Nobody was interested in my résumé website back in 2005, when I thought, “Hey, I’m a web designer and developer. I should put my résumé on the web.” This was back before the prevalence or pervasiveness of free responsive portfolio WordPress themes, and even before WordPress itself became the most popular blogging platform in the world.
At this time, I was a contract trainer in the Washington, D.C., metro area. When I got calls about potential assignments, I’d proudly proclaim, “You can go to my website and see all my skills and past experience,” only to be asked over and over and over again, “Can you just print it out or attach it to an email?”
If you are a creative these days, people want to see what you have to offer, and many of them want you to be able to back it up with a web presence.
You’re almost considered “not a real web designer” if they ask you “Do you have a website?” and you sheepishly say, “No.”
This is how I get many of my clients. They’re professionals who are tired of being embarrassed by their lack of a web presence. Since I know of several free responsive WordPress portfolio themes that I can use to bring my clients’ visions to life, I can be of great assistance in this era of “mobile-first” web design.
Portfolio themes vs. plugins
A couple of years back, Tom Ewer did a great article on the top WordPress portfolio plugins for creatives. Back in 2015, when Tom wrote that article, portfolio themes weren’t as numerous as they are now.
These days, many of the premium responsive portfolio WordPress themes have everything you need (and then some) built right into them, alleviating the need for a standalone plugin.
This is true of some of the free responsive portfolio WordPress themes as well — you just have to do your due diligence and search out the really excellent options.
If you ask me if one is better than the other (a theme or plugin), then I’ll ask you to forgive me for sidestepping the question and focusing on what happens when we don’t get to choose. As web designers, we’re not always “collaborators” as much as we are “order takers,” hired to serve up whatever our clients ask for. Despite all the expertise and best advice we try to pass on to our clients, there are always those few who insist that we do it their way.
Sometimes you’ll have clients who demand that the functionality of creating and updating their portfolio(s) be integrated into their theme because they want to maintain their sites themselves, and having to learn how to use a separate plugin seems daunting or like a waste of time.
For the sake of this article, let’s say we’re dealing with a few clients who read somewhere or were told by their cousin/uncle/mom/step-sister (who does websites on the side) that they shouldn’t use a plugin for their portfolio websites. You are going to have to find some really nice responsive portfolio WordPress themes to make these people happy.
So … Let’s check out some of the best contenders!
But, first … Remember mobile-friendly design
In his article “15 Free WordPress Themes Worth Their Weight in Gold,” Bryant Tutterow lays some groundwork for what makes a free WordPress theme worthwhile. Bryant wrote the article in 2015, and the points he makes are still relevant, especially when he writes that after you find a free theme that is “beautiful and has a modern, popular styling,” you need to make sure it is responsive.
The free theme you choose must be mobile-friendly.
12 free responsive portfolio WordPress themes
The following 12 themes are currently in the WordPress.org repository of themes, and specifically mention “portfolio” in their titles, descriptions and/or tags.
- Draft Portfolio by pixel tribe.
- Enigma by weblizar.
- Hestia by Themeisle.
- i-excel by marsian.
- Portfolio Gallery by webdorado.
- Rambo by webriti.
- Sauron by webdorado.
- ScrollMe by Access Keys.
- Sketch by Automattic.
- Spacious by ThemeGrill.
- Sydney by athemes.
- Zerif Lite by Themeisle.
Although I link to the demos created by the theme developers below, I created my own temporary demos because I wanted to actually work with each one and see what was going on in the backend. Once activated, I deleted any themes that instructed me to install/activate a standalone plugin for creating the portfolio functionality since our fictional clients have expressly requested that portfolios be created in the theme. The free responsive portfolio WordPress themes I chose also were updated within the last 30 days of my writing of this article.
1. Draft Portfolio by pixel tribe
This theme lacks elaborate design, but it will satisfy the needs of clients who are looking for a “no frills” responsive portfolio WordPress theme. Draft Portfolio allows you to create blog posts and add featured images, and the newest posts show up on the homepage in a grid layout. It’s simple and clean.
2. Enigma by weblizar
You will hit the ground sprinting with Enigma. Once it is activated, the homepage is already fully populated with demo content. Head over to Customize to set the portfolio options and replace the demo content with your client’s copy. Enigma offers lots of animation, and is a free responsive portfolio WordPress theme that is compatible with WooCommerce. From what I could determine, the theme developer does not offer documentation for the free version of Enigma, but you can try viewing the theme’s support for answers to your questions.
3. Hestia by Themeisle
Hestia comes ready to rock right after activation with demo content for you to swap out with that of your client. There’s documentation for this theme if you get stuck, and it’s another option that is compatible with WooCommerce. It has a one-page design, but you can create multiple page layouts by using the Elementor Page Builder plugin. There is even an admin demo if you want to poke around the backend before you actually install the theme on your client’s site.
4. i-excel by marsian
i-excel can be used for a number of purposes, one of which is a responsive portfolio website. Once you activate the theme, you are asked to install and activate several plugins, but none are for the portfolio functionality (one is a page-builder plugin and another will allow you to import demo content). In the vertical navigation in the dashboard, you’ll see the option for creating portfolios. You can find video tutorials here to help you get going.
5. Portfolio Gallery by webdorado
I almost passed on this one after I activated it and saw that it recommended I install/activate 10 plugins, six of which were their own. But then I took a look on the front-end to see what my site looked like without me actually installing/activating any of the plugins, and it looked just like the developer’s demo. Because I didn’t actually have to install/activate the plugins, I decided it was a viable free option. A photographer, web designer, fashion designer or graphic designer could use this theme to showcase his/her work.
Portfolio Gallery offers six layouts to choose from for the one-page theme. The menu is fixed, but depending on the layout you choose, you can put it on the left or right, and you can decide the width of the menu in the Customize panel. One of the six layouts also includes the option to have sidebars on both the left and the right. This is definitely a responsive portfolio WordPress theme with great potential, and it’s also compatible with WooCommerce.
6. Rambo by webriti
Rambo comes with a one-click demo content importer to make uploading copy quick and easy. Bonus: It also comes with video tutorials to show you how to take advantage of all of the theme’s functionality. When you open Customize, you’ll be able to update the banner, services and portfolio sections. The theme provides a widgetized footer and at least three page templates, including Home, Full Width and Blog. Rambo is built on Bootstrap and works well with many popular plugins.
7. Sauron by webdorado
This is another free responsive portfolio WordPress theme from webdorado, which is full of animations and premium features at no cost. Like the Portfolio Gallery theme, I was prompted to install 10 plugins after activating the theme, but none of those plugins were mandatory.
I installed/activated Sauron on one of my demo sites that already contained posts, pages and images, and everything looked great without me doing anything other than activating the theme. Sauron comes with six page layouts, and even has a front-end page builder. It is compatible with WooCommerce and other popular plugins, and it is also retina-ready.
8. ScrollMe by Access Keys
For the maverick among your clients, ScrollMe breaks with the tradition of the vertical scroll and implements a horizontal one. It’s another free responsive portfolio WordPress theme that is compatible with WooCommerce, and comes with a demo importer to get you started quickly. When you open Customize, you’ll immediately see a link to the theme documentation, and you’ll also see many options that will allow you to easily replace the demo content with the content of your client(s).
9. Sketch by Automattic
The Sketch theme is powerful in its simplicity, and it was created by the same folks who oversee the development of WordPress.com. The portfolio is made visible by adding a simple shortcode, and there is documentation available for how to set up the theme. Don’t be turned off by the illustrations in the developer’s demo — images look great in Sketch.
10. Spacious by ThemeGrill
Once you activate Spacious, you are presented with the option to install the ThemeGrill Demo Importer and import demo content to get you started quickly. Spacious has four layouts (right sidebar, left sidebar, full width and full-width centered) for pages and posts, as well as two page templates (a business and contact page). The free version of the theme comes with documentation, and it is also compatible with WooCommerce.
Note: The front page is set up with widgets that pull in content from pages, not posts. This makes it different from many other themes I’ve encountered. I actually currently use Spacious on a client’s site, and she absolutely loves the way her content appears in this theme.
11. Sydney by athemes
Once activated, the Sydney theme asks you to install/activate a page-builder plugin and their own custom post-types plugin. Once you’ve done that, you can read the documentation about how to get your client’s site set up so it’s similar to the demo. The theme has a lot of options to choose from once you get into Customize. There’s a Front Page template and a Full-Width template, and the theme is compatible with WooCommerce. There are also sections for services, employees, clients, projects and testimonials.
12. Zerif Lite by Themeisle
Zerif Lite is a one-page theme built on Bootstrap. It can be used as a business portfolio theme and is compatible with WooCommerce. The theme comes with documentation and many premium features at no cost. There are two plugins you are asked to install and activate, but they are not for the portfolio functionality. Zerif Lite also has child themes you can load right from your WordPress dashboard. As soon as you activate Zerif Lite, your site is pre-populated with demo content, and you can go to Customize to replace the demo content with your client’s information.
If you find yourself in a situation where you have to build an online visual business card for your clients, the 12 free responsive portfolio WordPress themes above will get you started on the right track.