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Choosing And Installing Themes


In this lesson you will learn how there are close to 3000 free themes in the official WordPress.org directory and at least as many in the commercial space. This lesson will help you learn how to find and evaluate themes, as well as how to install, customize and update your theme. Finally, you will learn where to go if you need support for your theme, or if you want to report a bug.


After completing this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Recognize the enormity of themes available to the consumer.
  • Outline where to find themes; as well as highlighting the best place to start looking.
  • Explain what to look for and consider in a good theme.
  • Describe how to evaluate a theme.
  • Demonstrate how to install, set up, and uninstall a theme
  • Demonstrate how to update a theme
  • Recognize where to go for support or to report bugs

Prerequisite Skills

You will be better equipped to work through this lesson if you have:


  • WordPress site to practice installing themes

Screening Questions

  • Do you publish a WordPress site at this moment? (Preferred answer: yes)
  • Which theme are you currently using? (Preferred answer: anything but “I don’t know”)
  • Are you satisfied with the theme you are currently using?
  • How many other themes have you tried?

Teacher Notes

  • The last two screening questions do not have preferred answers. They are there to condition the students for the material you will be showing.
  • The lesson should alternate between short lectures and live demos. You, as the teacher, need a working local WordPress installation for the demos.
  • Students should not be working on their site during lectures and demos. Questions from students will be very specific to their case, so it is better to plan a period where the students can test things on their own site and you are able to answer their questions individually.
  • Use these questions in your end-of-class summary.

Hands-on Walkthrough


You are using WordPress, a content management system (CMS). Your content is completely separated from its presentation. This means that the look and feel of your site can change completely just by using a different theme, while your content will remain the same.

Themes do a lot more than defining how your site looks, though. They can choose to hide or show some of your content or metadata, enable and disable WordPress features, and provide you with locations in the design where you can insert widgets and menus. They can even enable features that are specific to them.

What are the differences between plugins & themes?

While plugins and themes can achieve the same goals as each other, it is important to understand the differences between them.

WordPress plugins are PHP scripts that extend the functionality of WordPress. They enhance the features of WordPress, or add entirely new features to your site. Plugins are often developed by volunteers, and are frequently free to the public. WordPress core provides the primary functionality for publishing content and managing users. Each WordPress plugin is an additional piece of software that can be easily installed to extend the functionality of WordPress core.

This allows you to customize your WordPress site with your desired functionality. Since so much functionality is provided through plugins, WordPress core is full-featured and customizable, without having to include everything for everyone.

WordPress themes, on the other hand, are fundamentally a way to “skin” your WordPress site. Yet, it is more than just a “skin”. Skinning your site implies that only the design is changed. WordPress Themes can provide much more control over the visual presentation of your content and other data on your WordPress site, as well as behavior of certain site’s elements while interacting with visitors.

A WordPress theme is a collection of files that work together to produce a graphical interface with an underlying unifying design for a website. These files are called template files. A theme modifies the way the site is displayed, without modifying the underlying software.

In short, plugins are features and functionality to your site, while themes change the look and layout of your site.

Where can I find themes?

WordPress comes with a set of default themes named after the year in which they were released – at the time of recording the latest default theme is Twenty Twenty One.

If you would like to find more themes, the WordPress Theme Directory is the official site to search. Every theme in this directory is reviewed by a dedicated team and tested against a wide range of rules, all of which are designed to ensure a secure and pleasant experience for the theme user.

Among the thousands of themes in the directory, you can easily find the right one for your site using the advanced search feature that uses filters for layout, subject and a specific theme’s features.

There are also sites outside of WordPress.org where you can find themes for your site, but the most reliable source is WordPress.org itself.

What makes a good theme?

When considering what theme to use for your site, it’s a good idea to have a general idea of what you want your site to look like. 

The WordPress.org theme directory allows you to filter themes by features, layout, and subject. Will you have a photo blog or an e-commerce site? Do you want one, two, or three columns on your site? How about support for full site editing or a custom header?

You don’t need to be able to answer all of these questions, but the more you know, the easier it is to narrow down your choices. As you search through the different themes available, you can click on Details and Preview to find out more information about each theme, including things like what version it’s on and if there are any ratings.

Version updates and ratings can give a good sense of the overall experience others have had with this theme, as well as its support for updates to the core WordPress software itself. Just like WordPress, themes need to be updated in order to take advantage of new features, and for security fixes.

How do I install a theme?

There are three ways in which you can install a theme. The easiest is to choose and install one from within the dashboard. Let’s take a look at it.

  • Install from the dashboard: Head over to Appearance -> Themes -> Add New. Themes will be displayed here. You can also install the theme directly from this page,  or, click on details and preview, and install. Once installed, you’ll see the Activate button – click that too. This will bring you back to your Themes dashboard, where you can see the current theme activated.
  • Install from a ZIP file: If you have a theme in the form of a zip file, you can install it manually. One way is to upload the zip file from the dashboard. To do that, go to  Appearance -> Themes -> Add New. At the top, you should see a button to Upload. Click that and choose your zip file, then Install Now. Make sure to activate it as well.
  • Upload via FTP: If you’ve got a zip file and don’t want to use the web dashboard to upload it, another possibility is through FTP (preferably, SFTP, which is the secure version of FTP). For this, you would need (S)FTP credentials from your web host, like the username, password and server information. Once logged in, navigate to the /wp-contents/themes/ directory and upload the theme. The unzipped form should sit in this directory. Once this is done, open your WordPress dashboard in a web browser and navigate to Appearance >Themes. The plugin you just uploaded should be listed there and can be activated.

How do I set up a new theme?

After installing a theme, the next step is to set it up! Most themes’ setup will happen primarily in the Customizer under Appearance > Customizer in your Dashboard.

In the Customizer, you will be able to set things like:

  • Your site’s colors
  • A custom header image, if your theme supports it
  • A background image
  • Widgets, if your theme has widget areas
  • And menus, which might include a social icons menu, depending on your theme

Because different themes come with different designs and, subsequently, related features, you may see more or fewer options than this in your Customizer. Likewise, some themes may require more steps to set it up like the design in the preview than others. In this case, it’s a good idea to search in the related theme’s support forums and/or the theme developer’s documentation to better understand the setup flow the developer had in mind. When in doubt, reach out for help in the forums.

How do I update themes?

Like most software, WordPress themes will be updated with fixes and new features. These updates will be available either automatically or when you choose to manually update them when your site notifies that updates are available.

When you are logged in to your WordPress admin dashboard, if there are updates available, you will be notified in the top menubar as well as the Dashboard menu. You can navigate to the updates page where you will be presented with a list of themes that have updates available. From this page you can choose to update individual themes or all at once.

In order to make this process easier for you, WordPress allows you to enable automatic updates for each of your themes. This means that whenever a new version of the theme comes out, your WordPress site will automatically update to the latest version of the theme for you!

How do you enable automatic updates? Navigate to the “Themes” page where you can enable “auto-updates” for each theme individually. You can also manually update your themes from this page.

An alternative way to update your themes is a recently added feature, where if you have a ZIP file of the newest version of a theme, you can follow the same process of installing a new theme by uploading a ZIP file. WordPress will notice that you already have a version of that theme installed and will check to see if the version you are uploading is new. If it is, it will simply update to the latest version.

Finally, you can use FTP to upload the new version of the theme to your web host in the same way you upload other files by replacing the existing version of the theme files.

How do I uninstall themes?

Much like plugins, it’s generally a good idea to delete or uninstall themes that you are not using.

To do so, go to your Appearance > Themes page to see a list of all the themes that you’ve installed on your site. For the theme you’d like to uninstall, make sure that it is deactivated first. You can do this by activating another theme using the Activate button when you hover over that theme.

If the theme you’d like to delete is already deactivated, you will see an Activate button at the bottom. Click on Theme Details. In the Theme Details pop-up, you will see a Delete link that allows you to delete, or uninstall, that theme.

What about premium themes?

Much like plugins, there are places where you can buy premium themes, outside the WordPress.org theme directory.

One of the major benefits of using the theme directory is that themes included go through a review process, which ensures that they meet standards for code and security. However, there are times when the theme that more closely meets your needs includes premium upgrades or is sold by a third-party.

When considering buying a theme from a third-party, it’s helpful to do your homework. With any themes or plugins uploaded to your site, you are adding additional code to your core WordPress software. Any code can introduce bugs or security issues, due to poor quality, compatibility issues, or just plain old human error.

With that in mind, it’s very helpful to check the website that you’re purchasing your theme from for reviews, how frequently they update their themes, and if they provide support. Getting this information should help you to better understand how actively the themes are under development, which means that they’re regularly updated to add either new features or to fix security issues. Likewise, if you purchase a premium theme, it’s important to know how you can get in touch with the related support team, since themes outside the theme directory do not have a support forums on WordPress.org that you can use.

The more information you have, the better.

Getting support and reporting bugs

With any theme or plugin, sometimes you might run into a bug or other issue that needs troubleshooting. 

The best way to get help with a theme is by going to the theme’s related support forum. All themes and plugins in the WordPress.org directory have a related support forum that the developer or their team typically helps to maintain by answering questions or feature requests that come from those using their themes.

You can find the related forum by visiting the WordPress.org theme directory at wordpress.org/themes. Here, search for your theme by name, click on More Info, and then click on the View Support Forum button.

When reporting a bug, it’s helpful to describe specifically what actions you took when the bug occurred, other plugins you may have installed, and the version of both WordPress and the theme you’re using.


Installing the Chosen Theme

  1. Log in to the WordPress Administration Panels.
  2. Select the “Appearance” panel, then “Themes“.
  3. Select “Add New”.
  4. To install a theme from the Theme Directory, either use the “Search” or “Filter” options to locate a theme you would like to use. Click on the “Preview” link to preview the theme or the “Install Now” link to upload the theme to your blog,
  5. To install a theme that you have previously downloaded to your machine, use the “Upload” link in the top links row to upload a zipped copy of a theme.

Activate Your Theme

Once your theme is installed, you will need to activate it to make it visible on your website. To select a Theme for your site:

  1. Log in to the WordPress Administration Panels.
  2. Select the “Appearance” panel, then “Themes“.
  3. From the themes panel, roll over the theme thumbnail image for the theme you are interested in to see options for that theme.
  4. You can view more information about any theme by clicking “Theme Details”.
  5. A live preview of any theme (using your blog’s content) can be seen by clicking “Live Preview”.
  6. To activate the theme click the “Activate” button.


Where are some suggested places to locate themes? (You may choose more than one)

  1. Commercial WordPress Theme Shops
  2. A Google Search for Free WordPress Themes
  3. WordPress Theme Directory
  4. Your Local Office Supply Store

Answer: 1. Commercial WordPress Theme Shops or 2. A Google Search for Free WordPress Themes, or 3. WordPress Theme Directory

How can I install my theme?

  1. Install directly from dashboard
  2. Install from a ZIP file
  3. Upload via FTP
  4. All of the above

Answer: 4. All of the above

What is a good metric for evaluating a theme?

  1. How many ads you see for the theme
  2. When the last version update was
  3. If your friends are using the theme or not, even if their site is used for a different purpose than yours
  4. Themes don’t really matter, any one will do

Answer: 2. When the last version update was

Additional Resources

Using Themes