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.