I have been planning to build a new minimalist WordPress theme for webgrafter.com for a long time now. I wanted to base it on Milligram CSS Framework and use minimal code.
Unfortunately building a new WordPress theme for a hobby project gets pushed to the bottom of the to-do list every time work comes in. So, I decided to see what else there is in the WordPress repository that fulfilled the needs of being clean, minimal and efficient with a nice design and typography out of the box.
Whilst there are options that tick the boxes outside of the WordPress repository, either on premium theme marketplaces, personal project sites or elsewhere I decided to limit my search to the repository as they have a review process so themes must meet certain standards and also it just saves time.
I essentially went through every theme that matched certain searched terms such as “clean” and “minimal” and then eliminated anything with a low star rating. If it had no rating due to a low number of users that wasn’t cause for elimination. I installed each theme and activated and made minor adjustments, such as setting the main menu or uploading a logo. The 5 that I found to be the best are listed below along with a Google Pagespeed Insights score, which was run using the Webgrafter home page content on a cheap, shared hosting package (I’d like to say that was to best simulate the bulk of users’ hosting environments, but it’s actually because at the time of writing Webgrafter is hosted on a very budget friendly hosting plan).
Anders Norén has a couple of themes in this list. I have no affiliation with him, but really like his themes. I’d definitely recommend checking his website out as he has a few free themes, most of which are in this clean, minimalist style.
The typography of Rams looks great out of the box. The customizer can quickly change the main colour (sidebar etc). I don’t generally like side navigation, but feel it works really well here. I’ve tested removing the sidebar and centralizing the content and using the mobile menu on all screen sizes. This looked good too and is easy to do with a little CSS and editing the header.php file to deal with the sidebar/menu.
This and the other Anders Noren themes currently listed on his website support the gutenberg editor, which is important going forward as more users embrace the change.
Mobile – 98
Desktop – 100
I was actually torn between this and another Anders Noren theme called Davis. Again, I could have featured both but I’m trying to be reasonably diverse in my selections.
It’s another really simple but attractive theme. This one features a hamburger menu at all screen sizes and a boxed content area. I would perhaps change the background colour to make the site “unboxed”, whcih could be done in the theme customization options or with a few CSS tweaks. If I were doing this I’d also either take the footer outside of the wrapper or give alter the background and text colours to match the body and giving the illusion of it not being boxed. Minor details but again, with a couple of lines of CSS this theme would be almost perfect for my tastes.
Mobile – 96
Desktop – 99
Fanoe is another very minimalist theme with an emphasis on typography. It may be too simplistic for some as by default there doesn’t appear to be a main menu location. There is a hamburger menu in the top right, which features a sidebar area so you could all a menu here by using widgets.
The theme is by Florian Brinkmann. His website features some other themes including one called Nordby that is a child theme of Fanoe and features a sidebar. Rindby and Schlicht are other similar themes that have menus and sidebars. He also has a blog that is worth reading if you’re interested in WordPress development. As with Anders Noren’s themes I could have included multiple themes from Florian too they all fulfil the criteria of being minimal, clean and efficient.
Mobile – 99
Desktop – 100
This is a theme by Raam Dev. It has a few more options in the customizer compared to the previous themes, but is still very clean and simple looking. There is an option for a “single-column layout” in the customizer, which is my preference, however the option with the left sidebar looks good too.
You could probably spend days or weeks on Raam’s website reading through his “Essays” and Archives. There’s a huge amount of content on a wide range of topics and it’s definitely worth a read.
Interstingly I came across “Independent Publisher 2” on the wordpress.com site but not in the wordpress.org repository. In any case Independent Publisher (1) does the job.
As of the time of writing this article the theme is showing as being last updated in May 2017 so is pre-gutenberg. Nevertheless the simple blocks that I tried adding functioned fine and with a little bit of work this theme could be “gutenberg optimized” if you desire.
Mobile – 99
Desktop – 100
I’d always seen the WordPress default themes to be useful as a guide that one could use for reference or testing, but never really as a standalone theme that I wanted to use. Twenty Nineteen is perhaps the first theme that has made me think twice and is one I could use for a site with a few modifications. This isn’t just because of how the site looks, but also because of Gutenberg. It feels like the theme is really well suited to Gutenberg with the emphasis more on the content that’s added on a per page/per post basis and less on any feature of the theme itself from a frontend perspective.
As of writing Twenty Nineteen is the default theme for new WordPress installations. It’s still a minimal theme, but with the power of Gutenberg it doesn’t have to be. One great benefit of this theme is that you can be fairly sure it will always be well maintained with updates and should be highly compatible with plugins.
Mobile – 98
Desktop – 100
Other notable mentions:
There are also some Automattic themes that fit the criteria, three of my favourite of these these are Isola, Hew and Scrawl. Scrawl in particular has very nice typography, but it does require the Jetpack plugin to be active for certain features. I won’t go in to further detail on these but they can be found either in the WordPress repository or the Automattic website.
There are some excellent options on the WordPress repository for clean minimal, content-focused themes. These types of themes have always had their fans, particularly in text-heavy blogs. Now that Gutenberg is gaining steam perhaps simpler, plainer themes will become more of a standard choice for the average WordPress user as a blank canvas to build blocks upon.