We’ve all seen it — the vividly pictorial mountain landscape as the main hero image for the newest theme out there. It screams out professionalism and beauty all in the same sweeping breath. It entices us to click ‘buy’ or ‘activate’ and then…nothing…”wait..where’d the cool picture go?” Working with premium themes (and free ones) can be a discouraging activity, but it can also be a largely rewarding experience when you figure it out!
I recently redesigned my portfolio website at adamlamagna.com, and what I mean when I say “redesigned” is that I used a pre-made theme. It’s called Uncode – Creative Multiuse WordPress Theme, it was hard to use at first, but I’m going to shed some light on that in the following post. I’ve used several premium themes on a number of my digital properties. The ones I’m familiar with are Divi, Nexus, and Harmony by Elegant Themes, Brook by Korra, and Uncode by undsgn. I’m also familiar with some free themes like Sydney by aThemes, and pretty much the entire suite of WordPress.org’s 20-something series—TwentySixteen, TwentyFifteen, etc. Working with themes is a skill that should be learned by everyone (my little sister learned how to do it) so people can have the freedom to put there stuff out there!
First, the differences between free and premium themes…
I’m not sure if there is a huge difference working with premium themes versus free themes, both need to be configured (some more than others), most are compatible with the suite of popular plugins including page builders, and given an eye for design… sites can look downright professional regardless of whether or not they cost money. So, I would say this answer depends greatly on your budget because the only real difference I see is the cost.
Premium themes do sometimes include premium plugins that you would have to pay money for if you didn’t buy the theme. They’ll also include pre-made templates (which is nice if you don’t have that eye for design like myself!), but some free ones include templates too. Years ago, a WordPress user would be browsing the themes repository and find a theme they liked, usually because they thought it looked cool. They clicked on the button to activate the ‘live preview’ and fell in love with the theme. But when they installed the theme and activated it, it looked nothing like the live preview! Now, that’s only sometimes the case. With many free and almost all premium themes, there will be pages, posts, portfolio pieces that are pre-made and configured for you. Most times, all you have to do is import the ‘dummy’ content with it, and you’ve got your site. Now just substitute your own content; images and text, and you can be up and running in a day or two depending on the size of your site.
The premium theme battle…
I’m torn between the premium themes I’ve used. For the sake of this post and not making it too long, I’m going to review 3 premium themes that I’ve used and have familiarity with. They are:
- Divi by Elegant Themes
- Brook by Korra
- Uncode by undsgn
I’m also going to look at a few different factors:
- Configuration Process
- Ease of Layout/Intuitiveness
About two (or so) years ago, the Divi theme made a splash! It was released in 2013 as the most intuitive page builder and theme on the market. I personally know a lot of designers that use Divi to this day because Elegant Themes keeps iterating on it that improves the experience and the output. It is a cool and versatile theme.
Divi’s documentation is pretty vast and easy to understand, they also have video tutorials explaining the page builder and theme options. When I dove into building my first Divi website, it was pretty straightforward. All you do is click ‘Use The Divi Builder’ and you can start to create cool layouts.
It’s pretty intuitive right off the bat. As you can see from the above screenshot, it asks you to insert columns. You can choose how many.
After you’ve decided how many columns that particular row will be, you can start adding modules, and the list of modules is pretty vast; images, text, headings, contact forms, call-to-actions, blurbs, etc.
Again, it’s pretty straightforward without having to read tons of documentation. So we click on a module, let’s create a ‘blurb’ – it’ll ask you for some information, like the title of your blurb, if you want to make your blurb a link, if you’d like to use an icon, etc. But the cool thing about the Divi Builder is that there’s instructions right in the module itself. See below:
If you’re not all that familiar with modules or building websites in general, then those instructions really come in handy! What’s the end layout look like, though? Well, let’s see.
Now, it might not look like much, but it took me about 5 minutes to make that layout. And the more familiar you get with the modules and Divi Builder, the quicker you’ll be able to do it. Divi also has ‘Theme Options’ which are kind of like the global site settings. You can add your logo, favicon, integrate with MailChimp, enable social media icons and responsive shortcodes, fonts, smooth scrolling, and more. Responsively, the layout breaks down the way it should, with the left columns going above the right ones.
- Documentation: Good documentation, easy to understand.
- Support: Really great, quick to respond and informative.
- Configuration Process: Relatively straightforward in the Theme Options
- Ease of Layout/Intuitiveness: Super easy, build pages in minutes. Easy to get started without reading the documentation, but the deeper you dig into the modules, the more a beginner will need help and have to refer to the documentation or support.
- Responsive: Works well on tablet and mobile.
- Cost: Elegant Themes has a yearly (or a one-time lifetime) subscription model. I would recommend paying the extra dollars for the lifetime membership. See here for more details: https://www.elegantthemes.com/join.php
Overall, Divi is a pretty kick-ass theme!
I find Brook to be a light and responsive theme that can’t be configured with a page builder (well…unless you add one in with a plugin, but let’s not!). Regardless, it does have a some good things going for it! It seems to me that Brook is geared toward blog sites, in fact this site that you’re reading now is done with the Brook theme! Again, it doesn’t have a page builder, so the way to configure the homepage is a little trickier. You’ve got to have your homepage as your latest post page, which you’ll find in WordPress core under Settings —> Reading. Now, you will need some content before this theme looks remotely close to what the ‘live preview’ looks like on Themeforest, and they give you an option to import the demo content. Right from the beginning the theme was a little more difficult to work with than the Divi theme, but I really liked the look of the live preview, so I knew I could get it to work.
But I had to read the documentation, and if it’s one thing Brook had going for it—it’s the documentation. It’s plentiful and easy to digest, from installing WP and getting the child-theme setup to widgets and theme options.
The Theme Options for Brook are in the native Theme Customizer seen above. It gives you options to add a logo and favicon in the General tab. You can change the layout of the header, sidebar, and footer. You can pick your own typography, color sets, and background and do a lot more.
One thing I noticed was that in order to get the carousel on the homepage to work properly, you had to crop all your featured images to be the same size. Otherwise the carousel will scale up to the largest sized photo in your featured images. But within a post, there are more options to add a certain sized featured image for different areas, the theme just recommends that you install the Advanced Custom Fields plugin. If your post was going to be in a widget area in your footer and you wanted to use a square image instead of a rectangular one, there’s options to do that. In fact, there are more post setting options to choose from when using the Brook theme and Advanced Custom Fields:
There are also different WYSIWYG formats and elements. So if you’d like to add a dropcap, like at the beginning of this sentence, you can! It adds a little more flavor to your site to be able to put cool elements in your post. You can also add different font sizes, icons, highlighted text, cool buttons and links, image sliders, Google maps, and more! I think it’s a really cool theme to use if you’re blogging about anything, but it’s not super intuitive, you have to read the documentation in order to get it!
- Documentation: Plenty and easy to understand!
- Support: Good support.
- Configuration Process: Pretty straightforward with the Theme Customizer that is native to WordPress, but the homepage is a little more difficult to configure and the documentation will need to be referenced.
- Ease of Layout/Intuitiveness: Not really easy. For beginners, this theme might be a little difficult to get right, but read the documentation and reach out to support with any questions.
- Responsive: Works well on tablet and mobile, they even have a tablet and mobile screen option to choose from in the Theme Customizer, it’ll give you a break down of what your page will look like.
- Cost: $44 on Themeforest.
Overall: This theme might not be for a beginner, but it is a super cool theme to use. I love it! People have commented to me that my blog looks really cool, and I agree. It’s simple, light, not too flashy, and it puts the content front and center (which is important!)
My new portfolio site that I mentioned above was done with Uncode, and I will say that this was the most difficult theme to use out of all 3 of them, and this one has a page builder. The page builder is Visual Composer, but Uncode’s customized version of it. When I downloaded Uncode and imported the demo content, it broke my site. I will say that this is a hosting provider issue, apparently I did not have enough memory space with my hosting provider, so that was an issue. Simple fix though, I just called up my hosting provider and they told me how to add more memory. I will say with all the themes I’ve used, I’ve never had one that has maxed out my memory.
When you install Uncode, it tells you to install about 9 different plugins to work the way the live preview does. It has two premium slider plugins included, Layer 5 and Revolution slider, so that’s cool. And they also have upwards of 60 different layouts preconfigured with the Visual Composer (VC). Which was nice, because if I didn’t have those page layouts already configured, I’d have no idea how to create them. VC is pretty intense.
It can separate the elements by content or structure, widgets or WooCommerce (if you have that installed, you don’t need it if you’re not selling anything). But then when you drill down, the options for a single element are super complex. Because there’s not only the element, but the container that it’s in. You can adjust the row settings, the column settings, the element settings. Divi was the same way, but not nearly as many options as Uncode, which could be good or bad depending on how much freedom you want with your layout.
So, for every element, you essentially have 3 different components to adjust. And you have to watch out for the overrides. Let’s say you leave a color blank, well it’s going to grab the default color that you have configured in your ‘Uncode Theme Options’ – it took me a while to figure out what was going on when I couldn’t get the text to be light on a dark background, even though I had those settings placed in the element. It was because of the default settings in Theme Options here:
There are a lot of different theme options, from typography to social media (connections) to individual pages, posts, portfolio pieces, and content blocks. What are content blocks, you ask? Well, they are Uncode’s very own custom post type. Built in to make cool headers, footers, or other content to be used globally if need be. But you have to make sure that when you are adding a layout, you either need to override the theme options, or the look will be what the defaults are set at.
Content blocks took me awhile to figure out too. When you look at a page from the front end:
It looks super cool!! But then look at that same page from the back-end:
You’ll notice that the Heading text in the back-end page is not “Thinkers & Designers” like the front-end page says it is. And the featured image in the right hand corner is not the featured image on the page, so how does this exist? Good question, it exists in content blocks. If you scroll all the way down on the back-end of the page, you’ll notice this little area:
Page Options —> Header, and you can select the type of header that you want, which will be placed at the top of the front-end output of the page. The page layout with Visual Composer will start below the content block header, unless you don’t have a content block selected. There are little intricacies like this across the entire site. I was pulling my hair out at times, but the support is really awesome! They also have a lot of documentation, I would strongly recommend starting there because even for a seasoned site builder, who’s used to configuring themes, this one took me awhile.
Now, I will say that the end product looks really cool and the design is worth the hassle, but be prepared to connect with support if you are a beginner…and even if you’re not.
- Documentation: Lots of it!
- Support: Great support.
- Configuration Process: Not straightforward, there are lots of interconnecting pieces to this theme and you have to be familiar with all of them to get stuff to work, and to troubleshoot.
- Ease of Layout/Intuitiveness: Not really easy. The Visual Composer was not that intuitive for me because there are just soooo many options. After a few days you’ll get used to it and be able to design layouts quicker.
- Responsive: Works well on tablet and mobile.
- Cost: $59 on Themeforest.
Overall: This theme did frustrate me, more so than the Brook theme, which I thought was way easier to use. Uncode is big, it’s a lot of code, it’s got a lot going on. But the design is freaking awesome, so it’s definitely worth it in my mind. There’s a cool plugin called VC-Particle Background that I use on my homepage, check it out – adamlamagna.com
Continuing to work with premium themes…
I’ll most likely always work with premium themes, I do think they’re fun to use and can look really really good if configured properly. If you’re just starting out and not sure whether a premium theme is right for you, check out some of these links below!
Enjoy your day!