In this post, you’ll learn everything you need to know about WordPress themes and how to choose one that works for you.
If you would rather follow along with a video, here's a handy walkthrough created by TemplateMonster:
What is a WordPress theme?
A WordPress theme is a collection of templates, code files, and stylesheets that modify the way a WordPress website is displayed on the front-end, without modifying the core WordPress software. Some WordPress themes are bundled with a page builder for easy editing and customization.
According to data from Built With, approximately 28 million websites are powered by WordPress.
With such a vast number of sites built on this open-source platform, you might be wondering how your WordPress site can stand out and reflect your unique brand. That’s where WordPress themes come in.
WordPress themes allow you to customize your website down to the fonts and colors. Once you install a theme, you can change countless elements such as the width of the page, the items in the header, the branding, the layout, and more. Some themes limit which changes you can make, but they’re by and large highly customizable.
The good news is that there are plenty of options out there, so if you don’t like one theme, you can easily switch it for another without losing your content.
How do WordPress themes work?
WordPress themes are more than “skins.” They provide control not only over the visual presentation of content on a WordPress site but also over the behavior of certain site elements when visitors interact with them. For example, a responsive theme might re-order or hide certain elements on the page when a visitor views your site from their mobile device.
This behavior is possible because of the theme’s templates, plugins, and files. A WordPress theme consists of several components, and it’s important to know about them even if you don’t plan to edit these files.
Parent Theme Templates
Themes look the way they do because of a set of template files that determine the layout, design, and functionality of its pages. For instance, most themes have a template file for a single page, a single post, a search results page, a 404 page, and a single product page (if it’s an ecommerce theme).
WordPress themes also contain template files for the footer, header, and sidebar, controlling what goes in them, such as your business logo or your navigation menu.
Child Theme Templates
Some themes also come bundled with a child theme. Developers include child themes so that you or your developer can make changes to the theme’s template files without affecting the parent files.
This is helpful for a few reasons. If you make too many changes and want to revert to the parent theme, you can easily do that. In addition, you can install an update for the parent theme without losing your customizations in the child theme’s files.
Cascading Style Sheet (CSS)
CSS is a coding language that makes a website “look pretty.” Without it, you’d be stuck with the browser’s default fonts and colors.
WordPress themes include a CSS stylesheet that influences the website’s look and feel. If you think you need to edit the CSS stylesheet to make the theme look the way you want, don’t fear: Most themes provide options in the WordPress admin dashboard to make those changes. For the most part, you won’t need to touch any CSS code.
Every WordPress theme comes with a PHP file, which determines the major back-end functionalities of the theme. You don’t have to worry about this file unless you’re experienced with coding PHP and want to tinker with it. The only thing you have to do is keep your PHP version updated.
Unless you’re using a theme built by WordPress.org, such as Twenty Twenty-Two, your theme will likely come bundled with a drag-and-drop page builder. This allows you to edit your content and change how your website looks without needing to touch any of the theme files.
Most times, you won’t have to install the page builder separately. During the installation process, the theme will automatically add the plugin to your WP admin area.
If the theme doesn’t come bundled with a page builder, it will be compatible with one or more options so that you can choose the best builder for you.
Some WordPress themes will also automatically come bundled with other plugins to extend your website’s functionality. The nature of the plugins will differ depending on the type of theme you’ve installed. For instance, a membership theme will come bundled with a membership plugin. In the same way, an ecommerce theme will come bundled with an ecommerce plugin.
After installing a theme, it’s recommended to review your plugin list and ensure you didn’t automatically install a plugin you don’t plan to use.
To summarize, you can download or purchase a theme to change the appearance and behavior of your WordPress site without touching a single line of code. Because WordPress themes, like plugins, allows users to create custom sites without coding, they have helped revolutionize web design and changed the way we create and consume content online.
Once you've selected a theme, you can start customizing it. The customization process can take place directly in your dashboard thanks to the built-in theme editor in WordPress. Let's take a closer look at this feature below.
WordPress Theme Editor
The WordPress theme editor is a simple text editor that’s built directly into your WordPress dashboard. This editor allows you to modify your WordPress theme files directly in your dashboard.
To access this editor, simply log into your admin dashboard and click Appearance > Theme Editor.
The theme editor will look something like this:
On the right, you’ll see all the template files that make up your theme that you can edit in this built-in tool, like the style.css and function.php files. Notice that the editor selects the style.css file, or stylesheet, by default since that’s the most common file to edit.
The benefit of the WordPress theme editor is how easily accessible it is. Without it, you’d have to log into your hosting control panel, access the File Manager, navigate to your themes folder, and open and edit the specific template files one by one.
However, even if you do have coding experience, it’s not recommended that you use the WordPress theme editor for two main reasons. First, since you’ll be editing the core theme files, any changes you make will be lost the next time you update your theme — and you should always keep your theme up to date to keep your WordPress site secure.
Second, if you make an error when editing your theme files, you could break your site. Unless you make backup files, one error could break your site forever.
For these reasons, WordPress offers another way to edit your theme: the WordPress Customizer. You can access this tool by clicking Appearance > Customize. Here you can edit the colors, header and background images, menus, widgets, and homepage settings. Take a look at your options in the screenshot below.
See the last menu option labelled “Additional CSS”? This is a built-in CSS editor that WordPress offers as an alternative to editing your style.css file in the theme editor.
In fact, after clicking into the Theme editor, you’ll see a message box at the top that says “There’s no need to change your CSS here — you can edit and live preview CSS changes in the built-in CSS editor.” You can see it in the screenshot of the theme editor above.
If you want to edit template files other than the style.css file, then you have a few options. You can create a child theme, which will allow you to modify the appearance of your WordPress website without editing your theme files directly. (You can also opt for an option with built-in child themes).
You can also use a third-party page builder to customize your theme without coding. Some page builders even come bundled with a theme, like the Divi theme and Divi Builder.
How to Pick a WordPress Theme
When faced with the task of evaluating hundreds of themes available in the WordPress directory and third-party marketplaces, you might not know where to start. One way to begin your search is to consider the needs of your site and align them with the features of a theme.
- What type of design would reflect your brand personality?
- Do you need a variety of layouts or just one? Are you looking for a theme with built-in social media widgets or any other functionality?
- Would you like to install a demo site or start from scratch?
- Do you want to purchase a theme that includes its own theme builder?
- Would you prefer a back-end or front-end builder?
By asking questions like these, you’ll avoid the common mistake of picking a theme that looks cool but doesn’t have the functionality you need.
Below we’ll take an in-depth look at some of the most popular and highly-rated themes. These themes range in price and purpose, have different authors, and are available in different marketplaces. By exploring such an array of examples, we hope you’ll find a theme that meets your site’s needs and goals.
Free WordPress Themes
One of the first decisions you’ll have to make when selecting a theme is whether you want a free or premium one.
While premium themes offer more features, layouts, and settings, free WordPress themes allow you to experiment with different designs without spending any of your budget. And because free themes tend to have fewer features and widgets, they are fairly simple and easy to use, even for beginners.
Below we’ll take a look at free themes that are highly rated among the WordPress community.
Astra is a fast, lightweight theme designed to work well with Elementor (as well as other popular page builders). Because it was optimized according to the best coding standards, Astra loads in less than 0.5 seconds. Astra also provides hooks and filters so developers can easily extend its code.
The key difference is that Astra offers more out-of-the-box features, importable demo sites, and built-in plugin integrations so that you can get your site up and running in less time.
For more header designs, color controls, blog layouts, and other advanced features, you can purchase Astra Pro.
Twenty Twenty-Two is the latest default WordPress theme that was built for the Gutenberg editor. It comes with unique block patterns designed explicitly for the theme. These patterns are predefined block layouts that are ready to be inserted and tweaked in individual WordPress sites.
Designed to be a blank canvas for the block editor, Twenty Twenty-Two is a simple and fast loading theme that site admins can use to build custom content layouts for their posts and pages.
Though limited in features, this starter theme is perfect for users starting out on WordPress and for techies looking to learn how to modify or create WordPress themes.
A lightweight and highly extendable theme, OceanWP is ideal for creating WooCommerce storefronts. With ecommerce features built directly into the theme, including native cart popup, floating add to cart bar, and product quick views, you won’t have to install as many plugins to create your ideal online store.
OceanWP appeals to users at different skill levels. Because it’s compatible with Elementor, Beaver Builder, Divi, and other popular page builders, beginners can design their sites quickly. Developers and other advanced users, on the other hand, can take advantage of the theme’s extensible codebase to make unique customizations.
With over two million downloads, OceanWP is one of the fastest-growing themes for WordPress. The theme is free, but you can purchase bundles of premium extensions, demos, and support.
Hello is a clean, lightweight theme designed to work seamlessly with the Elementor page builder. Written with only the most essential code, Hello offers impressive load times and compatibility with most plugins, including Yoast and WooCommerce. It also enables developers to easily access and edit the theme’s codebase to make any changes they want.
Hello is ideal for site owners looking to design their site from the ground up, building everything from 404 pages to archives to WooCommerce product pages, and more.
Woocommerce Storefront is the official theme designed for WooCommerce sites. Downloaded over three million times, Storefront provides a responsive layout, nestable grid system, and built-in SEO for you to set up a store fast.
You can use the built-in WordPress customizer or a page builder like Elementor to customize your store’s appearance.
Storefront offers a limited selection of core features so that it remains lightweight and fast. You’ll likely be able to set up your store with the features provided but if you need additional functionality, then you can find free and premium addons in the WooCommerce Storefront extension catalog.
Any of the themes above can help you customize the look and feel of your site while keeping your costs low. However, using a free theme can have its disadvantages. You risk downloading malicious code, slowing down your site because of a poorly-written theme, or not having support if an error occurs.
You can minimize these risks by selecting a free theme that is highly rated and available for download from the official WordPress repository or a trusted third-party marketplace, as the ones discussed above are. If you can’t find a free theme that suits your needs, however, you can purchase a premium one.
Best WordPress Themes
Premium themes offer advanced customization options, a large selection of demos and layouts, and priority support. Below we’ll look at some of the the best WordPress themes on the market. From integrated page builders to unique customization options, each has valuable features that will enhance your site.
Divi by Elegant Themes is one of the most popular themes for WordPress. It’s responsive, fast, and versatile but what really sets Divi apart from other WordPress themes is that it comes with a front-end visual editor. That means you can customize your pages by adding special effects, inserting calls-to-action, or using any of the other 40 elements and preview these changes in real time.
Divi also has a built-in split testing system so you can test variations of elements on the page to ensure your site is optimized for your visitors. The last thing that differentiates Divi from other themes is its pricing model. By purchasing one license, you can use Divi (or any of the other themes built by Elegant Themes) on an unlimited number of sites.
With its built-in split testing, drag-and-drop visual editor, and over 800 pre-designed layouts, Divi is an excellent choice for beginners and advanced site owners as well as agencies that build sites for clients.
Like Divi, Avada is an incredibly popular multi-purpose theme that comes with its own drag-and-drop page builder tool. Avada has a few key differences, however, including a one-click demo importer and back-end editor.
You can get your site up and running in minutes by importing one of Avada’s 60 pre-built demo websites, which is particularly appealing to beginners. More advanced users can choose from over 300 pre-built pages and customize them using Avada’s 70+ design elements and built-in page builder. It’s important to note that, unlike Divi’s, this builder works on the back end so you can’t see your changes in real time.
According to Avada’s official site, over 550,000 users have chosen Avada for their site, making it the top-selling WordPress theme at ThemeForest of all time.
Kallyas is a multi-purpose theme that combines many of the key features of Divi and Avada.
Like Divi, Kallyas’s built-in editor, the Zion builder, works on the front end so you can make live edits. Like Avada, Kallyas has a one-click demo wizard so you can install one of the 70+ pre-built websites in a single click. What sets this theme apart from both Divi and Avada is that it offers the most design options, with over 150 blocks and widgets.
Enfold is another responsive multi-purpose theme that’s highly rated by the WordPress community.
Like Avada and Kallyas, Enfold provides demo sites that users can install with a single click to quickly create and launch different types of sites. With 36 pre-built sites currently available, it has a smaller selection than the other two themes but still offers a rich variety.
Like Avada, Enfold comes with a back-end page builder so you’ll have to save and preview your changes to see what your front-end visitors will see.
While Enfold offers a smaller selection of pre-built content and page elements than Avada and Kallyas, it isn’t necessarily a disadvantage. Site owners that don’t need as many out-of-the-box features will appreciate the simpler dashboard and user experience.
Porto Theme is a responsive theme that’s ideal for creating online stores. Compared to other multi-purpose themes that have general ecommerce features, Porto provides features and layouts that were built for WooCommerce stores in particular. It has a built-in product page builder, pricing tables shortcodes, multiple footer options for ecommerce sites, and more.
Of Porto’s 99 demos, over 30 are specifically designed for ecommerce stores. What’s unique about Porto’s demo installation is that you can pick and choose elements of different demos. You can take a slider from Shop Demo 1, a banner from Shop Demo 12, and footer from Shop Demo 33 to create your own custom pages in less time.
You may not need the many features, page templates, customization settings, and options provided by the multi-purpose themes mentioned above. For a simpler site that’s easy to navigate, a responsive one-page theme like Hestia will align better with your needs.
While Hestia is compatible with the Gutenberg editor, you can integrate this theme with popular page builders like Elementor and Beaver Builder to customize your pages. Hestia also includes pre-built sections for your contact info, bio, client testimonials, shop, and more so you can quickly create and launch your site.
Themeisle offers a free and premium version of this theme. You can purchase Hestia Pro to add video backgrounds, use multiple headers, and unlock additional functionality.
Because of its intuitive design and low costs, Hestia is ideal for small businesses and freelancers looking to create a resumé-style website to present their services.
Daisy is the best-selling theme in Mojo Marketplace. With multiple header styles, 15 blog layouts, five post types, and out-of-the-box social media icons, this rensponsive theme is ideal for bloggers.
With your purchase, you’ll have access to video tutorials that walk you through the process of setting up your site, from installing Daisy to configuring your SEO settings. This documentation, combined with Daisy’s clean design and simple features, has earned this theme a reputation for being easy-to-use and beginner-friendly.
Any of the themes discussed above can help you create beautiful and feature-rich sites. However, some might be too broad in purpose. To avoid paying for features that you don’t need and missing features that you do need, let’s look at themes that are specifically designed for business sites.
WordPress Business Themes
In addition to price, you can also filter WordPress themes by purpose or niche. Say you’re a consulting firm. Then you might be looking for a theme that allows visitors to make appointments with you online. Or say you’re a photographer looking for a minimalist theme that offers a variety of portfolio layouts.
To help you find the right fit for your site, let’s look at a few themes that are ideal for different types of businesses below.
Consulting is an award-winning business theme in the Themeforest marketplace. In addition to offering over 40 demos, unlimited header layouts, and more than 120 shortcodes and configuration options, Consulting offers features specifically designed for business sites.
With this theme, you can add responsive bar charts and graphs, client testimonials, and a pre-built callback request form to your site. You can also use the theme’s built-in appointment manager to allow visitors to book appointments online and add a cost calculator to your site to create quotes or price estimation forms for your WordPress site.
X is a responsive multi-purpose theme like Kallyas. It comes with a front-end page builder so you can make live edits and also offers 27 pre-built demos to help you easily and quickly launch a site.
What makes X unique is that it offers four different “stacks” or designs that suit different types of businesses. When creating your site, you can choose from a flat, minimal, magazine, or all-purpose design. Each has its own unique set of features.
X is Themeco’s top-selling WordPress theme and one of the fastest-selling themes available in the ThemeForest marketplace. It’s used by all types of businesses, including restaurants, tech companies, salons, bands, gyms, non-profits, and more.
Business Pro is a simple but flexible theme built on top of the Genesis Framework. Because this framework is responsive, built with clean HTML5 code, and optimized for search engines, Business Pro delivers impressive load times. In fact, AWPGUIDE’s demo website built with the Business Pro theme loaded in 400ms, according to a Pingdom website speed test.
Business Pro leverages WordPress’s built-in core functionality so you can use custom logos, custom header videos and images, featured images, image and video widgets, and more to create your business site.
This StudioPress theme is ideal for creative agencies and other businesses that want a modern design for displaying their products and services.
Kalium is a responsive multi-purpose theme that’s best suited for businesses and individuals looking to build a portfolio. Its minimalist design, 100+ customization options, and array of portfolio, project, and blog layouts make Kalium ideal for agencies, restaurants, bookstores, car dealers, gyms, photographers, musicians, artists, freelancers, and more.
Built by coders for coders, Kalium is easy to extend so users with web development experience can customize their site’s appearance exactly as they want. If you lack this technical experience, then you can use the integrated WPBakery page builder to easily create your site by dragging and dropping elements on the page.
Antreas Pro is a premium one-page WordPress theme specifically designed for business sites.
This theme offers built-in social share buttons, author boxes, and related posts lists so you can engage your visitors without installing third-party plugins. It also provides modern grids and layouts for presenting products and services, animation and hover effects for making content stand out on the page, and pricing tables for breaking down your fees and rates.
A free version is available in the WordPress repository as well. It’s limited in functionality but can give you a sense of the theme’s design and interface before purchasing Antreas Pro.
Corporate by Themify is a responsive theme designed for businesses to promote their products and services. Whether you want to make a video your background, add animation effects, or showcase testimonials from your clients, this theme offers a wide range of features so you can create a site that reflects your company’s specific brand.
With Corporate, you’ll get the Themify Builder, which has drag-and-drop functionality, reusable layout parts, and responsive grids and styling. It also has a back-end and front-end edit mode so you can design page layouts in the back end and make live edits in the front end.
Selecting Your WordPress Theme
You can create a unique and functional website with any of the themes above. Once you’ve found one that has the features, layouts, and customization options you need, you can install the WordPress theme on your site and reap the benefits of improved performance, SEO, and visitor engagement.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in March 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published May 4, 2022 7:00:00 AM, updated May 04 2022