The things you wanted to know about WordPress as a designer-entrepreneur, but didn’t know who to ask

Okay, the headline does look a little BuzzFeed-ish, I give you that, so let’s just get the record straight before we get going.

This post won’t be about things like:

  • “You need to build a Twitter following or your business will fail!”
  • nor “Make sure to use H1 tags on your site to get it discovered through SEO.”

No. We all know stuff like that, so there’s no point talking about it any longer. I’m pretty sure that thousands of other posts on the web have already done a decent job at it.

So today, I wanted to focus on some of the topics that are not that obvious when you first get started with a WordPress-related business (including freelance design). However, they are still important and tend to raise some eyebrows whenever mentioned.

What’s up with WordPress licensing?

(and why EVERY WordPress theme is actually free to re-use)

The situation with WordPress themes is kind of funny when you look at it. I mean, the theme industry as a whole tends to be rather quiet about it.

The thing is that WordPress is GPL. I’m no lawyer, so don’t quote me please, but what it basically means is that it’s free to use, that you can build upon it, and that everything you build based on WordPress has to be GPL as well.

So, by definition, every WordPress theme you stumble upon, even the paid ones, is GPL too.

Now, one important detail. According to the now famous article Themes are GPL, too by Matt Mullenweg:

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PHP in WordPress themes must be GPL, artwork and CSS may be but are not required.

Okay, but what’s that mean for freelance designers working with WordPress?

Simple. If you happen to stumble upon any theme that you like and would like to use its PHP source code for your own creation, you can just do it without asking anyone for permission. The GPL license allows you to do so. However, be careful when reaching out for the graphics or CSS, as they might not be GPL.

Finally, if the theme comes from the official WordPress directory, then it’s GPL from top to bottom. According to the official rules from the Theme Review Team:

Themes are required to be 100% GPL-licensed, or use a GPL-compatible license. This includes all PHP, HTML, CSS, images, fonts, icons, and everything else. All of the theme must be GPL-Compatible.

Should you keep your clients’ WordPress sites updated?

New WordPress updates get released very often. Maybe even too often?

On a personal note, this update frequency was kind of frustrating for me. A year ago, I was working on a book titled WordPress X.X Complete together with PACKT Publishing. At first it was supposed to be WordPress 3.5 Complete. Then it was changed to WordPress 3.6 Complete. By the time we were ready with the final edit, we had to update it all over again and re-title to WordPress 3.7 Complete. And of course, a month (!) after the publication, WordPress 3.8 came around.

So yeah, it gets rough.

But setting my personal frustrations aside, the fact that WordPress is constantly changing is only a good thing. With every new version, the platform gets better and easier to use.

The only question is whether we should strive to keep our client’s sites updated, or should we leave it entirely up to them?

Well, depending on the individual client, they may or may not be able to update their WordPress and plugins themselves, and they will surely appreciate some assistance.

So my advice is this, and please bear with me, whenever there’s a significant WordPress update released, contact your clients and update their sites for free.

Now, before you lynch me, please hear this out. Reaching out to a client and offering to update their WordPress for free is the easiest way to get back in touch after months of no-contact. You can offer some immediate value and leave a positive impression of your whole business. It also opens the door to offering some more services that the client might enjoy – paid ones, this time.

How to make designing for WordPress faster (and better)?

In the age of content management systems, every design project is a two part thing: (1) create the design, (2) turn it into a WordPress site (or other CMS-powered site).

The design part is almost entirely original and creative work, while the second phase is much more schematic and involves going through a lot of the same movements from project to project. Now, it’s hard to speed up creative design, but we can surely speed up that second part.

Two ways to do it:

  1. A way that we at CodeinWP would surely appreciate – give us your PSD files and we’ll give you a WordPress theme in return. But if you want to handle things yourself, that’s okay too, which brings me to this:
  2. Master one of the popular WordPress theme frameworks and always build your designs on top of it.

In a way, WordPress theme frameworks act as a parent theme for whatever you’re building. They provide a number of essential features, functions, and code helpers that make building your final theme that much easier. You don’t have to worry about implementing the correct structure, manually creating widgets and stuff like that. The framework does a big part of the job for you.

Also, when you use a framework, you don’t need to worry about updating the core of your theme. With a good framework, updates are released regularly.

Here’s a list of theme frameworks acknowledged by

How to not go crazy about using plugins?

There are 33,000 WordPress plugins available in the official directory right now (and counting). In general, that’s great. It makes our work much easier in terms of making our sites feature-rich. But it also introduces some problems.

Chief of which is the irresistible temptation to offer our client “just this one additional feature they will totally love!” After all, it’s as easy as clicking the “Install now” button when browsing through the plugin list.

However, most of the time, this isn’t a good idea.

Now, what I’m about to describe is just my method, so feel free to chip in, disagree or share your point of view.

Brainstorming over features and ultimately selecting the right ones should only happen during the initial planning phase of the project. That is when your mind is in the right state to decide what is right for the site and what reinforces the main goal the most. Everything that happens later on along the way is possibly just the effect of a temporary impulse.

So going back to plugins, use only the ones that make the previously-planned features possible. Don’t get distracted by the new shiny thing. Very often better is the enemy of good.

The thing I do encourage you to do, though, is pick a list of must-have plugins that you can use on every client’s site. Things like a good SEO plugin, or a backup plugin, etc.

What else is there?

Let’s conclude the post here, but I’m looking forward to what you have to say about the topic. Is there anything else you’d like to know about WordPress as a designer-entrepreneur?

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About Karol K.

Karol K. (@carlosinho) is a blogger and writer, published author, and a team member at Check us out if you don’t like converting your PSDs to WordPress by hand, we’ll take good care of them for you.



About Karol’s business: Karol is a freelance writer working with, The top-notch PSD to WordPress service. YOU DESIGN, THEY CODE. As simple as that.


  1. Great article. Thank you! ~ Justin

  2. Exactly what I needed to read this morning–thank you!

  3. “better is the enemy of good”

    Couldn’t agree more with this statement with regards to plugin fever!

    Thanks for the article, good read!

  4. Great article! I’ve been sitting here deleting email after email promising to make my site the best, my content the richest…. yadda.. yadda..yadda… When I came across my Millo newsletter and scanned to see if it was worth keeping. I’m so glad that in all the crap promo freebie stuff I stopped and read your article.
    Love your ideas re Plugins, it is like walking into a shopping centre just to buy bread & milk, and being bombarded with all the items you don’t need – which you buy cause they are so accessible/cheap/shiny, and you realise when you get home you forgot the milk and bread!!

    thanks again ,

    • Grace,

      I feel that way, too (re: bread and milk). Great analogy!


    • Thanks, Grace!

      That is exactly the case. The temptation with plugins is just too big to handle at times.

      Some of them are great, but others offer really redundant functionality that is nowhere near necessary for most websites.

  5. Well said. I wish this article had been around five years ago when I first started dabbling with WordPress.

    Three things I’d like to expand on if that’s okay.

    1) Licensing. As you’ve rightly said, you’re free to use any code that is GPL licenced. You didn’t expand on why you pay the licence fee. See, the licence fee is a bit of misnomer. What you’re actually paying for is access to support. Think about the price you charge your clients in a similar way. You’re not selling them the PHP – you can’t. What you’re selling them is the support and the design… which brings me on to…

    As a designer, I would strongly recommend that you stress your CSS is not GPL licenced unless the section states it is. The CSS is what controls the look and feel of the website – it’s your creativity.

    If you’re just making the move over to designing with WordPress, I would recommend using WP Site Care ( They’re pretty reasonably priced and mean that once the site is designed, you don’t have to worry about a technical issue eating into your profitable time.

    2) Frameworks. This is a must, really rather that a nice to have. As a designer, they let you focus on the design side of things, rather than having to constantly add the same functionality in time and time again. That saves time in actually building the website, as well as the time you would have had to spend learning PHP.

    Frameworks – like the Genesis Framework by Studiopress ( – use what are known as hooks. They are essentially shortened code that does a lot of the hard PHP work in the background. You only need to learn the hooks, the basics of how actions and functions work and you’ll be on your way. Try to use ‘vanilla’ WordPress and you’ll spend the first 12 months trying to get your head around variables and other aspects of PHP that take a while to learn.

    In fact, I would strongly recommend Genesis over any of the other frameworks. The support team there are superb and as the most used framework out there, it also has the largest support community. I can usually be found helping out on their forums, along with about 15-20 other experienced designers with expertise in various areas.

    3) Plugins. Rule of thumb is don’t use them if you don’t have to. The best thing to do is look for tutorials on how to replicate functionality as part of your theme. Plugins slow down your site and they can also open your site to security issues.

    Of course, if you’re designing something like a recruitment site like I have recently, it doesn’t make sense to code all that functionality when you can purchase a licence for $99. But most of the time, steer clear of them unless you really need to use it.

    • Thanks, Ben!

      And thanks for clarifying the licensing rules. It does make a lot of sense what you’re saying about PHP code and CSS. However, you have to admit that most theme stores are not that eager to mention that the source code of their themes can be replicated under GPL, and that it’s basically available for free.

      I’ve always been a fan of frameworks as well. Genesis is great, that’s for sure, and I’m using it on my site. But let’s not make it too fairytale-ish. It does have a learning curve of its own. Especially for people who know PHP, getting some basic functionality implemented via pure source code vs. doing it through Genesis functions isn’t always that straightforward.

      When it comes to plugins, I’m 100% with you.


  1. […] The things you wanted to know about WordPress as a designer-entrepreneur, but didn’t know who to a… – I wanted to focus on some of the topics that are not that obvious when you first get started with a WordPress-related business (including freelance design). However, they are still important and tend to raise some eyebrows whenever mentioned. […]

  2. […] sure what all this plugin-talk means for you? Check out this post and this post to better understand WordPress and if you should be learning […]

  3. […] The things you wanted to know about WordPress as a designer-entrepreneur, but didn’t know who … […]


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