Thesis Theme for WordPress: A Powerful Development Framework

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Thesis is the theme underlying Lawyerist, the Lawyerist LAB, and all my other websites, including my firm websites and my consumer rights blog. Calling it a WordPress theme, though, is a bit of a misnomer. Thesis is more of a development framework than a theme in the traditional sense.

For the DIY lawyers building their own websites and blogs, here’s what you should know before you decide to use Thesis for your WordPress website, and what you should use if you decide not to use Thesis.

What is a theme, anyway?

By itself, WordPress does not add any formatting to the content you put in. When you draft a post, WordPress itself just outputs unformatted text, images, etc., according to your instructions. You can make things bold or italicized, or create headings and subheadings, but you cannot control things like line spacing, indentation, background colors, header images, etc.

In order to make your website look like, well, a website, you need to add a theme. Traditional WordPress themes take the bare WordPress output and make it pretty. They add background images, choose fonts, divide content into columns, and so on. You can look at the most-popular WordPress themes to get an idea of what I mean.

Okay, so what is Thesis?

Thesis is, in one way, much more limited than a traditional theme. It adds best practices for typography and layout, but it stays away from anything really distinctive, like adding colors or images. Like all great design, Thesis is all but invisible. It makes the WordPress beautiful without announcing its presence like a traditional WordPress theme.

But Thesis is much more than that, too. It lets the user select the layout (one, two, or three columns in various configurations), column widths, fonts, and colors. You can set up menus, remove sidebars from pages, and similar things. In short, it gives you control over the basics, where with most themes, you are stuck with the theme designer’s . This is fairly basic customization, but Thesis offers users the option to customize everything about their websites.

With most themes, you can only customize the theme by editing its core files. And if you do that, it’s no longer the same theme. If it gets updated, you will lose your customizations. That sucks. Thesis makes it easy to customize your site without modifying core theme files, and it adds tons of hooks and filters and other options for developers to make just about anything happen.

So while most themes have a particular look hard-coded, Thesis is characterized by the complete absence of a particular look. It’s up to you to add whatever look you want. It’s more like a shortcut for developers. Instead of wasting time on the “bones” of a website, you can skip to the design. That’s why I call it a development framework instead of a theme.

Great! How do I customize Thesis?

Most Thesis customization can be accomplished with a basic working knowledge of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), or at least an adventurous attitude and willingness to cut and paste code you find elsewhere (especially in the Thesis support forums).

CSS lets you tell your website how to arrange things on the page, what colors and fonts you use, and much much more. Thesis makes it easy to add custom CSS code in the Custom File Editor, which appears in your WordPress navigation menu. I used CSS to add the Lawyerist.com logo to our header, to display our Keep Reading buttons the way they are, and tons of other tweaks to the way Lawyerist shows up on your screen.

Advanced customization sometimes requires a working knowledge of PHP, which is more like regular programming. This is a lot harder than CSS to pick up casually, but it let’s you do much more interesting stuff. For example, on Lawyerist, I used PHP to make every post tagged with LAB update automatically show up with the beaker image. PHP (combined with HTML and CSS) also made those neat comment bubbles show up on posts.

If you want to customize your website beyond just colors and fonts, but the thought of learning CSS and PHP makes your head spin or your eyes glaze over, then Thesis may not be right for you.

What to use instead

If you decide not to use Thesis, I would look at two alternatives: Headway and WooThemes.

Headway is a competitor to Thesis in the sense that it is more of a framework than a traditional theme, but it is also easier to do many things with Headway than it is with Thesis. It offers a drag-and-drop interface for many of the functions you need custom CSS or PHP to do in Thesis. I prefer the more finely-grained control that I get with Thesis, but if you aren’t interested in coding CSS and PHP yourself, Headway may be just what you need.

If, on the other hand, you just want to click a button and have a beautiful, well-formatted website show up, WooThemes may be for you. WooThemes is a collection of traditional WordPress themes that are maintained and updated. Most of the themes do include some ability to customize layout or typography, but in a much more limited way than you can with Thesis or Headway.

The good news is that you basically can’t go wrong. Thesis is extremely powerful for web developers and adventurous DIY developers who know a little CSS and PHP, or are willing to learn. Headway is a bit more user-friendly for still-ambitious DIYers who want to spend less time learning to code. And WooThemes is for everyone who wants a beautiful website, even if the design won’t be unique.

  • http://lawyerist.com/ Gregory Luce

    Sam and I are having a back and forth on this behind the scenes as I advocate for getting away from Thesis and moving toward something more like WooThemes, which I use to help build sites for lawyers. My beef isn’t so much with Thesis itself, which does what it’s supposed to do. I just think it’s inscrutable to most attorneys who want some simple options for a site, and options that are generally easy to implement. Mention CSS to most attorneys and their eyes glaze over. Mention “WordPress hooks” (which is what Thesis relies upon for real customization) and you’ve completely lost an attorney trying the DIY route, even the “adventurous DIY route.” You’re a lawyer, not a web developer.

    WooThemes is built on its own framework, like Thesis, and even has a theme called Canvas that is infinitely customizable. Like Sam says about Thesis, the Canvas theme lets you pick layout, background colors, basically everything that makes it a highly customized site unrecognizable as an “off the shelf theme.” It also has a much better and easier to use backend for users—i.e., you, the attorney. And it’s generally cheaper.

    Thesis probably (though I’ve never tested it directly) has faster page load speeds, which may be important for highly trafficked sites. That’s the only advantage I really see.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      I’m in complete agreement with you that most lawyers who want to build or work on their websites themselves are probably better off with Headway or WooThemes. Most lawyers aren’t looking for a development framework; they are looking for a theme they can personalize.

      Canvas looks like it could be a real competitor to Thesis, but it’s hard to tell from just the website. From the looks of it, it’s getting close, but it looks more like a “starter theme” than a “development framework.”

      • http://lawyerist.com/ Gregory Luce

        Having used Canvas and Thesis, I prefer Canvas. It’s not so much a “starter” theme as a real framework (and with great support from the Woo folks). I also like the backend functions of WooThemes better.

        One thing I’m not convinced about is that a lawyer or business site needs an absolutely unique theme to do well. It’s really the content that matters. After all, compare the Wired site blogs with Above the Law. Same theme.

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/timbaran/ Tim Baran

    I can totally relate to the premium theme dilema. Went with Thesis a couple of years ago and stuck with it mostly because I spent many a sleepless night learning the darn thing. Headway came out soon after and I plan on testing that out soon. I love the ability to tweak the look and feel which is limited only by time and imagination, but, as Sam said, saving these changes in a separate folder so that they don’t disappear with new editions, was the deal closer.

    That said, I’m not sure I’d recommend it for lawyers wanting to work on their own blog/website since there is a learning curve — an ongoing one.

    • http://legalofficeguru.com Deborah

      “… stuck with it mostly because I spent many a sleepless night learning the darn thing.”

      Can absolutely relate. I bought a developer’s license for Thesis about 18 months ago for 3 sites and resisted calls to move to Headway and Genesis for that very same reason.

      “…saving these changes in a separate folder so that they don’t disappear with new editions, was the deal closer.”

      I’ve actually seen some developers advise making all changes separate plug-ins rather than saving to custom-functions.php so they’re even more portable (and controllable).

      Two possible solutions to the learning curve problem:

      (1) Buy a Thesis-ready skin. I did this on one Thesis site January 2011, and it transformed the whole look with very little tweaking. An excellent investment at <$70.
      (2) Get hooked up with BYOBwebsite.com. I invested in a 6-month membership in this Thesis-specific site a year ago and devoured the tutorial videos on it. Even the free membership includes basic tutorials and periodic conference calls with the designer, who will help users solve some limited-but-puzzling problems with CSS, PHP, etc. DIYThemes' official support docs, on the other hand, are geared toward professional developers. They occasionally seem deliberately obtuse.

      Be aware that Headway recently changed its licensing structure — you don't buy the software and that's it, you buy a one-year license which will require an annual renewal for continued access to support and updates. As frequently (and radically) as WordPress is changing, continued theme support could be critical.

  • http://dtcfotos.com Daniel Coughlin

    Your post made me think of a Joomla theme that I’ve been considering: http://www.joomlabamboo.com/joomla-templates/responsive-joomla-template

    It’s a framework similar to what it sounds like Thesis does, but for Joomla.

    On the wordpress side though, I had very good luck with wpremix.com . Their version 3.0 a little long in the tooth, and their support guy is very unforgiving / abrasive in the forums, but their product is great.

    I’m not affiliated with either product, btw, but just finished doing some research in the CMS world.

  • Cristine

    I would say stay away from Thesis unless you know how to code CSS to make it look decent. Woo Themes look nice without needing to code. Elegant Themes and some of the more popular Themeforest Themes are also excellent. I am going to disagree with you Sam when you say that Thesis makes WordPress beautiful. It was one of the worst purchases I have made due to how difficult it is to customize.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      The difficulty depends on your skill level. For me, Thesis is much easier to customize than something from WooThemes.

      But I agree that if you don’t have a good working knowledge of CSS, and some comfort copying and pasting PHP code, you probably should not use Thesis.

  • http://nyfamilyvisalawyer.com/ Paul J. Perez

    I’m currently using Elegant Themes, but have been told Studio Press is a better option. How do these compare to WooThemes?

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      I’d say one of the most important things is to pick one, learn it, and then leave your site design alone other than occasional tweaks as your needs change.

  • CodeMonkey

    I thought this was a law practice blog and yet I’m reading another shallow Thesis WordPress SEO affiliate post. Thanks for the unbiased review I’m sure many a lawyer will benefit from this post.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      Yes, this post contains an affiliate link. I didn’t think that was a secret. This blog runs on Thesis, as do all my websites. I pay for it, and I’m happy to do so.

  • http://marklyon.org Mark Lyon
    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      Define “success.” (I’m not saying you are wrong or anything, I’m just curious as to what you mean.)