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Should You Start from Scratch, Use A Starter Theme Or Child Theme for WordPress?

By Snap Agency August 14, 2014

Starting Out with WordPress Themes

Let me start by saying that this information is intended for developers, if you need a site please don’t try to work this into the plan without consulting your favorite developer. Let your developer decide what’s best for each project (or if you don’t have one, you trust we may be able to help you find a web developer).

Okay so we are starting a new project with WordPress, do we do everything ourselves or start with something that will give us a leg up? Lets define some options for WordPress development.

We could use a child theme. In WordPress, a child theme is a theme that gets its functionality from its parent theme. We can stand it up quickly and borrow all the functionality from a very well-written theme developed by a premium theme foundry or the WordPress developers. When it comes time to update the code, we can update the parent theme without affecting the edits we made in the child theme.

Another option would be to use a starter theme. There are several great starter themes with the main shell of a great WordPress theme built. Using a starter theme will save you lots of time building the basics that you need for any project.

Lastly, for ultimate freedom we can just start from scratch. Starting with nothing will take more time and if you do it every time you may find yourself doing the same work over and over, but you are not restrained by anything prebuild, and don’t have to remove or tweak code you don’t want.

If you’re building a WordPress website, then you need to Lets carefully examine each option.

Child Themes

Child themes work on the principle of overriding vs. overwriting. Rather than deleting and rewriting some code in the parent theme, you simply copy the file to the child theme directory and make your edits there. Basically, WordPress will check for files in your child theme directory and if it can’t find it there, it will use the one in the parent theme directory. This means that you can edit the CSS, tweak how the sidebar is displayed on that one pesky sub-page, or change how your posts are displayed on your archive page. If we were to just edit the parent theme when it came time to update it, we would overwrite all our changes. But since all our edits are in a child theme we can keep our theme up to date without overwriting our custom code. If you want to learn more about child themes have a look at the documentation page.

child theme wordpress

Some developers have found that child themes can be slightly restricting, because it’s just easier to use existing infrastructure rather than build in new every time. Because of this, many child themes end up looking like their parents. If you use one parent theme enough all your sites might start to look the same.

When it comes to child themes you get out what you put in. If the parent theme sucks, the child theme will suck. And if the parent theme rocks the child theme can rock just as hard. So we need to find good themes, and themes that will be supported by their developer. If the theme is not being supported then you may as well just edit the parent theme since you’ll never be getting updates for it.

Great places to find parent themes for WordPress:

  • Use the twenty-thirteen, or twenty-fourteen themes that come with WordPress.

  • Woothemes is a great theme foundry with great support for their themes.

  • Many developers use the Genesis theme framework by studiopress as a parent theme.


  • Well written theme (if you find a good parent theme).

  • Powerful features build in.

  • Maintained by great developers.


  • May need to overwrite a lot of code depending on how far you desired project is from the parent theme.

  • Loss of originality

Starter Themes

Starter theme for wordpress developmentStarter themes have just enough of a outline to help you jump right in to the meaty development without have to do boring but important things like naming directories. Automattic called it the 1000-hour head start, it basically has all the code that you will need for 80% of projects and nothing more. This framework of code should get your project off to a faster start, it can also be a helpful growth tool to work with a framework developed by the pros at Automattic.

Great Starter themes:


  • Learn from well-written code.

  • Huge head start vs. starting from scratch.

  • Well-written Framework to write your code in

  • Less useless code.


  • You have to support your own code when WordPress updates.

  • Slower development time than child theme.

start from scratch custom development

Start from Scratch.

Starting your theme from scratch can be the most labor intensive and the most freeing method. You don’t get the leg up of starting with code already written, but you are not restrained by that code either. You wont have to remove, rewrite, or overwrite any code. You also won’t mentally be stuck in the framework of the parent or starter theme. Some of the most creative themes start from scratch.


  • Creative Freedom

  • No build-in Framework

  • Don’t have to remove useless code.


  • Slower development time

  • Repetitive work if you end up building similar themes more than once.

  • No built-in Framework

  • You have to support your own code when WordPress updates.


What you choose will depend on what you are trying to do, If you want to quickly build a theme that has similar design or functionality to a current theme, use a child theme. If you can’t find a theme you want to borrow functionality from or are constrained, go with a starter theme to save time. Or go super creative and start from scratch.

Child Theme, Starter Theme, Custom Development Website Comparison