A ThemeForest Theme Case Study

ThemeForest has a pretty bad rap in the WordPress world. It's incredibly popular for anyone who doesn't know anything about HTML & CSS because of the cheap prices and huge selection. There is of course a catch – the cheap prices reflect the quality of some of these themes. While the screenshots look nice the code infrastructure that you pay for is very poorly built. If you have any aspirations to use one of these themes in anyway other than the author intended you'll likely run into a whole bunch of issues. I recently modified a ThemeForest theme (which I'm not going to name) for a friend and here are just some of the issues I ran into.

CSS Loaded Too Late

Because this theme has two different styles – dark & light – the css is loaded in such a way that it's loaded after that child theme's style.css file. That means that you either have to write overly specific css selectors (which is a bad practice), use !important statements all over the place (also a bad practice), or know how to load your own styles even later than the parent theme's CSS (with PHP programming). With the audience ThemeForest has good luck with that.

CSS Use !important Statements

CSS Important Statement

CSS !important statements are everywhere

You'd be surprised how often this theme author uses the !important statement in his CSS. Here's what Smashing Magazine says's about the !important statement:

!important declarations should not be used unless they are absolutely necessary after all other avenues have been exhausted.

And this theme uses them 94 times in a single CSS file! Now any other styles have to use the important statement. This is a terrible practice and one a lot of CSS newbies will have problems with.

Raster Files Everywhere

Another big issue is that every asset is being created with raster (non-scalable) images. That means that if you want to change the look of the Facebook icon you have to load up photoshop, edit the file, export the new image, and override the existing images. This is a huge pain.

Raster ImagesThe author is assuming the users have Photoshop. That's a several hundred dollar investment that many users don't want to make. Why force them?

But even for the users that have Photoshop why not use icon fonts!? Icon fonts allow you to change the color, the size, the hover effect, or anything really without any extra programs. You can change the color of an icon font just as easily as you change the color of a paragraph.

Production Files

Production files in the theme

PSDs Stored in the Theme

Speaking of PSDs (or any production files) why would you store them in the theme? That's an excellent way to waste a couple megabytes of storage in your web hosting. ThemeForest even gives you an assets folder (which isn't in the theme) for these files. This author was just plain lazy.

No Filters

One of the best parts about WordPress is that you can add filters all over the place to make the output dynamic. Different developers can tap into these filters to change the output in an upgrade friendly way. Amazing huh?

No FiltersDo you think ThemeForest authors use these?? Haha. You're still in lala-land.

If you do want to change the output for the social media icons you'll have to override the entire header.php file which is not upgrade safe.

Garbage HTML

Garbage HTML Markup

Garbage HTML markup

And just for funsies it looks like they like to throw in extra HTML into your markup! Just in case a search engine or robot goes through your html they'll find extra stuff (like phone numbers) that you didn't put there.

The Real Issue with Theme Forest

The real issue with theme forest isn't that they always have crappy work it's that there's no incentive to create quality work. I'm sure there are authors who put out really high quality themes but unfortunately there really isn't much of an incentive to do so. You could make more money by spending that extra time making a brand new theme and selling more. Standards be dammed.

ThemeForest feels a bit like a flea market. You have hopes of finding a great deal but most likely you're going to be let down and have no one available to help you. In the long run this hurts the WordPress community. Instead of WordPress being known for it's ease of use WordPress will be associated withย snakeoil salesmen. I don't want that rap and nor should anyone in the WordPress community. We need to encourage these marketplaces to cut out the garbage or at least expose the theme as being substandard so the buyer is made aware.

16 thoughts on “A ThemeForest Theme Case Study

  1. Every business needs to have a source of profit. Innovations happen due to profitability. Themeforest provides just that. If you find problems with a theme why don’t you notify the author of the problems and what he can do. Themeforest has a great community of developers.

    • Definitely the first thing you should do is reach out to the author. They might be very willing to change some of these things. But in my opinion you shouldn’t have to do this. Mistakes are inevitable but this developer clearly doesn’t even know some basic best practices / conventions. I’d like to know that if I purchase a product it isn’t created by an amateur. There should be some sort of audit a theme goes through before being accepted – I actually think there is one already – in that case they should tighten it up a bit.

  2. My experience with ThemeForest (as well as a few other theme marketplaces that I won’t name) has been way too similar. It’s reached a point with my own company where I now flat-out refuse to work with any kind of pre-made theme (although I still work with Genesis, but that’s more of a framework).

    The largest issue I have actually goes beyond code and to the theme options panels many of these themes are packing. The amount of complexity and know-how you need to get many of these themes to even look like the demo is absurd. Even as someone who programs, I’m getting confused by the settings and shortcodes I have to plow through to establish a home page. How is a client with little-to-no development or coding knowledge supposed to figure that out?

    Beyond the snake oil salesman stuff, if non-tech savvy web users are having a bad time with these themes, it’s easy to understand when they take that same frustration out with WordPress as a whole and write it completely off for their site needs.

    In a perfect world, places like ThemeForest would crack down on these themes and start enforcing more standards to make them user, developer, and more WordPress friendly (even make it so after the theme is installed and activated, you have a site that looks like the demo).

    However, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. And it’s a shame.

    • I totally agree on the theme options pages. Those things are exploding with confusing options. I’m an underscores guy and don’t plan on using themes with theme options pages. ThemeForest has started cracking down recently (telling theme authors to take some functionality out of their themes and to put it into plugins) but they’re moving pretty slowly with it. I get why the theme developers want to do it but it’s definitely bad for WordPress as a community.

      • Yeah, the plugins are helpful, but I’m not sure that’s going to fix the core problem of non-standard UI, shortcode overload, and confusing options. It just moves it to a different section of the wp-content folder.

        In some of my more recent themes I’ve developed for clients, I’m consciously starting to remove options and implement a few restrictions with what they can and can’t do. It simplifies things for the end user, there’s less for them to worry about and mess up. And when I release it to the client? They feel less overwhelmed and in more control of their website.

  3. […] own website instead of ThemeForest. You see, ThemeForest themes have a reputation. A reputation for poor coding standards, way too many options and falling well short of the WordPress way. Which is not to say that there […]

  4. I am totally new to WP and was considering purchasing Avada that was until I came across the framework vs standalone theme debate.

    I raised my concerns in Themeforest pre-sale forum and so far they answered all my questions, so I do appreciate that they are not deleting my posts when I raised a controversial subject. That being said, I am not a developer so I have no idea if Avada is simply telling me what I want to hear. When I did a google search, I could not find anything bad about the Avada theme.

    So my question is: any of the veterans here familiar with Avada? Can someone give me advice whether this is worth looking into?

    Last thing I want is to purchase Avada theme, create a massive amount of contents and then 2 years later realize that this theme is not compatible with new WP updates etc.

    • I would confirm with the theme author they aren’t creating any custom post types as those wont transfer. Then even if the theme disappears at some point in the future you can switch to something else.

      I’d also make sure they don’t include any plugins or plugin like functionality in them. Theme Forest just released a list of a 1,000+ themes that had a bug in them because they included plugin logic in them that couldn’t update.

  5. Fantastic article, and I couldn’t agree more. I especially like the analogy of ThemeForest as a flea market: try and rummage through all the crap to find a couple of gems…good luck!

    I am planning on addressing this issue as best I can with a new project called TimberBit. Basically I’ll get permission from theme authors to convert their themes to Genesis Framework child themes, thus removing all the bloated code, bad practices, but still having the design.

    Thanks again for affirming my plan ๐Ÿ˜‰

  6. Hi Patrick:

    I agree with everything you’re saying here, but this article needs one more thing to make it complete. You are trying to make people aware of why ThemeForest themes are more often than not, kind of piss poor. But you also need to follow up and tell them WHERE they CAN get quality, reliable, performance-based, secure themes.

    The vast majority of the people searching for themes don’t know of any place beside ThemeForest to find WordPress themes. Sadly, this applies not only to DIY-ers, but also many web studios and agencies.

    Be sure to give people alternative options to ThemeForest. DIY-ers do not see anything wrong with Avada or X Theme. They think that stuff is great! So they will have to be educated here, and dozens of other places before that message starts to sink in.

    Let people know about places like The Theme Foundry, Up Themes, Array, Press 75, Elegant Themes, ThemeTrust, WooThemes and Studiopress. Tell readers why these are better alternative to ThemeForest. Encourage other people you know to also write about these issues.

    It takes a lot of re-education to turn popular opinion and shopping habits around. Articles like this are a step in the right direction, but remember to give readers the solution, too.

    • Thank you so much for this post! I am new to WP and found this post through google. You’re right, I was dying at the end of the article for him to post recommendations and when there was none I cried on the inside, haha! Thank you sir for the suggestions, I am currently making a financial blog. What do you believe the best modern professional themes are for that if you could recommend any?

      • Hey Kevin.

        First – I shouldn’t have to know your niche to tell you where to get a good theme. The theme shouldn’t have any functionality related to your niche. All functionality should come from plugins.

        Pick a theme from a vendor that has a good reputation. They’re the ones that will always update their theme to the latest version so they continue having a good reputation. I’m a big fan of WooThemes (there’s a reason I work for them) & StudioPress.

        Pick a theme based on how it looks. So based on layout, colors, typography, spacing, etc. that’s all that should go into it. When you do it this way you can swap to a different theme a year down the road and all of your content will look great in the new theme. If you buy a theme with custom post types and custom functionality that will be lost if you change themes. I’m not a big fan of themes with page builders for this reason.

  7. Hey Patrick, are there simple ways for people who build with WP to check the code and evaluate it without being a dev? (I can understand your article, but I fear I would struggle to check these things on a theme myself.)

    • Hey Job,

      Not really. You’d have to know best practices to see if they’re present in the code.

      Perhaps a better approach would be to find a developer that is known for the quality of their code. Might be a bit hard to do with a generic search in ThemeForest but by reaching out to the WordPress community they should have some recommendations for you.

      I hope that helps! ๐Ÿ™‚

      • A little. It would be great if there’s some tool around where n00bs can post a theme’s code and they get some evaluation.

  8. I’ve had one really good, and one really bad experience with Themeforest themes. The bad experience was bad enough that I’ll think twice before ever trying to mod a cheap theme again.

    I think small companies can benefit from $40 themes with a couple caveats:

    1. By no means should they be considered long-term, robust solutions.
    2. Don’t expect them to be easy.
    3. Don’t try to modify them.

    Thanks for the thought-provoker. And sweet blurb on Torque mag!

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