Five clean, minimalist themes for WordPress

UPDATED 2009-02-13.

I recently decided to look for a good minimalist theme for op111.net. I did not expect it would be an easy search, and, in a sense, it wasn’t. (Partly because WordPress had been going for some time without a central repository of themes. Now there is one, but it is still young.) Yet, I found more good themes than I expected, and, in the end, out of several that caught my attention, I singled out five: the one that op111.net uses now and four that I kept installed and I intend to follow.

If you are in a similar search, I hope this review will be useful to you, at least as a starting point: all five themes are very good, with advanced and sometimes distinguished functionality. For this reason, my review is also meant as a token of appreciation to the designers: they produce quality work, forward-looking, with attention to detail and respect for standards.

What kind of “minimalist”

In some contexts minimalism may mean “minimal features”, but in WordPress themes, as I understand the term, it does not have that meaning. At least “minimal features” was not what I was interested in. I was looking for themes capable of taking full advantage of the possibilities of WordPress, while presenting the output in a clean and economical way, without unnecessary and distracting elements. — In short:

  • Full functionality combined with
  • Economical presentation

Additionally, I was looking for themes that met all, or most, of the following:

General requirements

  1. Be properly maintained.
  2. Offer documentation.
  3. Offer changelog of some kind.
  4. Offer (or suggest) some way to report issues.
  5. Offer (or suggest) some way to get support.
  6. Produce valid (X)HTML and CSS.
  7. Not require editing of WordPress files (or of their own files). All configuration should be possible either via the administration panel of WordPress or by making and editing additional files.

The 5 themes

0. Common features

  • All five themes are published under the GNU GPL, the same licence used by WordPress.
  • All come in a 2-column layout, while two include extra layouts.
    • Sandbox: one 1-col, one 2-col, three 3-col.
    • Thematic: one 2-col, two 3-col.
  • All work well with child themes. (What are “child themes”?)
  • All offer page templates.
    • Basic2Col: Archives, Front page, Links
    • Moo Point: Archives, Links
    • Sandbox: Archives, Links
    • Simplish: Archives, Links, Sitemap
    • Thematic: Archives, Links
  • Four implement microformats: Moo Point, Sandbox, Simplish and Thematic.
  • Four support localization: Basic2Col, Moo Point, Sandbox, and Thematic. (In Simplish support is on the way.) (If you don’t find your language, it is not difficult to do a translation: the strings are not many.)
  • Three are currently used by their creators in their sites: Sandbox, Simplish and Thematic.

1. Basic2Col

Home: wangenweb.com/wordpress/themes/basic2col
Demo: demos.wangenweb.com/basic2col
By: Kristin K. Wangen
Characteristics: 2-col, all-white, elegant, extensible, framework
Version reviewed: 3.1.1

I saw Basic2Col while browsing aimlessly one day and it won me immediately. It is a 2-column theme made primarily as a framework for custom themes (for details, see its page and its functions.php file) but it is also perfectly fit to be used as is. A detail I particularly liked in it was the styling of its forms. I also liked its Archives page, which uses code from the plugin Blix.

In general, I found Basic2Col elegant and discreet, and, based on default appearance, I liked it the most. If you want a clean, fully-functional theme to use without any modifications —and also a theme that you can modify and extend at any time—, Basic2Col is a very good choice.

Something that can be improved in Basic2Col is fonts. Lucida Sans Unicode, the first font specified, is not a good choice (see links at the end for one reason), while the first fallback font, Lucida Sans, only has Latin script — this is not bad in itself, but not good either in a theme designed for an international publishing platform.

CONS: Date format preference ignored. Suboptimal font choices.

Clean and elegant out of the box, on both Linux and Windows. It is difficult to find something not to like in Basic2Col (unless you agree about the fonts thing, maybe). — On the left screenshot an oversight is visible: the “continued »” link is not separated or distinguished in any way from the post title.

2. Moo Point

Home: iamww.com/wordpress-theme-moo-point
Demo: iamww.com/wpthemes/index.php?wptheme=Moo-Point
By: Will Wilkins
Characteristics: 2-col, characterful, legible, Sandbox-based
Version reviewed: 1.75

I think that the best two words to describe this theme by Will Wilkins are: eminent readability — I was impressed the first time I saw Moo Point, and I remain impressed. It comes in a classic 2-column arrangement (the metadata on the left are not a column), at fixed width, it is well laid out, and presents text with exceptional clarity. I don’t know what the recipe for this is — obviously, something done very well in the combination of: font family, font size, font colour, background colour, line height, and line length.

Hyperlinks, on the other hand, was something I did not like in Moo Point. I found their combination of bold style and distinct colour distracting. (The colour itself is beautiful: something between brown, russet, and goldenrod; see screenshots.) The use of block capitals can also be an issue:

On the use of text-transform:uppercase by theme designers

text-transform:uppercase (a CSS instruction that turns bits of text into all capitals) is a useful typographic effect, but not in all languages. In Greek, for example, diacritics are rarely used in all caps (only in special cases, and then optionally). text-transform:uppercase, however, is not smart enough to know this, and retains diacritics when doing the transformation, which is wrong.

Dealing with this is not as simple as changing one value in the stylesheet; often other changes have to be made as well, in font size, font weight, letter spacing, even in the font itself, in order to keep the balance achieved by the designer. This is not easy for everyone, and the few attempts I have seen fail.

CONS: Hyperlinks may be distracting.

The styling of Moo Point exposes my incorrect use of em(phasis) to italicize titles. :-D (In this case, to italicize the titles of two Greek dictionaries.) The font on the right is Calibri. Moo Point is one of the few themes in general (and the only one in this review) that take advantage of the new ClearType fonts of Microsoft. The middle item on the navigation bar (ΔΙΆΦΟΡΑ) is an instance of the problem with text-transform:uppercase: the capital alpha should be unaccented.

3. Sandbox

Home: www.plaintxt.org/themes/sandbox
Demo: demo.plaintxt.org/?wptheme=Sandbox
By: Andy Skelton and Scott Wallick
Characteristics: 1-col, 2-col, 3-col, bare, customizable, framework
Version reviewed: 1.6

Sandbox is a theme perfectly plain on the surface but impressive underneath: it produces dynamically a multitude of CSS classes, which allow the styling and positioning of almost everything on a page by means of CSS alone (see its readme, and note below). This makes it a very good choice for theme designers who want a versatile framework to work on, and, indeed, designers seem to be a large part of its audience. Another part must be people looking for a simple, visually undistracting WordPress setup to put content in.

DYNAMIC CLASSES IN SANDBOX

Every time a page is generated, Sandbox and themes based on it add metainformation (category, tags, author, publication time, generation time, etc.) to various HTML elements and divisions of the page, in the form of CSS classes. The elements and divisions can then easily managed by CSS, in a way that normally requires plugins and a scripting language.

To give two examples, CSS classes produced by Sandbox can be used to style posts of a specific category (so that, for instance, mini posts can be displayed differently), or to make comments by the post author stand out. — If my quick explanation confused you, :-) just go to a site using Sandbox and look at the XHTML source.

The features of Sandbox are well documented (see included Readme and the wiki), with enough examples to get you started. In general, it is a theme very well made. It also felt faster than most themes I have tried, but I did not run any benchmarks.

One addition I would like to see in it is a GUI option to switch layouts. Now you have to edit its stylesheet.

CONS: None.

Sandbox out of the box, as plain as it gets. You may be thinking that no one would use it like this on a site, but you would be wrong: its author does! If you want to see what a fully styled Sandbox could look like, I assembled a sample of links below. You can find more by searching for pages that link to Sandbox, usually from their footers: http://www.google.com/search?as_lq=http://www.plaintxt.org/themes/sandbox/

SAMPLE OF SITES BUILT ON SANDBOX

4. Simplish

Home: labs.utopian.net/blogs/simplish
Demo: labs.utopian.net/blogs/simplish/demo
By: Josh Wood, Utopian.net Labs
Characteristics: 2-col, improved galleries, shades of gray, sitemap
Version reviewed: 1.9.3
Version reviewed: 2.1.1 (INFO UPDATED 2008-10-10)

Simplish —a “WordPress variant of the Scribbish theme for blogs”— won me with its clean arrangement and its efficient use of screen space: it manages to get more text on screen than any other theme, without feeling cramped. I also liked its titleless search box: often “Search” titles above search boxes are a waste of space, since search boxes are usually easy to identify.

Among the five themes here I think that Simplish is the least likely to impress at first sight (maybe even less than the provocatively bare Sandbox), but this is not necessarily bad — or maybe it’s just me and my indifference to shades of gray. Then again, every time I see it I like it more, and I notice things that reveal responsible development and a forward-looking spirit (see its changelog, and its Features page.)

CONS: See below, 2nd note.

Efficient use of screen space by Simplish. Notice the clean arrangement of metainformation in the box below the post.

2008-08-22. UPDATE. A new version of Simplish is out. Release notes: labs.utopian.net/blogs/simplish/dev/2008/08/19/simplish-20 — As I was looking at the new version I noticed again two things I omitted to mention the first time:

  1. Like Basic2Col and Thematic, Simplish uses its own date format, ignoring the preference set in Dashboard, Settings, General. Fixed in v. 2.1.
  2. In Simplish hyperlinks are black, and they are distinguished from regular text by means of the traditional underlining. This is a problem in my opinion: link underlining reduces legibility (since it cuts through the stems) and it can also make pages look stuffed, given the profuse use of links in today’s web. I believe that restyling hyperlinks could make Simplish even better.

2008-10-10. DISCLOSURE. Since 5 September 2008 op111.net is hosted with Utopian.net, the sponsor of Utopian.net Labs, who make Simplish. I discovered Utopian.net through Simplish, and I hope that my good relationship with the people of Utopian.net does not affect the way I view Simplish. :-)

5. Thematic

Home: themeshaper.com/thematic-for-wordpress
Demo: themeshaper.com/thematic
By: Ian Stewart
Characteristics: 2-col, 3-col, bold, framework, options page, widgets area
Version reviewed: 0.6.4.1
Version reviewed: 0.7 (info updated 2008-10-10)

Thematic is the second Sandbox-based theme here (the first was Moo Point). It is a reworked Sandbox that keeps the easy customizability and extensibility of Sandbox while adding a great-looking face that is more likely to appeal to those looking for a theme ready to use. (Sandbox is not exactly unready to use, but its readiness depends more on personal taste.) One distinctive feature of Thematic is the number of its widget areas: thirteen! (13). Its looks is also distinctive, but this is not necessarily good if you want to use it unmodified. (Probably the same can be said for Moo Point.)

Thematic is the only theme in this review with an options page:

The three options include one frequently requested by WordPress users: editable footer. You can add anything you want, and also remove anything you want. (Offering this kind of user-choice is smart, in my opinion.)

While at the site of Thematic, have a look at the list of “child themes” made for it. The (commercial) Acamas is impressive.

CONS: Date format preference ignored.

Well balanced design, carefully styled. The spacious header is easy to resize by means of a child theme.

2008-10-10. UPDATE. Thematic 0.7 adds modular stylesheets, among other things. Release notes: themeshaper.com/thematic-07

The theme I chose

In the end I chose Sandbox, for 4 reasons:

  • It has advanced functionality (which I may never use, but I like options).
  • It is easier for me to style Sandbox up to something I like, than to style another theme down.
  • It offers half a dozen column layouts (which, again, I may never use).
  • It offers a flexible, fluid layout out of the box, which you can easily adapt.

op111.net now uses Sandbox with a “child theme”. The child theme adds some styling and consists of a few icons and one stylesheet:

http://op111.net/wp-content/themes/dk/style.css

“Child themes” are the recommended method to apply such changes to a full-fledged theme, or to completely restyle a full-fledged theme. For more: How to make a “child theme” for WordPress. A pictorial introduction for beginners - op111.net

Links

THE 5 THEMES

Basic2Col home | Moo Point home | Sandbox home | Simplish home | Thematic home Basic2Col demo | Moo Point demo | Sandbox demo | Simplish demo | Thematic demo

OTHER

labs.utopian.net/habari/theme/sp
If you like Simplish/Scribbish but use Habari, sp is for you. By Josh Wood.
microformats.org
Learn about microformats, a set of simple, open formats for data.
quotedprintable.com/pages/scribbish
Scribbish (a theme for blogs). Simplish is a variant of Scribbish.
rmarsh.com/plugins/blix-archive
Blix Archive, the plugin whose code is used in the archives page of Basic2Col.
www.ascendercorp.com/ctfonts.html
The Microsoft ClearType fonts. At present (August 2008) they are included in Windows Vista, Microsoft Office 2007, Office 2008 for Mac, Microsoft PowerPoint Viewer 2007, and in the Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack. — I would be happy to see more web designers using some of these fonts, like Candara, Corbel and the monospace Consolas.
www.brownbatterystudios.com/sixthings/2007/03/14/lucida-hybrid-the-grande-alternative
One reason why Lucida Sans Unicode is not an optimal font choice.
www.pjharvey.net
Kept me good company while I was trying to make something cohesive out of my notes. :-)
www.plaintxt.org/themes/simplr
Simplr, by the author of Sandbox; a fine one-column minimalist theme for WordPress.
Live preview of Simplr: demo.plaintxt.org/?wptheme=Simplr

Changes

2009-02-13
Cut down Sandbox design samples to 5. One new: dentedreality.com.au.
2008-11-23
One more Sandbox design to the sample: blog.songbirdnest.com.
2008-11-07
Added sp for Habari to links.
2008-10-10
Rewrote parts, added/updated/grouped info, added 2 links (Lucidas + Blix).
2008-09-02
Added link to op111.net/53 and removed links for child themes.
2008-08-22
Added 2 remarks on Simplish.
2008-08-20
Edited for clarity and brevity. — Thanks to the theme designers who mentioned the review on their sites!

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Comments (5)

  1. kim says:

    thanks for the excellent post! you just saved me a few hours of searching for bare themes. I also liked your child theme post as well. Keep up the good work!

  2. demetris says:

    @ kim: Thanks!

    @ Myo: I just saw WP-Bats and I liked it: the layout is very clean and the colours tasteful and relaxing.

    A few quick remarks:

    1. Were are the post navigation links? :-)

    2. Can you add separation of comments and trackbacks?

    3. It does not honour the date format preference.

    4. I did not like the two neighbouring bottom borders in the sidebar (one for the last li, one for the widget).

    5. If you add Pages and Tags to the Archives Index, you will have a complete sitemap. :-)

    6. Some headings are too bold for my taste.

  3. jidanni says:

    Ha. My (mom’s) site is minimal to the max. No CSS even. http://abj.jidanni.org/articles/ .
    Theme source code link is on her home page.

  4. Laura says:

    FYI, Apparently Basic2Col is no longer supported.

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