Read on if you want to find out which themes I use after 7 years of trial and error for speed and reliability and to streamline my work and achieve a great work/life balance, whilst working with many happy clients.
I learned how to build websites by creating my first blog on WordPress.com. Then I started building small business websites for my friends and their friends around 2014. Today, it’s my main source of income and I work with clients from New York and other US cities, through Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Portugal to Slovakia (where I’m from). My hourly rate is $90 – €80 and it allows me a great work/life balance. All that is also thanks to a couple of WordPress themes and plugins, which this post is about – my top picks for the fastest WordPress themes.
This post contains affiliate links to products I use and recommend. I earn a commission when you purchase using these links. I wouldn’t recommend something just for the commission, that’s just wrong.
What makes a great WordPress theme for a developer?
- good coding practices (reliability, speed, compatibility)
- good support, documentation and customisation help – time proven – long time support and development
- good theme features that cover what my customers need
BTW, by a developer, I mean someone who utilises a theme to optimise his/her work and avoid having to code core features from scratch and then develops the resulting website using either theme features or CSS/PHP changes.
By a beginner, I mean someone who knows how to install WordPress and wants a reliable and fast website, can tweak its settings but doesn’t have to do any CSS/PHP changes.
Let’s dig into each one of these in more detail:
Good coding practices in a Theme (reliability, speed)
There are a plethora of themes that look good on the outside – ThemeForest is full of them. Some might be good, but it’s hard to know – the vast majority of the reviews are created shortly after purchase, not months or years after using the theme.
In my experience, such themes last about a year or two, then the developers move on and you’re stuck with a theme that will slowly fall apart. Their demos look super cool (because the developers spent a lot of time making them like that, including some customisation or photoshop images you don’t have), but inside, they are rotten – many third-party plugins, a gazillion of components that will clutter your admin menu and very likely a “licence not included” visual builder as the base.
And most of all – all this clutter makes them very slow.
Such themes might not be compatible with most commonly used plugins, they will be slower (loading plenty of external scripts, fonts, icons) or not using the latest WordPress recommendations.
The result will be a slow website that is prone to errors each time you update a plugin or the theme.
A good theme will be the opposite of this – it will be coded following the latest practices and WP recommendations (like Gutenberg, Blocks). It will be faster than most – because the code is clean and the theme authors know this is important for every website. This will also make it reliable – good code updates easier, is more compatible with other plugins and is less prone to errors when the WordPress core updates.
Good support, documentation and customisation help
Support doesn’t end a few months after the purchase. It’s also fast – same-day responses because most problems you write to customer support about are time-sensitive. They also don’t shy away from helping you with smaller customisation requests – as they already have some snippets and functions or can quickly modify them for you.
You also want a theme and its development company to be time-proven – around for at least several years. That way, even if they are good at the beginning and then things change and the quality of their services starts falling behind – you will see that in their reviews. A new company will likely have great reviews at the beginning, but the real test is to be able to deliver good services time and time again over several years.
Good theme features, that cover what the customers need
A theme needs to strike a good balance between the number of features and reliability/speed. Too many features might make it slower and less reliable (and I’ve hardly ever used all the features for a single project). You don’t want a theme that tries to be a directory theme, but also an e-commerce theme, but also a small business theme, but also a portfolio theme etc.
You want a theme that does the core features (what every website needs) really good, but doesn’t sacrifice speed and reliability because of that. It should work well for e-commerce, blogging, it should allow you some central customisation options (fonts, colours) and it should be easily extendable/compatible with other common plugins.
What theme fits the bill?
I’ve seen this time and time again with all KadenceWP themes and plugins. I first started using their Ascend / Virtue themes and in the last few years moved on to the new and super fast Kadence Theme. I’ve been paying for their full PRO membership since 2017 and it’s well worth it.
Their themes were always faster and better coded and the latest Kadence Theme is a powerhouse. It’s super-fast, it’s well coded, it packs a lot of features and it’s built with WordPress 5 – Gutenberg & Blocks in mind.
Kadence theme features I use the most are:
- Header and footer builder (PRO) – no need to have a visual builder plugin to build custom headers and footers. It’s drag and drop and I still can’t believe how fast it is.
- Hooked elements (PRO) – create any design using Gutenberg (or Kadence) blocks and stick it anywhere into the website using hooks – under the header for posts only? Just after the post body? Replace the sidebar for a specific post type? Cart notices? This gives you incredible flexibility – f.e. to show advert banners anywhere on the website. You needed at least two plugins to do that before (to show stuff on the cart and f.e. below all posts). This feature makes the theme much more suited for developers (but won’t get in the way for beginners).
- Kadence Blocks (FREE and PRO) – one of the most stable extensions for Gutenberg – very powerful blocks, especially the row block – if you use Elementor, this is very close to that – you can easily build amazing layout, move them eround, copy over to other parts of your website. Copy & paste styles too!
- Page, Blog, Woocommerce predefined layouts – because they offer great level of customisation, but also look great out of the box
- Custom scripts (for the entire website or by page/post) – great for affiliate websites, google analytics and similar, custom page conversion tracking
- Ready made demos and blocks – they keep adding new demos and there’s plenty of blocks you can easilyl import and style further, saving a ton of work
Plus the entire Kadence Membership (bundle) is well worth it – the support is always good, the plugins & extensions are good and moving with the technology and market. All are Core Web Vitals ready, Elementor & Woocommerce ready.
Other alternatives to try
If you want to try a few similar alternatives, keep reading – although these offer very similar functionality, I can’t comment about their support. I’ve used their free options for some projects + have read good reviews too.
- Also very light and fast
- My second go-to theme
- Great customisation options and compatibility
- apparently very similar to Kadence
- a bit slower and the support is not as open as Kadence according to Jack Cao’s great comparison
Other themes I used to build with, but then moved to Kadence
- OceanWP theme – was good for a while, but now feels cluttered and not as fast compared to Kadence. Feels more like a Freemium product that tries to sell you more + needs more OceanWP plugins for simple things like a fixed header.
- Astra theme – very similar to OceanWP, also feels like Freemium where you need to buy bells and whistles to achieve the best result
- Various ThemeForest themes – even if top rated, in my experience they always put design before reliability and speed. Usually come bundled with some page builder that you have to then pay for separately.
- Acabado theme – not recommended, see my Acabado theme review here