What exactly are WordPress theme frameworks?

If you are a long-time WordPress developer who understands all the ins and outs of theme development then this post isn’t for you.

OK, now we’ve got that out of the way, for those of you left, let’s try and decipher where the real value lies in theme frameworks. Help comes in the shape of a WordPress Meetup earlier this week in San Francisco. We had the chance to hear a number of case studies from internet marketers, developers and blog owners – each with a different perspective on the utility of theme frameworks.

Alejo Grigera is a product expert at Google but also runs Mr Bluesummers: a blog covering 3D modeling. He talks us through Arjuna, which he terms a ‘robust theme’. What does he mean by that? Let’s step back and look at what a standard theme is.

Standard themes

The basics of WordPress themes means you can take the default WordPress blog theme that comes out of the box:

and turn it into something like this:

Themes give you the power to enforce your own look and feel around your sweet musings.

Robust themes

But what if you want to take this a step further if you have different types of posts (eg. video vs. articles) or different sidebar elements? Well, certain themes out there have a number of options allowing you tweak certain elements. Arjuna is one of these. It allowed Alejo to turn the standard Arjuna theme:

into this:

Notice the changed header (including translation flags) and different elements running down the right hand side. All possible due to options within Arjuna. He also has the flexibility to change the layout based on the type of post (eg. 2 column versus 3 column) – all from within the WordPress admin console.

Theme Frameworks

If you’re still following, let’s start delving into theme frameworks proper. Jeremy Reither from R3R consulting showed us what he has achieved with Thematic on his side project My Family Law. Here customization goes a step further with different sections of the sites having completely different layouts.

Such as the library page:

And the article view:

Again, there’s a way you can code this with PHP but theme frameworks make this level of personalization possible from within the admin console. This is important for My Family Law as there are multiple authors – more skilled in the ways of law rather than development. Each author can have their own blog and some flexibility over how their posts appear, yet still adhere to the overarching ‘framework’.

Thematic also supports a number of widgets from Google Ads to Twitter, and by combining with a plugin like Widget Logic, you can fine tune which sidebar elements you want to display on which pages. Powerful stuff.

Child Themes

A big advantage of theme frameworks prior to WordPress 3.0 was the ability to add child themes: that is related themes that share common elements but can be substantially different. Since WordPress 3.0 came out, this functionality is included in the core, however depending on your implementation, you might still want to use the frameworks to handle children.

What exactly is a child theme? Chancey Mathews from GigaOm summed this up perfectly (he uses the Carrington theme framework). Look at these sites…

GigaOm:

The Apple Blog:

Earth2Tech:

All have the same structure and share common elements (including that signature thick black underline), but there are obvious differences. However they all share the same core display code. This makes it easier to maintain and easier to control updates across all the sites. I can say this from experience having spent hours adding extra navigation to a series of five blogs which were essentially identical save for minimal elements like headers and sidebar links. A framework could have saved me hours.

Anatomy of a framework

Jeremy Reither showed this image explaining where the framework code sits in the WordPress template.

(click on the image for more detail)

The framework effectively wraps its code around the existing WordPress code, extending the functionality. The architecture of each framework does differ so it is worth investigating which one makes sense for you.

I’ve just started work on a redesign of this site using the Thematic framework and so far have been surprised with the ease with which you can built out a fully-functioning site. One word of caution: most frameworks rely heavily on the power and flexibility of CSS (especially in terms of child theme implementation) so brush up on your CSS skills if you are looking to modify an existing theme.

More information on theme frameworks

Theme frameworks covered in this article:

Other popular frameworks:

Further reading:

  • WordPress codex
  • Lorelle on WordPress

Conclusion

So if you are looking to create a stylized blog/CMS with WordPress, look further into the world of frameworks. If you have have experiences to share around theme framework implementation, please comment!

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