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Smashing Special: WordPress Theme Trends For 2012

This special is the first in our series of Smashing Specials — extended articles and studies dedicated to a specific topic. The special features current WordPress theme trends for 2012, covering past trends, new developments in theme design and trends in the theme development.

2011 was a great year for WordPress, with some excellent new updates that saw the introduction of a drag-and-drop uploader, distraction-free writing, the HTML5 Twenty Eleven theme, and movement towards a fully responsive dashboard. As well as changes to WordPress core, theme development continued to evolve, as whispers of responsive design spread like wildfire across the WordPress community.

splash image

(image credit: Bowe Frankema)

Over the next year, some recent developments will become standards. Others, now just remote flickerings in the eyes of a few theme designers and developers, will start to take hold. Now that 2012 has properly started, let’s look at some trends that have emerged and are emerging.

Due to the length of this special, it was split into three parts:

Past Predictions

When thinking about future trends, it’s fun to look back and see what people predicted before to see whether any of their predictions came to fruition. Thankfully, with the power of Internet, combined with Ian Stewart’s “Future of WordPress Themes” posts (as well as WPCandy), doing this is very easy.

So, just what were people predicting when WordPress was growing up?

The Demise of the WordPress Premium Theme Market Link

At the start of 2008, when creating a premium WordPress theme was frowned upon, Ian Stewart wrote this in a post3:

It’s prediction time: The premium WordPress theme phenomenon has approximately one year left before collapsing entirely, leaving a rather large hole between completely free WordPress themes and custom themes $1500 and up. If you’ve got a “premium” WordPress theme waiting in the wings, I advise releasing it sooner rather than later. As in, now.

We don’t really need to add a comment to that one.

“Cluttered and Pimped Out” Link

Here’s what Robert Ellis4 said about the future of WordPress themes in 2008:

The vast majority of themes will still be garish mutations of Kubrick, but more cluttered, more pimped out with widgets, scripts and effects. There will still be premium themes that push the envelope in terms of built-in options and quality, but the market will become saturated, setting off even more accusations of copying (as we’ve seen with magazine themes; though personally, I think most of them look like they were “inspired” by CNN).

This was more on the money, and we have seen amateur designers cram in a lot of different scripts and effects. This has diminished over time. Hopefully, our direction now is more Zen.

Early Niche Predictions Link

Justin Tadlock5 had this to say in 20086:

I do hear some talk of moving into designs for specific niches, so theme developers could cater to particular users. I think this is a great idea, which could be a nice trend as we’ve seen with magazine-styled themes. Users want something that works for them before unwrapping the packaging.

Justin was definitely prescient then, as niche themes became more popular in 2011. And we’ll see much more of them in 2012.

Everyone Loved Theme Options Link

In 2009, themes that allowed you to customize the layout and design started to appear. Here’s what Dougal Campbell had to say:

The main change I see happening here is with themes which provide some sort of customizing feature on the back end which lets you choose options like: header graphics; one, two or three sidebars, along with their positions; color schemes; They will also be pre-bundled with several plugins which allow you to pull in your content from other sources such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, etc. These kinds of themes already exist, but I think we’ll see the ease of customization rise to a new level.

By 2012, this trend towards adding options and customizations reached its zenith, and it will hopefully decline over the coming year.

Want to have fun reading past WordPress theme predictions. Check them out here:

A Trip Down Memory Lane Link

Let’s look at how theme design has changed over the past few years.

Free Themes: The WordPress Repository Link

Below are the most popular themes downloaded from the WordPress theme directory since 2009 (thanks to Otto10 for getting this information). You can see how WordPress themes have moved away from looking like blogs to a more professional appearance.

iNove12 was the most popular theme in 2009, followed by Atahualpa1613 and then Pixeled.

Mystique15 was the most popular theme in 2010, followed by Atahualpa1613 and then TwentyTen.

Delicate18 was the most popular theme in 2011, followed by TwentyEleven19 and then Platform.

To see how things have fared on the commercial theme front, we scoured the archive of ThemeForest. Below are the best-selling themes from the last quarter of each year.

Here were the top themes:


Rockable Press WordPress Theme

Sharp20 was the top theme for the end of 2008.

Twicet22 topped downloads for the last quarter of 2009.

Striking24 was the most popular theme in the last quarter of 2010.

The multi-optioned uDesign26 was the most downloaded theme in the last quarter of 2011.

What Happened In 2011? Link

Before getting to our predictions for what will take hold in WordPress themes this year, let’s quickly look at what has happened over the past year:

  • Theme frameworks
    Theme frameworks were everywhere in 2011. As someone who blogs regularly about WordPress, I found myself announcing the launch of three different frameworks in one week. WordPress staples such as Thematic, Thesis and Genesis continued to grow in popularity, but more and more frameworks appeared on the scene, including the likes of Wonderflux27, Bones28 and Roots29. Perhaps in 2011 we’ll see fewer new frameworks and more themes for existing ones.
  • Child themes
    Child themes took off in a big way in 2011. Once people grasped the concept that creating a child theme and making edits to it was better than hacking away at the parent, they started to have fun. Will we see child themes in the WordPress repository in 2012?
  • The “CMS” theme
    At the start of 2011, everyone seemed to be calling their theme a “CMS” theme, implying that their awesome theme gave WordPress the characteristics of a CMS, as opposed to WordPress itself being a CMS. Thankfully, that trend petered out towards the end of the year, perhaps as it became less imperative to convince people that WordPress was a CMS.
  • Sliders everywhere
    Every theme seemed to have a slider on the home page. This might have been due to the gorgeousness of Nivo30 and other sliders that make it easy for anyone to include a jQuery slider in their theme. Hopefully, designers will be more inventive with their jQuery this year.
  • Tumblr themes
    All of a sudden, creating a Tumblog became easy. Designers first achieved this with the Woo Tumblog31 plugin, but the introduction of WordPress post formats32 made it possible to create a Tumblog with WordPress core functionality.
  • Custom post type mania
    As predicted by Brad Williams in WPCandy’s predictions for 201133, we saw loads of themes that made use of custom post types, including ones for job rollers, e-commerce websites, real estate websites, review websites and so on and so on. Not to mention a plethora of WordPress custom post type plugins.

Now we’ve got the past out of the way, let’s look at the future!

Smashing Special: A Three-Part Series Link

Due to the length of the series, it was split into three parts:


Footnotes Link

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Siobhan McKeown is a big fan of words, and of WordPress, which works out pretty well since she runs Words for WP, the only copywriting service dedicated to WordPress service providers. You can find her on her personal blog, twitter and occasionally hanging out on G+.

  1. 1

    Ronny / rktic

    February 9, 2012 7:10 am

    First things first – this was a long but good read. Time passes so fast, you barely find the opportunity to reflect. Being a WordPress user and customizer my own since WP 1.0 i’ve been following especially the theme development with eager interest.

    Few words about the premium theme market from my point of view.

    During the process of evaluating hundrets of live premium theme demos throughout the last weeks i come to the conclusion that there is still a to do for premium developers. You get themes with up to 10 different sliders, tons of layout options for your portfolio, more shortcodes than one can possibly ever put to good use.

    Thing is – being a creative/designer/blogger with something to show off in a portfolio – you find 2 of 10 themes to support more than 3 post formats. On the other hand it’s quite obvious that especially creative people want to share all kinds of content as easy as possible. Why o why do most premium theme developers don’t catch up there? That’s (imho) still the main reason why lots of creatives still have a tumblr account at hands.

    And with the ongoing responsiveness trend (which i consider being a bit overrated – a well layouted static theme will also work fine on mobile devices) it’ll most probably make above situation worse.

    Last not least the theme market as is (at the moment) is one big mess. It’s almost impossible to get a good overview. Okay, there’s Thememarket with dozens of amazing themes for little budget but that’s one nightmare to navigate through. It’s up to the developer to describe the features of his item and most likely there’s a plethora of buzzwords to trigger ones attention while leaving important information aside.

    “6 sliders!
    50 shortcodes!
    100 layout possibilities”

    You think “hey, that’s great” – in worst case purchase an überawesome theme and then have to learn that all those features only work in a limited context (i.e. 100 hundret ways of displaying your portfolio while leaving the blog unattended).

    I could go on with this to underline one thing:

    the premium market anno 2012 is still immature. There’s a proper lack of declaration standards, no refund if that pig in the pie you just bought doesn’t live up to your expectations, you can’t be sure that a theme you just bought for 35 bucks will be supported to work with future versions of WordPress and so on.

    My advice: if you intend buying a premium theme but have no clue about WordPress customization – don’t do it! OR (if you’re extremely happy with what you see) make sure that the set of praised features will also work in which ways you want to use them.

    Hm, all pretty good arguments which underline that properly customized and personalized solutions for serious money will soon be on the rise.

    Then again – customizing WordPress is quite much fun, eh? Ups – sorry for that lengthy comment…

    • 2

      Siobhan McKeown

      February 9, 2012 8:14 am

      Thanks for your comment! I enjoyed reading it. I totally agree about post formats. I bought a premium theme recently (which I really love and it looks awesome) that didn’t have post format support. Thankfully I know how to add them, and I can ping a designer friend to make them look snazzy, but I doubt that’s the case for a lot of people. It would be great to see post formats included in more themes, with styles to make them look nice.

      I also find it a big problem that many themes with lots of theme options actually have a steep learning curve. There are people who use WordPress to build their website who just won’t know what padding is, or which colors complement each other, or what fonts to use. This is why I think that premium theme shops that pare down the options are going to be much more successul this year. Business owners want to be able to create a website straight away.

      And I don’t think the premium theme market is such a terrible mess. I agree that there are quite a lot of badly made themes being thrown around but there are some also some really good quality themes and I do think that we’ll see more and more of the latter. In such a competitive market it’s really only going to be the best that can sustain a long term business out of it.

      My comment is become as long as yours! So will finish there. But thanks again for your thoughts, I enjoyed reading them.

      • 3

        Ronny / rktic

        February 9, 2012 8:57 am

        Hej Siobhan,

        you’re welcome! Good point about the learning curve.

        And maybe i was a bit harsh with the market evaluation. Then again, it took me about 75 hours of browsing to finally find the thing i could bent towards my needs. Since i checked out lots of free themes in the past i know the culprits of dealing with others’ themes. But what if i was new to WordPress and had no idea about all this?

        Didn’t intend to say the majority of themes is bad. One just doesn’t really get the chance to see wether one fits or not. Since the main selling point about premium WordPress themes has become their backend, potential customers should be able to testdrive those properly before raising their cashbags. OR at least be able to get their money back if they’re simply unable to cope with it.

        Theme markets like TF should start with better search filters for supported features instead of leaving everything up to the developer. That would also live up to the premium thing.

        • 4

          Siobhan McKeown

          February 9, 2012 9:01 am

          Great point re: test driving the back end. Ben Gillbanks at Pro Theme Design lets his potential users do just that:

          I’d definitely like to see more of it. TF is unfortunately a bit hit and miss, but there’s still some good stuff on there.

  2. 5

    I love this site. Outstanding article so far.

  3. 7

    Florescu Adrian

    February 9, 2012 7:49 am

    Sliders everywhere!!! True! I think I’m going crazy with all clients asking for a slider and also all websites having one!

    • 8


      I’m really curious to see what the next big thing is that will hopefully replace sliders. While they are cool, and work well, they’ve been around forever & everybody has one!

      • 9


        I’m really curious to see what the next big thing is that will hopefully replace WordPress.

    • 10

      Siobhan McKeown

      February 9, 2012 8:15 am

      I have been totally guilty of it myself. And I am a little bit in love with Nivo but the most beautiful themes I’ve seen recently have been without sliders.

  4. 11

    Steven Gliebe

    February 9, 2012 7:50 am

    Great article. I really enjoyed the past predictions. I wasn’t around when Ian Stewart foretold the commercial theme market’s collapse. It was interesting reading the comments on his post by people who agreed at the time. Brian Gardner was a dissenter and look at him now! Ian’s response one year later:

    “Oh, I was almost totally wrong. Obviously.”

    That’s what Nostradamus would say if he were still around. :)

    • 12

      Siobhan McKeown

      February 9, 2012 8:16 am

      I love that post from Ian Stewart! It made me smile a lot what I saw it :)

      • 13

        I’m a bit lost now. Are you saying that Ian Stewart or Brian Gardner was correct in the end? I’m not familiar with the current successes of premium theme companies.

  5. 14

    Steven Gliebe

    February 9, 2012 7:54 am

    Oh, by the way, Ian Stewart posted his theme predictions for 2012 a couple days ago:

  6. 15

    Marios Lublinski

    February 9, 2012 8:49 am

    Great article Siobhan,

    As I am not big fan of sliders, they probably will not go away any time soon..Replacing slider is like replacing the e-mail.. people just got use to it. All the top selling themes on TF have sliders in it, and the top selling theme (U-design) has 6 slider options :)

    I hope we see more grid-based themes since those are my favorite..

    • 16

      Siobhan McKeown

      February 9, 2012 9:01 am

      *sigh* I fear your are right. But you never know, maybe by this time next year….

  7. 17

    Thanks for the great series. Very helpful, all three.

    I am a regular smashing reader. Not much of a commenter. I have to say I love the new design, but the font refresh on every link click is very irritating and slow. Please fix it. Reading such a long article with font flickering on every link click has given me a headache.


  8. 18

    Andreas Ostheimer

    February 9, 2012 1:58 pm

    I am about to read part 2 and 3 of this promising article – here are my comments which I hope to be useful.

    I have been looking at hundreds of themes in the past 3 years and bought over 50 themes on Themeforest alone. What I find MOST important about a theme is the codebase and the support. While designers like Kriesi and kaptinlin (Striking theme) have clean code and (almost) no heavy bugs I find that many themes just look good on the outside but as soon as you want to insert ads (in a magazine theme) you find yourself constraint by the theme. You end up asking yourself why you haven’t taken Striking as a “framework” and just code&design the rest yourself. Of course it is almost impossible to see whether a theme by an unknown designer has solid code – you will just have to go for the 35$ and find out.

    Sliders: I can’t wait until something new is coming up. I am so over those standard layouts making everything but buying the Striking theme useless.

    About the responsive themes – there is ONE little things ALL the responsive themes miss: Ads. You have dozens of beautifully designed but utterly useless responsive themes. If you can’t add ads to it, it’s worthless unless it is for portfolio websites and thelike. I don’t know why almost all designers miss the ad-angle. There are shop integrations, integration with SEO-Plugins but nobody thought about adding support for Adrotate or other ingenious ad-plugins.

    Niche themes are a big thing and will continue to rise but I have had my share of troubles with those feature-rich niche-themes. Almost all of them had major constraints such as missing localization, missing microformats, missing social media integration – oh I had so much fun adding those things.

    Enough – I will go on reading, thanks so far. ;-)

  9. 20

    Interestingly, the top-selling theme on ThemeForest has all these ‘unlimited’ options, so there is a market for apparently. The idea of customization has gone a bit too far I think with these themes. Giving the customer the option to choose any Google web font available is much easier than selecting good font pairings.

    Regarding the ‘niche’ themes, that’s why it’s unfortunate ThemeForest has a fixed price structure. A specific niche theme is going to sell less than a fully-packed unlimited-purpose theme. To make this a worthwhile investment for a developer, the prices of these theme should be higher. Or at least have the option to.

  10. 21

    Djordje Marcetin

    February 10, 2012 7:16 am

    Hello Siobhan,

    I have recently start creating WP themes for multisite that my clients will use, and last days I get idea that is maybe better to create one flexible framework-kind theme that will be configurable from admin. Also my plan is to make that theme free but to charge support in some way. Generally I have bad experience with premium themes, but also with free themes, premium for not see what is under hood when buying and free because of stupid links or some malicious code. Internet is changing those days, many of sites will go down because of any fraud or illegal content, so my prediction is that quality free themes will have expansion. I dont support illegal activities but I must say that every premium theme that I used to create sites for my clients I had first downloaded it from some torrent, warez or similar sites to try it and than if I like it’s code and what is under hood buy it, exception are site for premium themes where I pay monthly without limitation on theme download.
    Maybe I am not predicting well, but I am sure that premium like free themes will be trend in 2012.

    • 22

      Djordje – I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to download commercial themes from torrent or warez sites. I’ve done quite a bit or research on this in the past, and a theme may be perfectly safe when coming from the source. However, when they are redistributed on torrent, warez and free sites they often come full of malicious code that can inject spam links into your sites or spread backdoors and trojans. When I was doing research for this post I installed one theme from a free site which infected every other site on my local installation. I would really recommend against doing it, even for testing purposes.

      That said, I think the freemium support model is a good one, so long as the free theme is a good one and the support provided is excellent. People really do need dedicated support for themes so it’s definitely a way to make money from a free product.

  11. 23

    Thank you very much for another great post. I love all three series. I’ve always loved word press for it’s ease of use and recommend it to clients all the time that need something easy to use but still very powerful.

    Thanks again and have a great weekend.


  12. 25

    It is an enthralling and wholesome article. It has been very helpful in understanding of various things. I’m sure a lot of people will share this point of view.

  13. 26

    wondered if I produced a major mistake

  14. 27

    Another great valuable article from Smashing Magazine. Premium WordPress themes are here to stay. I do all my websites using WordPress! Many of the guidelines from your books can be applied to web design based on WordPress – that’s one killer feature.

  15. 28

    Useful information. thanks.

    I should repeat what you can find by analyzing TF for some time:
    More features you put in your theme, more people will buy your work. it’s a sad truth about WordPress, users often don’t know about “beautiful codes”, it’s whole about “get more options” which means 6 different sliders, 100 short-codes, ability to change letter-spacing of footer links (!) and…

    I want to design a professional theme for TF but when I look at sales… “yeah, let’s create a theme with 25 sliders and short-code-creator plugin integrated!”. I want money :D


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