The Best Premium WordPress Themes

Genesis (StudioPress)

StudioPress Themes for WordPress

Genesis itself is a very plain theme. It contains all the functions and pages necessary, but there is very little customization in terms of colors, fonts, and header. Think of it like a blank canvas on which you can begin to paint. And in WordPress, you do your painting with a child theme.

Studiopress offers a wide variety of child themes to work with. Lifestyle, Copyblogger, News, and Executive are some of the most widely known, but no matter what your site’s style, you can probably find a Studiopress theme to match.

The advantages of using the Genesis framework include price, support, and availability of information, and the disadvantages are very few. Plus, their licensing structure is very lenient, which means you won’t have to spend more money for every site you build – a distinctive advantage for businesses on a budget.

The Studiopress forums are very active, with a board dedicated to each child theme they produce. Whatever theme you’re using, you should be able to get all your questions answered quickly just by visiting the appropriate forum. You’ll also find many Genesis developers online, so if you run into a problem that’s not addressed in the forum, a Google search will probably turn up the solution.

Another bonus of working with Studiopress themes is that they have a variety of plugins available to make customizing your site easier. You’ll find custom sliders, social media plugins, and more if you just do a search for Genesis in the WordPress plugins repository. No other premium theme has developed plugins to enhance user experience, so this is definitely a selling point.

The one disadvantage of Studiopress themes is that finding and downloading them is not intuitive. Once you make your purchase, you might expect to be directed to a download page where you can access all the child themes you’ve purchased. But that’s not the case. Instead, you have to log into the forums and visit the “Child Themes Download” board, where you’ll find the files for every Genesis child theme.

Licensing for Studiopress themes is pretty straightforward. You must purchase a license for the Genesis framework. This theme must be installed on any site using a Studiopress theme. You must also purchase any child theme you wish to use. For example, if you want to build a site using the new eleven40 theme, you pay $79.95, which includes Genesis and eleven40. If you already own Genesis, you pay only $24.95 for eleven40.

Once you purchase a theme, you are free to use it on as many sites as you like, whether they are your sites or those you’re building to sell or for clients. The only stipulation is that you cannot pass on support to clients or those who buy your site. In other words, if they want access to the support forums, they’ll need to purchase their own license.

Thesis Theme

When Thesis arrived on the WordPress scene, it was one of the only premium themes available. DIY Themes, the developers of Thesis, marketed it on the grounds that it would make creating fabulous WordPress sites easy. And they were right – to a point.

Thesis comes with a built-in dashboard that allows you to make a great deal of changes without ever looking at code. You can change fonts, colors, layout, sidebar width, and a number of other things just by checking boxes and choosing new colors. It also provides a place to add custom code for tracking purposes, so you don’t have to go digging around in your header.php file.

But even if you do all that, it still looks like an out-of-the-box Thesis installation. If you want to do any real magic, you need to have a much better understanding of WordPress than does the average user.

For example, simply removing the Thesis attribution in the footer requires you to add a snippet of php code to the custom_functions.php file. This code is easy to find online, but for a beginner, it can be pretty intimidating to alter that file, especially with the dire warning they give you about what can happen if you mess it up. And virtually every significant change you want to make with Thesis will require you to do some kind of editing of this file.

Like Genesis, Thesis has a large community of users. Their support forums are extremely helpful, with many talented developers freely offering help on their own time. You’ll also find thousands of Thesis tutorials online. If you’re comfortable with php and css, and willing to tackle a bit of a learning curve, you can learn to turn a standard Thesis site into something truly unique. Check out their showcase of “Killer Customizations” for proof:

The Thesis team claims that its code and structure is such that it offers superior SEO and “lightning fast load times.” It’s true that Thesis comes with built-in SEO options, so there is no need for a third-party plugin like All in One SEO or Platinum SEO. As is, Thesis is a pretty simple framework that probably does load faster than most themes, but once you’ve done any major remodeling, you might find that claim is no longer valid.

Thesis’ licensing structure is different from Studiopress, and has been the source of controversy between Chris Pearson (creator of Thesis) and Matt Mullenweg of WordPress. Basically, you can purchase a license for one single site for $87 or for unlimited sites that you own for $164. If you want to use Thesis on client sites, there is an additional $40 charge per site. If your client wants access to the Thesis support system, he or she will need to purchase a full license.

For developers, Thesis is a good choice. It’s well supported, well documented, and can be designed to match absolutely any style you like. For the average WordPress user, though, Thesis is a bit intimidating, and you will most likely end up with a site that looks just like every other Thesis installation.

Optimize Press

One of the best things about WordPress is its ability to fit into any mold you like. Building an ecommerce site? WordPress will work. Directory site? WordPress can do it. Membership site? Absolutely. The reason for that is not only WordPress’ own incredible flexibility, but the number of premium themes that are specifically designed for these types of tasks.

One of those is Optimize Press…

This theme is unlike any other, in that it’s built to house a membership site. Toward that end, it has an incredible number of custom functions that make structuring a membership site fast and easy. You can set up a sales page, build a beautiful log-in form, add modules and lessons, and be up and running in less than a day.

Of course, Optimize Press – like any premium theme – comes with its own learning curve.
A membership site has three needs: a squeeze page for collecting names and email addresses, a sales page for enticing paying customers, and a membership area where customers can retrieve their lessons. Optimize Press covers all three of these areas separately which means you have absolute control over how your site appears. You can use different headers on the sales page and opt-in pages, different nav bars for the members’ pages, and even different backgrounds, fonts, and colors for each.

Optimize Press is not a membership script, but it is designed to work with the most popular solutions, like Digital Access Pass, Wishlist, S2member, and Nanacast. It includes page templates specifically designed to work with these scripts, so you don’t have to try to build them on your own. For example, if you’re working with Digital Access Pass and need a member login page, you simply create a page using the correct template, and Optimize Press does the rest. Now when your members log in, they’ll see the familiar DAP user interface.

Optimize Press also integrates easily with email managers like Aweber through its squeeze pages. Just add your form code and Optimize Press will pull out the information it needs to build a nice looking squeeze page.

Want to include video on your sales or squeeze pages? The built-in video module allows you to add a video player using YouTube, Vimeo, or a number of other video solutions. You can host your video on S3 or on your own server, as well as offer an alternate video for users who are on a mobile device that doesn’t support flash. 

Creating a members’ area is as simple as adding module and lesson pages. When your users log in, they’ll see a sidebar on the left that includes every module and lesson in your site, making it easy to navigate from one section to another.

Unfortunately, this helpful feature is lacking in one area: customization. You have no control over which pages are listed in this sidebar, since Optimize Press is generating it automatically. To prevent pages from appearing here, you’ll need to add a plugin such as “Exclude Pages.”

Another disappointment with Optimize Press is the page-focused nature. Optimize press is designed to be used with pages, not posts, so if you’re looking for a blog, you’d do better to choose another theme.

Specialty Themes

Beyond membership sites, many other premium themes offer specialty solutions as well. While you can – with a little knowledge – bend any WordPress installation to your will and create a variety of fully customized sites, it does take some skill. If you don’t have the time or inclination to learn about custom post types, custom fields, and the like, it’s just easier to buy a theme with these functions built in.

Premium Press

Among premium theme vendors, Premium Press has perhaps the best selection of themes available for specialty sites. Using their themes, you can easily create an online business directory, an ecommerce site, a coupon site, or even an online auction site.

Like many of the other premium theme sites, Premium Press provides fantastic customer support via their forums, where you’ll find the answers to most of your questions. If you get stuck, they also have a very responsive ticket system. Each theme comes with a getting started guide including videos to help you navigate the interface.

Some, like Directory Press and Auction Press, are designed to help you earn money by selling listings on your site.

The themes come with several shopping cart solutions already integrated, so you don’t have to worry about setting up your cart. Some of the supported payment gateways include PayPal,, 2Checkout, and Google Checkout. If you already have an account with any of those providers, setting up your payment processing is as easy as entering a couple of API keys.

Other themes in the Premium Press lineup include Employee Press for building a job board, Classifieds Theme to build a niche ad site, Shopping Cart Theme to sell digital or physical goods, and Real Estate Theme for home listings.

Each theme is customized specifically for the market, so you’ll have trouble if you try to take an established site and update it to a Premium Press theme, but if you’re starting a site from scratch, you can save a lot of time and energy – not to mention frustration – by opting for a Premium Press theme right from the beginning.

One thing that’s lacking in the Premium Press themes is integration with email management systems like Aweber or Constant Contact. Instead, all email is handled via WordPress, which, if you have a busy site, could cause your deliverability to suffer.

iThemes Builder

iThemes Builder is the latest generation of premium themes, and offers some impressive features to support both developers as well as site owners with little knowledge of or desire to learn the finer points of php and html. Developed by the makers of BackupBuddy, this theme framework has a solid team behind it, and comes with a good support system.

Unlike the other premium themes we’ve looked at, iThemes Builder has two distinct options: pre-built child themes you can tweak, and a completely blank slate you can customize as you like. While that might sound a lot like Studiopress, there is a major difference. iThemes Builder comes with a visual drag-and-drop interface where you can add “modules” such as widgets, sidebars, and header sections.

Themes are created using two tools: the layout engine and the style manager. With the layout engine, you’ll be able to easily move your sidebar, add a footer, or change the size of your header. As you add each component, the final layout will appear on the right side of the screen, so you can know immediately if you’ll like it. Once the layout is complete, switch to the style manager to customize colors, fonts, graphics, and more.

All the heavy lifting is done behind the scenes, and all you need to do is point and click. You can create a simple blog with a single page structure, or a complicated ecommerce site with many page styles and customizations. All without ever so much as looking at the code.

If you find all the choices overwhelming – and you might – then you have the option of starting with a child theme template and customizing only the pieces you want. You’re free to change just the colors, fonts, and header if you like, or you can use the child theme as a starter to make an entirely different looking site.

Unlike other premium themes, iThemes Builder is licensed on a yearly basis, which means if you want to continue using it, you’ll need to purchase it every year. Of course the themes you build with it will continue to work even if you don’t renew your license, but you won’t be able to build any new themes (or make changes to existing ones).

iThemes Builder does not work with other themes. You can NOT use it to customize Studiopress themes, for example, or change the layout of a free theme. But if you’re looking to build a totally unique theme, or need to easily create a site with custom page templates, iThemes Builder might be a good solution for you.

Other Premium Theme Options

Aside from the big players we’ve already talked about, there are a number of different places to purchase lesser-known themes. Two of the most popular are Theme Forest and Woo Themes.

Theme Forest

Theme Forest is a kind of marketplace where developers can list their themes for sale. They pay Theme Forest a commission between 30% and 50%, depending on exclusivity and volume of sales.

WordPress themes begin at about $20, but the typical price is $35. Because Theme Forest is simply a marketplace, there is no guarantee that the themes you find there will be of a certain quality, so you need to do your due diligence. Theme Forest does not offer support for the themes they sell – for that you need to go to the developer itself – although they are good about refunds should you run into a problem.

In addition to WordPress themes, Theme Forest sells html templates, Joomla and Drupal themes, and templates for Magento, osCommerce, and Shopify as well. They also offer fully layered PSD files. If you know your way around Photoshop, you could use these files to build a truly unique site.

Woo Themes

WooThemes is another premium theme vendor. Unlike Theme Forest, WooThemes develops their own themes, so the quality is consistent. They also offer a little different pricing structure. All themes are $70 each, and with that, you have license to use that theme on as many sites as you like. For $150 you also receive the layered PSD files for easy customization.

If you have a lot of sites, though, or area a WordPress developer, the best option is to sign up for their Theme Club Subscription. The signup fee is either $125 or $200 (depending on if you opt for a developer membership or not), plus $20 – $25 each month. This gets you instant access to all 100+ themes WooThemes currently offers, plus 2 new themes each month.

In addition, if you choose the developer option, you’ll also receive the complete PSD files for every theme you download, making it a simple thing to completely update the theme and make it fit the style of your blog or website.

Finally, you can opt to get a completely customized solution built just for your site by contracting with a developer to build a WordPress theme from the ground up. This means the developer won’t start with a template or even a framework and customize it to your specifications, but will instead create an entirely new theme.

This will almost certainly result in you having a truly unique theme for your site, but there is a risk that your theme will break when WordPress or one of your plugins releases an upgrade. Unless your developer is around to fix it for you, you may very well end up paying a great deal of money to have someone else repair your theme should this happen.


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