In today’s marketplace, most themes are overloaded with excessive features and options. Finding a cleanly coded WordPress theme can be a challenge. One look at the huge theme marketplaces and you’ll encounter a “theme arms race”, where themes are competing for attention by adding more and more features. Naive website owners and even novice professionals continue to fall for the advertising pitches that scream, “more features = better!”

The phrase “bloated theme” has been used to describe this. Loaded with features that should be in plugins, these themes can and will cause headaches down the road.

Instead, we recommend looking for a “lean”  theme – a theme that sticks to basic layout and styles but leaves out functionality that should be included with a plugin.

Why should you care if your theme is “lean”?

  1. Avoiding “theme lock-in” – if proprietary custom post types for important information are built into your theme,  you may be surprised when you switch themes and your content is gone or riddled with useless shortcodes.
  2. Stability – when excessive features and options are included within a theme, there grows an exponential chance that your theme may conflict with other plugins. Try Googling that mega theme you’re considering + “theme conflict” or “plugin conflict”.
  3. Security – if plugins are bundled inside your theme and have a security issue, you may have to manually update the plugin within your theme yourself if the theme author doesn’t release an upgrade quickly. Many beginners don’t even realize there’s an issue until it’s too late.
  4. Speed – lean themes are usually less than 1mb in size, often much less, while some top selling “mega themes” can be 15mb or more!  All the extra scripts, styles, and extra code for the numerous options these themes provide can slow down your website’s loading time.

Recommended Premium Themes or Theme Shops

This list has shrunk dramatically since I first posted about this (and may continually evolve). Why? Because I wanted to limit the list to themes I have actually used and plan to use in the future.

Surprised to see a page builder in that list? To be clear, there’s a Beaver Builder page builder AND a separate theme. The theme is lightweight, and well made with clean code, and only has minimal layout features within the theme, leaving functionality for the plugin. Some people may disagree about using a page builder in general (I’ll post later about that), but the theme fits the criteria of a “lean theme”.

Disclaimer:  Some links above may be affiliate links. However, I strive to only list themes and companies that I use myself or genuinely would recommend.

Explore the WordPress Theme Repository

I’ve come full circle regarding the WP theme repository, as have others. When a user is just starting out, they may explore these themes, but then discover “premium” themes and think the free ones here are inferior. However, themes submitted to the official WP repository have to pass a detailed inspection and follow strict guidelines. Some are better than others, but most themes in the repository would be considered “lean” – and you could modify them as needed if you know how to code, and/or add a page builder to achieve layouts not possible within the theme.

Recommended Starter Themes

Many developers prefer to start with a clean slate, but rather than starting from complete scratch, you can get a head start with a lightweight “starter theme”. These do require more knowledge and time to set up. Most people transform these into their own customized version to use on all future projects.

References and Further Reading