Premium WordPress Themes are Dead

by Ben Cook on August 26, 2009

Post image for Premium WordPress Themes are Dead

After reading iThemes’ most recent blog post I came to a startling but suddenly obvious realization… Premium WordPress themes are dead.

I realize that may seem like a foolish statement given the constantly increasing number of premium themes on the market, but its true.

Over the last year, the premium theme that has garnered the most attention has undoubtedly been the Thesis theme.

In recent weeks, the Headway theme has exploded onto the scene and quickly emerged as Thesis’ main competitor.

So in light of the still growing popularity of these two themes, why would I proclaim that premium themes are dead?

Because.. They’re Not Themes

Oh sure they label themselves as themes, contain many of the same files as themes & are installed in the same way as themes, but they’re not themes.

They’re frameworks.

If you read my Thesis review, or our guest submitted Headway review, you may have noticed that the thing we liked best about these two “themes” was their flexibility.

You can create virtually endless different site designs, all while working within the framework of the Thesis or Headway theme.

And that my friends, is exactly why premium themes are dead.

Flexibility Killed the Premium Theme

Sure it’s nice that companies like iThemes keep turning out new themes, but they’re fighting a losing battle.

People don’t want to purchase a different theme for every new site they create or every time they want to redesign their site. We want a framework that allows us to make a vast array of design changes as quickly and easily as possible.

Unless premium theme companies release frameworks of their own, and do it soon before Thesis and Headway gain an even stronger strangle-hold on the market, they’ll be reduced to even more posts like the one we saw today.

As Monty Python taught us, it you can go around screaming “I’m not dead yet” as much as you want, but you’ll get carted off just the same.

Image Source:

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Wordpress Theme August 26, 2009 at 6:50 pm

At First I was shocked with the title Premium Themes ate dead.. I was thinking of the same thing that How Thesis has changed the face of Wordpress premium theme market. Though with time other themes are coming with better promotion method.. But for now My loyalty is still with Thesis Wordpress theme for it’s amazing SEO capabilities.

Custom Themes August 26, 2009 at 6:51 pm

I agree with you somewhat, in the sense that bloggers/webmasters simply don’t want to spend $70 on a theme that they’ll only use for one or two projects. But at the same time, you have marketplaces like ThemeForest that allow alow of theme makers to showcase their work and keep the premium theme market competitive.

The expansion of theme marketplaces with a similar business model is the next step. Creating a resourceful company that allows for limitless customization of a theme framework is the key. And there will always be a market for premium themes, given the variety of skill levels of WP users.

As a theme maker, I see the advantages of having a framework as flexible as Thesis. At the same time, there are users who don’t know how to find the navigation call on the header to exclude some pages manually.

I’m glad you’re bringing this up though, it’s thought inducing for all of us. Let’s move forward, wordpress is king!


Ben Cook August 26, 2009 at 7:01 pm

Dan, to be honest I think a slightly cheaper framework (in the $20-$50 range) would wipe out a lot of the marketplaces and lower priced premium themes.

The only reason EVERYONE isn’t on either Thesis or Headway right now is they’re either already a premium theme owner, or they don’t want to pay for the higher end themes.

Now, these frameworks may create a market for skins but I don’t think theme marketplaces, even ones like ThemeForest are going to last for WordPress.

Mike McEvoy August 27, 2009 at 12:52 am

Your title through me off at first, but your logic is sound. Purchasing a Framework instead of a Theme makes good business sense. Plus there is also the SEO benefits.

While I don’t think that you will see the premium theme marketplace go away anytime soon, for a number of reasons, the huge success of Thesis has to makes most developers give some serious thought to their business models. If you buy the Thesis developer version and use it on 4 different projects you are looking at less than $50 each ($187/4).

The two things that really sold me on Thesis were the flexibility – especially when using Open_Hook – and the support community. To spend $50 and receive all those potential times saving and aggravation saving benefits was a no-brainer.

m2 August 27, 2009 at 1:47 am

Well, the reason I’m not on Thesis is because I’m tired of seeing it on every third blog I visit. 🙂 Don’t know much about Headway, but if it’s equally as popular, I’ll avoid it.

Ben Cook August 27, 2009 at 9:13 am

Matt, I really don’t understand that reason. I mean, if you don’t want to spend the time to customize either one then I can understand not wanting to have a theme that looks like a lot of others out there but both Thesis and Headway are customizable enough that you wouldn’t recognize it without some digging.

Mike, I agree that developers should be rethinking their business model, but more importantly rethinking their product. And absolutely, the flexibility of a framework is wonderful and it doesn’t take long to be well worth the price.

redwall_hp August 27, 2009 at 1:25 pm

Eh, I don’t agree. A lot of people buy premium themes from companies like ThemeForest or WooThemes because they want a pre-made design or because they want a starting point for one. Not everyone wants to just change some settings in the backend to customize the rather overpriced Thesis theme.

I either build my designs from scratch, or I pick up a cheap premium theme and expand upon it myself.

I do admit that a lot of people are using Thesis-type “frameworks” though. (However, Thesis is not really a framework, it’s still just a premium theme really. A theme framework would be something like Thematic, while Thesis is just a really advanced premium theme with a powerful backend.)

Ben Cook August 27, 2009 at 2:03 pm

Redwall, I agree that a lot of people want premade designs or starting points but those are all becoming available through skins for Thesis & Headway.

Also, you do know that Thesis offers a lot more customization than “change some settings in the backend” right?

I really don’t see why you’d start completely from scratch or use different themes for each project. Why not buy one of the frameworks and start off on the same footing without having to reinvent the wheel or risk losing your customizations if you have to upgrade the theme?

Steve Spencer August 27, 2009 at 3:33 pm

I agree with your points here… so do we now start to see people selling “configurations” for these frameworks?

Ben Cook August 27, 2009 at 5:13 pm

Steve, I think theres definitely a market for Thesis and Headway themes & it’s only going to grow.

baloot August 30, 2009 at 2:36 am

you were absolutely right ben cook. i agree. 🙂
i’m using thesis because of their framework. not because of their design. hee..

cheers from thesis user too.

John August 30, 2009 at 1:58 pm

I don’t agree. It depends on what you want to do. If you are a designer then you can go for a framework and design your own theme. If you’re not a designer, then a framework won’t help your site look good. Does this website look good?

I am not a designer so I look at the design when I purchase a theme. If there will be skins provided for the frameworks, that means additional cost, and again they will reduce flexibility, if they will be for free, then they’ll be overused.

I see the theme market growing, frameworks have their share, predesigned themes theirs…

Michael Martine September 17, 2009 at 11:56 am

The fact that most Thesis themes look like thesis is a reflection of the blogger or designer, not Thesis. Having said that, I think you’ll find that with Headway, it’s far easier to achieve a unique look that matches the personality and brand you want for your blog.

This is because Headway does something no other premium theme can do: offer complete visual control over everything: layout, fonts, colors, banners, and more. And when I say layout, I don’t mean for all pages, I mean for each page individually. For example, maybe you want your About page to have a different layout from your Services page.

First there were premium themes, then frameworks, but even frameworks are now passe. Visual Blog Editors are next.

Ben Cook September 17, 2009 at 12:28 pm

Michael, In my experience Thesis offers complete visual control over everything on your site, however, as you mentioned, Headway makes a LOT of things easier on a per page basis.

That being said, in my experience (and granted I’ve only designed one site with Headway) it also makes some things more difficult. Still possible, but not as easy.

In any case, I would absolutely agree with you that we are headed away from themes and towards visual editors but I think frameworks will be the foundation of that shift & will have a market for quite a while still.

Michael Martine September 17, 2009 at 12:45 pm

Ben, I don’t agree that Thesis offers complete visual control, since it does not even come close to what Headway can do. And even Headway doesn’t offer complete visual control… yet. 😉

I’m not “bashing” Thesis, but pointing out a place where the two differ greatly (even with the new Thesis 1.6). To be fair, Thesis has better inherent typography than Headway. If you look at some of the videos out there (like on Remarkablogger) you’ll see amazing drag-and-drop NO CSS tools in Headway. This separates Headway from ALL other themes. It’s also a clear indicator that your main observation in this post is dead on: the plain ol’ premium theme is indeed dead.

Chris Burbridge September 19, 2009 at 6:02 pm

I, for one, cannot IMAGINE why a “serious” web designer or blogger would not be willing to shell out 80 bucks for a theme, *if* that payment helped get them much farther along. Frankly, if they were doing the project for paying money, and it saved them *even* a few hours of time, it’d be more than worth it.

Struggling to save every penny in expenses, while toiling away labor-wise, is, well — I guess that could be a good move for a student, or someone on a very tight budget.

Anyway, enough of the rant.

I’m excited about paid and non-paid frameworks, and can totally see the benefits of both. Either way, folks need to get paid for their work somehow!

Previous post:

Next post: