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If you want to design and build your own WordPress theme, perhaps for your own projects, or to release as a commercial product, then a starter theme can save you a lot of time and effort, while also helping to ensure your creation is built on solid foundations. Today we will take a look at this type of theme, what they can be used for, and why you should consider using one.

When developing a custom WordPress theme, a popular shortcut and time saving option in the past has been to start with a well-designed but fairly plain looking theme, such as those that come with WordPress, and then remove any unwanted elements before adding your own code to create the design and layout.

The other option of course is to start from scratch and create all the necessary files yourself and code the theme from the ground up. While this option gives you total control over how your theme is built, it can be a very time consuming process, especially for anyone developing themes on a regular basis, such as those working as a freelance WordPress consultant.

However, there is another way and that is to make use of a starter theme. Although slightly similar in concept, these starter themes are different from frameworks, such as Genesis, which allow you to create a child theme and then build your designs on top of the framework. A starter theme is more of a blank canvas which you edit directly to create your masterpiece, using the theme files as a starting point where the groundwork has already been laid on your behalf.

Why Use a Starter Theme?

By using a starter theme, you can leapfrog the early stages in a WordPress template development project, which in many cases can be the most time consuming and least enjoyable parts of the process. With a starter theme you don’t have to spend time stripping out the features of an existing theme, or creating all the necessary files from scratch, but you still get a nice template to work from which has been purpose built for this exact type of use.

Whether you are developing a new design for your own site, working on a client project, or creating a theme for public consumption, a WordPress starter theme can be an invaluable tool to have at your disposal. However, with an increasing number of themes of this type now available, deciding on which one to use can be a tough decision to make.

In this article we will take a look at some of the best available options in order to help you choose the right foundation to build your theme on to help you get the best results for your needs.

The Best WordPress Starter Themes and Frameworks

With a growing number of WordPress developers making their starter themes available for public use, there has never been a better time to be a theme developer. Here is a rundown of the best options out there for anyone who wants to start their next theme development project off on the right footing.

Roots Starter Theme

Roots WordPress starter theme

Roots is a popular starter theme that aims to simplify the theme creation process while also providing a consistent base to launch your own custom designs from.

One way Roots manages to do this is to use a ‘theme wrapper’ which removes any repeated markup from the theme files and puts it into a single file. This prevents your theme from constantly making calls to the header, footer, and sidebar file templates, creating a neater and more efficient theme.

The goal of Roots is to help you to move away from continuously repeating yourself, and steer you in the direction of getting closer to the ideal of the ‘don’t repeat yourself principle’, when it comes to writing code.

As well as this different approach to theme design, Roots also includes all the standard features you would expect in a WordPress template, in addition to some you wouldn’t. The markup is based on the HTML5 Boilerplate, which is billed as the web’s most popular front-end template, in order to make it easier for you to create a theme featuring clean and fast code. Roots is also Bootstrap ready, however you can swap this out for your CSS framework of choice. This starter theme is multilingual ready for any developers working in multiple languages.

While the theme wrapper approach might be slightly different to what you are used to working with, Roots should still be near the top of your shortlist when choosing a WordPress starter theme.

Download Roots


Underscore Starter theme

Underscores is definitely up there with the most popular starter themes for WordPress. The fact that has been made available by Automattic, the team behind WordPress.com should give you some indication of its suitability for use as a starting point for building your own themes for the platform.

Before downloading this starter theme, you get the option of entering the name of the theme you will be building, and then generating all the included files using that name. This is a handy feature to help you kick start the development process and get started that little bit faster.

The template itself makes use of ultra-minimal CSS to give you one of the blankest of canvases to apply your designs to. A bold claim has been made that Underscores will save you 1,000 hours of your time, when it comes to completing your project. Whether you agree with this figure or not, there is no doubt this theme will make your time more productive and allow you to focus on more interesting aspects of theme design, rather than setting up all the files and entering the core code.

If you want a starter theme that is backed by the WordPress.com team and is likely to be updated for the foreseeable future to include any new features available to WordPress then Underscores is a great choice. While it might lack the level of structuring found with Roots, it’s not an option to be overlooked.

Download Underscores


WordPress Starter theme Bones

Bones is another option that like Roots and Underscores is built on the HTML5 Boilerplate. The developers invite you to keep what you need and remove what you don’t, in order to create your perfect WordPress theme.

If you are keen to ensure your designs work just as well on mobile devices as they do on larger screened laptop and desktop computers, the fact that Bones is built using the mobile-first approach to responsive design will make this starter theme appeal to you. By taking this approach, any site built using Bones will serve up the absolute minimum amount of data to mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets to ensure faster loading times and a reduction in the amount of bandwidth consumed. If mobile traffic is important to you or your clients then Bones is a strong contender.

Bones also supports the Saas stylesheet language and comes with lots of comments and examples to help you get started with the future of CSS today.

If you want a mobile-focused starter theme for WordPress that is well-regarded amongst the development community then it will be worth your while to spend some time getting better acquainted with Bones.

Download Bones


As you can see, making use of a starter theme when creating your own WordPress template is smart idea. Not only do they save you time by preventing you from creating all the individual theme files, and then populating them with the standard code, but they also allow you to take advantage of the work already carried out by countless others who have helped refine these starter themes over time.

While building a fully functioning WordPress theme from scratch can give you a sense of accomplishment, in practical terms, you can’t beat the many benefits of using a starter theme to kick start your project. With the above options all being free to use, there is no reason why shouldn’t at least consider one for your next project.

What are your thoughts on starter themes and have you used any of the existing options?

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As well as being a regular WordPress user, Joe writes for some of the most popular WordPress blogs, sharing what he's learned about this most versatile platform. If you would like to work with Joe to get content for your website, please visit his website for more information.

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