WordPress Themes: A Beginner’s Guide

If you’re just getting started on building a new WordPress site, one of your first steps is to choose a WordPress theme. Just how familiar are you with WordPress themes?

While some people have a general idea of what a theme in WordPress is, many don’t realize how important themes are and how they work to create a finished, published WordPress website.

In the simplest of terms, a theme is a pre-packaged design layout that helps define the look of a WordPress site. It controls the visual aspects of your website and how it appears to a user when they access the site.

In this guide, we’ll take you step-by-step into the importance of themes in WordPress and show you some of the best theme options available.

You’ll also learn how to install a theme, change a theme, customize a theme and a lot more.

If you’re looking to become an expert in all things related to WordPress themes, keep reading.

In this guide

What Is a WordPress Theme?

In a nutshell, a WordPress theme determines how your website looks to a user when they land on your URL. A WordPress theme provides the look, feel and design for the overall styling of a WordPress website.

More specifically, all of the content you add to your website is displayed within the context of the WordPress theme you choose. By changing your WordPress site’s theme, you can instantly change how your site looks.

For example, take a look at the TechCrunch website. This is an incredibly popular site that runs on the WordPress platform. When you look at their site, you’ll immediately notice a unique styling of how images and text appear within the layout. All of the visual stylings of the TechCrunch site are determined by the theme that they are running on their site.

wordpress themes guide

When looking at a website’s design, spay close attention to how:

  • The home page looks
  • Headings are styled
  • Content items are listed
  • Predetermined spacing is used between paragraphs
  • The main menu bar is in a specific location

All of these things are controlled by the site’s WordPress theme.

Get the bonus content: Getting Started with WordPress

One of the major benefits of using WordPress as the tool to power your website is that you can quickly and easily change themes or customize the theme you’re already using.

When you’re ready to start looking for a theme to stylize your WordPress site, the best place to begin is in the WordPress.org theme directory. There, you’ll find nearly 4,000 different free themes to choose from.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for in the WordPress theme directory, there are dozens of third-party sites that offer both free and premium themes for WordPress.

A simple Google search will turn up more results than you can probably research.

WordPress Themes Explained

WordPress themes are really a “package” of files that are added to your website to give it a design. So it’s important to understand that any theme running a WordPress site is mostly composed of three differing files.

  1. The first one is called index.php. This is the main template file that site visitors see when they land on your website.
  2. The second one is called style.css. This is the main style file and is used to style the content of the aforementioned index.php file.
  3. The third in the functions.php file. This important file provides the PHP code your site needs to operate.

Do You Need a Theme for WordPress?

Yes, you do. It’s not possible to build a site on WordPress without using a theme. The theme files are required for WordPress to be able to create the look of your website presented to end-users.

You can, however, create a theme from scratch rather than using a pre-built theme. This requires a good amount of technical detail and probably isn’t how you want to approach  building your WordPress site as a beginner.

But if you’re interested in building your own theme for your WordPress site, the simplest way is to download and install a starter theme and begin adding in the design elements you’re looking for.

This can be done by editing the theme files just like you would other CSS or HTML files, then uploading those files via FTP to your site’s server.

  1. Install WordPress on your server. Most WordPress hosting providers have a one-click easy install option.
  2. Download and install the Underscores theme for WordPress, then manually modify it to fit your design requirements.
  3. Install the plugins that you need.

Add content to your website in the WordPress Dashboard.

For those of us who want a finished theme that’s ready for our content, it’s best to start searching for your desired style in the WordPress.org Theme Directory, then start adding your desired plugins and content after you’ve downloaded and installed your theme choice.

WordPress Theme vs Plugin: What’s the Difference?

A WordPress theme organizes and displays the entirety of your site’s information, while a WordPress plugin adds additional features or functions to your website.

When you’re looking for a theme to use, you’ll notice that a lot of them automatically add some level of site functionality and features beyond styling. However, a theme is not a plugin and doesn’t function as one.

When you use a WordPress plugin, it (usually) won’t change the overall design elements of your site. Rather, a plugin performs a specific function within the theme that allows you to further customize how your site works.

While it is possible to customize some of your site functionality within the theme, it will not replace the customization options that you’ll get from using one of the 55,000 unique plugins available for download on the WordPress.org Plugin repository.

Think of your theme as the “external effect” of your site, while the plugins have an “internal effect” by adding or removing specific functions within your WordPress site.

It’s important to remember that even if you change the theme you’re running on your site, the plugins will come along for the ride and continue working on the new theme the same way they did on the old theme.

Some of the most important plugins to start out with include BackupBuddy, a WordPress backup plugin that continually creates backed up versions of your site in case your work is lost due to any reason.

You’ll also want to include from the beginning a WordPress security plugin to keep your data and the data of your users safe at all times.

If you plan to manage multiple WordPress sites, you’ll definitely want to start your journey into WordPress by downloading iThemes Sync. It will help you work smarter, not harder.

Are Themes Free In WordPress?

When it comes to the pricing of themes for WordPress, note that there are three different types:

  • Free themes
  • Premium themes
  • Freemium themes

In this section, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of each type of theme.

Free WordPress Themes

A free theme isn’t going to cost you a dime. All you need to do is download, install and activate the theme in order to use it.

With nearly 4,000 free themes available on the WordPress.org theme directory, you’ll surely be able to find the right one to get your site up and running.

If you’re working with little or no budget, you can fully rely on using a free theme while still presenting a professional appearance in your finished project.

Some of the major benefits of free themes include:

  • Won’t impact your budget
  • Although free, they still come with powerful features and inviting layouts

Some of the most-used free themes in WordPress are:

  • Kadence Theme
  • Spacious theme
  • Zakra theme
  • Flash
  • Astra
  • ColorMag

If you’re just starting out and unsure of what theme to choose, consider starting with one of these. We’ll cover them in more detail in a bit.

Premium Themes

A premium theme simply means that you’ll need to pay a set amount, determined by the theme publisher, in order to download, install and customize the theme on your WordPress site.

The price of premium themes varies based upon the quality of the theme and the options it offers to you as a WordPress developer.

In most cases, a premium theme will come with added features that free themes lack. If you have a small budget to put toward building your website, looking into the best premium theme for your business niche is smart.

The average cost of a premium theme for WordPress is $57.54.

The benefits of using a premium theme include:

  • More features than most free themes
  • SEO-friendly
  • Performance-focused and highly optimized
  • Added options for site customization

Premium themes can be found on popular third-party sites such as Elegant Themes, ThemeForest, ThemeIsle and Zakra.

Freemium Themes

If you want to test a premium theme before laying down your hard-earned money, a freemium theme is a great option. In fact, freemium themes can be the best option for both theme sellers and theme buyers.

A freemium theme allows you to download and install a limited version of a premium theme for free. If the theme fits your needs and you decide to employ it on your site, you can then upgrade to the premium version and the added features it offers.

If you don’t want to upgrade, you can continue using the free version.

Benefits of using a freemium theme include:

  • You make no investment up-front
  • Only pay for the premium version if you want the added features it offers

Most of the popular free themes in the WordPress.org theme directory could be considered freemium because they have paid versions available for purchase on their third-party sites.

For example, popular free themes such as Sydney, Astra and GeneratePress are free and fully downloadable on WordPress.org. However, you can also find premium versions of their themes on their proprietary sites.

Custom Themes vs Default Themes

When you download and install the WordPress core software, you’ll notice that it comes with a few default themes that you can use for free.

The default themes you’ll see are developed by teams of WordPress contributors and are very basic.

A custom theme is quite the opposite.

Custom themes are built by specialized developers that build a unique theme that’s specific to one website.

Default Themes

Upon your initial WordPress installation, you’ll see that your website already has a theme. That theme is the default theme.

Your WordPress installation will come with three pre-installed themes, with the current default theme automatically activated until you change it.

The WordPress developer teams build a default theme for all major WordPress version updates. Since 2010, each default theme is named after the year it was released.

For example, the 2010 theme is called Twenty Ten. The most recent WordPress default theme is Twenty Twenty-One.

Custom Themes

A custom theme is built by skilled developers for specific business needs and offers unique features, layouts and styles.

With a custom theme, you’ll have all the freedom in the world to have a theme built according to your exact needs and preferences.

Most custom themes for personal or business use will cost between $39 – $99. If you need additional features built-in or companion plugins included, expect to pay between $59 – $299.

If you’re looking for a complex, enterprise-level custom theme built for your WordPress site, expect to pay at least $300 on the low end. In reality, $1,500 or more for a highly customized enterprise-level theme shouldn’t shock you.

What Is a WordPress Child Theme?

To understand a child theme, first it’s important to know what the term “parent theme” means.

Think of a parent theme as a theme that’s completely independent. A parent theme functions on its own without needing to rely on another theme to work. It can pass it’s independent features and functionality to a child theme as well, while also making modifications and changes to it.

Conversely, a child theme is created with the purpose of modifying the core functionalities and features of a parent theme. With a child theme, you can add more features to the theme without touching any of the parent theme’s code.

When creating a child theme, the parent theme will be your main template in creating the customization you’re looking for. The reason you don’t want to make these changes on a parent theme is because all of your changes will be lost the moment you update the theme to a new version.

Generally speaking, the vast majority of themes that you download and install are parent themes. The popular themes mentioned earlier in this guide are all parent themes. But, if desired, you can create child themes for any parent theme and activate it on your WordPress site.

What Is the Best Theme To Use for WordPress?

As with most things in life, “the best” is arbitrary when it comes to the theme you choose to run on your WordPress site. The best one for your purposes will depend on the type of website you want to run and the look you’re hoping to achieve.

Below are different categories of themes that you’ll find in the WordPress theme directory and on third-party theme developer sites.

1. Multipurpose – this category is for themes that can be effectively employed on nearly any kind of website. The layouts are general and customizable for many different purposes.

2. Blog – Themes in the blog category and designed and laid out for sites that want to put a blog at the forefront. They make things easy and efficient for professional or personal bloggers.

3. Magazine – if you’re looking to build a news-based or magazine site on WordPress, you’ll find a lot of theme options to choose from in this category.

4. Business – whether you own a local downtown gift shop or need a corporate site that gives a highly professional appearance, the business theme category will have a solution.

5. eCommerce – when you’re looking to sell online, an eCommerce theme will get you going quickly.

Let’s dive a bit further into each of these categories to help determine which is the best theme for you to start out with.

Multipurpose Themes

As suggested by the name, this type of theme can be used for various WordPress sites.

A multipurpose theme can be used in:

  • eCommerce
  • Business
  • Blogging
  • Magazines
  • A lot more

One of the newest and most popular multipurpose themes is called Kadence Theme. This is a free theme with outstanding functionality. It’s designed to easily accommodate the many requirements of a vast set of different site archetypes.

The Kadence theme comes loaded on many starter-site templates that you can use to customize your site into a professional and beautiful finished product.

It’s suitable for:

  • Portfolios
  • Personal blogs
  • Business websites
  • WooCommerce stores
  • Niche sites

To maximize the power of Kadence consider using the Kadence Blocks. By combining the two, you’ll be able to create nearly any site layout that you want.

Kadence is SEO-friendly, translation-ready, Gutenberg compatible and compatible with all major WordPress plugins.

Another popular multipurpose theme is called Divi. This is not a free theme, however, and will run you $89 to start.

When you purchase and download the Divi theme, you’ll notice that it comes with an additional theme as well as several plugins that allow you to create your site by using a drag-and-drop tool. This makes it simple to create 100% custom site layouts for your homepage and all other pages on your site.

Beyond that, Divi also comes loaded with more than 40 ready-to-use content elements such as:

  • Pricing tables
  • Slideshows
  • Email opt-in forms
  • Testimonials
  • Animated counters

The theme is well worth the minimal investment.

Blog Themes

Themes in the blog category are used for, well, personal or professional blogging.

One of the best blog themes for WordPress is called Cenote.

Cenote is a freemium (free to download and use basic functions, with a paid upgrade available) blog theme for serious WordPress bloggers. The theme features simple options for posting quotes, links and images to promote your newest article or an upcoming seminar.

The theme is fully responsive and optimizes your site for mobile users across all devices. It has a modern, clean look that will enhance all post formats.

Cenote beautifully displays video posts, audio posts and images. It’s a theme that really can help increase your number of readers simply because it’s so visually appealing.

Of course, there are many free blog themes that you can find on the WordPress directory as well. The best one for you is the one that fits the overall vision you have for your blog.

Magazine Themes

If you’re looking to build a site that displays news articles and stories, a magazine theme is the best way to go.

Start by looking at the ColorMag theme, which is free to download on the WordPress directory.

ColorMag is a free and fully responsive theme that’s perfect for publishing news, online papers and magazines.

It’s very easy to create and edit content using ColorMag. Beyond that, ColorMag is compatible with WooCommerce which allows you to launch an online store alongside your content.

ColorMag is also compatible with page builders such as Elementor, which allows you to easily create any layout you’re looking for.

Another powerful magazine theme is called Newspaper. This is one of the best-selling premium magazine-style themes for WordPress. With it, you can quickly publish things like:

  • Reports
  • Fashion
  • Recipes
  • Travelogues

When it’s time to monetize your site, the Newspaper theme works with you there as well. It includes an advertising management tool and a lot of built-in areas that are perfect for high-dollar display advertising.

Business Themes

If you’re looking to run a business-related site for a spa, hotel, travel agency or other small business, begin by taking a look at the Spacious theme.

Spacious is the perfect theme to professionally display your online brand. It includes four-page layouts, four blog display types, two-page templates, 13 different widget areas, interactive sliders and primary color options that will perfectly match your logo and design elements.

Beyond that, it features a responsive design and layout. The theme really does make everything a bit simpler for both you and your customers.

eCommerce Themes

For developers looking to create a site to sell goods, you’ll want to look at employing an eCommerce theme on your WordPress site.

eStore is a great solution if your goal is to launch an eCommerce site. It comes loaded with features that will help you display all of your goods professionally and beautifully. The theme features:

  • Multiple header styles
  • Responsive layouts
  • Numerous color options

Of course, it’s fully compatible with the WooCommerce plugin and supports page builders like Gutenberg, Brizy and Elementor.

How Do I Install a Theme On WordPress?

As mentioned earlier, you’ll already have a theme installed when you first start using WordPress. When you’re ready to change the theme, here’s how to do it:

  1. Head to the WordPress dashboard.
  2. Click on “Appearance” on the main menu (on the left).
  3. You’ll see several options, such as Customize Menu and Theme.
  4. Click on Themes and select “Add New.”
  5. At this point, you can search for a new theme on the directory.
  6. Once you’ve found the one you want to use, simply click “Install.”
  7. After installation is complete, make sure to activate the theme to make it live.
  8. Your new theme is ready to customize.

If you’ve already downloaded a theme from a different location, such as directly from the WordPress.org directory or from a third-party vendor, click to upload the theme after step four.

After the theme has uploaded, you can then activate it and start customizing it.

FAQs About Themes On WordPress

Some common questions that arise when new WordPress developers first start working with themes are:

How Many Themes Can I Use?

You can only have one theme activated at a time. However, you can install several themes and activate them one at a time to see which one best fits your site design and layout vision. Just remember that when you install and activate a new theme, the theme that you are currently running will be immediately deactivated.

Should I Use a Free or Premium Theme?

If you’re working with little or no budget, there are thousands of free themes that can get you going on building your site. Free themes are easy to access and provide powerful features.

Free themes are also a great way for WordPress beginners to get their feet wet in building a WordPress site. You’ll learn a lot about what it takes to build a site using a theme, and may end up completely satisfied with the result without paying a dime for a premium theme.

If you do have a budget set aside for your site build-out, go with a premium theme. Every premium theme comes with added features that you won’t find in a free theme.

For those still unsure which direction to go, a freemium theme is a great solution.

Are Themes Customizable?

They certainly are.

In order to customize your theme and change the overall appearance of your WordPress site:

1. Go to your WordPress dashboard and click on Appearance > Customize.
2. This opens the Customizer panel, which allows you to customize your theme in real-time.
3. On the left side of your screen, you’ll be given a list of customizable options. On the right side of your screen, you’ll see a live preview of your website that allows you to see what it’ll look like after you save changes.
4. Easily customizable options are things like title and tagline, colors, menus, background images, Additional CSS.

Through using CSS on a child theme, you can create customizations that won’t be offered to you in any menu in the Customizer. These types of customizations typically require an experienced WordPress developer.

WordPress Theme Detector

It’s not always easy to settle on the theme you want to use on your site. With so many options available, it can feel like searching for one particular jar of pickles on an over-crowded supermarket shelf.

However, say you’re browsing some of your favorite sites and notice a layout you really like. There’s a good chance that site is powered by WordPress and you can find out exactly what theme they’re using.

The WordPress Theme Detector tool does this for you quickly and discreetly. Just put in the URL of the site you like and the Theme Detector will work to determine the exact theme that’s running on the site.

How To Update Your WordPress Theme

As with WordPress core and WordPress plugins, themes will need to be updated with new software each time the theme developer releases an update.

When this happens, you’ll receive an alert in your WordPress dashboard that your theme has an update available.

Before you run the update, make sure your site is fully backed up with BackupBuddy (mentioned earlier in this guide). While it’s incredibly important to keep your theme updated at all times, there’s always the small chance that the updates could conflict with other programs running on your site.

If this happens, you’ll be glad you have BackupBuddy running. BackupBuddy will be able to restore your site with just a few clicks.

Your Theme Is Just the Beginning!

Without a theme, you’d have no WordPress site. But with the right theme for your vision, you can easily create the perfect site for your project; even if you’re brand new to building a WordPress site.

Whether you go with a free theme or a premium theme, spend some time exploring the many options available in the WordPress community. You’re sure to find the perfect one for your project.

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