Example: _s, Bootstrap, Hybrid

These are used to build a parent theme off of, and cannot stand on their own as a theme (they’re skeletons). No one actually uses the theme as a theme on it’s own without forking and adding in their bells and whistles. These are turned into full-blown themes, and use the normal parent/child relationships from there out (which is why they’re a subset of frameworks). The starter theme itself is not a stand-alone theme, however, and the person who builds their parent theme off these ‘framework’ is responsible for updating their theme when the framework is updated.

Managed Theme

Example: Genesis, Thesis

A managed theme is usually built on a framework, but unlike a starter theme, these can be used as is if you want. The real difference is not that, however, but that everything that you should be doing is within the WP Dashboard. All CSS tweaks, and even functions, can be added there-in, and not the functions.php files. Sometimes these are just parent themes that you don’t make children off of, ever, and others are children themselves of a framework. The best ones have a way to export your theme settings. To make things easier, you’ll find a lot of plugins that do what most people want, and they never need to edit code.

Drawing The Lines

What is a theme and what is a plugin, then? I was trying to explain this to a non-techy the other day, and jokingly said “You know how Barbie has all those clothes you can put on her, like the ski outfit? That’s a theme. A plugin is the Barbie Camper.” As horrific as the metaphor is, it’s not inaccurate. The theme changes the design, the plugin changes the function. Many theme developers hate putting code like Custom Post Types into their themes, because they feel that code should be separate from theme, and you should be able to keep your content, no matter what theme you’re using.

For a long time I never used ‘starter’ as a theme designation, because to me the word ‘framework’ meant ‘a frame I build off of.’ With the conversations I had on wp-hacker in mind, I have reclassified themes into two types. Themes and Theme Frameworks. That’s it. That’s all you get. And yes, that means I think a Starter Theme is a framework. Look, Genesis, Hybrid-Core, and Bootstrap are all themes that someone uses to build other themes. They’re all frames that people can use to paint their own masterpiece.

When you start looking at managed vs starter, it gets clearer. I call Genesis managed because that’s how the end users will see it. It’s not a starter, because people don’t fork Genesis to make a new theme, they use it and make children.

The following explanation is using the two frameworks I’m most familiar with.

Hybrid is a Starter Theme Framework. People download it, extend it into their own theme (see Oxygen, News, etc, all of which are stand-alone themes in the repository), and use those themes as full born ‘traditional looking’ themes. They can make children theme, but the point is not that Oxygen (built off Hybrid) is a theme or not, but that Hybrid, it’s source, is not a theme, but a Framework. They are separate things.

Gensis is a Managed Theme Framework. It remains a separate parent theme, and technically can be used as is (it’s a very nice basic theme), so in that way it’s a Framework, but people don’t take that as a base theme and extend it like they do Hybrid. When you make a child theme of Genesis, it’s a true child theme, and never a copy of Genesis, renamed, and extended. Thus, Genesis could be a framework, but it’s really a managed theme because you never fork it, you always manage it via the dashboard or a child theme. Genesis is a theme built off a framework, and no one else uses that framework but Genesis.

If you treat everything like a nail, you’ll always use a hammer. And a nail will go wherever you want if you hit it hard enough. I don’t suggest that, by the way, and as a principle of forcing your way on everyone, it’s not a good one. Treating all theme types as exactly the same will get you into trouble. If I extend one the nail/screw metaphor, one reason themes take on so much is that they can’t install plugins. Managed themes are a great example of themes crossing the line between being a hammer (theme) and a screw (plugin).

A starter theme framework is Home Depot. All the tools are there, there’s even some help, but you’re going to pick out your tools and your lumber and build what you want. When you need more, you can invent and create anything you want. You may have to go back to the store and buy more nails and screws, but your limit is your own ability and imagination.

A managed theme framework is Ikea, with that Ikea Toolkit. It has all the parts you need, and while you can hack the bookshelf into a standing desk with little work, and no extra parts, you’re meant to use it out of the box and follow their directions to design differently. And when you need more, there are plugins to add on to what you have to make it more. Within limits.

My Recommendation

Use what you like, but understand what you’re using.

Themes are very personal. A plugin is easy, you want something to fit a specific niche, you find it, you use it. You may pick one over another based on ease of personal usability, but the final function is the real deal breaker. A theme, on the other hand, has to look right and feel right to use, and that’s very, very hard. No matter which one I use, and I use a theme, a framework, and a managed all on my sites, I make sure it meets my feel-good and my needs. I know I’m perfectly comfortable hacking functions to bend to my whim, but if I was handing over a theme to someone less techy, I would think twice.

When you’re making a site for someone else, think about how much you want to support. The more complex a theme, and the harder for the users to edit it, the more calls you get. Even when you’re making a site for yourself, you have to know what kind of theme you have, and the best way to edit it. If you’re using a stand-alone theme, built on a framework or not, once you know how to use child themes you’re good to go. But a managed theme may be a new learning curve for you, so remember to take time and ask around for how to use this theme the best way.

The best thing about learning to use a managed theme is that they’re usually used to the newbies, so for an experienced theme dev, that learning curve is short and shallow. You already know how to find the docs, read them, and apply them. You know that there will be options, between editing functions.php and using a plugin, and you can weigh the pros and cons for yourself and your clients.

Understand what you’re using, understand how it works, and use what makes you happy.

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