What are WordPress themes?

One of the key features of WordPress is themes. A WordPress theme is basically a design – a design you can easily add to your WordPress site.

No coding or special skills are needed, plus you can switch themes like you change outfits!

There are thousands of WordPress themes to choose from too, both free and paid, and every theme offers a different look and quite often different functionality.

Wordpress Hosting

There’s a theme out there for every requirement, such as…

  • Traditional 1, 2 or 3 column blogs
  • Single page business sites
  • Gallery themes for artists / photographers
  • Ecommerce themes for shops
  • Portfolio themes

Free themes vs premium themes

There’s no shortage of free themes available, and the best place to look is on WordPress’ official Theme Directory. There are literally thousands to choose from there, and you’ll almost certainly find something to fit your design and functionality requirements.

You might be thinking, why pay for a premium theme when there are so many free ones out there?

There are three primary reasons why…

Overall quality of design and code

This doesn’t apply to every free theme, but free themes can often be either outdated stylistically and might not have been written with the cleanest code. As the old saying goes: “you get what you pay for”. Why would a really talented designer give away a design for free? Having said that, there are still plenty of great free themes out there worth trying, but overall premium themes are of a higher quality.


Free themes are unsupported, and often you’ll have trouble finding anyone to help should you have any questions or encounter any problems along the way. However, most premium themes come with priority support – often from the theme creator. Free support should be considered a major advantage and will definitely get you out of some tricky situations as you fine tune your theme.

Compatibility / updates

Some of the free themes available at the WordPress Theme Directory are several years old. This means that some free themes may have security vulnerabilities that wouldn’t be found in their premium counterparts. Often, free themes no longer receive critical updates and may fail to work with new versions of WordPress and certain plugins.

If you get stuck, you’re more likely to get the help you need with a premium theme

What to look for in a theme?

With so many themes available, both free and premium, it can be a chore finding the right one for your site. Here’s a checklist of what to look out for…

Theme Support


Check the theme is supported by someone, to some degree. Even if it’s just a few users helping each other out on a message board/forum.

Responsive Design

Responsive design

Responsive design means a “fluid” design that automatically resizes depending on the screen resolution. This means your website will look great on any size device, whether it’s a desktop PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone.


Regular updates

Make sure the theme is still active by checking when it was last updated. As time goes by, more and more security flaws become apparent in both themes and plugins, so finding a theme that is regularly updated is vital.



Is your free theme allowed to be used for business purposes? Quite often free WordPress themes are only intended for personal and non-profit use. If you use a theme for commercial purposes when it’s not allowed, you could end up in hot water with the theme developer. Always check the licence!

Reviews and ratings

Reviews and ratings

Like everything online, if you can, find some reviews and ratings for your theme. Feedback and reviews of others will tell you immediately if a theme is worth testing out.

Simple lightweight design

Simple, lightweight design

It goes without saying you’ll want to pick a great looking theme that has the functionality you need. However, try and find a live website which is using the theme and see how it feels to navigate around it. Is the overall layout and design simple enough to your visitor? Does it load quickly enough? Would you be happy with it to represent your site and/or business?

Adding and testing a new theme

So after much careful consideration, you’ve found a theme that’s right for you and your new website. Let’s get it uploaded to your WordPress site so we can test it out.

Login to your WordPress dashboard and look for “Appearance” and then “Themes”.

Dashboard Theme

You’ll then be presented with a page displaying what themes you’ve already installed on your WordPress site. To add a new theme, just click the “Add New” button at the top.

Add New Theme

You then have two options…

  1. Add an official WordPress Theme Directory theme

    On the “Add Themes” page you’ll be presented with a list of themes from the official WordPress Theme Directory. You can also view the “Featured”, “Popular” and “Latest” themes available.

    Upload Theme

    You can also use the search box (as the image above shows) to find any particular theme you either already know the name of, or to find one using any particular keywords (such as “responsive”, “modern”, “single column”.

    Hover over any theme you like the look of and you’ll see a “Preview” option. Hit this button, and it will take you to a preview of what your site would look like using that particular theme.

    Install theme

    If you like it, you can hit “Install” to install it to your WordPress site.

    Installed theme
  2. Upload a theme

    To upload your own theme, such as a premium theme you have purchased from elsewhere, just look for the “Upload Theme” button on the “Add Themes” page.

    Upload a Theme

    Any theme you download should come as a .zip file. This is the format required by WordPress in order to properly install your theme.

    Hit “Choose file” and locate the theme .zip file on your computer and select the “Open” button.

    Install theme

    Then hit “Install Now”.

    Install Now

    It’s important to note that when a theme is installed, it doesn’t mean that it’s activated (active on your WordPress site for the world to see). It simply means it’s installed and you can choose to activate it when you wish.

When previewing, bear in mind that themes often need customising to fit your layout

Preview and activate your new theme

Now your theme is installed, you can activate it from the “Themes” section of your WordPress dashboard.

Just hover over the theme and two options will appear: “Activate” and “Live Preview”.

Preview Theme

Live Preview will do just that – give you a preview of what your site will look like with this theme activated, without displaying it to your website visitors.

Select “Activate” to set the theme live.

You’ll now be taken to the “Customize” page.

Customising your theme

Every WordPress theme allows various degrees of customisation. This utterly depends on the functionality the creator of the theme has built in.

Some themes allow you to completely change the design from top to bottom – such as choosing colour schemes, layouts, other functionality, fonts etc.

Other themes are far more limiting, which has good and bad points. A theme with limited customisation options means the design can’t be messed-up by someone who isn’t exactly sure of what they’re doing. The obvious bad point is that you don’t have as much control over how it looks.

After installing your theme you’ll be taken to the “Customize” page. Alternatively, you can find it at any time under the “Appearance” > “Customize” section of your WordPress dashboard.

The “Customize” page is split into two distinct sections.

To the left you have your options and controls for adjusting and customising your theme.

On the right, you’ll see a preview of your theme design, which will change to reflect any custom changes you make.

Customise Theme

Customising options (left) – Design preview (right)

Again, what you can customise in here is entirely down to the theme you are using. Some themes will give you more options than others.

However, almost all themes allow you to easily change/add…

  • Site/company logo
  • Header/title text (The main title of your site, usually displayed on the homepage)
  • Background image
  • Site tagline (usually displayed under your site title)
  • Site icon (favicon)
  • Navigation menus
  • Widgets (explained further in the next section)
  • Colours / colour scheme

As you make changes you’ll see the theme preview update on the panel to the right.

Remember, none of these changes are live and active until you hit the “Save & Activate” button at the top of the customise menu, so don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty here and have a play with your theme to get it just right.

If you activate a theme you don't like, don’t panic! You can always reactivate your old one


You may have seen a reference to “Widgets” in this guide, or perhaps you’ve come across them already when researching what theme to use.

Widgets allow you to add new content and functionality into the “sidebar” areas of your WordPress site.

Traditionally many WordPress blog designs were split into two or three columns, with the far right hand side column often acting as a side bar. Within these sidebars you can add widgets.


Using the above image as an example, you can see the sidebar on the right contains a number of “Widgets”, including a “Search” widget, a “recent posts” widget, and a “recent comments” widget.

These are just a few examples of WordPress widgets in action.

Widgets can now be placed in several different areas on a WordPress theme - where exactly is entirely dependent on how the theme is designed.

Most themes allow you to add widgets into the sidebar, header, and footer.

Widgets such as “recent comments” and “recent posts” are just the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands available, and most of them can be installed as plugins and then show up as widgets.

  • Social media icons (e.g. follow us on Facebook)
  • Google Maps (displaying your business location)
  • Author widget (displaying information about the post author)
  • Contact forms (to allow visitors send messages to you via your website)
  • Newsletter sign-up forms (to build your customer mailing list)
  • Testimonials
  • Popular posts (display your most visited blog posts)

At the LCN blog we use a few different widgets in our sidebar such as a newsletter sign-up form and popular post widget. Take a look for yourself.

Adding and arranging widgets

You can add new and arrange your widgets by visiting “Appearance” > “Widgets” from your WordPress dashboard.

On the left you can see a list of your available widgets (with description) and on the right you can see your widget areas and active widgets.

Available Widgets

You can then drag and drop widgets from the left column onto the right hand side content area (such as a sidebar or footer).

Add Available Widgets

Different widgets with different functionality have varying degrees of customisable options available, because WordPress is merely the platform – anyone can write a theme or plugin.

Check out the video guides in your WordPress dashboard to learn more about Widgets

Go forth and experiment!

That is pretty much all of the basics you need to know about WordPress themes. Yes, there is a lot more we could tell you, but it would make this lesson a very boring and drawn-out read.

We believe in getting out there and trying new themes. Even making the odd mistake will really help your understanding of WordPress and themes.

Don’t worry if you ever get stuck as our support team are here to help seven days a week, so get in touch if you have need a bit of guidance.

Now themes are out the way and you’ve found the perfect look for your website, it’s time to extend your sites functionality with plugins!

Follow us for great tips: