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Why you should use a WordPress starter theme

By team on December 20, 2013

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 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 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.

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