One of the many reasons for the popularity of WordPress.org is its extensibility. There are thousands of themes available, and tens of thousands of WordPress plugins – all for free. If a free theme doesn’t meet all of your needs, you could stump up for a premium version. This will give you greater support and upgrades to the functionality.
However, in lots of cases you will have exacting requirements that no theme (neither free nor premium) can meet. In these cases, you might want to develop a WordPress theme that matches your needs. Your custom theme will either be something you develop or one a professional will create for you.
Throughout this article, we’re going to show you what developing a WordPress theme consists of, and what you’ll need to know. By the end, you’ll know whether you want to get to work, or hire someone to do it for you.
What a WordPress Theme Consists Of
On the front end, a WordPress theme is the ‘skin’ for your site’s look. This is an oversimplification though, as there are many theme files that make up the whole. Together, the entire collection will decide on your site’s design, and its functionality with regards to customization too.
Of course, there are thousands of free themes to choose from, and many more premium editions. Each one has the ability to make a website look radically different without touching the core content. For example, a WordPress default theme has a basic look suitable for blogging:
However, pair this with a theme suited to another application, and your design will look completely different:
Developers will use lots of different coding languages and scripts to build a website:
- HTML is used for the structure and framework of your site.
- CSS is what you’ll use to customize the visual design of your site.
- PHP connects your website to your database, among other tasks.
- The template files make up the pages of your site. They are PHP source files, and dictate how pages display to visitors.
- Your CSS file contains all of the visual information for your site, such as colors for individual elements, typography, and ‘viewport’ dimensions.
- Some themes will use a functions.php file too. This lets you enable more functionality for a site, such as sidebars and widget areas, or lets you give the user more customization options within WordPress.
We’ll talk more about some of these template files later. First, let’s discuss why you might want to develop a new theme for your WordPress site in the first place.
Why You Might Need a Custom WordPress Theme
One of the first goals you’ll want to meet when you start a site is to get it live as fast as possible. This can help you make a great Minimum Viable Product (MVP) but doesn’t help your long-term goals for your site.
If you get past this initial fledgling stage, you’ll likely have ideas about how to develop your site further. If there is no theme or plugin that can add in what you need, you’ll want to consider a custom solution. Developing your own WordPress theme lets you:
- Develop a theme that meets your exact requirements with no compromises.
- Achieve a design that is unique to you and your business.
- Understand how WordPress works under the hood, so you’ll have more knowledge to make site changes down the line.
- Follow a potential sideline of your own in WordPress theme development. Because you can release your theme and make it available to the WordPress community, it could become part of your product offering.
Of course, you also get to exercise your creative muscle and create something custom at the same time. However, there are some elements you’ll need to know before you begin.
What You Should Know Before You Start to Develop Your WordPress Theme
There are three general ways to develop a WordPress theme:
- Using a manual approach – i.e. from scratch.
- Employing a starter theme, such as Underscores, and working with the files from there.
- Using a WordPress theme builder, such as Elementor or Beaver Builder.
In the tutorial, we’re going to discuss how to develop a WordPress theme step by step without any other page builder or starter parent theme.
If you have a theme already in place on your site, this is a good time to carry out some reconnaissance. This can be as straightforward as noting down what you like and don’t like about your theme.
Also, you’ll want to record what aspects of your current theme you’d like to keep. This could be the level of customization, some additional functionality, or any other aspect. Of course, if you don’t build these into your new custom theme, you’ll have missed a golden opportunity.
How to Develop a WordPress Theme From Scratch
To develop a WordPress theme, you’ll want to install the platform on a local development environment. Once you have this in place, you’ll want to head to the wp-content folder, which is an integral part of any WordPress installation. This is where all of your theme and plugin files live, and you’ll want to create your own subfolder here alongside the other directories in the themes folder. For now, you can call this whatever you’d like:
A WordPress theme needs two files to function: style.css and index.php. They are both main files and dictate your overall design and the main page of your site respectively.
In your favorite text editor, create a new file, name it “index.php”, and save it in your theme’s subfolder. While we can’t tell you exactly what to put in there, it will often link to all of the other elements of your site using ‘hooks’. For example:
<?php get_header(); ?>
<h1><?php the_title(); ?></h1>
<?php get_sidebar(); ?>
<?php get_footer(); ?>
One aspect you’ll want to nail is using ‘The Loop’. This is how WordPress fetches posts and other content from the database, and you’ll want this within your index.php file.
As for your style.css, it has to contain a specific comments section in order to ‘link’ with WordPress and the Theme Directory. For example:
Theme Name: My Theme
Description: A test theme.
There’s more you can put in here, as outlined in the WordPress Theme Developer Handbook. As for styling, you might want to turn to an expert web designer for this. CSS can be a complex language despite its format simplicity. However, there is lots you can do to get a basic design in place through your own efforts.
Note that you’ll also want to include a functions.php file and ‘enqueue’ your CSS file within using the following snippet:
wp_enqueue_style( ‘style’, get_stylesheet_uri() );
This tells WordPress to look for a file named style, and load it.
The Alternative to Developing a Custom WordPress Theme
If you like the idea of a custom solution but don’t want to go through the process of developing a brand new theme for your WordPress website, there’s an alternative solution. Hiring a competent developer can net you a unique WordPress theme without you having to touch a line of code.
Delegating the development of your theme to a professional is the best way to get what you want from the project, and maximize your returns. However, finding the right professional could take some work.
For example, you could trawl through freelancer job listings and hope the right profile captures you. This can take time though and doesn’t guarantee success.
Instead, you could turn to a hiring partner that’s focused and knowledgeable about web development and the WordPress industry to find the right fit for your project. Codeable is a leading company that can connect you to the right developers fast and fuss-free.
You’ll have a pool of pre-vetted and qualified candidates to choose from, which is a safe and effective way to find the right developer. What’s more, each professional specializes in WordPress development, so you’ll have an expert on hand regardless of who you choose. You also get a choice of talent for your project – so you get the final say in the process.
On the whole, your theme is the foundation for the rest of your site. As such, you’ll want to make the right decision on how to develop your WordPress theme. The wrong choice can have disastrous consequences, so partnering with a company with a solid reputation and expertise within WordPress (such as Codeable) is essential.
If you want your site to have the exact functionality and look your desire, you might want to develop your own WordPress theme. However, you might not have the time, skills, or inclination to do so. For this situation, you’ll want to hire a professional.
However, there are swathes of experts to choose from, and whittling them down is crucial to find the right fit for your project. Codeable’s matching system is designed to find the right talent for your project, so you can both get to work fast.
If you have a project in mind, you can submit it straight away and receive a free estimate. What’s more, you’re under no obligation to proceed and can investigate without risk!