State of WordPress starter themes 2018

After working with many different WordPress starter themes, I decided to compile a list of the most current and up-to-date WordPress starter themes. Here are some of the most popular starter themes.

Keep in mind that these themes are for serious development only. You won’t find any theme in here which isn’t maintained or which is badly coded.


Sage 9

Sage 9 is the latest version of the Sage starter theme framework. Sage has been around for quite some time and is pretty popular among design agencies. Unlike its previous versions, Sage 9 does things quite differently. For starters, they use the Blade templating engine from the Laravel project. So instead of writing code in PHP, you will be writing code using mustache like syntax. Other than that, it uses a completely different project structure which is neater that the previous versions but can raise conflicts with some plugins.

On the frontend side, it uses babel and webpack to power the build process. During the setup phase, Sage gives you options to install Bootstrap, Bulma, Foundation or no framework.

With all the libraries it comes with, Sage can be a bit overwhelming for newbies so best stick with something else unless you’re familiar with writing es6 javascript and like working with a php framework such as Laravel.
Get Sage 9

 

Tonik

Tonik is another fully fledged starter theme. Just like Sage 9, they use Twig templating engine. While Tonik is a relatively new starter theme, the folks over at tonik.pl are pushing code regularly.

On the frontend side, Tonik uses webpack to power their build system. It has full support for es6 syntax and uses Bootstrap 4 scss for the css. Definitely try out this starter theme if you would like to use a modern workflow with es6 javascript.
Get Tonik

 

Underscores

Underscores is one of the first starter themes around. Although it doesn’t come with a lot of bells and whistles, its simplicity is what makes it perfect for customizing it and building your own starter theme on top of it.

I felt like the document structure is quite old fashioned and it doesn’t come with gulp/webpack, however this means that you can set it up with whatever you want.

Underscores isn’t opinionated at all and comes with a few template specific css files to get you up and running. Which means its very simple to create your own starter theme based on underscores. However I would recommend you to use something like Understrap or html5blank if you want to just use a bare bones starter theme.
Get Underscores

 

Jointswp

JointsWP is a fairly old WordPress starter theme. The project folder organization is fairly old fashioned and comes with sidebar support(seriously who uses the sidebar anyways). Good thing is, the project maintainers are pretty active and they release updates often.

Under the hood, it comes with Foundation 6 and uses gulp as its build tool. Doesn’t come with es6/babel stuff which can be overwhelming for beginners.

Get JointsWP

 

Html5blank

Of all the starter themes, this one is probably the least opinionated. The only thing different than most starter themes would be a fairly neat root project structure. All the files live inside the /src folder.

Comes with the normalize.css and some other minor css stuff to get you started. Uses gulp as the workflow tool.

Get html5blank

 

Understrap

 

 

Understrap is a basic WordPress starter framework which comes with bootstrap 4 inbuilt. Its based off underscores which explains the simplicity.

It come with a gulp workflow along with some template specific styles of its own. Also comes with heaps of template files which should get you started quickly.

Get Understrap

 

Conclusion

These are currently the best starter themes for serious WordPress theme development. Using a WordPress starter theme can be really speed up your workflow or it can become a maintenance headache. Select a starter theme based on:

  • The community support around it and how active the project maintainers are. Open source with corporate backing or agency assistance are the best bet as you can be sure that the theme development will be alive for a long time.
  • See if the theme is coded correctly and there’s no cowboy coding done. Some starter themes are just bad and depend on using page builders by default. That’s not a starter theme, that’s a disaster waiting to happen.
  • Check if your production environment supports is. For eg: Sage 9 requires a php 7. Also, a lof of modern themes have composer dependencies too so you need to have that installed.

Here’s a TLDR’ish list of all starter themes:

 

Honorable mentions

  1. FoundationPress. While a good starter theme, it doesn’t offer much other than bundling foundation with a barebones WordPress setup.
  2. Genesis theme. Straddling somewhere between a fully fledged starter theme and a page builder theme like divi.  I don’t recommend using it for serious theme development as it adds too much fluff inside – and starter themes shouldn’t be child themes anyways.
  3. My custom starter theme based on Sage 8. Its custom tailored for me but you can grab those neat whitelabelling functions from it.

*Starter theme –  A blank starter theme which acts as a blank slate from where you can quickly develop your site on.
**Because Sage 9 is so fundamentally different from Sage 8, I’ve decided to break them into two separate starter themes.
***Old fashioned projects usually have a lot of files in the root folder which can look unorganized. They also have a messy assets/src folder organization.