So you want to change the theme you’re using on your WordPress website?
Installing a new theme on your WordPress website is actually a very straightforward process. As a lot of premium pre-made theme stores offer installation as a part of the package, many people think that it’s difficult and that it can only be carried out by a “professional”.
That’s why I have created this blog post to reassure you that changing your theme is something you are capable of doing. Yes, you can do it!
In this post, I am going to show you how to safely change the theme on your WordPress website.
1 | Make a backup of your website
The first thing I recommend that you do before you make any changes to your website is make a backup of your WordPress files and database.
Although change your WordPress theme shouldn’t cause any problems, making any changes to a live website comes with risk. It’s better to be safe than sorry!
If you don’t know how to back up your website then I recommend checking out this post I wrote about backing up your website with a free plugin called UpdraftPlus.
2 | Put your website into maintenance mode
While this step isn’t mandatory, this is something I always do whenever I change the theme on a WordPress website.
I recommend putting your website into maintenance mode temporarily while you work on setting up your new theme. This means visitors to your website cannot see the site; you can only view it when you are logged into the WordPress admin area.
Why do I do this? Well, normally after installing a new WordPress theme, it won’t look perfect straight away. You will probably have to do some work behind the scenes to get looking the way you want it to. And if you don’t want your visitors to see a work-in-progress then putting your website into maintenance mode is a smart idea.
I use a free plugin called Coming Soon Page & Maintenance Mode by SeedProd to put my website into maintenance mode. I’ve written a whole post on how to use this plugin to create a “Coming Soon” page so I recommend following the instructions in this post, but when you get the section about activating your page, simply select Enable Maintenance Mode instead of Enable Coming Soon Mode.
If you are worried about your website being unavailable to visitors, try to carry out a theme change when your website is likely to be less busy, if possible.
3 | Install the theme you want to use
Now that you have prepared your website for a new theme, it’s time to go ahead and actually install the theme you want to use.
There are two main ways you can install a WordPress theme. The first way is installing a free theme directly via the WordPress theme directory. The second way is by uploading a theme that you have downloaded or purchased from an external website.
How to install a theme from the WordPress theme directory
To install a theme from the WordPress theme directory, hover over Appearance in the left-hand menu of WordPress and click on Themes.
This will take you to the main themes page where you can preview the themes that have already been installed.
To add a new theme, click on the Add New button at the top of the page.
You will now be able to see some of the featured themes within the WordPress theme directory.
If you look at the top of the page you will see some tabs. By default, the Featured tabs is selected but you can also preview the most popular themes and the latest themes in the theme directory by clicking on the relevant tabs.
Alternatively, if you are looking for something more specific, click on Feature Filter to be able to filter the themes with the directory to find exactly what you are looking for. Simply tick the box next to the feature you require and then click Apply Filters to search for themes that match your criteria.
Once you find a theme that you like the look of, hover over it and you will see two options: Install and Preview.
If you want to preview the theme before you install it simply click Preview. However, if you just want to install it, click Install.
Don’t worry! When you install a theme, it isn’t activated straight away so your theme won’t change. I’ll show you how to activate your theme in the next section of this post.
The beauty of installing a free theme from the WordPress directory is that if you install it and then decided you don’t actually like it, you don’t have to use it and you haven’t lost out on anything. Just be aware that if you install a theme and then don’t end up using it, you should delete it so it doesn’t take up any space.
How to install a theme you have purchased
In some cases, you may want to install a theme that you have found outside of the WordPress themes directory, whether that be a free theme or a premium theme you have purchased.
When you download or purchase a theme from a website outside of theme directory, you will receive a zip folder that contains the theme folder and all of its files. You will need to upload this to your WordPress website.
To do this, hover over Appearance in the left-hand menu and click on Themes.
Once on the themes page, click the Add New button at the top of the page.
Then click the Upload Theme button.
Click Choose file, select the zip folder that contains your theme and then click Install Now.
It may take a few seconds or minutes depending on the size of the file, but once it has been installed you should see a confirmation message that says that your theme has been installed successfully.
In some situations, you may need to install an additional theme for your theme to work. For example, if you have purchased a Genesis child theme, you will need to install the Genesis theme as well as the child theme. But if you are unsure about that either consult the documentation that came with your theme or ask the developer of the theme.
4 | Activate your new theme
Now that you have installed your theme, it’s time to activate it and make it live.
If you hover over the theme that you want to activate, you will see two options: Activate and Live Preview.
Clicking Activate will make the theme live immediately, but clicking Live Preview will open the theme in the WordPress Customiser.
If you aren’t familiar with the WordPress Customiser (or Customizer), it’s a feature of the WordPress admin area that allows you to preview a theme (or your existing theme) and make various changes to the design of the theme.
The changes that you can make to your theme via the Customiser will vary from theme to theme. Some themes, like the WordPress default themes, only have a few aspects that you can customise, however custom themes are likely to give you much more control over the design.
For the purpose of this tutorial, I am going to click Live Preview so I can preview the theme before we put it live.
The Customiser looks a little something like this:
As I’ve just mentioned, this will probably look different from theme to theme, but on the left-hand side you will have all of the theme options, and on the right-hand side you will see a preview of the theme running on your website. If you hit Activate & Publish right now, this is what your theme will look like.
If you click on the tabs on the left-hand side of the screen you will be able to see all the options available to you. You will be able to preview any changes you make here immediately on the right-hand side of the screen. As previously mentioned, you might be able to customise your entire theme using the settings here, or you may only be able to change a few settings.
Once you are happy with this, click Activate & Publish at the top of the page.
5 | Customise your new theme
Now that you have activated your theme it’s time to set it up and get it looking exactly how you want it to.
Many themes will come with some documentation to explain how to set up and customise your theme, so I recommend referring to this before you get stuck into customising it.
Here are a few other ways in which you can customise your theme:
In the previous section of this post I introduced you to the WordPress Customiser which you can use to edit certain aspects of the WordPress theme you are about to activate.
As well as using the Customiser to preview a theme before you activate it, you can also use the Customiser once the theme is live.
To access this, hover Appearance in the left-hand menu and then click Customise.
Menus are used in WordPress themes to add multiple links to a section of the theme, and many themes have menu locations or display locations that you can assign menus to.
To assign a menu to a location within your theme, hover over Appearance in the left-hand menu and click Menus.
This will take you to the menus page. Start by selecting the menu you want to assign to a location.
Then, at the bottom of the menu under the Menu Settings heading you will see the available display locations within your theme that you can assign your menu to. In this example, there is a display location called Header Menu that is located in the header of each page. Any menu I assign to this location will display at the top of each page.
If you aren’t familiar with the menu system in WordPress, make sure you check out this post for a full explanation.
Another way that you may be able to customise your WordPress theme is by adding widgets to specific areas of your WordPress theme known as widgetised areas.
There’s a whole variety of widgets that come with WordPress such as text widgets, menu widgets, page widgets, image widgets, etc. You can also add other widgets to your website via plugins.
To a widget to a widgetised area of your theme, hover over Appearance in the left-hand menu of WordPress and select Widgets.
Once you are on the widgets page you will be able to see all of the widgets that are available to use on the left-hand side of the screen. And on the right-hand side of the screen you will see all of the widgetised areas within the theme that you can assign widgets to. In this example, there is a widgetised area called Footer and any widgets added to this will appear in the footer.
To add a widget to a widgetised area, simply drag and drop the widget into that specific widgetised area. Then, set up the widget and click Save when you’re done. You can multiple widgets to a single widgetised area.
Plugins are used to add specific functionality to your WordPress website. For example, if you wanted to sell digital products through your website, you could install an e-commerce plugin. Or if you wanted to display your Instagram feed on your website, you would install a plugin that would add an Instagram widget to your site.
Some themes may require you to install and activate certain plugins to add essential or optional functionality to your WordPress theme.
Sometimes, a notification box will appear in your WordPress admin area to let you know which plugins you need to add. However, you may have to refer to the documentation that came with your theme to find a list of recommended plugins.
If you are confident with using CSS to style websites and you wish to add your own custom CSS to your theme then go for it! The best place to add your custom CSS is via the Customiser. If you open up the Customiser you will see the Additional CSS tab where you can add this CSS to.
Remember, if you plan on making any changes directly to the code of your theme you NEED to create a child theme. For more information about child themes and why they are so important, check out this post.
6 | Take your website out of maintenance mode
If you chose to put your website into maintenance mode while you installed and set up your theme then now is the time to take your website out of maintenance mode.
If you used the plugin I recommended earlier in this post (Coming Soon Page & Maintenance Mode by SeedProd) all you need to do is go to the SeedProd settings page and select Disabled instead of Enable Maintenance Mode. Click Save All Changes to deactivate maintenance mode and then preview your live website.
And that’s it! Your new theme is live and it’s time for you to show it off to your audience!
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