If you want to develop WordPress themes, you can start by building from scratch. While this is a noble quest, it can also be quite inefficient. This is especially true if you plan to create multiple themes over time. The repetitive nature of a theme’s structure means you’ll be doing a lot of the same things over and over again.
Luckily, there’s a better way to create themes. By using a “starter” theme, all the basics are done for you. The templates and code structure are already in place, but often in a simplified way. It basically lets you create a website to your own custom specifications, and it eliminates repetition while also acting as a blank canvas to build on.
By using a good starter theme, you’ll spend less time digging into existing styles and more time focusing on your specific project needs.
Looking for a quick start
As you will see later, there are several different starter themes available for WordPress. On the surface, many will look quite alike, making it difficult to choose the right one to rely on. But if you dig a little deeper into the details, you’ll see that there are indeed significant differences.
When looking for a starter theme, consider the following:
How naked do you want it to be?
Some starter themes are a bit more feature-heavy than others. For example, some may include various code or style libraries that enable advanced features, layouts, and special effects. But not everyone will need or want these extras.
On the other side of the coin are themes that are little more than a few models combined with ultra-light styles. They are perfect for designers who want to add their own scripts and styles as needed.
The direction you choose depends on your personal preferences. But generally, the more control you want over the theme, the less bloated your starter theme should be.
Beyond that, it’s a good idea to make sure any starter theme uses best practices. Otherwise, you may run into compatibility or security issues that can ruin your day. You can spot any potential issues by installing the starter theme on a test site and activating the Theme verification connect.
Is the theme actively maintained?
Although a starter theme does not necessarily have to be updated as regularly as a full theme, it is always good to know whether the project is in active development or not. If it hasn’t been touched for a few years, you may be running outdated code. You will want to make sure that the version of the theme you are using is compatible with recent versions of WordPress.
Startup topics to consider
Now that we know what to look for, let’s take a look at some of the most notable starter themes:
Blockbase is a free starter theme from Automattic that leverages WordPress Full Site Editing (FSE). Its scope is completely minimal, allowing you to start projects with a clean slate.
And since it is a block theme, it is also possible to add custom templates or edit existing ones using the front or back-end. Blockbase has the flexibility to match your desired workflow.
The beauty of GeneratePress is that it provides just enough of a starting point without being too opinionated. This free and open source theme offers basic layout, typography, and color options. From there, it lets you build on that base with the block editor.
Add for free Generate Blocks plugin and you will have a real page building experience. Moreover, a premium version of the theme offers pre-made sites, dynamic layout system and advanced hooks.
Quite possibly the most well-known starter theme, Underscores fits the bill perfectly as a barebones product. Styling and scripting are pretty minimal (a simple mobile navigation script is included), so you won’t be inundated with bloated code.
Activating the theme as is will literally give you a blank page. This one is yours to customize as you wish. Built by the team at Automattic, you can rest assured that this theme is built the “WordPress Way”. Looking for more robust features? Check fork wd_s.
Tonik is a starter theme aimed at expert developers. It goes beyond the basic templates by including a selection of helper functions for more efficient theme development.
An optional Command Line Interface (CLI) is also included. All in all, tonik is great for those looking for a more organized way to build a theme and who aren’t shy about learning a few new tricks in the process.
Sage also seeks to improve efficiency over traditional WordPress themes. For example, its Theme Wrapper feature tries to drastically reduce the amount of repetitive code we tend to need. It lets you conditionally select a base file that includes things like you
get_sidebar() functions for different pages or post types.
It also includes the latest version of Bootstrap, which provides a robust selection of styles. A good choice for those who want a little more functionality built into a starter theme.
Based on Underscores, air adds some bling to starter themes like a beautiful full-screen mobile navigation system, sticky desktop navigation, and a slider.
It also boldly disables widgets/sidebars and post formats. These items aren’t used as much as they used to be, so the move makes sense (and they can always be reactivated when needed). You can also enter a helper plugin to enable WooCommerce support and other goodies.
Get off on the right foot
In general, the decision to use a starter theme is a wise one. Rather than being weighed down by a full theme, a starter theme will let you work on the important stuff right away.
The selection of themes above will all give you a great starting point for building a new website – each with their own set of features. But the good thing is that you don’t necessarily have to settle for the default package with any of these themes. For example, if you know you want to use a specific script on every new site you create, you can add it to your own custom version.
Personally, I have my own custom version of Underscores that I use for every new project. It includes a different mobile navigation script, responsive icon fonts and styles, and a few other goodies that I added. This greatly facilitates the start of a new project.
Explore the wide range of WordPress starter themes and find one that will help improve your development workflow.