By Neil on January 29, 2015
Ok, the title of this post may be a little over the top because this plugin won’t fight crime or protect the world from aliens and monsters, but in terms of WordPress websites I think it deserves superhero recognition. It’s definitely one of the best WordPress plugins around, and it’s not just me who thinks this (other peoples views are shared throughout this post).
So what is this amazing plugin?
The WordPress plugin in question is called Toolset. Actually, Toolset is a suite of plugins that includes a plugin called Types, Views, Cred, Access, and Layouts. These plugins all work together to allow you to do just about anything with your website, from organising your content (easy custom post type creation), styling and design (easy custom post templates & layout builder), website forms, and even specifying user permissions (ideal for membership style sites). The really cool thing is that you can do all of these things with ZERO PHP skills and very little HTML & CSS experience.
I’ll mention now that Toolset is a paid for plugin, so if you would never consider paying for a WordPress plugin then you should stop reading. Free plugins definitely have their place but ultimately if you want a premium product with premium support then sometimes you need to be willing to pay for it.
Click here to skip down to the Summary to see how much it costs.
How I discovered the Toolset.
I first stumbled onto Toolset when it was just two plugins called Types & Views. In fact it was the Types plugin that got me hooked and then reeled me in. I say this because the Types plugin was free, and it still is to this day, but when I saw how it worked with the Views plugin I took the plunge and bought it.
Was it worth it?
Let’s just say it is the best WordPress plugin set I have ever used, and I use it on several different websites. So in short… YES IT WAS WORTH IT!
Oh, and it’s not just me that thinks it’s great:
I use both extensively on artsonstageny.com and theatertrips.org. I also use it on my site and a bunch of others. I can’t name them all because my work gets white labeled a lot, but it’s been amazing. I don’t spend hours trying to figure out how to do something and get the exact results I’m looking for.”
Easy Custom Post Types with the Types Plugin
The reason I discovered the Types plugin was because I was setting up my website turbobiketrainer.com about 3 years ago. I had very basic HTML & CSS skills and even less PHP, in fact this is still true today although I am slightly better :). I wanted to make a well structured and organised website where I could easily add different types of content and have it styled consistently every time I posted something new. I’d heard about custom post types and how they can be used effectively to organise different kinds of content, so I looked into setting these up myself.
A brief introduction to custom post types.
The video below shows how I use custom post types on my website turbobiketrainer.com. You can do a lot more than this but for those who are new to the topic it will give you some idea of what they are and how you can use them in WordPress.
WordPress gives you two post types out of the box, namely Posts and Pages. You can also add new post types and call them anything you like, which are your custom post types. You might be thinking ‘what’s the point?’ Well, if you have a website that has reviews, offers, different types of products, general blog posts etc. and each one of these bits of content needs to be styled in their own unique way and organised on the website correctly it is so much easier to structure your content using custom post types. I have to admit I wasn’t totally sold on them at the start but now I swear by them on every site I build.
I initially tried to set up custom post types manually using a tutorial like this: Smashing Magazine’s guide to custom post types, but it soon got complicated when I wanted to add lots of different custom fields, and even more complicated when I wanted to display these custom post types and fields on the website (remember I had basic coding skills).
So feeling a bit defeated (and deflated) I started looking for WordPress plugins to help me out, which is when I discovered the (free) Types plugin. It was easy to use and I had new post types with their own custom fields set up in no time (see how I did this here – creating a custom post type in WordPress), but then came the issue of displaying these post types on the website. Welcome to the Views plugin…
Styling and displaying custom post types with the Views plugin.
You’ll definitely need some HTML & CSS experience to get the most out of the Views plugin because you will need to style things so they look how you want them too on your website. However, saying this you don’t need to be an expert. As long as you can create DIV’s around things and then style with properties such as FLOAT, PADDING, and BORDER then you’ll be fine. See this a step-by-step tutorial where I use the Views plugin to style a custom post type on turbobiketrainer.com. If you want to learn some basic HTML & CSS check out w3schools.com.
How I use the Types & Views plugins – real website examples
I have been using the Types & Views plugins for a long time now and they are integral to several websites that I have setup and maintain. These include turbobiketrainer.com, ski-instructor-courses.com, cyclerunrow.co.uk, and this website neilcurtis.me. The quick video above shows how I use them on these different websites.
In short I use the Types plugin to create custom post types for the different content types I have and then fill them with custom fields that specify what information I need to collect for each bit of content. Then I use the Views plugin to layout the individual posts or pages where I pull in the custom fields and then style and position them how I like. Finally I again use the Views plugin to arrange lists of posts on the website so visitors can find what they are looking for (sometimes these are simple lists, sometimes they are grids of images, and sometimes they have filters to sort the content).
For something a bit more visual I have a full tutorial here on using the Views plugin to create a nice image grid from my content.
What others say about the Toolset plugins:
CRED the hero for WordPress forms
I’ll be the first to admit that personally I do not have a vast experience with the CRED forms plugin simply because I own the Gravity Forms plugin. Since I made this (cash) investment and took the time to learn the styling and functionality of Gravity Forms I have neglected CRED so far. The question remains however – is CRED a rival to Gravity Forms?
Gravity Forms is an excellent plugin, but it can be a bit of a pain to style sometimes as you can see in this styling tutorial. Although as that tutorial shows Gravity Forms is pretty powerful. This post is not about Gravity Forms but I want to cover some of its main features so that we can see if CRED stands up to the battle.
One of Gravity Forms best features is that it integrates well with other 3rd party software, although more expensive licences are needed to access most of these integrations. For example I use the MailChimp integration add-on so when someone fills out a form their details are automatically added to MailChimp lists ($99 business licence needed for this). Other add-ons include PayPal, Stripe, and Freshbooks but you’ll need the Developer licence for this ($199). The basic licence is only $39 (although to get updates and support you’ll need to renew this annually), and while you can use it on different websites you can only get support for one site. The basic licence is void of any add-ons so it is essentially a simple website form builder for collecting user information on your website only.
Gravity Forms main goal is to make it super easy to actually create and then embed a form into your WordPress website. So if you want a simple contact form then Gravity Forms does it well (see this quick video here). With the Gravity Forms Editor you can (relatively) easily create multi-page forms that contain a host of field types, such as single line text fields, drop-down lists, radio buttons, file upload fields and so on. However, while it is easy to embed a form in to a post or page the styling can be an issue. I have had many emails off people who have purchased Gravity Forms and are having difficulty styling (often these people are a little bemused that a premium form plugin requires so much custom styling at times). Once you get used to it though it is not too difficult but as shown here it can seem a bit tricky if you don’t have some decent HTML & CSS experience.
OK, on to CRED…
Can CRED create simple contact forms like Gravity Forms does. Yes it can. The process is a little more long winded but still pretty straight forward. Check out he video below to see how it’s done.
What about hooking up with things like MailChimp for email list management. Well unfortunately it is not straight forward and unlike Gravity Forms there is not a simple add-on that integrates seamlessly with CRED. It is possible to use API’s and Hooks in CRED and MailChimp to get the two bits of software talking, but that’s not what we want from a WordPress plugin. If we were all API experts and hardcore coders we wouldn’t necessarily shell out on plugins in the first place…
One thing CRED does extremely well is create forms that allow users to generate content on websites without accessing the WordPress dashboard. This is a powerful feature and extremely useful for websites that run classified ads that users submit themselves, or perhaps you have paid a freelancer to add content to your website but you don’t want to grant them dashboard access.
You can create forms that generate new posts with Gravity Forms, but one feature that really makes CRED stand out is the ability to edit content via forms too. So again looking at the classified ads example, a user may want to update a listing and CRED lets them do this without going into the WordPress dashboard.
The following video shows how CRED forms can be used to generate new content on the website turbobiketrainer.com and then edit content all without touching the WordPress dashboard. CRED interacts with the TYPES and VIEWS plugins here to produce styled product posts that have their own custom post types, styling, and also appear in a filtered list on the website.
While CRED does not have lots of add-ons that integrate with programs such as MailChimp it does have a special eCommerce feature that hooks up with WooCommerce so you can take payments via CRED forms. This is a pretty cool feature and if you run any type of website that charges people to post content then this is a great solution. For example you may be setting up a classified ads site or you may have a site where other people can promote their services or products and in order to post on your website they need to pay. The WooCommerce plugin is free and you also use another plugin called CRED Commerce (which you get when you buy CRED Forms or the Toolset suite of plugins).
The short video below shows how to set this up. If you already have a front-end form for creating new content then it’s super easy to do.
User roles and permissions with the Access Plugin
If you need to grant other people access to your WordPress dashboard or you want to restrict content on your website to people with specific log-in user levels then the Access plugin is something you should look at.
I’m going to be straight up with you and say this is not something I use personally because I do not restrict any content on my websites and I create all content myself so I do not need to grant other people to access my dashboard. However, I’ll cover what this plugin does because it comes with the Toolset suite and is something that could be very powerful if you run a membership style site where only members can see certain bits of content, or if you use freelancers to create content for you and you want to hide all dashboard options except the New Posts section.
5 main functions of the Access plugin
1. Choose what to display to certain users – Ideal for membership of subscription websites where you can only display certain content to certain users. You can display a standard 404 page or you can create a custom page template when users do not have permission to view certain content.
2. Simple dashboard permissions configuration – Within your WordPress dashboard you have a simple permissions area where you select (or un-select) specific permissions for different user levels. For example un-check the read option for Guests but check it for members on Posts, meaning only members can read your posts.
3. Control access on individual pages – While you can set permission and access on groups of post types you can also control them on individual posts and pages. Each content edit screen has an Access option area for you to configure.
4. Create custom user roles – If you want to set your own unique user roles (names) then you can. With each new role you can set permission levels that can either duplicate those of other default user levels or you can manually configure each role.
5. Control dashboard controls – When you allow certain users access to your dashboard you can choose to lock specific areas to ensure they can only modify what you want them to modify. For example you can lock down your settings & tools areas but grant access to all other admin features, or you can lock everything bar the create new posts area.
Again, I personally do not use the Access plugin because my websites do not require it, but it’s great to know it’s there in my Toolset suite for future projects.
Custom grid layouts with the Layout Plugin
Imagine having zero coding skills but you want to create a custom layout for your website pages and posts. You want a homepage with a unique design that shows off some great images and maybe a video or two. Well you could pay a developer 100’s if not 1000’s or you could take a look at the Layouts plugin that comes as part of the Toolset suite of plugins.
Check out the video below to see this Layouts plugin in actin. Within 10 minutes a complete custom webpage design is created and live on the internet. No coding at all was used, as you can see for yourself.
As part of the Toolset suite of plugins you also get some Bootstrap WordPress child themes that are specifically designed to work seamlessly with all of the Toolset plugins. You can get started right away with the Layouts plugin to design your unique professional looking website, which is the easiest option. However, if you are using a framework such as the Genesis Framework you can still use the Layouts plugin, but you will need to add a little code into your themes Functions.php file. You can read more on this on the Toolsets documentation pages here.
Phew, there is so much you can do with the Toolset suite of plugins and I think you will be hard pushed to get a more comprehensive set of functions for WordPress in one package. It definitely deserves it’s tag of the Best WordPress Plugin in my opinion (and others agree that it is amazing).
This is not a free set of plugins, far from it. It carries a premium price if you want to take on the whole suite, but that’s fair enough. A premium product needs a premium price. While free plugins are fantastic and I use a whole host of them there are many advantages of paying for a product. You are assured of quality (well you definitely are with the Toolset anyway because I can personally vouch for it because I paid for it and use it nearly every day), you get regular updates to add new features and also to ensure compatibility with core WordPress updates (if this does not happen then it can open up security holes or the plugin may not work correctly). Also, and perhaps one of the strongest benefits is the support. There is an active network of Toolset experts to answer any questions you have, and this is something I have taken advantage of many times myself.
The whole Toolset suite of plugins costs around $150 (works out at around $30 per plugin or about $20 if you include the Bootstrap themes and the module manager that comes with it). Support lasts 1 year but you can buy Toolset for life for a one-off fee of around $300. Like I said support is great so this is the option I went for. If you just want individual plugins from the suite then the Views & Cred plugins cost around $100, Access costs around $40, while the Layouts plugin is only available as part of the whole Toolset suite.
There you have it. If you are someone who wants to add some custom structuring, formatting, and styling to your WordPress website I cannot recommend the Toolset suite of plugins enough. In most cases you can purchase the individual plugins separately and the Types custom post types plugin is even free (so is the Bootstrap theme), or you can go for the full suite.
Head over to the Toolset website for more details and see if this is something that is for you.