The Best WordPress Theme for Picky Bloggers

Chris Lema

Confession: I’m Picky

Let’s start where things always start – with me. Because I’m my own worst enemy. I change my mind all the time when it comes to this site. It’s why it’s the worst rendition of a blog ever – because it’s not focused on one topic – it’s focused on three (WordPress, Great Presenting & the Neuroscience behind it, and New Product Development). Talk about all over the place. But hey, that’s me and I don’t feel like managing 3 sites instead of one. But back to the main point, I’m picky. I change my mind about the style, the look, the theme, the layout, and the front page of this site. In fact, I change my mind about everything except the tone I write with (because it’s me), the fact that it’s on WordPress, and that this is where I post info so I can limit how much I repeat myself.

Confession #2: I’m more Engineer than Designer

Yet even though no design is ever “finished” and I’m constantly changing the look of my site, the truth is that I’m not a designer. I say this after producing countless items of design. And the engineers I manage will laugh at my protestation. Yet, for as much as I’m comfortable with all the design tools, I’m at home with a control panel that looks more like a spreadsheet than a drag and drop theme framework (which I’ll be reviewing next week). I say that because you may hate my choice for the best WordPress theme for picky bloggers. That’s ok, it’s a personal opinion and you don’t need to form protest lines. I’m ok with a different opinion. It’s not like I said Romney or Obama loves this theme. This is just one guy’s opinion. (Though I can’t believe they wouldn’t love this theme!)

Five Great Framework Options

There’s no question that you’ve heard of some of the big frameworks. If you’re a blogger, there’s a good chance you know about one of my favorite ones: The Genesis Framework by StudioPress. It’s fantastic. If you’re a fan of drag and drop layouts, maybe you’re digging Headway, Pagelines or the one I like most, Builder – three frameworks that really make drag and drop a simple exercise. Of course if you spend time on a lot, you’ve seen me play with and leverage just about all the themes from WooThemes at different points because I love those guys! And recently, I was sporting Canvas on this site. Each of those is a great choice and you can’t go wrong with them.

They’re all great and you can’t go wrong with any of them. That said, if you’re picky, looking to manage a blog (not a corporate site, not an e-commerce site, not a photography portfolio), and aren’t a designer, then I have the theme for you! Also, if you’re not a blogger but you set up sites for others using WordPress, you’ll want to keep this one in your arsenal because it will come in handy when you want options but also want your client to be able to adjust and tweak things later without calling you (and trust me, that’s a big deal).

My Pick: Catalyst

Without a lot of preamble (we’re 500 words into this post already man!) let me give it to you in two words: Catalyst Theme. Let me lay out for you the five quick reasons I like it best:

  1. It does responsive sites better than Canvas (which had something funky going on with images). Almost 25% of my traffic comes from mobile devices, and almost 60% of Facebook referrals come from mobile devices.
  2. It has tons of options, more than Canvas and/or Pagelines. But it’s not drag and drop. I jump in, set values and get out. I love fine-grain control over every aspect of everything. Without writing a 900 line CSS file.
  3. It has an integrated CSS builder so even though I know what I want, I don’t have to go hunting for the exact term. Again, quick form and it produces my custom CSS which I can then drop into the right form.
  4. It comes with Dynamik, a child theme, which means I’m not directly messing with the parent theme. It’s a technical reason, but I like it.
  5. Lastly, it has a super cool export/import feature that lets me work in staging, export my config, and then import it into production so I don’t have to play fast and loose in production (otherwise known as Cowboy Coding).

It has fancy options for home page design, supports different layouts (though that’s a bit less intuitive than the drag & drop frameworks), and loads pretty fast. Especially when hosted on WP Engine, or any other managed WordPress hosting provider.

Here are some screen shots.

Notice the form-based approach. Yes, there are a lot of tabs, but the first time user can skip over most of them. Later, as they get more comfortable, they can go looking for the exact place they want to make changes. These, of course, are only the “core” options. Wait until you see the Child Theme options.

I should mention that it comes with a 175-page manual, which most theme frameworks don’t. Talk about documentation. And it has video tutorials for those of us who want to jump in quickly. But again, notice all the options (tabs) and in each tab, tons of little details to control. What’s even more cool? There’s a nice little inheritance so that if you adjust the link (and link hover) colors on the first tab, it will set those across all of the tabs until you go tweak some of them. Very nice.

I mentioned to someone the other day that I was able to produce a blog design using Catalyst in under 30 minutes. Now, mind you, this wasn’t a fancy blog. But it was clearly not a default empty plain one either. And the best part was using the custom CSS builder that’s integrated into the theme framework so that I could quickly compose CSS, drop it in, test it and tweak it.


Now, had I written this post a week ago, I would have told you that $75 was worth every penny. But today you’ll see that Catalyst costs you $127. So here’s my take – it’s still worth every penny. If you’re like me, you’ll want to adjust the spacing between the columns, or the line spacing, or the border around your images, or the height of your header, or the font. Every one of those changes, for a non-technical blogger, means a phone call and a bit of money. If you’re a developer creating blogs for folks, teaching them how to use these options is possible (for the right client). And if you’re just trying to produce quick blogs, this is a must. Either way, the price is nothing compared to the cost of developers adjusting your blog.

Your Take?

Ok, so like always this is an opinionated post. What’s your take? Have you tried Catalyst yet? Do you have a different favorite?

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  1. Hey ChrisGreat post, I might try it out. I have been in this mood lately to reinvent my blog, perezbox, and can’t figure it out.  One thing I would note, you have this rotating image in the center of the post that changes sizes and its driving me nuts when I’m reading the tail end of the post. Other than that, thanks for sharing. 

  2. Good article. I’ve got a WordPress installation or two myself, but we are primarily Joomla/Drupal/Krang/Elgg stuff. I’ve had a blogger account since.. I don’t know when. I really only started paying more attention to the blog stuff when I began Chris’s class.  I was just looking at changing my blogger framework last night.  What about integration of stuff between WordPress and Google Apps… or do you use Google Apps?  Maybe we can talk about that kind of stuff…direct?  Again.. good article. 

    • stanbush You can hit me up direct any time you like, using the contact form, friending me on G+ or FB, or however you like Stan. I’d love to hear what kind of Google App integration you’re thinking about.

  3. FlyGirlsMedia says:

    Good job!  We build and play and work around WP for our clients. And we love  the Genesis framework and their themes.  Will Catalyst work on the Genesis framework?  I’d consider buying it if it does.

    • FlyGirlsMedia Catalyst does have a way to deliver it’s child theme on top of the Genesis framework. You can read about it here:

  4. Hi ChrisWhen I was looking for a theme framework I narrowed it down to Catalyst and Genesis.In the end I went with Genesis, but I notice that Eric Hamm is now producing some fabulous plugins ‘themes for Genesis.I did a review of his Dynamik theme for Genesis and he has now promised us the ultimate Catalyst plugin for Genesis is on its way.I for one can’t wait.

    • wmwebdes I love Genesis and I use it regularly for other projects when I’m developing a child theme. But I don’t work as much on my own site, so something that’s quick to configure is great. I look forward to people trying the combo of the two. Seems like a good thing!

  5. Hi,

    I’m curious. After giving such a flawless review to Ultimatum here: not too long ago, Catalyst is the one you choose? If it would have been included in that comparison, would it have fared just as well as Ultimatum then?

    I’m looking at choosing THE ultimate system right now, one that my clients can live with. The dream of “drag-and-drop, no-code” seems sooo close. :) But I find it very difficult to dive in with one or another. I first owned Headway, then bought Ultimatum, but I’m now wondering if Catalyst might not be the one for the every man? It seems a bit more tedious with all it’s forms and drop-downs and all, but it might be more accessible to everyone. I haven’t bought it yet, but I sense it,s a powerful theme framework, one that can let people start slow, and grow into bigger things?

    Basically, this post of yours put me right back on the fence! 😐 Help!

    • Argghhhh!! I just noticed the dates. This was posted a few months before the comparison post.

      Still, I’d love to hear your input on Catalyst vs. Ultimatum, especially aiming at a light to non-coder..

    • First, those posts were each answering a different question – neither of them focused on the “ultimate” theme. That said, I don’t need drag and drop – and while I wrote the post, I don’t find that it’s yet at a place where it’s perfect and easy for my clients. So while I thought the review might be helpful, I don’t think the answer for the “every day person” is to restrict the options to only drag and drop themes.

      I’m sorry that I made things harder instead of easier. :) That said, the question of the perfect theme is really a question about the target client. If you browse my site, you’ll find another post where I state that for all my free clients, I only use WooThemes (another one to spin you around), but that’s for specific reasons too.

      So all that said, what would I invest in? Well, I think you have my answer right now because as of right now, I’m using Catalyst and leveraging it on a few sites as well for others who don’t know how to code. They don’t need drag and drop because they’re not designing their sites. But they do need easy and accessible ways to edit the look, or add something, and Catalyst lets them do that. Over time, as they get more sophisticated, Catalyst lets them go further as well.

      So yes, I’d say, get Catalyst.

      • Thanks, it’s certainly looking more and more thy way. As far as you know, are there limitations? I canot see why a small/medium ecommerce website couldn’t be built on Catalyst for example..thank you for sharing your experience this way, we really appreciate it.

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