How to Install – and Set Up – a New WordPress Theme

Having chosen your ideal WordPress theme, you'll now be in a position to really get things moving: deciding on layouts, inserting images, and generally fleshing out the main content for your site. Before all that however, you'll first have to install and set up your theme. The goal of this particular guide is to show you all that needs to be done (note: for more guides in the same series, head here: WinningWP Guides).

WordPress themes can look complicated to set up, but it's really all quite straightforward once you know how.

It’s very important to spend time choosing the best WordPress theme for you before you start, as whilst setup isn’t difficult, it can be time consuming – and you don’t want to spend that time setting up a theme that’s not right for your site.

This guide will cover everything you need to know to install and setup your new WordPress theme. We'll cover:

  • How to install a WordPress theme (free and premium).
  • Additional theme setup: plugins, content and widgets.
  • Using the WordPress Customizer to setup the basics.
  • Understanding theme options pages.
  • Changing the look and feel of your site (with CSS customization and child themes).
  • What to do if things don't look right.
  • How to get development work done.
  • Updating your WordPress theme.

This is literally everything you need to know.

If you've just chosen a WordPress theme and are installing for the first time we'll hold your hand (not literally) through the installation process. If at any point you see a term and want to clarify what it means, see our WordPress Glossary.

If you've installed WordPress themes before and want a refresher, this guide will introduce you to some new tips and best practices to get your theme more smoothly.

Ready to dive in? Let's get started...

How to install a WordPress theme

Installing your WordPress theme is remarkably simple.

Before you start you need to establish what type of theme you’re using. This will help later, as different themes have different set up requirements.

There are three types of WordPress theme. You'll have one of these:

  1. Free theme from the WordPress.org theme repository.
  2. Free theme from an external website.
  3. Premium theme from an external website or marketplace (such as ThemeForest or Elegant Themes).

Remember what kind of theme you have as you’ll need this throughout the tutorial.

For all of these, if you’re working on a live site then before you install you may wish to use a maintenance mode plugin to give you some privacy whilst you set up the site.

How to install a WordPress theme from the WordPress.org theme repository

Installing a theme from WordPress.org is incredibly easy. Make a note of the theme’s name and head to your WordPress Dashboard. Navigate to Appearance → Themes and click Add New.

Animated image showing the WordPress theme installation process.

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Now search for the theme’s name using the search bar in the top right. Find your theme in the search results and press Install. Wait for WordPress to load the theme onto your site and then Activate to set it live!

Told you it was easy :)

How to install a WordPress theme manually

The installation process for free themes from external websites and premium themes is the same. This is the “manual” method and you’ll find these two types of themes grouped together throughout the tutorial.

First you’ll need the zip file containing your theme. You should have this from your theme developer’s website. You don’t need to unzip or extract it, just know where it’s saved on your computer.

Animated image showing the manual WordPress theme installation process.

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Next, head to your WordPress Dashboard and go to Appearance → Themes. Click Add New and then Upload Theme. You now want to select the zip file you’ve just downloaded. Press Install Now and WordPress will upload the theme to your site. Once that’s done, press Activate and the theme will be running on your site.

WordPress misleads you here: the initial theme installation process is very easy, but there's typically a lot more additional setup still to be done. You're now ready to do this and we'll cover this next.

Additional theme setup: plugins, content and widgets

The "additional setup" process varies between themes. Most themes have some additional setup required to get them looking as you'd expect.

Your first port of call here should be to check your theme's documentation. This will be available from the theme developer's website or you'll find it embedded in the theme. If it's not obvious where to find the documentation, do a search for theme name + documentation.

The Google search result for "divi documentation", showing the documentation as the first result.

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Whilst a lot of themes have very good documentation and some even have video tutorials, it's common for documentation to be not quite good enough. This guide will fill in the blanks for you.

Typically your additional setup will involve some or all of the following:

1. Install required plugins

Plugins are a way of adding extra functionality to WordPress (if you're unfamiliar with plugins read more about them here). Themes often require you install certain plugins in order to add functionality the theme needs in order to work.

If your theme requires plugins to work you'll either see a notice on your WordPress Dashboard after activating the theme or details will be in the documentation.

Installing required plugins using a bulk installer is very easy. If your theme gives you a notice from the WordPress Dashboard that plugins are required, it's likely you'll be taken through this process automagically. Click through to bulk install plugins as prompted and use the bulk select tool to bulk install and then bulk activate the plugins. It's usually not best practice to activate multiple plugins at once, but as these plugins have been specifically chosen to work with your theme there shouldn't be a problem.

Animated image showing the WordPress required plugins installer in action.

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Installing plugins manually is what you'll need to do if you have details in your documentation. If you find links to plugins in the WordPress.org Plugin Repository, install these by heading to Plugins → Add New on the WordPress Dashboard and searching for the plugin name, installing and then activating.

If you're given zip files to download, install these by heading to Plugins → Add New but then clicking Upload Plugin. Add the zipped files one at a time, install and activate. Note installing plugins like this means you may not get automatic updates. See more here on updating plugins.

Question you might be asking: why don't themes just include this? Why do I have to install plugins separately? Great question! Installing plugins required by a theme can be a hassle but it's the least worst option. Themes used to have plugins built-in, but this poses a massive security risk. Keeping themes and plugins separate allows you to get updates (that can patch security holes) much faster. Additionally, if you switch themes you'll be able to keep the plugin's functionality and any data the theme adds.

2. Use the theme options page

Your theme may have a theme options page that lets you control various elements of your theme. If your theme has one of these you’ll find it under Appearance → Theme Options, or as a separate menu on the WordPress Dashboard with the same name as your theme.

A WordPress theme options page example.

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The theme options page is usually used for letting you choose how your site is set up and input data. Each theme is different, but here are some typical options:

  • Choose layout options
  • Customize colors and choose color schemes
  • Add Twitter and Facebook links
  • General homepage setup

You should find these options fairly self explanatory, with each option accompanied by a description. Setting up your options page is just a case of working through the different options and selecting the settings as you want them. You may also find additional direction in your theme's documentation.

Good to know: a lot of functionality previously found in theme options has been moved to the Customizer, where you get a live preview of your changes. If you're expecting to see an option in the theme options and it's not there, it's probably in the Customizer. We'll cover this in a moment.

3. Add demo content (only if appropriate)

Some themes include the content used on the theme's demo. This will be the version of the theme you see when looking at it on the developer's website.

You can add demo content in order to get your site replicating the look and feel of the demo – which will be the thing that persuaded you to choose the theme.

Themes offering this functionality will typically have this option available from the theme options panel. Head there, look for a demo content tab and follow the instructions to import. This typically takes a couple of minutes, so be prepared to wait. Once the content is added you may find your images are stretched. Use the Regenerate Thumbnails plugin to fix this.

Example theme options showing a demo content importer.

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Note that doing this will mix your content with the demo content and overwrite any theme options you've set up already and you'll need to delete the content once you're finished setting up. You may find it much easier to add your own content rather than import demo content.

The content from a theme’s demo is something theme developers think people want, but rarely would you want this. Don’t import if you have content on your site already, and if you’re starting from scratch be aware you’ll need to delete all the demo content before you can start your site.

4. Add a static homepage

WordPress' history is as a blogging platform and its default homepage setup reflects this: it displays your latest posts. WordPress also makes it easy to change this to either a page from your site or a "homepage template".

For themes using a homepage template, add a new page with the title "Home" and then select "Homepage" (or similar) from the Page Templates dropdown. Publish the page. If you want to add a specific page as your homepage, create its content and publish.

Animated image showing the creation of a custom homepage.

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Now head to Settings → Reading and under Front Page Displays select your chosen homepage. Save and you'll replace your homepage.

5. Use the Customizer to setup the basics

The WordPress Customizer is a really useful tool: it lets you set up your site with a live preview of the changes you’re making.

The Customizer lets you do a lot – change basic site info, header and background images and more – but it’s up to individual themes to add support for specific Customizer functions. This means your theme may not let you do everything the Customizer supports.

You can see what your theme supports and what you can change in the Customizer by heading to Appearance → Customize. This will load up the Customizer.

You’ll see a two pane view with a menu for what can be changed on the left and a live preview of your site on the right. Using the Customizer is now just a case of clicking on what you want to Customize using the menu and making the changes you want. From WordPress 4.7 you can click the pencil icon on the live preview and will be taken to edit the appropriate section.

If you want to change your site title, for example, you’d click on Identity and then just change the text! Your live preview will show you what your changes will look like when you publish.

Animated image showing changing the Site Identity in the WordPress Customizer.

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A second common example is changing your site's background color. You can do this by clicking on Colors or Background Color and using the color picker to choose a color which matches your brand. Some themes will also let you upload a background image; if you're doing this make sure your image is wide enough for all screen sizes.

You can now repeat this process through all of the Customizer's functions. When you're done, click Save & Publish to set your changes live.

The Customizer is easy to use, very powerful and in the coming years is only going to get more powerful. It's well worth spending the time to get familiar with it so you can get your site setup exactly how you want it.

5. Set up widgets

Widgets are blocks of content you can add to pre-defined areas of your theme, known as widget areas (if this is your first time encountering widgets read this for more).

Widgets are the best way of adding extra content such as latest posts, popular posts and email signup forms to areas of your site. Plus, they have a really useful drag and drop interface.

Note: before you set up your widgets manually, check if your theme has one-click import for widgets. Your theme will mention this in its documentation if it has this feature.

To use widgets head to Appearance → Widgets. You'll then see available widgets on the left hand side and the widget areas these can be dragged into on the right hand side. Helpfully, both the widgets and widget areas have descriptions telling you what they do and where they show on your site.

Setting up widgets is just a case of dragging and dropping the widgets you want into the widget areas you want them to go. Look out for descriptions noting specific widgets especially suit specific widget areas (this will likely be the case if your theme uses widgets on its homepage).

Once a widget is dropped into a widget area you can set its options. Expand the widget to see these and set them how you want. Save once you're done – and the changes will be made to your site straight away.

Animated image showing dragging and dropping widgets in WordPress.

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You can drag and drop as many widgets as you want into each widget area, and drag and drop widgets between widget areas if you decide a widget would look better elsewhere on your site.

Widgets are the best way of adding extra content to your site, so take the time to get them looking exactly how you want.

6. Add menus

WordPress features a handy menu editor where you can set up the navigation menus that display on your site. You'll find this under Appearance → Menus.

Like widgets, you'll see items you can add to your menu on the left hand side and the structure of your menu on the right hand side. If it's your first time creating a WordPress menu, create a new menu and give it a name that reflects where you want it to display.

It's now just a case of adding the content you want in your menu (use View All to see everything and Custom Links to add anything that's missing) and arranging it how you want with drag and drop. You can indent menu items to get them displaying as sub-menus.

Animated image demonstrating creating a menu in WordPress.

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Once you're done, tick where you want the menu to display under Menu Settings. Typically you'll see your main navigation called Main Menu or Primary Navigation. Now Save Menu and create new menus for any other menu locations, although note you don't need to fill all your menu locations – just do what's useful for your site.

7. This is when you find if you like your theme

The additional setup process is where you find out if you have a WordPress theme you like and suits your site, or not. Each theme is different, but follow the steps above and you should be able to set up any WordPress theme properly.

If you've done all this and don't like how your site looks, or something looks wrong, you can either change it or switch themes.

As we mentioned earlier, it's often difficult to imagine how a WordPress theme will look on your site until it's actually on your site, so there's no harm in switching themes at this point. Recognising this, most premium WordPress theme developers have a "cooling off" period where you can get a refund. If you decide you want to switch, make use of this.

For most WordPress themes, however, you won't need to switch completely – you'll just need to change it. Next we'll look at how to change how your site looks.

Changing the look, feel and functionality of your site

Themes rarely look precisely how you want them out of the box, nor do they come with all the customization features you'll want. In order to change the look, feel and functionality of your site beyond what your theme supports via its options page, the Customizer and widgets, you'll need to use some code.

This isn't as daunting as it may sound, but if you don't fancy changing any code then for both of the methods we're about to cover you should be able to get help from your theme's developer. If you're struggling, check in with them for assistance. Alternatively, for more advanced changes you can hire a developer. We'll cover how best to do both of these later on.

Customizing with CSS

WordPress makes it very easy to make small style changes straight from the Customizer. If you want to make simple changes to colors, widths and fonts, customizing with CSS is the way to do it.

CSS is a coding language used to control the styling output of websites. As you'd imagine, in order to customize your site with CSS you'll need to know some CSS. Fortunately, it's one of the more accessible web languages and you can learn only the bits you need quickly. This video tutorial will show you the very basics and this tutorial will show you how CSS works in relation to WordPress.

When you're ready to customize some CSS, head to the Customizer as before, but now select Additional CSS. You can now enter your CSS code into the text box and – as this is the Customizer – see a live preview of the changes.

Animated image showing Additional CSS being added using the Customizer.

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WordPress has only just added this feature, so it's not as fully developed as some plugins. If you're making serious changes you'll want to use the Jetpack plugin's Custom CSS feature. You'll also find some additional CSS customization help in this guide.

Creating a child theme for advanced changes

For any other changes you'll need to create a "child theme". A child theme is a separate theme designed especially for making advanced changes to theme files. A child theme inherits all the styling and functionality of the "parent theme" (this is just your main theme), so you only need to add the files you want to customize.

If a change you want to make requires changing your theme's files, do not do this. You should absolutely not edit your theme files directly, as when you update your theme you'll lose all the changes. Instead, create a child theme and you avoid this problem.

Child themes also have the advantage of separating your changes from the main theme, so if anything goes wrong you can easily revert.

The One-Click Child Theme plugin will make the process easy for you and this tutorial will show you everything else you need to know.

Child themes are essential for advanced changes to your site. Anything involving changing theme files needs to go in a child theme, and we can't stress enough the importance of doing this. Use a child theme to avoid problems developing in the future.

What to do when things don't look right

Every website is different – different hosting, different plugins and different users – and sometimes things go wrong. This isn’t unusual, so if you find yourself with a theme that’s broken it’s not cause for serious alarm (if you decide you need better hosting check our list of WordPress hosts here).

What should you do when your theme doesn’t look right? Here’s your three step process.

1. Have you got any plugin conflicts?

The most common cause of broken WordPress themes is plugin conflicts.

A plugin conflict is where your theme and a plugin you have installed are trying to use similar code (specifically similar code libraries such as jQuery), causing one or both of them to break. The fix typically offered is to deactivate the offending plugin and find an alternative. Plugins using sliders, image galleries or popup boxes are the most likely offenders here: if something's broken on your theme deactivate any plugins you've got fitting this description and you should see this fixes it.

Animated image showing deactivating a WordPress plugin.

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Note this is a mildly unsatisfactory solution as it doesn’t actually fix your plugin conflict, it just makes it go away. Finding an alternative plugin is an option, but this may not be possible or you may have paid for the plugin and be unwilling to switch. In this case, you'll need to get support. Try both the theme and plugin developers and use the steps outlined below to make sure your request is dealt with promptly.

If you do need to get theme support, you'll almost certainly be asked to check plugin conflicts, so it's worth doing the check yourself first.

2. Get support from the theme developer

This is how most people get their WordPress themes fixed. The type of support you can get depends on the type of theme you have:

  • Free themes from the WordPress Theme Repository: developers can choose to answer questions at the WordPress.org Support Forum, but are under no obligation to do so.
  • Third party free themes may offer support via their websites, even for free themes (this is also worth checking with Theme Repository themes). Most will only offer support to paying customers, so it may be worth buying something (see if there’s a “premium” version of your free theme) just to get support access.
  • Premium themes should have support included. You’ll find this on the developer’s website. Note it's usual for support and updates to only be available for twelve months after a purchase, so get your support requests in early!

When getting support, make it easy for the person helping you. Help them help you and you’ll get a solution faster. When submitting your support request provide as much information as possible. If you’re asked for details such as purchase ID, site URL or version numbers provide all these.

Form for getting WordPress theme support.

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A lot of developers will ask for admin access to your site. This is common practice but not necessarily a good idea. One leading WordPress publication likened it to “giving admin access to anyone to your own site is similar to handing them the keys to your home”.

The household analogy is useful here: would you give your house keys to someone fixing your boiler? Probably not, but you’d be happy to let them in and leave them to it. Do the same with your WordPress installation: use Controlled Admin Access and give access to the bits of your site needed to fix the issue, but nothing else. If you want to be extra careful, use Plainview Activity Monitor to see exactly what changes have been made.

Whichever safeguards you use, when giving admin access to your site, create a new admin account and delete it once any issues are fixed.

Make the most of developer theme support, but make sure your site is in safe hands.

3. Hire someone to fix it

This is the most expensive option and should be a last resort. If your theme’s developer is unwilling to fix your problem (if we’re at this stage it’s likely as the problem isn’t your theme’s fault, and the developer will argue this), you’ll need to hire someone to fix it for you.

Numerous WordPress-specific services will be happy to help you here. You can find a list of WordPress maintenance and support services here, but if you’re being referred by a developer they may recommend someone familiar with their own themes.

When something doesn’t look right, the steps here are going to help make sure it gets fixed.

Getting development work done

The best way to get your major changes made to your site is to hire a professional developer. This isn't cheap, but you'll get precisely what you want at a high quality.

It's worth noting that trying to make savings here probably isn't worth it: badly written code will cause you future headaches, so spend more upfront for something that's going to work.

Trying to save money at this stage by cutting corners could mean you end up paying more. If you don't invest in the right support, things may not go as planned, and you'll have to spend time and money solving the issues.

Sites such as Codeable make it easy to connect with a network of developers globally. You can post what you want done, how much you want to spend and your timeframe, and you'll get contacted by developers wanting to take on the project. Most developers on the site charge $60-90/hour, so expect to pay more than you paid for your theme, but bear in mind you're getting a personalised service.

You can also get major development work done through Codeable. Expect major reworkings of your theme to start at $2,500 and max out at $10,000, depending on their complexity. Custom development work is expensive, but it's the best option if you want features or design added to your site which aren't commonly available.

Updating your WordPress theme

There’s one final thing left you need to know: updating your WordPress theme. This is important as keeping WordPress up to date is one of the best ways of keeping it secure – and that includes your theme.

Before you start it’s important to have a backup. You’ll find some WordPress backup solutions here. Updates also illustrate the importance of using the customization methods mentioned earlier. If you edit your theme files directly instead, when you update you'll lose your changes. Customize as we discussed and there won't be any problems.

Updating a WordPress theme from the WordPress.org theme repository

If you’ve got a theme from the repository, updating is really simple. When updates are available there’ll be a notification on the Updates tab of the WordPress Dashboard. You just need to head there, tick the box and update your theme. That’s it.

Animated image showing updating a WordPress theme automatically.

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Doing this over lots of sites can get unnecessarily time consuming, so use a bulk site management tool such as ManageWP Orion to make this easier.

Updating an external WordPress theme

Updating external themes is slightly more complicated. Your theme may have automatic updates available, in which case you’ll get an update “nag” on the WordPress Dashboard and can update the same way as repository themes.

"Update nag" for a premium theme, on the WordPress Dashboard.

If automatic updates aren’t available, you’ll need to do this the manual way.

Manually updating a theme involves a couple of steps: putting your site into maintenance mode, deleting your theme and then re-uploading it. This sounds complicated and difficult, but isn’t. All your settings will be saved so it should be a smooth process – and you’ve also got a backup in case something goes wrong.

Start by putting your site into maintenance mode. Use a maintenance mode plugin from this list. Updating your theme only takes a couple of minutes but involves activating a different theme, so you’ll want to stop visitors from accessing your site.

With maintenance mode on, head to Appearance → Themes and activate the latest WordPress default theme, Twenty Sixteen. Now click on your theme and press the Delete button in the bottom right corner. You’ll be asked if you’re sure – it looks scary but you are sure.

Animated image showing deleting a WordPress theme from the Dashboard.

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You can now install the latest version of your theme. Download it from your theme developer’s site and install it in the same way you did earlier: click Add New, Upload Theme, add your zip file, install and activate. Now double check how your site is looking. The maintenance mode plugin should let you see your site (but hide it to visitors), so check everything looks okay.

All your settings and widgets will still be there, but things will likely have changed with the theme, so there may be new options to configure or little tweaks to fix. You should be able to find a changelog by Googling “developer name, theme name, changelog”; this will tell you in detail what has changed and what’s new.

Once you’re happy everything’s looking good, disable maintenance mode and show off the updated version of your site to readers!

Where to go from here?

You now know how to install, set up, customize and update your WordPress theme and are set to put this into practice. So get to it!

There are a number of next steps you can take, depending on how much control you want over your site:

  • Do nothing! Your theme is set up now; you just need to keep everything up-to-date.
  • Change your mind. A theme in practice can look very different to how you imagined it; it’s totally fine to decide you don’t like your site once it’s set up. See here for how to choose your WordPress theme.
  • Install some plugins. WordPress’ great strength is its flexibility and plugins epitomise this, letting you add just about any functionality you can think of. Here’s a great list of recommended plugins to look at.
  • Customize more. If you want more control over how your site looks, you’ll need to customize it. This guide digs into WordPress customization.
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What Next?!

Installed and set up your theme? Great! What's Next?

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Next, you'll want to learn about, choose and install a few plugins!

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Still trying to navigate the WordPress hosting minefield? Here's a handy Guide to Choosing the Best Service!

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Good luck!

Every WordPress theme is different to the next — and learning the various intricacies of a brand new WordPress theme isn't easy. Worse still, things can occasionally act in unexpected or confusing ways. The trick is to stick with it and work through any issues that come up one by one — and sooner or later you'll be as pleased as punch with everything you've managed to achieve: just keep going until you get there!

***Last updated 1st January 2017***

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