Understanding the Difference Between WordPress Themes and WordPress Theme Frameworks
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One of the first things every new WordPress user must make a decision on is which theme they will use for their new website. Choosing the perfect WordPress theme is a great feeling. It’s empowering. Especially for anyone who wants a premier website but never thought building one was an option–whether that be because of money, development skills, design skills, or otherwise. All of those things can be negated when a user chooses the right WordPress theme and plugins.
But not all WordPress themes are created equal. There are also different types of WordPress themes that are meant to accomplish different things for different types of users. This is the part of the theme choosing process many users find confusing. When faced with the choice between a WordPress theme framework or a normal WordPress theme, it can be hard to know which one is the best choice. Not to mention why. And when you throw child themes into the mix it can all becomes a tangled mess. Or at least that’s how it can seem.
In fact, there are clear definitions and recommended use cases for each of those terms. Which makes understanding those terms and recommended use cases the best starting point when learning about WordPress themes. That’s why in today’s post I’m going to do my best to make those terms, their distinctions, and their ideal use cases as easy to understand as possible.
What is a WordPress Theme Framework?
According to the WordPress Codex, the term “Theme Framework” currently has two meanings:
A “drop-in” code library that is used to facilitate development of a Theme.
A stand-alone base/starter Theme that is intended either to be forked into another Theme, or else to be used as a Parent Theme template.
What is a Parent Theme?
“Parent theme” is the default of all WordPress themes. Any WordPress theme not specified as a child theme or theme framework is a parent theme. Technically speaking, a parent theme contains the theme design, functionality and templates required for it to run on WordPress.
What is a Child Theme?
A child theme is a not a full theme in the same sense as a parent theme. Instead, a child theme inherits its functionality from a parent theme, allowing the user to make design customizations that will not be affected by future parent theme updates.
To understand the importance of a child theme you have to understand a bit about how updating parent themes works. After a theme is installed on your WordPress site, you can make any changes you want to it. However, as time goes by the theme author will eventually release a theme update. When you click that update it will replace your existing theme files with new ones. This will keep your site functions working properly as well as ensure the security of your theme. Unfortunately, it will also write over all of your customizations. Unless you have a child theme in place.
It can be hard to parse the difference between a framework and a parent theme. Especially the second definition of the term framework. However, I think the key lies in the word template.
A true framework is never meant to be used as a final product. At best, it is the developmental template for a parent theme, but not the parent theme itself.
A parent theme, which can be built off of a framework, is something that can be used “right out of the box” so to speak. A framework on the other hand is something that requires, at the very least, the addition of a child theme before it can be used at all.
That is the main difference. But is there anything else? Yes.
Another key difference between most frameworks and parent themes is the way they treat functionality and post/page templates. Often times a parent theme will be much more limited in either its included functionality and/or design flexibility than a framework.
A standard WordPress parent theme is more or less meant to be used as is. If you create a child theme for it, it makes the most sense that this would be for minor changes, not a complete design overhaul. Otherwise, why buy the theme in the first place?
With frameworks on the other hand, they are meant to either include or be compatible with (via plugins) a wider range of functionality and design possibilities. Since they are not meant to be used as is, it is more common for them to be built with design flexibility in mind–including post/page templates (including custom post types).
This is usually done in two ways: offering a wide variety of pre-made child themes that take advantage of the included functionality in different ways or by providing tools that empower end users to easily create completely customized child themes of their own.
It has also become common practice for many framework authors to spend a significant amount of time building plugin suites that once installed significantly increase the amount of functions their framework (and therefore all of their child themes) are capable of.
Who Should Use a Framework & Who Should Use a Regular Parent Theme?
Ok, so now that we know the difference between WordPress themes and WordPress frameworks let’s talk about why it matters. In what situations would someone want a parent theme over a framework and vice versa? To answer this question, I think we need to go back in time just a little bit and look at how frameworks as both a concept and as end products have changed.
In the beginning, theme frameworks began and were promoted as tools for WordPress developers. An automobile analogy that StudioPress, the creator’s of the popular Genesis framework, have long used is this: WordPress is the engine of your website, a framework is the body and internal features/functions, and a child theme is the paint job and exterior design elements.
If all a web developer has to do to complete a new job is slap a new coat of paint on the work they’ve already done, that’s a big win for them. They can take on a lot more work and make a lot more money. This was the basic premise that launched frameworks into popular use several years ago.
However, over the last two to three years (maybe more), frameworks have found a much larger target market: DIY amateurs. This is a massive group of people who not only love to tinker and learn, but once they learn something they are more than willing to turn those new skills into a business.
By using advanced turn-key products, DIY amateurs can be (and often are) converted into professional developers who depend on products (like frameworks and advanced plugins) that more advanced developers have created. Because of this dynamic, advanced developers have created a large number of WordPress theme frameworks that are just as easy to setup and use as a standard WordPress theme but with many more functions, features, and design options.
All of which means this: frameworks, like standard parent themes, are for everyone now. Which one you choose, at this point in time, should be decided by your specific needs and comfort level.
If you are a developer or tinkerer who wants a fast turn-around on client sites or various sites you work on for yourself, you might want to consider a framework. If you are someone whose website is an ongoing adaptation–something that may require you to change certain bits of design and functionality on a regular or semi-regular basis, you might want to consider a framework. If it is important to you to keep your long term options open when it comes to site design and functionality, again, you might want to consider going with a WordPress theme framework.
However, if you are a WordPress user or developer who has found a high quality WordPress parent theme that fits all of your needs perfectly, you should go ahead and use it. It’ll do its job just as well as a framework would and the amount of tinkering and customization required to get you up and running will most likely be significantly lower.
I’ve used and reviewed so many WordPress themes and theme frameworks I lost count a long time ago. Hundreds at least. In my own life and career, I tend to lean more towards the use of a framework. I like frameworks that are lean but that come with a lot of compatible plugins to extend functionality. It also really nice when there are a large number of pre-made child themes available or when theme customization controls are made code free via advanced admin panels, shortcodes, and/or drag and drop interfaces.
But what about you? What experiences have you had with WordPress themes and frameworks? Share your story and tell us which one you have come to prefer in the comments below.
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Nathan is a professional writer and digital publisher. He's been using and writing about WordPress since 2010 and enjoys supplying useful WordPress news, reviews, tips, tricks, and tutorials. You can connect with him at his personal website or on facebook and twitter.