Last updated: 6 June 2021

The layout and look and feel of a WordPress website is defined by its theme. When you install WordPress you get a couple of themes to get you started. It is likely, though, that you want to use another theme.

Installing a theme is easy. You can navigate to Appearance » Themes to see all installed themes, and you can install a new theme via the Add New button at the top of the page. This gives you access to all themes in the WordPress themes directory.

Once you have found a suitable theme you can install it by clicking the “Install” button. Here, I searched for a theme called Chaplin. When you hover your cursor over the thumbnail you will see a big blue Install button.

Installing the free 'Chaplin' theme via the WordPress dashboard.
Image: Installing the Chaplin theme.<//small>

When you install a theme it is not automatically used. Instead, it is simply added to the list of installed themes (that is, the themes shown under Appearance » Themes). If you are sure you want to use the theme then you can activate it straight away. After the theme has been installed the Install button is replaced by an Active button, so you don’t need to navigate to the main themes page to make the theme the default.

Finding themes

Installing and activating a theme is easy, but finding a suitable theme can be much more difficult. There are many themes to choose from, and you don’t know exactly what you will get until you try a theme.

To give an example, one thing I like about the above-mentioned Chaplin theme is that it doesn’t nag you. Most themes are free but don’t give you access to certain customisation options unless you upgrade to a paid-for version of the theme. So, it may be that you can’t change something as simple as the colour scheme or fonts used by the theme.

Another thing to check is if the theme is actively developed and if it is compatible with the latest version of WordPress. Unfortunately, you don’t get that information when you browse themes from within the WordPress dashboard but you can find it on the WordPress themes website.

Customising themes

Different themes have different customisation options. Typically, you can change background colours and images, fonts and tweak various settings that change the behaviour of your website. The best way to familiarise yourself with a theme’s options is through trial and error.

Customising the 'Chaplin' theme via the WordPress dashboard.
Image: Exploring the Chaplin theme.

One final thing to note is that every theme has its limits. It is relatively easy to quickly change elements of a theme, but you can only change what the theme allows you to change. If you want something more custom then you can build your own theme, perhaps based on another theme. There is good documentation about custom themes in the WordPress Theme handbook. This does, however, require a good knowledge of how WordPress works under the hood and basic coding skills.

This article is part of a mini-series about getting started with WordPress. You can also read the following articles: