Until recently, like many of you, I’ve had to rely on web developers to customize my WordPress themes. Back in the day Thesis was my first choice, because it was so widely supported by the developers.
Now I don’t have to rely on developers anymore. The moment new data comes in from my own blog tests, I can make changes to my layouts, across dozens of affiliate sites. And I can do it myself, thanks to this new generation of drag ‘n drop WordPress themes.
But, I wanted to test the 3 most popular drag ‘n drop themes in a head to head battle, before deciding on which one to use. I tested Pagelines, Headway and Builder.
A quick disclaimer though, none of them were given to me. I purchased all three. So I didn’t receive any special treatment, or bonuses. Here’s what I discovered…
Built for Perfectionists…
Of all the visual drag n drop editors tested, Pagelines is the quickest to get up and running. Install the theme and within moments, you can choose columns, their position and widths. You can choose a base font – but not the size – plus headers, footers, social icons and more.
Other than creating the bare bones design though, Pagelines is the least intuitive of the three. It took a while to find and test the drag and drop functionality. Although its an interesting approach, and somewhat simple looking at the outset, the more you get into it, the more cumbersome it gets.
The sites that Pagelines creates – out of the box – are square looking, reminiscent of Thesis. You can purchase a premium theme at the store, but there’s only a handful of choices available. That means if you’re on a budget, you’re stuck with a square looking site.
In addition, to give Pagelines the same functionality of the other two themes, you need to buy each piece separately from their store. This means getting your site to look and behave as you want, could cost as much as the theme did in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong though. Pagelines – although square – is an elegant design. It’s also the fastest to set up with the least learning curve for the basics.
It does give more control over fonts, layout and widget areas than non drag and drop themes, but its layout flexibility isn’t as good as the other two in this shootout. Click here to find out more about the Pagelines theme for WordPress.
You Build Your Layouts How You Want then…
Builder from iThemes takes a little getting used to. It doesn’t look like much out of the box.
You have to install a Builder child theme before it starts to look good. Depending on which option you purchase, you can get dozens of themes and some plugins, so you can get started without needing anything else.Check the video
The more you get into Builder, the easier it gets. The training video mentions that its easy to change fonts, but you have to install a plugin to add that functionality. Once you do get into the Style Manager plugin though, it is easy to change fonts, colors, backgrounds, borders and more.
The Builder layouts section, lets you create a “stacking order” for the design elements on each page. You can design top to bottom, adding a custom headers, nav bars, content areas, widget areas, footers and more.
It makes it easy to save a different look, or layout for each page on your site. You can also use this functionality to show different footers on each page. (Very handy if you’ve been link sculpting using my Pumper Linking method from the Dynamic Media Vault.)
One of the few downsides, is that the widget areas are specified in terms of percentage of overall width. So to get a widget area to line up with your post and sidebar, it means setting up two column widget and eyeballing a percentage (say 30/70) and lining them up manually.
Overall the theme feels very strong and stable. Although it does allow drag and drop, it’s not a true liquid layout like Headway. But that said, it can create great looking sites that are easy to edit and undo. You just need to get over the initial learning curve of creating layouts and adding styles to the child theme.
The more you use Builder – and get used to the interface – the easier it gets. Having created a couple of new sites using it, I’m really enjoying the flexibility and getting exactly the looks that I want. This lets me test layouts in the Ultimate Heatmap without compromise. Click here to find out more about Builder theme for WordPress.
The Most Flexible Drag & Drop Theme
Headway is by far the most complex and powerful of the themes in this battle. It has a very fluid layout, where you just drag and drop wireframes onto a grid. You then tag the block you created with a type, such as header, breadcrumbs, widget area, content, footer and more. It’s a great concept.
Headway makes it possible to get the exact look you want, for each type of page on your website and blog, through the use of reusable templates. You can change the column widths, block locations, fonts, colors and more. Each element can be specified right down to the nitty gritty pixel.
On the downside, Headway comes with a massive learning curve and less than stellar documentation. There are settings for the same items in a couple of places, meaning that it can be frustrating, when trying to make rounded corners, but the settings are being overridden elsewhere in the editor software.
Last but not least, it’s not completely stable. Reverting to earlier saved versions leads to unpredictable results. The changes aren’t always accurate in the preview window. And the user interface is oddly squished in a small window at the bottom of the screen, so you’re almost forced to work on a big monitor.
Having said all that, Headway can make your site look however you want, if you’re willing to invest a few hours into the nuances of the editor. It doesn’t feel as polished or stable as Builder, but if you can put up with the shakiness of this early release (version 3.0.4 at the time of writing), you can be rewarded with any design that you want.
I purchased the “Standard” option, which they display as the best value on their order page. Having experienced the value of Child Themes with Builder, I know how valuable they can be when updating your site. As soon as the Headway Child Themes become available, you will be able to redeem your child theme credits. Click here to find out more about Headway theme for WordPress.
Winner of the Drag & Drop WordPress Theme Battle is…
In third place is Pagelines. Although it creates an elegant look, it’s square looking and not very intuitive to learn the drag and drop functionality.
Pagelines offers very few child themes. You need to purchase them and all the other add ons in their store. And on top of that, several hours into it, I still couldn’t figure out how to change the font sizes in their layouts.
In second place is Headway. It offers true design flexibility with it’s grid interface. The new 4.2 version – which was just released – promises a more responsive , intuitive grid, better stability and SEO functionality.
Headway’s poor documentation though and flaky revert – to previous saved version – means some changes can’t be undone. So I’ve bumped it to second place. Overall though, I think its a good choice, especially if you’re creating a new site from scratch. I love the look of the sites this theme creates, and will continue to use and support it, as it will only get better with time.
The winner of this contest is iThemes Builder. It comes with excellent documentation and offers flexible layouts, so you can replicate any of templates with ease.
Builder comes with dozens of child themes to get you started. It also includes plugins like Style Manager to change your design. Billboard for putting ads and images into widgets. It also has Rotating Images, Feedburner, Contact Forms, BuddyPress, SEO and more.
And finally, this may tip your decision in favor of a drag and drop WordPress theme like iThemes Builder… once you get it and learn how to use it, you can stop paying a web developer, every time you want to change the look of your site. Doing so brings the freedom and flexibility to test new layouts, the moment you want, without having to rely on someone else.
Wishing you all the best for success,