Premium Frameworks Reviewed

Of late commercial frameworks have started appearing everywhere. This post will try and make sense of it all, comparing FrugalHeadwayBuilderGenesis and Elemental. That’s all the commercial frameworks I could think of bar Thesis, who didn’t reply to me emails. This is an unbiased, unaffiliated look at what your options are if you want something to build more WordPress sites off.

Update 06-04-2010 — I’ve added in affiliate links as regular readers will have read the article by now, but the content remains the same.


Initial impressions are good. A hefty user guide covers most things although a quick video introduction to the theme would have been useful. Installation goes smoothly and I’m all set with a decent looking site from the off.

Frugal’s big selling point is it’s options pages. These offer you a huge array of different options for changing the look and feel of your site. In a couple of minutes I was able to make a respectable looking site which was impressive.

Asides from the theme options, Frugal offers the usual in post SEO options and a whole load of custom hooks.

Who’s this for? I’d say it’s a better option that Thesis for most, and Eric Hamm, Frugal founder agrees with me (he also thinks that everyone, everywhere should be using it though!):

I see all kinds of people use my theme.  From total beginners to seasoned WP developers. Usually, though, it seems to be people who don’t want to mess with much coding, but who still want to do-it-all with their theme.

Summing up, really comprehensive options pages let you change pretty heftily the design. I fear though that if you don’t know a lot about design then you’d find the options overwhelming and not know what to change.


Wow. Headway’s got a visual editor that’s not like anything I’ve ever seen in a WordPress theme.

Headway is visual.  You edit and customize the theme right before your eyes.  We use a system that consists of “leafs”.  Leafs can be compared to widgets, but you can move a leaf almost anywhere on the page.  You can also have sidebar leafs that allow you to add widgets.  The sky is the limit.

That’s Headway’s Clay Griffiths. He’s not far wrong actually. Headway has a visual editor overlay thing that lets you quite literally drag bits around your page. If you want a block wider you can either set the width or just drag it across the page! It’s very well done – you can hover over an element to find its class or ID, click on elements to change them etc etc. A video would explain this better, so I’ve just made one. I didn’t narrate it as I didn’t really have any idea what I was doing – I was just playing around 🙂

Headway also has things like the colour pickers, options pages, all the things you’d expect from a premium theme. I’m impressed, but would I actually use it? I’m not sure I would. I don’t think you’d ever be able to create something really nice and unique by dragging and dropping. Some might find it’s a good option, but for most I think it’s a bit too gimmicky.


Builder has a page that lets you… well, build pages in a way similar to Headway’s visual editor.

It’s not quite as innovative as Headway – no drag and drop here, but the interface is functional – select a ‘module’ – be it navigation, widget bar, content area, footer etc and where you want it and you’ve built a layout. You can then choose to apply this to a page, post or homepage. You’ve got control over the layout but not really the design which I’m not sure isn’t a bad thing – with Frugal and Headway I get the idea you’ll see largely the same sites being churned – there’s only so far you can get with their options I think.

Other nice touches include things like a menu manager (although it’s nothing like the 3.0 manager!) and a couple of SEO options. It also has iThemes’ impressive array of video tutorials which cover most things I can think of from changing your permalink structure to creating a post. As with the others, it offers what you’d expect from a decent quality premium theme.

It’s right up with Headway with the whole build pages idea and between the two I’d probably go with Builder – it doesn’t offer nearly the same design options, but for building layouts, it’s pretty good and my favourite out of Frugal and Headway.

And now for something completely different

You’ll only be able to get so far with any of Headway, Frugal or Builder before you have to actually start writing some code. No matter what you do with any of these themes, with the built in options, they’ll still have some features that point them out as powered by that theme. They’re all good for people who can’t write code, but you’ll only get so far editing them and no way are these going to be the death of the good old well designed and then coded theme.

The second half of this post will look at two ‘frameworks’ that more or less exclusively designed for building new designs. Introducing Genesis and Elemental.

Genesis and Elemental

From StudioPress, Brian and Nathan did a pretty damn good job of presenting Genesis as the be all and end all of frameworks. On installation I was impressed with the options page that isn’t covered in jQuery, but actually looks nice and blends in with the WordPress backend. The big focus though is on child themes. Genesis has been presented as something that you can build all kinds of sites off and it’ll function great regardless. Hooks and filters all over the place, they’ve certainly nailed those. The SEO options are comprehensive too, I’ll give them that as well. I’m going to come back to Genesis in a sec. First, Elemental.

Elemental is from ProThemeDesign. It’s certainly a turn away from the likes of Mimbo and if I’m honest I had pretty high expectations of it. Ben’s work is always awesome so something that was originally built for him has got to be pretty good, I thought. On installation I instantly took a shone to Elemental. I don’t know why, but I got the impression that if I was going to build all my themes off something, then this would be it.

In a framework like this, it’s the attention to detail that matters and Genesis might win on the development side, but the little touches like a bar at the top of all pages with quick links to writing posts, pages and the dashboard make me lean towards Elemental as something I’d actually like to use day in, day out.

Between the two, Genesis is certainly well made, but then so is Elemental. The Genesis options page fits in really nicely but the Elemental one looks good too. It’s tough to choose between the two; they both offer similar awesome page templates, options pages, filters and hooks. There is one difference though that separates the two. Genesis offers a theme store which lets you buy child themes but Elemental doesn’t. For me, it’s not a problem, but if you don’t want to build a design from scratch then Genesis should be the one to go for. If you want something to build all your sites with then go for Elemental as it’s a pleasure to use.

Could you concise that?

Sure. Frugal has a huge options panel which is good for those of you who want something they can customise a bit but ultimately you want a blog look. Headway is like Frugal with layout options added on. Builder is what Frugal would be if it did layout options instead of design options.

Genesis and Elemental are both very well built but the deciding factor is whether you want to be able to buy child themes (note themesyou can buy them for Elemental from ProThemeDesign). If you do, go for Genesis, but if not Elemental.

17 Responses


  • have built a handful of sites using Genesis now and couldn’t be happier. The different child themes available give you a quick start to get a site up and running that you can spend your time customizing rather than building from scratch.

  • R.Bhavesh says:

    really cool, detailed and honest review I’d say. Especially, you are spot-on the elementa/genesis comparison.

    Darren’s attention to detail is really awesome. Nathan’s coding on the other hand is seasoned, thoughful and practical. Wish there exist a combination of both 🙂

    • Ben says:

      Hey Bhavwesh – what’s wrong with my coding 😉 I think there’s a lot going on in Elemental that people don’t realise. I am planning to do some blog posts in the future to show some of the power of the theme 🙂

      Also we plan to add some more child themes to our offerings as well. There’s lots in store for Elemental

      • Alex Denning says:

        I didn’t have nearly as long to play with Elemental as I did the others, but I was seriously impressed. Little things like you can replace the logo in the WP backend with your own. Pointless perhaps, but brilliant 🙂

        I started thinking about a WPShout realign at the weekend and Elemental looks like an awesome way to do it.

        • Ben says:

          Pointless? 😉

          I added that because of, but it’s also something that designers often want to round out the experience for their clients.

  • Barry says:

    It’s a pity you didn’t put any screenshots in. It would have been nice to see the different interfaces in one place.

  • Nice comparison, but you left out the fact that you can get as down and dirty coding-wise as you want with Headway – you don’t have to stick to drag and drop. And the Live CSS editor on Headway 1.6 is simply awesome – perhaps another look is in order? 😉

    • Alex Denning says:

      I originally proposed this to the theme developers back in January. I couldn’t get started with it until February but was stalled by waiting for version updates until late February. I then said I’d go with what I had and wouldn’t take any more updates — everyone promised exciting new features if I waited, so I just went with what I had.

      That meant I didn’t have a version of Headway that had this live editor and I could update the post, but that would mean updating all the themes, most of which are already having major updates, so whilst I might update it in a couple of months, I’m not going to do it now.

  • joelhaus says:

    And compared with free theme frameworks like Thematic and Hybrid?

  • The one that really stands out to me is Builder because it completely changes the way you might approach throwing together a quick blog for marketing.

    If you wanted to, you could literally build a blog out of text widgets (or any other kind of widgets). This makes design rapid and easy. In fact, after having used Builder for a while, it’s kind of hard to return to using themes (free or premium) that restrict the number of widgets or the placement within a layout.

    If you want to take you time and make a masterpiece, you’ll be impressed with the new classes added to the theme’s CSS. That’s an upside and a downside I suppose. The CSS framework is extremely flexible and awesome, but the source is filled with tons of styling and I kind of have to wonder whether search engines might choke on it a little. Basically, Builder is sold on its visual layout aspects, but behind it is a flexible better-than-grid-based css framework for those who want to code up their pages.

  • R.Bhavesh says:

    @Ben – oh, I don’t mean to say theres anything wrong in your code. Or, it’s not as good as nathan. 🙂

    Personally, I’ve tried a protheme earlier and found the code a bit more programming friendly. I’ve used nathan’s themes earlier and loved them. Just a personal opinion.

    I’d say, Elemental did not get proper attention that it should’ve got. Having few child themes on elemental will be awesome for sure.

    • Ben says:

      Ah ha. If you mean Mimbo Pro, then the code in that was considerably more basic than Elemental. I spent a lot of time on Elemental making sure it was really flexible, whereas Mimbo Pro was designed to be a one off magazine theme with no hooks/ filters etc – we hadn’t even considered them at the time.

  • Nice Review…. I’ll test Frugal framework first