Those of you using WordPress for your website or blog have probably noticed that we really like Thesis, an advanced WordPress theme/framework that makes it easy for people with basic HTML, CSS, and PHP skills to craft a custom website. Thesis is what I use for Lawyerist, as well as all my own websites.

I’m a big fan. Or, rather, I was.

Recently, DIY Themes launched Thesis 2, and I have been exploring it on my test sites ever since. I regret to say it is a big disappointment, and I am sticking with Thesis 1.8.5 until it no longer meets my needs. Read on if you want to know why.

In Thesis 1, you could customize your site in two ways:

  1. With a series of menus and checkboxes in the Thesis options. These were dead simple, and allowed you to do quite a lot of customization.
  2. By editing the custom.css and custom_functions.php files. These were for more advanced users comfortable writing custom CSS and PHP code — or at least copying and pasting code written by others.

By handling your customizations this way, you could upgrade Thesis without losing your tweaks. Unsophisticated users could get a pretty nice site with the regular Thesis options, and advanced users could change nearly everything using the custom files and chunks of code.

In Thesis 2, the way you customize your site has been completely overhauled. Instead of a simple options panel and custom files, you have to work with skins, boxes, and packages, and it is a mess. Most of the customization happens in the Skin Editor.

If Thesis 2 was supposed to empower unsophisticated users, it is a failure. The Skins Editor is far more complicated than the old settings panel, from which you could change the layout and all the colors and fonts from a single screen. Now, you have to visit dozens of HTML “Boxes” and CSS “Packages” to do the same things. It is ludicrous.

On top of that, every CSS package asks for the width of your text area, but the note on this field says “the value you enter here will not affect the width of your text area.” I’ve been so far unable to discover how one would actually change the width of a column, because the settings for column widths don’t seem to work, either. The only way I can see to do this basic layout task is by adding custom CSS, which is more complicated than it would have been in Thesis 1. In fact, I’ve spent the last hour trying to figure out how to make my content column 640 pixels wide without custom CSS, and I am giving up. Well, that and trying to figure out how to make the menu show up beneath the header on every page. I’m giving up on that, too. (For those who will inevitably call me an idiot, keep in mind that I can accomplish these tasks using Thesis 1 in less than a minute.)

If Thesis 2 was supposed to empower sophisticated users, it is likewise a failure. Using the Skins Editor is far more complicated than editing a couple of custom files for someone with a fairly basic grasp of HTML, CSS, and PHP. In fact, it is even useless for intermediate users, who would probably have an easier time copying and pasting chunks of code than hunting down settings on boxes inside of boxes.

And despite all the new complicatedness, it doesn’t even include responsive design options, which are being built into nearly every new website on the planet. Thesis 2, in other words, is a huge step backwards in usability, and it doesn’t give you anything in exchange.

Don’t believe the hype coming from DIY Themes, which is trumpeting Thesis 2 as if it were the second coming of the Internet. (Or third, I’ve lost count.) They apparently re-wrote the code several times trying to get it right, but in the end, they didn’t. Maybe DIY Themes knew it had a flawed product, but couldn’t afford another re-write. I don’t know, but the Thesis 2 it released is a long way from good. The only thing more powerful about Thesis 2 is the frustration you will experience when trying to get it to do what you want it to do.

If you already have Thesis, upgrade to 1.8.5 and stop there. If you are considering Thesis, I think you would probably be better off with something like Canvas from WooThemes. Fair warning: I haven’t really used WooThemes apart from applying some quick fixes to a friend’s blog a year or so ago. But Greg loves it, and he’s an excellent designer. Canvas is a similar kind of “blank slate” theme/framework to Thesis, and it is backed by the robust WooThemes platform. Another option is the Genesis Framework. I’ve heard good things, but I haven’t had a chance to try it.

I am sticking with Thesis 1.8.5 for now. When Thesis 1.8.5 no longer meets our needs, I will be looking for another option. Maybe Thesis 3 will be out by then, and maybe it will be an improvement. Otherwise, we will be in the market for a better framework.