Skip the Thesis 2 WordPress Theme/Framework

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.


  1. I’ve been experimenting with Thesis 2 myself since its release last fall, and while I’ve experienced a lot of your frustrations, I’m in the process of rolling version 2.03 out on four sites because I see some real potential with the new framework. (For example, responsive design IS possible, just not terribly obvious to the new 2.0x user.)

    I think I’ve had a somewhat more comfortable experience than you because I haven’t depended solely on DIYThemes for education on how to use Thesis 2.0; instead, I’ve sought (and paid f0r) education elsewhere ( Chris Pearson & Co. are far better programmers than they are communicators. They rolled this radically different interface out little or no user education in place, and it made the user experience a lot more difficult than it should have been.

    DIYThemes is gradually (VERY gradually) developing boxes, etc., for 2.0x, but their first offerings (social media boxes) aren’t terribly impressive. (Other developers are doing better.) DIYThemes seriously needs someone to teach them how to do a professional product launch. Meanwhile, they say they’re committed to supporting 1.85 for the long haul for people who don’t want to go through the upgrade process, so you’re probably safe for a while. The 2.x platform will be a lot more viable as new skins, boxes, etc., are released by various developers.

    Meanwhile, any other amateur tinkerers looking for a way to develop a quick website without a lot of hassle would be well advised to consider Genesis with a pre-made skin. It’s just a whole lot simpler if you’re starting from scratch and don’t want to write PHP, etc.

    • Sam Glover Sam G. says:

      It’s going to take more than boxes and skins to fix what’s wrong with Thesis 2. Many of its behaviors are just stupid. If you go into your column widths and change them — surprise! The column widths don’t end up where you set them. If you move the nav menu beneath the header and then click on any page but the home page — surprise, the nav menu is back up top. Why in the world would the developers assume that either of these would be the desired default behavior?

      Everything I have tried so far has either gone wrong or had unexpected results. That’s not good programming, good design, or good anything. I can fix all of it, but nothing so far has been easier than it was with Thesis 1, which is a major selling point of Thesis 2.

      The thing is, Thesis 1 was a powerful framework. It wasn’t really built for beginners, but it was enormously powerful for intermediate or sophisticated designers. Thesis 2 seems to have been an attempt to dumb down Thesis, but it hasn’t worked. It is harder to use for beginners, intermediates, and sophisticated developers. Skins may dumb things down as intended, but a Thesis 2 skin will still be loads harder to install and configure than a regular WordPress theme.

      Thesis 2 sucks for developers, and it’s over-complicated for beginners. And it is a big let-down for those of us who were big fans/advocates and loyal users.

  2. Avatar Guest says:

    What do you think of Joomla CMS? I have heard that it was more of a website feel; whereas WordPress has more of a blog feel.

    I presently use WordPress for my websites’ CMS, but my new SEO/webdesigner has suggested Joomla.

  3. Avatar Karin C. says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this. As someone who heavily relied on the OpenHook model of allowing for heavy customization within Thesis, this is like going from college back to preschool. It’s horrible. Unless they quickly come out with a better version for advanced users they are bound to lose countless loyal customers, myself included.

    I am also hanging on to Thesis 1.8 white-knuckled but am leaning towards Headway as a solution. I’ve heard a lot of good things about it and it generally sounds like a similar setup to what Thesis used to be. So disappointing!

  4. Avatar Tim B. says:

    Echoing the sentiments here. After pulling out my hair amid sleepless nights trying to learn Thesis a few years ago, I regretted not going with Headway instead – for their superior service and community of users, if not for the increasingly bloated theme. Then the new, completely revised Thesis update sent me over the edge. So I decided to give the Genesis/StudioPress combo another shot and I’m sold – easy to use, quick, custom PHP and CSS folders, and well documented. Still playing around with it, but like and recommend it. Buh-bye, Thesis.

  5. Avatar BetterNoahLawyer says:

    Thanks for the detailed review. I was looking at Thesis for a website upgrade, looks like I’ll keep looking for the best fit.

  6. Avatar Alison says:

    FWIW, I swear by Genesis. Although they’ve also recently released a new version that I haven’t had time to play with, so who knows what that’s like.

  7. Avatar Wendy says:

    After relying on Thesis for almost three years, I made the switch to Genesis back in November and am so happy I did. I was sold on the responsive theme options. I’m still experimenting with some of the other features, but switching out themes was effortless and the customer service has been great. I would recommend Genesis to any Thesis users ready to make the change or anyone looking for a user friendly platform.

  8. Avatar Law Offices of Russell Matson says:

    Agreed with all the comments above. I do know some developers who really love Thesis 2, but as a non-developer who was always happy and comfortable with Thesis 1.8.5, version 2.0 is as disappointing as it is baffling.

    I might have tried to wade through another learning curve with 2.0, but particularly with no responsive design support our of the box, I can’t justify the time investment.

    We are in the process flipping to Genesis and paying for a custom child theme/skin for our sites.

  9. Avatar Matt says:

    Totally agree with the critique. I tried 2.0 for about an hour on an experimental domain, and went back to Thesis 1.8.5. Too complicated. I thought maybe when the Social Triggers skin came out, it might be worth trying again. But, as far as I know, they still haven’t finished it.

  10. Couldn’t agree more with this review. After several frustrating hours of using thesis 2 on a new site I’m still scratching my head. I originally used 1.8 since it was so user friendly, but this upgrade is anything but easy to navigate. Pretty dissappointed.

    • Avatar Sam Glover says:

      For what it’s worth, I eventually realized that, with all the customization I had learned to do in the custom_functions.php file, I learned more than enough to build my own theme from scratch. Lawyerist is now scratch-built, and it’s faster and more flexible than Thesis ever was, as long as you have a rudimentary working knowledge of HTML, CSS, and PHP. And if you’ve ever hacked around the custom_functions.php file, you probably do.

  11. Avatar Lucy Malbec says:

    Thesis is very incompatible. It does not suppoert a lot of popular plugins like (wp seo, woocommerce) . I spent a week for breadcrumbs no success even support team couldn`t figure out what was the problem. Shame these people charging a lot of money for this useless theme

  12. Avatar Bobby Stranger says:

    Agreed. Used Thesis for years, but it’s just too painful now.
    Also doesn’t work too well with woocommerce (without bodging the theme), a real PITA! Will look into Genesis or Headway.

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