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Welcome to our thorough guide on building a WordPress theme from scratch. With millions of websites using WordPress as their content management system, having a distinct and well-designed theme is critical for sticking out from the crowd. 

The process of developing a WordPress theme may appear difficult, but with the correct tools and assistance, even novices can create a WordPress theme that expresses their vision and fits their requirements. 

In this article, we’ll go over everything you need to know to develop a WordPress theme, including the fundamentals of responsive design, which guarantees your theme looks fantastic on any device. 

We’ll also look at several strategies and tools, like the WordPress theme maker, to assist in streamlining and making the process more accessible. Whether you’re an experienced developer or a total beginner, our step-by-step instructions will show you how to create a WordPress theme that is both visually beautiful and useful. 

So, let’s get started developing your perfect WordPress theme with us.

What is a WordPress theme?

A WordPress theme is a set of templates and stylesheets that define the look and layout of a WordPress-powered website. It acts as the framework for your website’s design to help you establish a consistent and visually attractive online presence. 

Themes may be adjusted to meet your requirements. This allows you to create a distinctive and engaging user experience. 

When learning how to create a WordPress theme, you must consider things like site navigation, color schemes, typography, and picture placement. These help to shape the overall appearance and feel of your website, which can influence user engagement and happiness. 

By adhering to best practices and harnessing the power of the WordPress platform, you can develop a WordPress theme that not only looks good but also meets the demands of your audience.

Why create your WordPress theme? 

  1. Individuality: Creating your own WordPress theme enables you to showcase your distinct brand identity. A custom theme allows you to customize your site based on your individual needs, making sure that it appropriately reflects your brand’s style and values. This distinguishes you from the congested digital world but also provides your visitors with a distinctive user experience.
  2. Improved safety: Personalized WordPress themes improve the security of your website by giving you total control over the coding and ensuring that it’s free of vulnerabilities. Pre-built themes may include obsolete or insecure code, which can make your site vulnerable to future assaults. While creating a WordPress theme may improve your safety, it still depends on your skill, maintenance, and compatibility (with the latest WordPress core updates and plugins).
  1. There is no feature overload: Pre-built themes frequently include functionality that you may not require or utilize. This results in lengthy loading times and a crowded user interface. Building your theme allows you to include exactly the elements you need, which simplifies your site and improves speed. This can result in a better overall user experience and faster load times, which are critical for visitor engagement.
  1. Minimize Plugin Dependence: Building your own WordPress theme allows you to embed essential features directly into the theme. This reduces the need for numerous plugins. Further, this approach decreases the risk of plugin conflicts and enhances security, as every additional plugin can potentially introduce vulnerabilities. Moreover, fewer plugins typically lead to faster website load times, which contributes to improved site performance and stability. 
  1. Static files of a small size: Custom WordPress themes typically have smaller file sizes than pre-built themes because they only include the parts and functionalities you require. Smaller file sizes result in faster loading times, which means you can offer an excellent user experience and enhance your site’s search engine results.
  2. Search engine optimization (SEO): Customizing your WordPress theme offers significant control over your site’s SEO because it allows you to integrate SEO best practices directly into your design. This tailored approach ensures that your site structure, meta tags, and overall HTML markup are optimized for search engines. Unlike some pre-built themes that might not prioritize SEO, a custom theme can be continually updated to adhere to the latest SEO guidelines. By crafting your theme, you maintain the flexibility to implement the most effective SEO strategies and adapt to evolving search engine algorithms. With this, you can maximize your site’s potential to attract and engage visitors.

What are the prerequisites for developing a WordPress theme?

Before building a WordPress theme, it’s critical to understand the requirements and stages involved. This will result in a seamless and quick theme creation experience. We will go over each step in detail here, so you know exactly what you need to do at each process point.

Step 1: Create a folder to store the files you will be uploading

To begin, make a new folder in the wp-content/themes directory of your WordPress installation. This folder will include all of the files related to your custom theme. Give the folder a unique and descriptive name so you can readily locate your theme in the WordPress dashboard.

Step 2: Create the index.php and style.css files

Inside your theme folder, add two files: index.php and style.css. The index.php file is your theme’s primary template file, including all of your website’s PHP code and HTML structure. The style.css file, on the other hand, contains all of the CSS stylistic rules that govern the visual look of your theme.

Step 3: In the WordPress dashboard, activate the theme

After generating the index.php and style.css files, go to the WordPress dashboard and select the Appearance tab. From there, you should be able to see your custom theme among the available themes. Clicking the “Activate” button will activate your theme.

Step 4: Modify the settings in the index.php file

Now that your theme is active, you can begin modifying the index.php file. Begin by including the required HTML structure and PHP code, such as the loop for showing posts and the template tags for getting post metadata. This stage creates the framework for your theme’s structure and functionality.

To have a consistent appearance and feel across your website, you must include header and footer components in your theme. Create two distinct files, header.php and footer.php, then include them in your index.php file using the PHP “get_header()” and “get_footer()” methods. This will ensure that the header and footer appear on all pages of your website.

Step 6: Create the functions.php folder

The functions.php file is essential to the customization and operation of your WordPress theme. It lets you implement custom functions, register sidebars, enqueue scripts and styles, and much more. Create a functions.php file in your theme folder and begin adding PHP code to improve your theme’s functionality.

How to create a WordPress Theme step-by-step guide

Step 1: Create and save template files

To design a WordPress theme, you must generate a set of template files that determine the structure and appearance of your website. Follow these procedures to build and store your template files:

  1. Make a new folder for your theme in the wp-content/themes directory of your WordPress installation. Give the folder a distinctive name, preferably something linked to your theme.
  1. Create the necessary template files within the theme folder, including “index.php”, “header.php”, “footer.php”, “sidebar.php”, and “single.php”. These files will govern the overall structure and parts of your website.
  1. Create a “functions.php” file in your theme’s folder. This file will be used to include custom PHP code that extends and modifies the default WordPress functionality.
  1. Add an optional “page.php” file to customize the layout of your website’s static pages.
  1. Include any other template files you may require, such as “archive.php” for category and tag archives, “404.php” for error pages, and “search.php” for search results.

Step 2: Set up the initial CSS stylesheet

To determine your website’s design, create a “style.css” file in your theme folder. This file should have the following information at the top:


Theme Name: Your Theme Name

Theme URI: Your Theme’s Website

Author: Your Name

Author URI: Your Website

Description: A brief description of your theme

Version: 1.0

License: GNU General Public License v2 or later

License URI:

Text Domain: your-text-domain


After providing the necessary information, begin adding CSS rules to customize your theme. To guarantee consistency across browsers, consider utilizing a CSS reset or normalized stylesheet.

Step 3: Make the WordPress theme functional

To make your theme functional, add certain WordPress functions and template tags to your template files. These functions and tags allow WordPress to produce dynamic content and features for your website.

  1. In your “header.php” file, include the “wp_head()” function directly before the closing </head> tag. This function enables WordPress to insert the scripts, styles, and meta tags necessary for effective operation.
  1. In your “footer.php” code, include the “wp_footer()” function immediately before the closing </body> tag. This function allows WordPress to include extra scripts and code, such as plugins and widgets.
  1. Use the “get_header()”, “get_footer()”, and “get_sidebar()” methods in your “index.php” and other template files to include the appropriate areas of your website.
  1. Use the Loop, a basic WordPress feature, in your “index.php” and “single.php” scripts to show posts and their contents.
  1. Use the “add_theme_support()” function in your “functions.php” file to enable theme features like custom menus, post thumbnails, and custom header images.

Step 4: Create a layout for your theme

Once your theme is functioning, you may create a layout for it. You may use HTML and CSS to design the structure and look of your theme. Consider the steps below:

  1. Create a header section including your website’s logo, navigation menu, and any other components you choose to include.
  1. Create a main content section to showcase your articles and pages. Use the Loop to produce material dynamically.
  1. Create a sidebar area to display widgets like recent articles, categories, and custom menus.
  1. Create a footer section with copyright information, social network icons, and any other items you choose to include.
  1. Make your layout responsive by incorporating media queries, flexible grid systems, and fluid images.

Step 5: Improve your design with the CSS stylesheet

After you’ve created the layout for your custom theme, you can use the “style.css” file to modify and refine the design. The CSS stylesheet sets your theme’s many components, including fonts, colors, spacing, and other visual factors. Here are some advice and techniques for improving your design:

  1. Typography: Select suitable font families, widths, weights, and line heights for your headers, paragraphs, lists, and other content. CSS shorthand attributes such as “font” can be used to consolidate many font-related declarations onto a single line.
  1. Colors: Create a consistent color scheme for your theme, including background and text colors, link colors, and hover effects. Use CSS variables to save your color settings.  This approach makes it easy to modify your color scheme in the future.
  1. Spacing and alignment: Use suitable margins, padding, and borders for your elements to achieve a visually balanced design. Use CSS Flexbox or Grid to position and distribute items responsively.
  1. Responsiveness: To ensure that your design is responsive on all devices, use media queries to apply various styles based on screen size. This involves altering font sizes, graphics, and layout components to provide maximum reading and user experience on mobile devices and tablets.
  1. Interactive components: Design interactive components like buttons, forms, and dropdown menus. Introduce hover, focus, and active states to increase user feedback and accessibility.
  1. Custom styles: Change the appearance of certain WordPress components like comment forms, pagination, and picture galleries to complement your theme’s overall style.
  1. Optimization: Optimize your CSS by minifying and compressing it to minimize file size and load times. Consider utilizing a CSS pre-processor such as Sass or LESS to handle your styles more effectively.
  1. Browser compatibility: Test your design in a variety of browsers to confirm that it works with common web browsers, including Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Safari, and Microsoft Edge.

What is a responsive design?

Responsive design is a web design and development method that ensures a website or application’s layout, pictures, and other features appear properly across various devices, including desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Responsive design aims to give an exceptional user experience regardless of the device used to view the website.

Responsive design is based on numerous essential principles and methodologies, which are described below:

  1. Fluid grids: These are used to build flexible layouts that adapt to the screen’s width. Fluid grids specify element width and location using relative measures such as percentages or viewport units, rather than fixed-width measurements like pixels. This allows the layout to scale appropriately as the screen size changes, resulting in a constant appearance and structure.
  1. Flexible pictures: Flexible pictures are vital for responsive design because they ensure that images scale and resize properly based on screen size. Setting the picture width to 100% and the height to auto ensures that the image maintains its aspect ratio and fits inside the given area. This prevents pictures from becoming overly huge on smaller panels or too small on larger ones, resulting in an ideal display.
  1. CSS media queries: Media queries are a powerful CSS feature that allows you to apply different styles depending on screen size, resolution, or device type. Using media queries, you may set breakpoints at which the design will adjust to better fit the device being used. To improve readability and usefulness on smaller screens, you can raise font sizes, tweak margins, or change the layout.
  1. Mobile-first design: The mobile-first design method entails creating and developing a website or application with mobile devices as the major emphasis, then gradually improving the design for bigger displays. This strategy guarantees that the most necessary content and functions are prioritized on smaller devices while simultaneously using the increased space and capabilities of larger screens.
  1. Accessibility: Responsive design should consider accessibility. This means ensuring that the website or application isusablee and accessible to all users, including those with impairments or who use assistive technology. This includes semantic HTML, good color contrast, legible typography, and keyboard navigation, among other best practices.

What are WordPress template tags, loop, and action hooks

1. WordPress template tags

Template tags are PHP functions provided by WordPress that are used in theme template files to display dynamic content or perform specific tasks. They make it easy for theme developers to retrieve and display content from the WordPress database, such as post titles, author names, categories, and more. Some common WordPress template tags include:

the_title(): Displays the title of the current post or page.

the_content(): Displays the content of the current post or page.

the_permalink(): Retrieves the URL of the current post or page.

the_excerpt(): Displays a summary of the current post.

get_header(): Includes the header.php file in the template.

get_footer(): Includes the footer.php file in the template.

get_sidebar(): Includes the sidebar.php file in the template.

2. The loop

The Loop is the primary control structure used in WordPress themes to display posts and their content. In WordPress, ‘The Loop’ is a process that uses a ‘while’ loop. This is a type of PHP code that goes through each post fetched from the database one by one. For every post, it creates the HTML markup needed to display essential details like the post’s title, content, and metadata (such as the author and date) on your website. It does this using special ‘template tags’—tools that help pull and display this information smoothly and effectively.

A basic example of the Loop looks like this:

<?php if ( have_posts() ) : ?>

<?php while ( have_posts() ) : the_post(); ?>

<h2><?php the_title(); ?></h2>

<div><?php the_content(); ?></div>

<?php endwhile; ?>

<?php else : ?>

<p>No posts found.</p>

<?php endif; ?>

3. Action hooks

Action hooks are points in the WordPress core, theme, and plugin code where developers can insert their custom functions to modify or extend the default behavior. They bring greater flexibility and customization without changing the core WordPress files directly. Action hooks are created using the `do_action()` function, and custom functions can be attached to these hooks using the `add_action()` function.

For example, in a theme’s `functions.php` file, you can use the `wp_enqueue_scripts` action hook to load your custom stylesheets or scripts:

function my_theme_enqueue_styles() {

    wp_enqueue_style( ‘my-theme-style’, get_stylesheet_uri() );


add_action( ‘wp_enqueue_scripts’, ‘my_theme_enqueue_styles’ );

In this example, the `my_theme_enqueue_styles()` function is hooked to the `wp_enqueue_scripts` action, which tells WordPress to load the specified stylesheet when the action is triggered.

Tips for developing your first custom theme

Creating your first custom WordPress theme can be both thrilling and rewarding. Consider the following tips below to help you establish a profitable and well-designed theme:

  1. Plan your theme: Before starting, prepare the structure, layout, and functionality. Define your theme’s goal, determine your target audience, and evaluate the many parts that will be included, such as the header, footer, navigation, and content areas. To conceptualize the design of your theme, sketch a basic layout or develop wireframes.
  1. Learn the fundamentals of WordPress programming: Familiarize yourself with WordPress’s fundamental ideas, such as template hierarchy, template tags, the Loop, and action hooks. Understand the WordPress theme’s structure and key files, such as index.php, style.css, and functions.php.
  1. Follow the code standards: Follow WordPress coding standards and best practices to guarantee that your theme is well-structured, safe, and compatible with future WordPress updates, themes, and plugins. Use correct indentation, comments, and naming conventions in your code to improve readability and maintainability.
  1. Use a starter theme or framework: Consider adopting a starter theme or framework, such as Underscores or Genesis, to help you get started with custom theme creation. These tools offer a solid foundation of pre-built templates, functionalities, and styles. This allows you to concentrate on your theme’s appearance and functionality.
  1. Prioritize performance: Improve your theme’s speed by employing efficient code, reducing HTTP requests, and compressing images, scripts, and styles. Use caching and lazy-loading strategies to improve page load speeds and the user experience.
  1. Ensure accessibility: Your theme should be accessible to all users, including those with impairments or who use assistive technology. Designing an inclusive and user-friendly theme includes employing best practices such as semantic HTML, good color contrast, clear typography, and keyboard navigation.
  1. Test your theme: Test your theme thoroughly across several browsers, devices, and screen sizes to ensure compatibility and consistency. Debugging tools and plugins, such as Debug Bar or Query Monitor, can help you find and address problems or performance issues.
  1. Provide documentation and support: Make sure your theme includes clear and extensive documentation to assist people in understanding its features, installation, and customization choices. Assist your users by answering inquiries, correcting issues, and delivering updates as necessary.
  1. Keep learning and iterating: Expand your abilities and understanding of site development, design, and WordPress continuously so you can stay updated with the newest trends, tools, and best practices. Consider the comments of the users and personal experiences to improve your theme.

Start crafting your new WordPress theme today!

To summarize, designing a custom WordPress theme requires a combination of strategy, design, development, and testing. Understanding the fundamental components of a WordPress theme helps you create a one-of-a-kind and functioning theme customized to your individual requirements and target audience. 

With practice and attention to detail, you can develop a custom WordPress theme that stands out and improves the overall look and functionality of your website.

How to create a WordPress theme FAQ

Is it hard to create your WordPress theme?

Creating a WordPress theme can be challenging for beginners, but with dedication and practice, it becomes manageable. Familiarity with HTML, CSS, PHP, and basic WordPress concepts is essential to creating a custom theme.

Can you make money from WordPress themes?

Yes, you can make money by selling premium WordPress themes on marketplaces like ThemeForest or by offering custom theme development services to clients.

How long does it take to build a WordPress theme?

The time it takes to build a WordPress theme depends on your skill level, the complexity of the design, and the features you want to include. A simple theme may take a few days to a week, while a more complex theme could take several weeks or longer.

How do I create a custom WordPress theme template?

1. Create a new PHP file in your theme folder with a descriptive name, such as “template-custom.php”
2. At the top of the file, add a comment block with the template name to make it recognizable as a custom template in the WordPress admin area.
3. Include the necessary WordPress template tags to build your custom layout. These include tags for adding the header and footer, and others that are essential for displaying the content of the page. These template tags are like shortcuts that tell WordPress where to insert parts of your website and how to display post information effectively. 
4. Save the file and upload it to your theme folder.
5. In the WordPress admin area, create a new page and select your custom template from the “Page Attributes” box in the “Template” dropdown. This will apply your custom template to the selected page.

  • Minal Agarwal

    Minal is the Director of Brand Marketing at Bluehost. With over 15 years of business experience in the technology industry, she strives to create solutions and content that fulfill a customer's needs. She is a dog mom and a stickler for calendaring.

    Masters in Marketing Management
    Previous Experience
    Strategic Partnerships, Customer Success, Events and Community
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