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Why you should use a WordPress starter theme

by Drew Strojny on December 20, 2013 / 16 comments

The Underscores WordPress starter theme banner.

Imagine you’re looking to build a brand new car from scratch. Sounds pretty intimidating right? Now imagine that one of the best car companies in the world is giving you a free “starter” car. They’ve built the car using years of practice and experience. It’s a fully functioning car, it just doesn’t have any design or colors applied to it. You need to paint it and make some configuration choices.

A WordPress starter theme is exactly like that car. It’s a fully functional WordPress theme that just needs to be styled and configured. When I began designing our first WordPress templates way back in 2008 there wasn’t much to help in the early stages of the process. You usually just started from scratch or converted some HTML to WordPress. That’s all changed with the advent of WordPress starter themes.

If this is your first time designing your own WordPress theme you should be using a starter theme. Don’t even think twice about it. You can literally leverage years of hard work and get a really good understanding of WordPress theme design best practices.

If you’re a hard core do it yourself guy or girl (I know you’re out there), and the thought of not doing it from scratch just rubs you the wrong way, you’ll want to read the Themeshaper WordPress theme tutorial. It’s a great overview of the entire theme building process and includes plenty of helpful WordPress theme design best practices. If you aren’t interested in building your own theme, check out our guide on finding the best WordPress themes.

I’ve looked at a ton of WordPress starter themes, and I think there are two you should consider. Each of these starter themes is under active development and will provide a great base for your next custom theme design project. They both take a slightly different approach to the starter theme concept, but they are both great options.

Underscores

Underscores is a starter theme originally conceived and built by some of the best WordPress theme coders in the world. Underscores gives you a 1000 hour head start on your theme development projects.

Underscores wins with basics. It doesn’t do anything fancy, and it’s the perfect no fluff starter theme. If you’ve got your own workflow or tools, you can just grab it get started right away. It’s also highly recommended if you just want to understand how a WordPress theme works and maybe apply some of the concepts to your own client projects.

If you’re going to use Underscores, it’s important to note that you shouldn’t update it or try to child theme it. It’s meant to be a platform for starting a new project. Think of it like an ever evolving toolkit, and less like a framework (more on that later).

Getting started with Underscores is incredibly easy. Go to the website, type a name for your theme, and boom, you’ve got a new theme.

Roots

Roots is a starter theme that takes a more pragmatic approach. It includes some more powerful developer centric features and takes an aggressive stance on cleaning up WordPress code and making choices.

The markup itself is based on the HTML5 Boilerplate. Roots also includes support for some popular tools like Grunt and Bootstrap.

On top of that, Roots introduces a theme wrapper that aims to keep your theme development process a bit more DRY. The theme wrapper helps eliminate calling the same template parts over and over again.

If you fancy CSS preprocessors, Roots also includes support for LESS. CSS preprocessors like LESS can really speed up theme development. One important caveat — Roots doesn’t have built in support for Sass, another popular CSS preprocessor. If this is a deal breaker and you love Sass like we do, you may want to check out Bones as an alternative.

Roots is perfect if you want to start using a more pragmatic and systematic approach to WordPress theme development. To get started read the Roots installation instructions.

A WordPress starter theme isn’t a theme framework

It’s important to point out that a WordPress starter theme isn’t a WordPress theme framework. It’s a different approach to WordPress theme development. Starter themes are meant to be a starting point for new projects, they aren’t meant to be a framework for building child themes.

If you’re just getting started with WordPress theme development, you’re much better off with a starter theme. It will help you understand how WordPress works and give you an appreciation for some of the best practices. If you later decide you want to move to something more complex and abstracted, then you might consider a theme framework.

Start it up!

WordPress theme development has come a long way in the past 5 years, and it’s now easier than ever to design a WordPress theme. Starter WordPress themes like Underscores and Roots not only provide a great base for your next theme, they’re also an invaluable tool for learning about WordPress theme development. Give them a try on your next project.

Enjoy this post? Read more like it in From the workshop.

16 Comments

  1. Vinay

    hey this post helped me make up my mind which one to use… no doubt starter theme is a good starting point. What about theme options frame work? is it a complex topic? I am sure there are many ppl out there who would like to read a similar post about theme options framework to decide on a starting point and enable some advance options in the theme.

    Thanks

  2. Tracy Rotton

    I am a huge fan of Underscores, and use it as the base of all of my projects.

    However, I’m also a huge fan of Sass, and use that in all of my projects as well.

    To reconcile the two, I’ve forked Underscores on GitHub (https://github.com/taupecat/_s) that’s identical to the main project, except that the CSS has been turned into SCSS files. (Amy Hendrix has a similar project in her GitHub, but it’s only the Sass files, nothing else: https://github.com/sabreuse/sassy_s) For now, you’d have to do all the naming replacement by hand (instead of through the handy underscores.me interface) and there’s no Grunt file, but I’m working on fixing both of those situations soon.

    I’d love to see native support for using CSS pure processors in future versions of Underscores.

    Thanks for the great post!

  3. Drew Strojny

    Vinay: Good idea. I’ll take a look at reviewing some theme option frameworks in a future post.

    Tracy: Great resources! Thanks so much for sharing. I agree, it would be pretty awesome if Underscores included some built in support for CSS preprocessors. I think Sass being introduced into WordPress core with 3.8 is a good sign for possible future inclusion.

    Konstantin: Thanks! Glad it was helpful :)

  4. Johnson

    So what happens when the starter theme standards gets outdated over time? I’d have to constantly keep up with the latest changes to the starter theme and update manually? Sounds like a lot of ongoing maintenance, a framework seems more future-proof (less work) ?

  5. Drew Strojny

    Hey Johnson!

    You make a good point, but consider that WordPress intentionally keeps backward compatibility for themes and plugins. Anything you build with one of these starter themes should be rock solid for years to come.

    A framework might seem like a better route, but oftentimes fundamental changes in the framework itself may eventually create ongoing maintenance as well.

  6. Johnson

    Thanks for clearing that up. My concern came from looking at the WordPress theme/plugin repository. I noticed a lot were labeled “compatible up to…” which gave the impression that I’d have to keep up with every new version of WordPress (or else risk something eventually going wrong). Of course it’s always good to stay updated, but is there a rule of thumb how often you should review your theme for update?

  7. Johnson

    …or does the saying: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” hold true in most cases?

  8. Drew Strojny

    I agree that “compatible up to” can make it seem almost intimidating. For the most part, a well coded theme should literally work for years to come, and the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach is a good one in this case.

    It’s always a good idea to at least test the new version of WordPress with your theme to make sure nothing blows up. Usually, the only updates you’d want to make are adding support for new WordPress features, which obviously aren’t required, but may be nice to have.

  9. Johnson

    That’s all I need to know. Common sense usually prevails, but nevertheless hearing it straight from an expert helps a lot! In the end I went with Underscores because of it’s minimum features and high quality, but Roots looks very good too. Thank you.

  10. Drew Strojny

    Glad to hear it, and glad I could help. You can’t go wrong with Underscores.

  11. Tim

    I just downloaded underscores today to play around with. While it is a nice starting point, I would caution that the coders have for some reason decided to use h1 tags in their sidebar template. While you can go in and change this to whatever you want, it is highly frowned upon in the SEO community to have more than one h1 on any given html page. For that matter, no more than 3 h2′s.
    Therefore, I would recommend as soon as you download underscores, go into that sidebar and change those h1′s to h3′s.

  12. Alex

    For a beginner themer like me Roots it’s a little intense because I don’t use yet Grunt and other stuff that I don’t even know. The funny thing is that I looked at _s before and I walked away because my WP knowledge was limited but after building my first theme from scratch I looked at it and I went: Wow I was blind but now I see. So far it is my starter theme of choice.

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