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Are Free WordPress Themes Dead?

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Alex Denning over at WPShout brings up an interesting point in his post titled Free WordPress Themes? Forget it. It’s Over. Basically, he argues that free WordPress themes aren’t getting the love and attention they used to, mostly due to commercial themes taking all the spotlight.

So do I think free WordPress themes dead? No, not necessarily. I’ll tell you what kind of themes are dead though, at least as dead as themes can get. Old, stale, and boring blog themes. Themes like this are a dime a dozen. The sheer quantity of these themes do make it hard for a “diamond in the rough” theme to stand out.

If you want to see some examples of what I’m talking about, just take a look at the new theme releases announced on Weblog Tools Collection where I’d say over 90% of them fit the “old, stale, and boring” description. There are already over a thousand of them on WordPress.org, do we really need any more?

I’m not sure if any of you have noticed, but I’ve been trying to shy away from releasing these types of themes on Theme Lab lately for this very reason. I think themes like Jungleland, Photabulous, and RS14 stray away at least slightly from the norm. Despite this, I have noticed they don’t seem to get as much attention as some of the older themes here have gotten.

As of right now, Colourise, which was released in the middle of last year has over 42,000 downloads and is currently used on a ton of sites. It was featured on Smashing Magazine, twice, Best WP Themes, among countless other of those theme roundup posts. Honestly, the theme is nothing more than a pretty design, yet it got a ton of attention. A little more than a year later, just being “pretty” isn’t good enough anymore.

But the problem doesn’t lie with just free themes, the exact same problem can apply premium themes as well. By just taking a quick glance at the bloated commercially supported themes page at WordPress.org, you’ll see the commercial theme sites are popping up all over the place, making it even more difficult for free and paid themes alike to get the exposure they need to be successful.

Do I have a problem with this? No, not in the slightest. It’s called competition, and if you become complacent you’re just going to get left behind in the dust. Today you have to push the envelope and think outside of the box to get noticed when it comes to WordPress themes. Truly innovative and creative themes, ones that push the envelope on a consistent basis will never be dead. And no, a theme doesn’t need a price tag to do this.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this issue. What do you think of the current state of the WordPress theme market these days? Are you tired of seeing countless boring blog themes or would you like to see something new brought to the table? Are commercial theme developers bringing most of the innovation? Sound off in the comments below.

About

Leland Fiegel was the original founder of ThemeLab. He is a web developer who loves WordPress and blogging.

  • http://CheapSites.com Cheap Sites

    I couldn’t agree with you more Leland, competition is exactly what this community needs to stay alive. And with the development of services like yours at CustomTheme.com and others, I say we are all on our way to growing together.

    Having released a few free themes myself, I know the huge returns one gets after they are used by a few sites. I’d argue that free themes are the way of the future, free themes are still a new thing and can be taken to heights we can’t imagine yet.

    The good thing about this community, is that we are all working together to better it. Innovation is an idea away, I encourage you (wordpress lover) to think outside the box and work there, too.

    Great post Leland!

    Dan

  • Leland

    Thanks Dan. I do think WordPress themes are quickly innovating, can hardly imagine what will happen in even just one more year.

  • http://themetoday.com Theme Today

    I don’t think that free wp themes are dead right now . Yes it is right that many designers opened their stores and providing single user licensees at very low costs but still we have large users those are using free wp themes . On my blog I keep posting free high quality themes and traffic on those collections is regular . Users keep visiting my blog just for new wp theme updates .

  • Leland

    @Theme Today: I notice the same thing, the traffic here has been pretty consistent for the past year or so. Like I mentioned in the post, it is a bit harder nowadays to release a theme and get the same kind of attention as a year ago. That’s even more reason to create even better themes.

  • http://www.werewp.com Jeremy

    Great article!

    If I may give my opinion on this matter, I’d say Free themes are not dead yet. They are just spreading differently than a few months ago.

    Indeed, WordPress blogosphere keeps growing, twitter users also talk more and more about WordPress, and I think nowadays a good Free WordPress theme gets popular really quickly, thanks to these ways of communication.
    On the other hand a theme can be in the WordPress.org directory for months and nobody will hear about it.

    By quality theme, I mean good design, but not only: to get known, a theme should now have a theme options page, be correctly coded… The level has raised, for sure!

    My point is, if you are looking for quality themes today, you won’t be looking on WordPress.org; you will ask on Twitter, or check WordPress blogs giving theme reviews.
    Free themes are not dead, but the potential users are now more aware!

  • http://solotreks.com Hal Brown

    I don’t think free themes are dead, but generally most of them have always been either outlandish, garish or boring. I remember looking at free themes til my eyes hurt, trying to find something I could hack to fit what I really wanted.

    I left that behind a long time ago. With the built in customization in themes today, they are definitely worth the money. On the other hand, if you don’t have the money to spend, that’s another story.

  • Pingback: Today in WordPress world – 01/10 | Links | WereWP

  • Leland

    @Jeremy: That seems to be the case nowadays. It’s almost a requirement now to have some sort of options page.

    @Hal: Agreed. There are some great free themes out there but with all the boring themes out there, it just makes the great ones harder to find.

  • http://keithydee.com Keith

    Hey Leland,

    I already kinda told you what I think, but I’ll extend what I was saying.

    Free themes are great. You know that when you release a free theme, you will always get a good feeling. Whether it’s just one person saying ‘Thank you, lovely theme’, or the whole WP community praising your work, you will always have a little top-sided smile, even if it’s just for a second.

    Regarding the ‘Paid themes’ thing. Are they going to die down? No. It’s such a huge market that they won’t die until WordPress eventually dies. If people like WooThemes are getting $70/theme, or $125 + $15/month, then what reason is there to stop? I mean, that’s a load of money.

    What about the wee guys? The little developers who want to give a little to the community. Are they going to bother? Well, maybe. Where there’s a twitter, there’s a way.

    In all fairness, I think the post was a bit of an exaggeration, although it does convey a very interesting and valid point. This could be a very good discussion, but in 2012.

    Keith.

  • cuteegirlee

    I’ve been commenting here for quite some time that releasing ‘boring old blog themes’ are just that… boring. The WP community has matured and is a lot more sophisticated.

    Paid themes or free are irrelevant… the quality is what will take over.

  • http://ashford.turtleinteractive.com Tim Bednar

    As someone building a WP CMS theme framework — I agree that excellent free themes are really hard to find.

    And as I go into my 2nd year with Ashford, I’m finding that coding a bullet-proof theme that keeps pace with WP releases is a challenge.

    I am working on a different “freemium” model — where I’m developing Ashford and releasing it for free. Then for different niches I’ll be releasing “pro” versions which will add features via Ashford plugins (because so many plugins do not play nice with putting jQuery/JavaScript in the footer) and custom page templates. All of it GPL.

    As I see the future == the real value will be in the visual design of theme frameworks (e.g. Hybrid or Ashford) via child themes. Because in the end ONLY the visual design is able to be copyrighted.

    This way the functional code stays rock solid and rich then its all eye candy which you can charge for…

    Just my 2 cents…

  • http://tamad.net lhoylhoy

    if you think your coding skills is limited you should just consider designing css templates and let others port it to wordpress. Like me i switch to just css designs

  • Leland

    @Keith: Yeah, it’s not always about promoting yourself. It’s also about contributing back to the community. Even if you don’t get a lot of attention, you’re still giving back in a way.

    @cuteegirlee: Yep, your feedback on the boringness of themes like on this post really inspired me to try to do less boring themes. Hopefully I’ve done a decent job of that recently.

    @Tim Bednar: Thanks for stopping by. I actually have not heard of Ashford so I’ll have to check it out more thoroughly later. The model sounds similar to ThemeShaper‘s model where Thematic is free, with paid commercial child theme addons.

    @lhoylhoy: Not sure where you got that idea. Who said their coding skills were limited?

    • http://furfur.org FurFurRising

      old stale and boring themes are not dead, that’s the problem, last week I trauled through the whole of the theme site on wordpress and (imho) and 99.9% of them are old, stale and boring,
      I only found 5-10 out of the whole site that were worth any salt.

  • http://justintadlock.com Justin Tadlock

    Free themes dead? Nah, not really.

    As you say, stale, old, and boring blog themes are dead. The game has changed significantly though. Themes used to be about the design. That’s what stood out. Now, it’s about functionality. It used to be a designer’s playground, but it’s not anymore. It’s pretty tough (as a designer) to compete against developers who can offer more functionality. Many people are going to change the design anyway, so it’s become less important than the features.

    Anyone can pop out a simple design, but not everyone can code advanced functionality.

    The people that can merge the two (great design and advanced functionality) will be at the top. Whether there’s a price tag is a non-issue. I’ve never had to sell a theme to have it become popular. In fact, a free theme stands a much greater chance of becoming popular than a paid theme given proper promotion.

    I don’t want to completely knock design though. A great designer can build a name for himself within the community.

    It probably has a lot more to do with the name of the theme author and the promotion the theme gets. But, any day of the week, a newcomer could come along with a great idea and become the “top dog” in the WordPress theme world. And, that person could (and most likely will) do it with a free theme.

    • Pete

      I agree… it’s more than just designs… it’s about having purpose made themes, good options admin pages and lots of ‘functions’ that make my life easy.

  • Leland

    @Justin Tadlock: Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughts on this. I’m totally with you up until the last couple sentences.

    Do you really think a newcomer could come along and become the “top dog” any day of the week?

    The big theme developers now have built their profiles up over periods of several years. I think it would have to be a really phenomenal idea for a newcomer to rise up the ranks so quickly.

  • http://wphacks.com Kyle Eslick

    Leland,

    I can definitely say that free themes are FAR from dead. In fact, they still to really well. I’ve written about free themes in the past and to this date, they are still the most visited pages on WPHacks.com.

    I think your point that many of the free themes released (and covered on WLTC) are the very basic blog themes that look very 2007. There is still a VERY strong market for blog themes, but these designs need a strong feature or terrific design to be popular, just like CMS themes.

    As Justin mentions, design is no longer the key ingredient. The control panels of Woo Themes, Thesis, and Woo Themes are growing and becoming more innovative each month it seems. This is why they are leading the pack (as well as some of the free frameworks which do very well selling child themes).

    Between Smashing Magazine and here at Theme Lab, I think that there are still some incredible free themes being released, people just need to know where to look!

  • Leland

    @Kyle: Thanks for the kind words, nice to be mentioned in the same sentence with “Smashing Magazine” lol. Definitely agree with you that themes are far from dead, and tons of people use them.

    Not every WordPress user has a “theme budget” and there are plenty of free themes that are suitable for lots of different kinds of blogs.

  • Pete

    I’d like to see more themes built around specific plugins… why not eh? Plugins are really the meat behind WP so why not design/theme a site based on some of the more innovative ones.

    I’d still LOVE to see this design themed :)
    http://www.oswd.org/design/preview/id/3685
    It would work brilliantly with my modified version of Justin Tadlocks ‘Get the image’ plugin… in my version I can retrieve any image according to their sort order.

    Please please please!!!

  • http://docout.designsinweb.com Paul Lamach

    Some themes are meant to be built boring and not too exciting. Themes that are to be used to be built upon. This is especially true with child themes. I design a great foundation, then everyone in the world can improve upon it. In my case, when the theme is seen, nobody takes the time to actually read what the theme does. Developers don’t have time to keep up with beautiful design techniques. Designers don’t have time to keep up with the development side. I say the perfect solution is give the designers the great foundation to work with. This is what is happening with child themes in my opinion.

    Quick aside. I would think all your demos would have a duplicate content penalty. I see yours have some pr power. Interesting.

    Thanks for your time. Nice site!

  • http://apusana.fi Mikko Piippo

    I think the current predominance of premium themes is a sad fact — I prefer to use free and open source themes on my open source cms.

  • http://dr1v3n.com Mike

    I agree completely! The free theme is not dead, but its becoming more and more difficult for them to stand out. I’ve finally just given in and started selling themes commercially. Its just as much fun (almost) as giving them away, but the bonus is that you make money. I know for guys who were cranking out themes and putting them on their sites in exchange for ad revenue (like this site) its def hurting them… in the long run however I think its a good thing. Sites I recommend: http://mojo-themes.com

    They’ve got a killer setup for designers and coders that want to team up to make some killer themes. (cuz lets face it, not all coders can design and vise versa) Its called joint forces…and they are also doing a lot to help sellers make sales. Not like those other guys (TF) who just throw your theme out there and hope that it makes some waves.

    Anyways, thats my rant about the future of themes.

  • http://redhotinternetmarketing.com Jase

    Free themes are definitely not dead but their reputation has waned.

    It’s difficult to find good quality free themes now compared to a few years ago. Some freebies are downright dangerous – malware, trojans and embedded links that do something (could be ok but raises suspicion).

    Good themes are not just about aesthetics but functionality (and yes keeping up with WP upgrades is challenging). Free themes that look good, are robust (ie don’t break) and are seo enhanced will always be popular.

    I’ve been on the web since the early 90’s and love open-source so support free themes with their designer linkbacks.

  • http://www.therunningblog.co.uk/ Neil

    I think it depends on what your main aim is? If you want to setup an online voice for as cheap as possible and get as much bang for your buck, then why not use a professionally designed free theme?

    However if you want to go the extra mile and create awareness and name for yourself in your niche then it is probably worth investing in a premium theme or custom design.

    There will always be room for free versions of pretty much anything vs paid for versions