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How to Change WordPress Theme

Last updated on Jun 21, 2020 by Gerald Jackson

One of the key aspects of any successful WordPress site is its theme. A theme controls the look, feel and action of your site, and can be the difference between a beautiful portfolio or a clunky webpage that gets little traffic.

That sounds terrible, but don’t worry! There are literally thousands of themes available for WordPress, and many of them are free! It’s possible to find a theme that works for you and your photography style. However, once you find a theme, you’ll have to figure out how to change over to that theme.

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Here, we’ll discuss the basics of changing your WordPress theme. The process is simple, of course, but we’ll make sure to walk you through it step-by-step.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  1. What a WordPress theme is
  2. How to choose the right theme for your site
  3. The structure of WordPress themes
  4. How to change your WordPress theme
  5. Helpful tutorials on WordPress themes

What is a WordPress Theme?

Simply put, a WordPress theme governs the layout of your WordPress site. The “theme” is the stylistic and functional components that make your site work effectively while maintaining the same look and feel the across every page. From colors and buttons, to template fonts and layout, a theme controls all of the design elements of your WordPress website.

It’s important to note that themes separate how your site looks from how it runs. That means that your WordPress database (and the data) are separate from the theme. You can install and change themes as much as you want without compromising that data.

There is no guarantee, however, that everything on your site will work exactly the same from theme to theme. While themes don’t affect your site data, they do govern some of your site’s functionality.

What is a WordPress theme?

More technically, a theme contains all the code, pages and stylesheets that shape how your WordPress website looks and feels. You can change and manage these files from the WordPress directory itself. Users without a ton of technical knowledge will be happy to know though, that you can change themes from the WordPress Dashboard area, too. 

Each theme includes different visual elements, functional elements and page layouts. Some themes are compatible with different plugins, and some work well with special tools like page builders

A basic theme is pretty straightforward, but there are a few terms related to WordPress themes it’s helpful to know. These terms specify different kinds of themes:

what is a WordPress theme?
  • A child theme is a theme that is derived from another parent theme. A child theme takes the basics of the parent theme and modifies them for specific uses.
  • A theme framework is a parent theme that’s used only for building child themes. The framework typically includes some advanced functionality that theme builders would want to include in their own themes.
  • A responsive theme is one that can serve on both desktop and mobile browsers. The layout and design are built such that, based on the device or the size of the screen, it can shift between a large-screen layout or one suited for smaller touchscreens. Responsive themes are especially popular today now that nearly half of web searches happen on mobile and tablet devices.

We’ll talk more about these topics in the WordPress theme structure section.

Every WordPress install includes a basic theme that matches the current year. As of June 2020, that default theme is (obviously) called “Twenty Twenty” and focuses on highlighting the basics of using WordPress.

These basic themes, however, don’t do much outside of a traditional blog format. If you want something more, you’ll have to install different paid or free WordPress themes.

How to Choose the Right WordPress Theme

Choosing the right theme for your site depends on a few factors:

  • Free or no? Many themes are free, but there are also a ton of great premium WordPress themes available. Paid themes often offer more in terms of customization options, plugin compatibility and responsive design elements, as well as support.
  • Style and structure. Do you want elegant themes or a grid layout? How about a landing page layout? Functionality and appearance are important in terms of what themes you may want to install.
  • Mobile friendly. More people are using mobile devices to surf the web than ever before. More likely than not, you’ll want to equip your site with a responsive theme that can fit both desktop users and mobile users.
how to choose the right WordPress theme

After you’ve taken these factors into consideration, choosing a theme boils down to what you want the site to look like. If your business calls for elegance and minimalism, then pick a theme that reflects those traits.

If you need photography and images put to the forefront, then pick a theme that was built specifically for photographers. Need widgets? Go for themes that offer plenty of widgets.

One word of warning: if you are new to themes, make sure that you get a full theme, not a child theme, unless you know the parent theme that the child theme was built on. We’ll cover that more in the next section.

Understanding the WordPress Theme Structure

Every WordPress site is built using three core components:

  • The wp-config.php file that holds critical information for the site, including database access information. 
  • The database that holds all your site’s information (posts, content, etc.).
  • The wp-content directory that holds all your page files, theme files and plugin code. 
understanding WordPress theme structure

The wp-content directory is the most important for our current topic. This is where all content for pages, theme files and other important files lives, and it is where you’ll find any and all files for the theme you install. In fact, if you ever want to find the source files for your current and installed themes, they will be in the Theme folder in this directory.

In terms of theme structure, there are really only 2 required files to build a basic theme:

  1. The style.css file. This Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) file controls the primary style of the theme, including all pages.

    If you aren’t familiar with CSS, it is basically a control language that helps define how certain HTML elements look and act on your page. For example, you can change the color of all the hyperlinks on the page through this file. CSS makes it easy to control a page style in a central location.
  2. The index.php file is the template for the main page of your site, and the page that will load when you point a browser to your WordPress installation. If this is a page that loads blog information, it will also contain The Loop, which is the primary code of any WordPress site. The exact functioning of The Loop is beyond the scope of this article.
WordPress theme structure

Outside of these files, almost all themes have additional template files defined to control the site layout:

  • header.php controls the common design for the header of every page and post on the site.
  • footer.php controls the common design for the footer for every page and post.
  • sidebar.php controls how your sidebar looks, for any page that has one.

Outside of the sidebar, header, and footer, every page will then have an associated .php file. You can use .php files to specify special templates for specific types of pages in a cascading format. 

For example, if you wanted to create a special theme for a category, WordPress would look for a specific template file for that category, followed by a generic category template, followed by an archive template, followed by the generic site page template. This way, every page can have an individual template, and you can define them with as much detail as you like. 

Once you have the basic theme files in place, you can expand on them to add dynamic functions and other content delivery options. This is where you can also include things like responsive design elements, interactive theming options and special design elements like grids or static pages. 

Because some of these elements are time- and labor-intensive to build, however, WordPress has a system of parent and child themes to help facilitate making more advanced themes or specialty themes that include advanced features. 

A child theme cannot stand on its own. Instead, it gets loaded on top of the base theme so that the specifics of the child theme load through the base theme. This way, a child theme creator can change the look, strip away functions, or add functions to an already-built theme. 

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Because of this child theme system, many theme builders have created theme frameworks that provide advanced functions or specific kinds of theming controls. These themes aren’t necessarily usable on their own… Instead, theme creators build on top of them to take advantage of their functionality. 

How to Change a WordPress Theme

Changing a WordPress theme is relatively simple at face value. There are, however, several best practices to use to ensure your site doesn’t experience lost data or functionality.

Step 1: Backup Site Data

The first of these practices is to update your site and backup all the data. Depending on your hosting provider, this process will vary. If you have any questions about creating backups of your site, contact your hosting provider.

You can also export all the data from your WordPress site by opening your WordPress dashboard, clicking on Tools >> Export, then clicking the All Content radio button, and clicking the Download Export File button:

backup site data for WordPress

Step 2: Install a New Theme

Click Appearance >> Themes, then click the Add new Theme section. You can browse themes by category or version (paid or free):

steps for installing a new WordPress theme

Select the theme you want, and hover your mouse over the preview window. You will see two buttons appear: Install and Preview. Click the Preview button:

Preview WordPress theme

You’ll see a live preview version of your website appear using the new theme. Don’t worry! You haven’t installed or changed anything yet. All this option does is show you how your site will look with the new theme.

Click through the links and try your pages to see how your content appears. If you like what you see, click the Install button:

Install WordPress theme

Go back to your themes and hover your mouse over the new theme preview. Click the Activate button this time to change your theme:

Activate WordPress Theme

Depending on your themes and plugins, you may also be able to put your site into “maintenance mode”, which lets you field a static page that notifies that your site is under maintenance while you work on it. 

Best Practices for Changing Your WordPress Theme

As you can see, changing a theme is relatively simple. However, there are few steps you should take after you’ve done so to test that your site still functions properly:

  • Test your entire website. Prior to launch, while you have the theme previewed, you’ll want to run your site through its paces. Go to every page, test out every post and make sure that everything looks and acts like it should. Some themes change how aspects of the page work and can cause small but noticeable problems.
  • Make sure to add your tracking codes. Sometimes, switching a theme can leave your tracking codes off. Ensure that all your Google Analytics or AdSense codes are up and running where you need them.
  • Check across multiple browsers. Some themes may cause problems on certain browsers. Check across Firefox, Chrome, Edge and Safari at a minimum to ensure that you’re getting the same viewing experience.
  • Check responsive designs on mobile devices. That means getting out your phone and tablet and making sure that if you’ve installed a responsive design, it shows up correctly. You can also check this by adjusting your desktop browser size or if you have browser developer tools enabled.
  • Check out how fast your site runs. Using tools like Google page Speeds Insights, you can see how quickly your page loads and how Google might penalize it. Some themes are slower than others, so if you’re invested in SEO that is a big deal.

Best Tutorials for Changing WordPress Themes

Depending on your needs, you’ll have to think harder about changing your theme to suit your business. 

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Here are some tutorials that can help you when changing your WordPress theme:

Once you’ve gotten more advanced, you’ll want to learn more about how to build your own WordPress themes from scratch. 


As you can see, the actual process of changing a WordPress theme is incredibly simple. That’s because the developers behind WordPress wanted to make the platform as easy to use as possible. 

However, you want to make sure that you understand the design choices and elements in play that can impact the look, feel and size of your site. Since all themes aren’t created equal, the theme you choose will effect your site’s appearance and how people and search engines get to it. 

In short, when you want to change your WordPress theme, you’ll want to consider the following:

  • What kind of look and feel am I looking for?
  • Is this new theme a good fit for my business or style?
  • Does it impact my SEO in terms of weight?
  • How does my content look using this theme? Does the theme fundamentally change how my content looks, including content from a plugin and image galleries?
  • Does it offer responsive design?

If it checks off all your boxes, then great! But if not, you can either find a new theme (there are thousands of them) or build your own from a framework or as a simple child theme. 

Free and cheap premium themes are easy to find online. You’ll have no problem finding the kind of theme you want, especially if you know where to look. Check out these 57 best WordPress themes for photographers.

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