Although this is a list based on personal opinion rather than actual popularity stats, it doesn’t come without a lot of experimentation and use. With new themes arriving all the time, it’s getting harder and harder to unearth the real gems among the baffling range of options, and there are plenty of great current themes in this rundown. But the post shouldn’t be read purely as a “what to use” guide. It’s really a celebration of ten design icons from the full history of WordPress.com.
Three of the celebrated themes are no longer available for new blogs, but they were true greats in their day, and they add historical interest to an otherwise contemporary collection. The rest of the list comprises themes which any WP user can select straight from their Theme Options screen at the time of writing.
Redoable Lite is a retired theme, which means it’s not available on blogs which were initiated after its retirement date. A large number of old WordPress themes have been taken out of circulation due to their progressive disconnect with WordPress and the Web’s evolution, and in some instances, the old themes will not be missed. But in the case of ‘lookers’ like Redoable Lite, it’s a great shame the designs were scrapped rather than updated.
A lot of people forget how generally basic and plain the aesthetics of blogs were back in July 2007, when Redoable Lite was first making its mark. Redoable’s flashy look really shook things up with what was, at the time, a very modern and ‘busy’ presentation style. It was a theme that instantly made you look like a professional, at a time when that polished aura could cost serious money. Even today, Redoable Lite looks impressive.
It’s let down by its lack of responsive width scaling, and one or two other issues, but I wouldn’t worry too much about the absence of post format options. Post formats matter on Tumblr, where the formats are much more deeply integrated into the DNA of the site. But on WordPress you can pretty much publish everything in Standard format, without much concern.
Redoable Lite fully justified its post text, so each line would ‘stretch’ to meet both the left and right margins. If you weren’t a fan of this (and I’m not), you could enter a simple “text-align:left” styling div into each post, and force the text to display in more typical fashion. You may also have wished to incorporate a resizing instruction into the same styling div, as the font was, by default, small. Small was big in 2007.
But Redoable Lite’s luxurious visual appeal, with its author, comment and tag icons, multi-stage image borders et al, was quite profound, and the theme still beats many current offerings in the eyecatcher stakes.
Splendio’s appeal lies in its capacity to look mightily impressive and thoroughly professional without any modification, straight after activation. The capture I’ve added shows the theme literally as it comes, with even the default header left unchanged. It can highlight featured posts on its front page, and it really doesn’t need any effort investment at all in order to look like a million dollars. Widget options are extensive, and no matter what you add, it takes a hell of an idiot to mess up the aura of attractiveness.
However, Splendio is not flexible width so it won’t inherently scale to fit different devices. That gets more alarming by the week in these mobile-driven times. And if you want to keep the attractive header image, its layout and indelible title block wastes an extraordinary amount of space at the top of each page (something I’ve also griped about with Ryu).
Splendio is a very popular WordPress theme (currently ranking in 12th place), so no one should be in doubt about its appeal. If you want super dazzle with no effort whatsoever, it’s one of the best options, but if you have the ability to tweak, you’ll get a lot more free functionality out of other themes.
Another of the retired themes from the late noughties (in this case August 2009), INove was a firm favourite of mine in the days before responsive width hit big on WordPress. As you’ve probably guessed, INove supports neither fluid width scaling, nor post formats, and it does undeniably feel dated when used today. Its aesthetic management of media is a bit suspect too. Unless you manually add a margin beneath each image in posts, the ensuing text invades the pics’ ‘personal space’ and nestles up far too tightly.
But when I look back through my personal diary with reference to earlier exploits on WordPress, the word INove crops up again and again and again. For its day, INove had a truly professional look to it, and I remember being surprised it was among the free offerings. It was a design that made you proud of your blog, and encouraged you to write.
There aren’t many free WordPress themes that feature the currently in-vogue large text as a default, and if you narrow things down further to options with truly streamlined and stripped back presentation, the most obvious choice is probably Ryu.
Ryu’s big controversy is that it doesn’t offer a sidebar, but sidebars can be very overrated, and if they barely get any clicks they’re really just a waste of space. The rise of mobile browsing has, in any case, rendered sidebars obsolete to growing numbers of visitors, so integrating links and navigation options into the posts themselves now seems the way forward.
Ryu, which obviously owes a lot to Tumblr designs, scales to suit any device.
Ryu would actually be much higher on this list if it was clearer in its default display of hyperlinks, and didn’t have such a silly amount of whitespace between the top of the page and the posts. If you display a blog title and header image, and use long post titles in the Standard format, you’re right down by the fold with the start of the actual post. And in-post hyperlinks are so similar in appearance to the rest of the text that they’ll inevitably go unnoticed by a high proportion of visitors.
The link issue is much more critical with Ryu too, because the lack of a sidebar means highlighting links in posts is critical to site exploration. I know WordPress plays on annoyances built in to theme design in order to sell upgrades, but Ryu’s annoyances look so blatantly deliberate – they give the game away.
I’d be inclined with Ryu to avoid the Image post format. It does expand the post width to display photos at larger size – which is good. But it also wheels out that really lame trick of trying to mimic the key colour of the image with the post background. Who on earth ever decided that was a good idea? Photographs do not look good with olive green or mustard backgrounds! Fact!
But with all that said, Ryu does have a fantastic basic aura about it. It’s very distinctive, very impactive, and from a reader’s viewpoint I’ve always loved the experience it delivers on other people’s blogs. If I want to read posts, Ryu makes that very easy. There’s no clutter or distraction whatsoever. You only, as a reader, see what you want to see, and the comfort factor is almost unrivalled. The way Ryu has attracted me to other people’s work overrides the theme’s silly frustrations, and persuades me that it really could be the difference between keeping a reader, or losing them.
Okay, so it’s way out of date, and it’s probably going to provoke a few “WTF?s” from those newer to WordPress, but Kubrick has a place in any all-time rundown of classic WordPress.com themes. It hails from the very beginnings of the blogging platform and was the default theme from effective launch around October 2005, until it was superseded as the default by Twenty Ten in April 2010.
Re the launch date, Wikipedia cites a public opening of 21st November ‘05 for WordPress.com, with a three and a half month beta phase before that. I’ve established with my own research that the above opening date has to be correct to within two or three days. However, Kubrick’s original promo post on WP was dated October 2005, whilst this verified original post from September 2005 confirms that Kubrick was already the default theme, even during the pre-launch beta phase.
Kubrick was WordPress.com’s most used theme until Twenty Ten finally stole its thunder.
For its time, Kubrick was a true marvel, but over the years, progress eventually rendered it obsolete, and it was retired from use in 2013. Not only was Kubrick fixed-width and unresponsive to devices, it was also narrow because even on desktop computers, monitor resolutions were not always very high in 2005. The main container was just 740px wide – including posts and sidebar. My screen capture appears wider because I’ve magnified it in the browser.
I’ve included Kubrick as THE design statement of the early years of WordPress. If you ever drop onto a long-inactive WordPress blog from the noughties, you’re highly likely to run into the Kubrick theme. Sometimes, nothing but a “Hello World” post, an auto-comment from Mr WordPress, a default Kubrick theme, and very likely, a blog name half the world would have loved to get their hands on.
Twenty Ten is still officially the most popular theme on WordPress.com. That’s surprising in some ways, as the design is now relatively old, it doesn’t scale for multiple devices, and a lot of technically upgraded themes have hit the platform in the interim. But there’s no getting away from the fact that Twenty Ten has a classic look, with wide posts, nicely-sized text, a narrow sidebar, an attractive main menu bar with drop-down capability, and a selection of pre-made headers so anyone can have one, from the word go.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A massive amount of thought and development went into Twenty Ten, and it was clearly a monumental flagship theme which pushed the boundaries of what WordPress blogging was about. The theme to which Twenty Ten owed its looks and roots – the heavily content-focused Kirby – deliberately shunned fluid width in favour of fixed, and turned its back on small text to accommodate a much more comfortable larger font. It was a considerable nod to the highly successful Kubrick, but it made all the right changes. Even at this early stage, the reader was at the centre of the considerations.
On release, Twenty Ten premiered a series of new features on WordPress, including a duplication of the actual blog page’s appearance within the post editor, sidestepping the need for separate previews during post creation. It also introduced custom backgrounds, and made an early foray into separate stylings for different post types, with Gallery and Aside formats gaining their own identities on archive pages.
Even today Twenty Ten’s clean, crisp layout is classic. Like Ryu, Twenty Ten makes text a pleasure to read, so it undeniably fufilled, and still fufils, its original brief.
You can’t really argue against anything that’s spent so much time as a number one choice. It’s no longer at the cutting edge of WordPress development, but Twenty Ten is one of the platform’s all-time greats.
Oh who cares if it’s another WP answer to Tumblr?… Writr has a great feel and excels with short-form, comedy and light entertainment content. This is a theme you can just activate, leave pretty much as is, start writing, and feel happy about. The font is attractive and stands out, and because the text is large by default, you don’t have to work too hard to look like you’re creating a substantial amount of material.
However much it owes to Tumblr, this is a visually impactive design, and you can use any post format available on WordPress to suit what you publish. The Status post format automatically supersizes your text, so any really key soundbytes you publish can be made to stand out. Hyperlinks in posts are very clear and obvious too, and appear in the colour of the theme – of which there are several free options.
The theme does adapt for devices, but I’m not keen on the way the whole blog clings to the left of the browser window when viewed on a large monitor. Tumblr themes tend to stay centred and I think that’s more logical. I don’t think blockquotes display that recognisably on Writr either. I’d have preferred them italicised, in perhaps a different shading of grey, or with a darker and more visible vertical quote line. There is a double vertical line to the left of each blockquote, but you can barely see it. This is nitpicking though, and neither of these issues should put off most users.
Writr makes me want to post, and that’s something only a relatively small number of themes do.
It also scales to the device, displays links well, accepts a flexible range of headers, presents images with really nice borders, and can switch to a dark version, which is very impressive if you like to highlight a lot of images. You can place the sidebar on the left or the right, or eliminate it entirely. Chateau is, in my opinion, one of the least flawed free themes on WordPress.com, although the positioning of the tags creates a lot of unnecessary whitespace (or blackspace) with longer posts.
You may have noticed that I’m using Chateau in its light-coloured variant on this blog – with amendments to the post body text so it’s larger than standard. I also use it on another two active, public blogs, in its dark format. I don’t think the official promo images do this theme justice. Play around with it and it’s a lot more versatile than its rather old-fashioned out-of-box appearance would suggest.
For image-based projects with responsive width and the potential for two sidebars, Sunspot can be a great option. I’m currently using it on two live, picture-driven blogs, and in both cases the number of page hits per visitor is high. I use the two sidebars to display image thumbnails (in Text widgets), with each thumbnail linking to a post. The great advantage is that with Sunspot, you don’t lose either sidebar even on low-resolution screen displays of around 650px across. Everything narrows, but whatever you put in the sidebars remains in view. Go onto smaller devices, and of course everything then reverts to a standard mobile display, but you can show a lot more sidebar content to users with small tablets.
There are always drawbacks with free themes (as I say, WordPress WANT there to be drawbacks – no one would buy design upgrades otherwise), and in this case the main beef is the header. You can’t insert a major banner at the top of the page – you just have this small rectangle in the top left hand corner. But that’s the only frustration I have with Sunspot. Everything else suits me perfectly.
You can vary the background colour, you don’t have to worry about device compatibility, and you can compile content, ‘magazine’ style, onto a striking front page if you wish. But as a real blogger, you’ll care most about encouraging page visits, and that’s where, for me, Sunspot has really come into its own.
What a hugely impressive theme Twenty Fourteen is. Once again, it’s a dual sidebar affair, which allows you to use every trick in the book to keep visitors on site. Twenty Fourteen is described in its blurb as a “magazine theme”, but it’s really more of a hybrid, which combines elements of professional slickness with a much more modern, entertainment-focused feel.
The post container is only 474 pixels across, and the post titles can take up a fair bit of space in themselves, so Twenty Fourteen is probably going to appeal most to an entertainer whose content is mainly short-form to mid-length. It’s not a theme to use for 3,000 word essays – the posts are so narrow that the short lines would probably prove too tiring to read over the course of a long article. And it’s not really a theme for photographers either, because even on large monitors the images will only display at low res. But for those who write in soundbytes, like to mix up their content, and keep everything sharp and to the point, Twenty Fourteen is hard to beat.
Indeed, the narrow post width is an advantage when you’re posting short – it doesn’t take that much to fill a lot of vertical space.
This is a reliable theme, and it does what you expect it to. The way the posts handle text formatting such as links, quotes and headings, for example. It’s what I’m sure you’d implement if you were designing the theme yourself. Same goes for the menu display and interaction. It’s not going to have visitors thinking: “Why doesn’t this do this?…” It does what it’s supposed to do, highlights where it should, and looks very clear and easy to read.
The nearest you can get to a free remedy is to put a Return to Home link in a footer widget. That at least gives archive page visitors an option of refreshing to the top of a page without scrolling all the way back up.
I should stress, however, that you never lose the top menu bar – it locks at the top of the screen during scrolling. So be sure to stuff that menu full of important goodies!
Twenty Fourteen is sophisticated, so provided you have the blogging style it suits, it’ll probably do pretty much anything you need it to. In my view, it’s the best theme currently on WordPress, but bear in mind that it’s not for everyone. If you like Twitter’s speed, but find it too restrictive in terms of format and text capacity; or if you like the concept of Tumblr but hate its SEO, its lack of sidebar widgets, and its often woeful navigation options, Twenty Fourteen on WordPress could be your ultimate vehicle. It would also suit writers of short reviews, and businesses who want to look professional whilst maintaining a light and breezy tempo. But whoever does use it, should know they have their content in very good hands.