Once you’ve decided to run on Wordpress, the next biggest decision is the theme. I have the skill to code my own, but that’s a huge amount of work–particularly unappealing when compared to selecting a high-quality theme as a starting point for customization you’re gonna be doing anyway. After trying a few, ultimately I picked Thesis to run this site.
Don’t give a hoot about the “Whys & Wherefores?” Head straight to “Who Will Hate Thesis” for the quick lowdown.
Why Web Developers Will Like Thesis
Its all about the frameworks, baby! Theme Frameworks are the future of WordPress themes. In a nutshell, frameworks allow customization by always defaulting to the main theme files for anything not customized, but overriding with your customizations for anything that is specified. This makes your life easier. If you have ever avoided updating a WordPress site or theme because of hours of customization work you’d need hunt down and redo, you’ll see the beauty immediately. If you’re responsible for managing a handful of WordPress sites or more, then you don’t need me to extol the virtues of frameworks to you. 
There are a few notable theme frameworks out there– Thematic (a fork of the now-defunct Sandbox), Hybrid, and Thesis all made my shortlist. While Thesis isn’t a theme framework defined as a parent/child theme setup, it’s functionally the same. Except better. Instead of using a child theme, Thesis uses the “custom” folder within the theme itself, requiring less folder-hopping. And Thesis sports a whole bunch more built-in theme options than standard themes.
Hooks & Filters–Oh my!
Hooks (places to “hook into” the content display) and filters (conditions under which you’ll hook into the content display) are common in theme frameworks, but can be overwhelming to the newcomer. They are worth the trouble learning because they are so powerful. Hooks and filters allow you to customize and make changes to your content, based on whatever conditions you require, without altering core theme or WordPress files. Your customizations are kept in one place. This is a huge deal, for many of the same reasons theme frameworks are a big deal.
Thesis makes hooks and filters easier than most frameworks do with the help of Rick Beckman’s Open Hook plugin coded especially for Thesis. This nifty plugin allows you to use hooks and filters without having to write the functions wrappers, and allows you to turn on/off some defaults via super simple checkbox. It also allows quick access to your customized CSS and functions.php (where you put custom code for hooks and filters) via the Wordpress admin. If you’ve purchased Thesis, you likely see Rick under the handle KingdomGeek, helping in the forums or on Twitter.
Click image for larger display
Solid Code & Design Standards
There is no replacement for working with a theme created by someone who produces valid, semantic markup, designed using solid design principles. (I’ll spare you the web-designer lecture on why clean code matters. You can thank me profusely if you are so moved.) As someone who has worked in the field for years, I know both clean code and quality design matter. 
Thesis is an amazingly flexible theme. To get an idea, check out the Thesis Gallery of customizations from the Thesis community. You’d be amazed what a little imagination and some CSS skills can get ya! A large number of design options are built in, but for a truly unique website, the options are just the starting gate.
Why Non-Designers Will Like Thesis
A number of these reasons also apply to developers, but they are especially appealing to the rookie.
In a word: Options!
Unlike most WordPress themes, Thesis takes a large number of setup and design options and places them neatly in the WordPress admin area, where you can change sidebars and positioning, fonts, column widths, etc. with a quick click of the button. It makes basic experimentation with layout trivial.
More Thesis Theme Options - Click for larger image.
Search Engine Food
SEO (or Search Engine Optimization) helps people find your site by getting your content listed higher in searches. Thesis was made with this goal in mind, having lots of in-post search-engine-friendly features like customized title tags, meta information, etc. built in. This eliminates the need for extra SEO plugins to install and maintain. Fewer plugins mean fewer administrative headaches for the site owner. The extra SEO-care plus the solid coding means Thesis especially shines in this area, and that’s why you see many well-known Search Engine Marketers using Thesis.
Bells and whistles like the ability to set up a magazine-style layout, attach images and thumbnailts to posts (with or without frames), built-in image rotator, or multimedia box add to the appeal for those who don’t know how to set up this stuff to begin with. And even for those who do, it’s nice not to have to code it all.
Thesis is actively supported via private support forums (for those who purchase a license), via Twitter, and by countless members of the community who develop for Thesis. There are also a wealth of tutorials around the web for accomplishing specific tasks in Thesis, and the number grows every day as more people adopt Thesis. And of course, there is online documentation.
Who Will Hate Thesis
Some won’t find Thesis a good fit. After using the theme and watching comments and support requests, I’ve identified a few groups who probably won’t be happy with Thesis:
- People sick of seeing Thesis sites. With the number of folks opting for this theme growing steadily, you’re seeing more Thesis-powered sites out there using default setups. The cure is to customize your setup.
- People expecting a custom site without knowing how, learning how, or hiring someone to do the customization. You can do more customization out-of-the-box with Thesis than any other WordPress theme I’ve seen. But that being said, if you don’t want your site to look like a default Thesis installation, you will have to customize. There is no way around this.
- Nontechnical people with no HTML/CSS background, who aren’t interested in learning along the way or don’t have a designer-wannabe friend. While Thesis is an excellent starting platform for learning, you have to have the interest and be willing to do the work.
- People who don’t care about search engine traffic or are married to their current SEO plugins. Thesis pays lots of attention to what search engines want and eliminates the need for most SEO plugins. I wouldn’t suggest Thesis for people who will only work with certain SEO plugins, period, or don’t want a site to be optimized for search engines for some reason.
- People who don’t want to shell out the bucks. At this writing, licenses start at $87. While I consider the price a great value for what you get, I understand that not everyone feels the same way with many attractive, high quality themes available for free. If you don’t care about the extra options and would rather go freebie, Thesis isn’t for you.
- People who don’t like the licensing model. Currently, a single user license will allow you to install two instances of Thesis on your personal sites; a developer’s license on Thesis allows you to install on as many personal sites as you want, along with purchasing client site licenses at a reduced rate. WordPress is strongly pushing for all themes to be GPL’d, and some feel that once you’ve bought it, you should be able to use it however you want–including giving it away or reselling it. Some see any profit motive as “anti-open source.” I’m sooooooo not going to engage that debate because I don’t have the stamina–but will say I see that argument as a false dichotomy: paid products and free products complement and enhance one another. But hey–everyone has to decide what they want to support individually.
So, if you’re wanting something free, that requires no technical skills or investment to customize, you want to keep a low search engine profile, or if you’re an open-source-only evangelist, you won’t dig Thesis. If, however, you’re looking for a flexible, high-quality WordPress theme with unparalleled built-in functionality (including support and ongoing updates), you’d be hard pressed to do better than Thesis. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.
Whatever your choice, good luck with your theming!
- If you’re not getting it, see why Justin Tadlock created the Hybrid theme framework. [↑]
- Check out this article by the creator of Thesis on the SEO benefits of using semantic markup for your blog. [↑]