When it comes to the free WordPress themes, the best-rated themes are often the least user-friendly of the bunch.

Atahualpa theme’s rating in WordPress.org

I had to work with the Atahualpa theme last year, for a project that didn’t last very long. And the first time I saw the code and tried to make modifications to it, my immediate reaction was “What a mess. What a total mess.

The theme’s code structure is way different from the usual WordPress theme’s code structure, the structure that the default theme that comes with standard WordPress installation uses. Because I am familiar with that structure, seeing a theme with a code structure such as Atahualpa’s is out-of-the-wordly experience.

And yet this theme is one of the highest-rated theme in the official WordPress.org theme repository, rated by 446 users at the time of writing. How could a theme like this be so user-unfriendly?

Of course, back then I didn’t know better. The reason for the theme’s out-of-the-ordinary code structure is simply customisability. But the problem with themes like that is that they are not meant to be used as is. The amount of options that the theme has allows the users to customise it to whatever they want it to be. But options are really a double-edged sword. Too many options will simply overwhelm a huge percentage of users.

The so-called Theme Framework themes like Atahualpa, Ashford, Constructor, and Thematic all share this same characteristic. To the web developer who are building a website using WordPress for their clients, these are amazing themes. They save a lot of time and allow for quicker and easier implementation than having to build a theme from scratch. To the average Joe who are just starting to get comfortable with WordPress, however, they are hell.

And coincidentally, those web developers are usually the ones who are registered and actively involved on WordPress.org, and they are the ones who usually care to rate the theme they use. Most other average Joes are not even registered at WordPress.org. Consequentially, the least accessible theme to the average Joe are the ones who got the most (and highest) rating.

Atahualpa theme

When talking about the official WordPress.org theme repository, I will be the first to admit that most of the themes up there, including the highest rated ones, are simply ugly. Themes like Atahualpa and Thematic are champions in terms of customisability, but they are ugly. They have no resemblance to what you will call a modern website design.

This is again a disadvantage to the average Joe, since they are most likely to install these highest-rated themes first when they do their first ever WordPress install, only to be disappointed at how bland the website look. In order to make it look like a respectable website, a lot of customisations need to be done. Now themes like Atahualpa and Thematic sure allows for extreme customisations, but most of it are simply out of reach to the average user.

Thematic theme

It is difficult to strike a balance between design elegance and feature-rich functionality. Often, building a feature-rich theme is a lot of work, really a lot of work. Hiring a web designer to design an awesome theme to complement that rich feature doesn’t come cheap, and most coders and programmers are not designers. They don’t do designing work very well (nor do they like doing it, I suspect). And to top it off, awesome design often takes longer and more difficult to code, especially so if you’re adhering to the code standards.

So you see why it’s either one or the other. Perhaps that’s the reason why my first theme to be released to the public, the Graphene theme, is so popular. Truth be told, I never expected it to receive such a wide acceptance, much less to be among the 15 most popular themes on the official WordPress theme repository, among the ranks of giants such as Thematic and Atahualpa. Now, I’ll be the first (again) to admit that the design and look of the theme could be better, but as I said, I am a coder much more than I am a designer. But I believe the theme does strike a nice balance between user-friendliness, looks, and functionality.

The Graphene theme has been (and still is) a playground for me. I’ve learned a lot and is still learning the tricks of the trade in developing the theme. For those who use the theme since it’s first released, you know how different it is between the current version ( and the initial release, barely two months ago.

I sincerely believe the WordPress theme repository could use more themes that don’t just cater to the web developers, but to the average users as well. After all, those are the ones who are actually using WordPress to pen their own words and thoughts.