What WordPress Themes Are

One of the key elements you’ll need to understand as you get up and running on WordPress is WordPress themes. Here we’ll be covering the very basics: what a theme is, the difference between WordPress itself and WordPress themes (as well as other WordPress concepts like plugins and widgets), and what a WordPress theme can and can’t do.

How WordPress Itself Relates to WordPress Themes

To start things out with, let’s look at WordPress and WordPress themes, and how they’re different from each other.


WordPress is the software package that allows us to do almost everything we do in a WordPress site: things like logging in, writing and publishing posts, adding and removing users, and changing site settings. (See footnote)

So that’s WordPress: It’s a wonderful software package that makes it possible to have a “WordPress site.”

WordPress Themes

Themes are a separate, but integral, part of WordPress: WordPress can’t run without a theme. Themes are mostly responsible for the visual presentation of WordPress: the way your WordPress site, and all the content inside it, appears to visitors.

WordPress is like the structure of a house, and a WordPress theme is like the furnishings.

I’ve always found the following illustration to be rather helpful. The WordPress core software is like the structure of a house: the foundation, walls, roof, plumbing, and wiring. A WordPress theme is the furnishings: the appliances, cabinetry, furniture, flooring, and paint. It’s how the house looks when you’re inside it, in the same way that a theme is how the site looks when a user visits it.

The two are not the same, but you can’t have a house without them both. Similarly, WordPress is the foundation (or core) of your website, and a WordPress theme is the visual framework and layout for your site; you need both to create a website.

Now let’s dig a bit deeper into what a WordPress theme is, what is does, and what it doesn’t.

What WordPress Themes Do

Manage Basic Presentation

The most basic action of a theme is managing the visual presentation of your website’s content. A WordPress theme works together with the WordPress software to control how a given post, page, image, text block, widget, etc. will end up appearing on the site.

Twenty Thirteen theme example Twenty Fourteen theme example
Identical content, two different themes

Allow User Customization Without Programming

A good theme will have a number of useful customization options for nontechnical users. For example, they might make it possible to change the fonts and font colors across your site through a simple interface, or make it easy to upload a logo that then appears in the correct spot in the site’s header.

Sometimes Extend Functionality

Themes also often contain shortcodes that allow insertion of various kinds of elements—everything from buttons to testimonials to image galleries—across the site using simple preformatted statements.

Some themes even register new post types, like “Portfolio Elements” or “Recipes.”

It’s not necessarily a good thing that themes do either of these things, by the way. It leads to a problem called theme creep that we’ve written about at length elsewhere.

Give Programmers a Head-Start

A theme is made up of quite a few different files, written mostly in a programming language called PHP, that are full of code which controls how your content is presented. Programmers can edit this code to quickly change the look and layout of your site.

For example, a programmer could quickly add a secondary sidebar to every page on the site without having to design from scratch, simply by editing the page.php file of the active theme.

What WordPress Themes Don’t Do

Power Themselves

There are 2 WordPress platforms: WordPress.com, WordPress.org. You’ll need to be on one of them to have the basic WordPress software in place, without which your theme won’t do anything.

WordPress.com’s platform allows you start and host a website for free, but it’s a lot less powerful than WordPress.org. WordPress.org simply makes it possible to download the WordPress software—and while this software is itself free, you’ll have to pay for your own web hosting, as well as sundry other expenses, not least a developer to set your site up for you.

If you’re looking for more information on web hosts and need help choosing one, then check out our recent guide on the subject.

Build Your Site for You

A WordPress theme is a great head start on the visual presentation of your site, but you’ll need a lot of setup to get your site running the way you want. Put differently, themes make web developers’ jobs quicker and easier, but they don’t make them obsolete.

How Themes Differ from Plugins, Widgets, etc.

This is something that many new users of WordPress often get jumbled, for very understandable reasons:

  1. “Theme,” “plugin,” and “widget” are all things that make a WordPress site better by adding things onto it.
  2. “Theme,” “plugin,” and, especially, “widget” are all vague terms that are very difficult to visualize.
  3. All three elements are used in conjunction on a typical WordPress site.


A plugin is not the same as a WordPress theme. We can help describe the difference by returning to our earlier house illustration. If the WordPress core software (“WordPress”) is the foundation, and the theme is the decorations and furnishings, then plugins are additions: a sun room, greenhouse, spa, deck, garage, and pool. They’re not crucial to the existence of the house, but they add nice features to your house that make new things possible (go for a swim, park your car indoors) and that would be sorely missed.

Fortunately, unlike in-home saunas, plugins are also generally free. For a more thorough introduction, see our series, “Making Plugins Work for You.”


Widgets are a specialized feature in WordPress that lets you drop different kinds of content into predefined areas. To return to our house analogy: if your house has the right electric, water, and gas hookups, and is appropriately furnished so that there’s a defined space, you can just slide different kinds of washer-dryers right in under the stairs. However, the WordPress theme must have a predefined space for these things, and they’ll need to properly hook into the underlying architecture of the house.

In Conclusion…

So we’ve been trying to lay the groundwork for a solid understanding of WordPress themes. The main thing to take away is that they control the presentation—the layout, visual flow, typography, mobile-responsiveness, and accessibility—of your WordPress site. In theory, that’s just about all they should do‐just like your furniture shouldn’t be holding the roof up!

Tune in next time for a discussion of free vs. premium themes, and which one is likely to be right for you.

Questions or thoughts? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below! And if you haven’t yet, join our mailing list and follow us on Twitter!

Footnote: A bit confusingly, people also use the name “WordPress” as a general term for everything associated with the WordPress software, like the global community of WordPress sites, users, and developers, and the ongoing project to make the WordPress software better. If people were being clear, they’d say “the WordPress software package” or “WordPress core software”—but they’re much more likely just to say “My site’s running WordPress,” and we’ll be doing that here as well. (Back to top)

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