wordpress: beyond the basics

Working with Themes

One of the things that makes WordPress so flexible is its concept of "themes." A theme is a collection of WordPress templates, stylesheets, and images that completely control the look and feel (and in some cases the behavior) of a WordPress site. In WordPress, themes are completely decoupled from the content, which means you can change themes at any time without affecting the content you've loaded into the site in any way.

Because WordPress is so popular, there's an entire cottage industry of free and low-cost themes available, many of them designed by real live design professionals.

Themes Example

While it's possible to design a WordPress theme from scratch, we don't generally recommend it. Design is hard work (harder than you think). It's not just the challenge of coming up with a good design that's hard, but giving it that final polish that marks the difference between an amateur site and a professional site. Not to mention the difficulty of making sure a site works in all of the web browsers and operating systems out there.

Because there are more than 7,000 WordPress themes out there "in the wild," there's almost certainly something out there you'll find suitable, or similar to the design concept you had in mind. Our strong advice is to download or purchase a theme that's close to what you want to achieve, and modify it to match your vision. Tracking down that "just-right" theme will take time, but not nearly as much time as you'd spend designing from scratch.

To begin your theme search, start with the Themes directory at wordpress.org/extend/themes. The themes found there are only a small subset of all themes available in the wild, but they have two advantages:

  1. They've been vetted for security by trustworthy humans, so there's virtually no chance they'll include hidden spam links or other nasties.
  2. They're mostly free, and guaranteed open source (compliant with the GPL)

But the official theme directory just scratches the surface of what's available out there. There are dozens of reputable companies and individuals giving away or selling WordPress themes. Try searching for "wordpress premium themes" or "wordpress portfolio themes" and related queries to find more.

Important: When selecting themes from 3rd-party vendors, stick to the top search results, and download themes only from well-established theme shops. There are themes out there made by fly-by-nights that include hidden spam links and other unfortunate bits.

Installing themes

Once you've found a theme you like, you can install it in one of two ways:

  1. Via the WordPress Themes Dashboard
  2. Via FTP

The dashboard method is much easier, but only works for themes that are listed at wordpress.org. If that applies to you, go to Appearance | Themes in the Dashboard, then click Install Themes at the top. Search for the name of the theme you've already chosen. You'll get a very detailed search interface which will let you search for theme names, keywords, colors, number of columns, etc. Here's what a search for the keyword "wood" looks like:

Themes Wood

Click the Install link next to theme you want to install. On most hosts, the theme will install itself without further prompting. You can then go back to Themes in the Dashboard and activate your new theme (you can have lots of themes installed, but only one can be activated at a time).

Themes Activate
Activating a newly installed WordPress theme

Installing via FTP

If you're prompted for a username and password, then your web host is not set up for automatic theme/plugin installation, and you'll need to enter your account credentials. This can be confusing for reasons we won't get into here. Your best bet is to launch your favorite FTP client and access your host's file system directly.

Need basic instructions on using FTP? See our FTP Made Simple tutorial.

  1. Download the theme from the site that hosts it.
  2. Unzip the theme's .zip file, so you have a theme folder
  3. Log in to your host via S/FTP
  4. Navigate to public_html/wp-content/themes
  5. Drag the theme folder from your desktop and into the themes folder on the server.
  6. Activate the theme as described above.

Want to modify a theme you've downloaded? Look for our Modifying WordPress Themes" tutorial.


You've now got a better handle on the mechanics of running a WordPress site than your average bear. You'll find even more WordPress goodness in our WordPress Settings tutorial. And remember, there's no better teacher than experience - go build a site!