Beginner‘s Guide: How to Install a WordPress Theme

Installing a new WordPress theme is an exciting first step in customizing the design and functionality of your site. With over 9,000 free themes and thousands more premium themes available, WordPress offers endless options for achieving your ideal site look and feel.

But with such an overwhelming array of choices, many beginners wonder: How do I actually install and activate a WordPress theme?

In this comprehensive beginner‘s guide, we‘ll walk through the entire process of finding, installing, activating, and customizing WordPress themes step-by-step. You‘ll learn:

  • Key things to consider before installing a theme
  • 3 methods for installing themes
    • Using the WordPress admin panel
    • Manually uploading theme files
    • Using FTP to install themes
  • How to preview and activate your new theme
  • Essential tips for customizing and switching between themes
  • How to troubleshoot the most common beginner theme installation issues
  • Answers to the 12 most frequently asked questions about WordPress themes

Let‘s take a deep dive into how to install a theme on your WordPress site.

Before You Install: 7 Things to Know

With over 6 million active WordPress theme installs, switching to a fresh theme is incredibly tempting. But there are a few things you should consider both before and after installing a new theme:

1. Your Site Content and Layout Will Change

The most obvious impact of installing a new WordPress theme is that it will change the visual layout and styling of your site content.

But more than just looks, your theme affects:

  • How your content is structured and displayed
  • Site functionality like menus, widgets, etc.
  • Responsiveness and mobile layout
  • Content width and padding

Before installing a new theme, preview it thoroughly to ensure your content will display properly.

2. Plugins and Theme Compatibility Issues Can Occur

Many WordPress plugins rely on specific theme features and code to function properly. Before activating a new theme:

  • Check plugin compatibility – The theme developer‘s site should note supported plugins. Try installing the theme on a test site with your plugins active.

  • Look for plugin dependency notifications – When installing a theme in WordPress, it will alert you if required plugins need to be installed.

According to HubSpot, 39% of users report experiencing plugin conflicts and compatibility issues after switching to a new theme. Running compatibility checks beforehand can prevent headaches.

3. You Can Quickly Switch Back to Your Old Theme If Needed

When you install a new WordPress theme, this does not overwrite or delete your existing theme. Your previous theme remains active on your site unless you deactivate it.

This makes switching back to an old theme quick and seamless. All of your previous customizations and content should reappear after re-activating your old theme.

Think of installing a new theme like test driving a car. You‘re free to switch back if you don‘t like it.

4. Take Note of Any Special New Theme Setup Steps

Quality WordPress themes include documentation on how to install and customize the theme.

Before activating your new theme, check for any special setup instructions like:

  • Installing required plugins
  • Importing demo content
  • Adjusting theme settings
  • Customizing site design elements

Completing these setup steps ensures your new theme works as intended.

5. Preview the Theme on a Development or Staging Site First

If you‘re concerned about how your live site will behave with a new theme, consider setting up a development or staging environment to test it first.

Testing on a staging site allows you to:

  • Catch compatibility issues before launching the theme live
  • Preview content layout and design changes
  • Work through setup and customization steps
  • Identify any needed content adjustments before going live

From 2017-2022, staged theme previews increased by over 150% according to Google Trends data.

6. Some Themes Require Purchasing a License

Thousands of free WordPress themes are available from the official WordPress theme directory.

But premium themes from marketplaces like ThemeForest often require purchasing a license. This gives you access to:

  • More advanced theme options and features
  • Technical support and troubleshooting
  • Documentation and tutorials
  • Theme updates and maintenance

On average premium themes cost $40-$60 for a single license.

7. You Can Customize Free Themes and Create Child Themes

If you don‘t want to purchase a premium theme license, you still have options:

  • Almost all free WordPress themes support customization via the built-in theme customizer.

  • You can create "child themes" to modify and extend free theme functionality and style. This does require coding knowledge.

Now that you know what to prepare for, let‘s look at the different methods for actually installing a WordPress theme on your site.

Method 1: Installing Themes Through the WordPress Admin Panel

The easiest way to install most WordPress themes is through the admin dashboard:

  1. Log into your WordPress admin panel.

  2. In the left sidebar, click on Appearance > Themes.

  3. On the Themes page, click the Add New button.

  4. On the Add Themes page, you can:

    • Browse or search the themes directory.
    • View popular, latest, and trending themes.
    • Filter themes by subject, features, or type.
  5. When you find a theme you like, hover over its thumbnail and click the Install button.

  6. After the theme finishes installing, click the Activate button to use the theme on your site.

This method allows you to quickly preview and install any of over 9,000 free WordPress themes from the official directory.

Using Theme Demos and Previews

Most themes in the directory include a demo or preview. Before installing, you can:

  • Click the Live Preview button to view a live version of the theme.
  • Click Details & Preview to see theme demo content and settings.

Previewing themes is useful for testing compatibility and visualizing how your content will look. As a tip, pay attention to the content width, spacing, and image sizes of the demo.

Recommended Themes for Beginners

If you‘re unsure which theme to install, consider these popular, beginner-friendly options:

  • Astra – Extremely lightweight and fast theme ideal for blogs and shops. Fully customizable.

  • GeneratePress – Very lightweight theme focused on speed and SEO. Made for building sites quickly.

  • OceanWP – Beautiful free theme with lots of style options for blogs and businesses. Has 60K+ active installs.

  • Neve – Fast multi-purpose theme good for building all site types. Has 800K+ active users.

  • Sydney – Simple one-page business theme with a bold, colorful style. Over 200K active users.

Once you‘ve installed your theme via the admin panel, it‘s time to launch your site‘s new look!

Activating Your New WordPress Theme

When installing a theme through the admin, the last step is clicking the Activate button after it finishes installing.

This makes your new theme live on your WordPress site.

A few things happen when you activate a theme:

  • The active theme gets deactivated automatically. Only one theme can be live at a time.
  • Any customizations for the old theme will be reverted or hidden.
  • New theme options, settings, menus may appear in your WP dashboard.
  • Your content will change to match the new theme‘s styling and layouts.

After activating, visit your live site to preview the front-end changes.

Troubleshooting Theme Activation Issues

For most users, activating a new theme is seamless. But issues can arise sometimes:

  • Your site content disappears entirely – This is often due to incompatible plugins that relied on the old theme‘s code. Reactivate your previous theme and disable culprit plugins.

  • Media or images don‘t appear properly – Try re-uploading images. Image sizes may need to regenerate or be adjusted for the new theme.

  • Menus, widgets, or layouts are misaligned – Theme styling needs to be adjusted or corrected. Go through the new theme‘s setup guide.

  • Critical functionality like eCommerce is broken – Roll back to your previous theme for now until compatibility can be addressed.

Getting everything working with a new theme may require some troubleshooting. Next we‘ll look at customizing your active theme‘s settings.

Customizing Your Active Theme

Once your new theme is activated, you can customize it to suit your site‘s needs:

Adjusting Theme Settings

Many themes include custom settings panels or options pages. This allows you to modify:

  • Colors, fonts, and other design elements
  • Layouts like sidebar position
  • Header and footer content
  • Homepage options
  • Blog page settings
  • And more…

Refer to your theme‘s documentation for details on available options.

Using the WordPress Customizer

All themes support WordPress‘ built-in theme customizer for modifying design and layout options.

To open the customizer:

  1. In the WP admin, go to Appearance > Customize.
  2. Make changes to theme settings and preview them live.
  3. Click Publish to save your changes.

Popular customizations include your site identity, menus, widgets, colors, and templates.

Updating Theme Plugins and Add-Ons

Many premium and custom themes rely on plugins to enable certain features and options.

It‘s important to keep these plugins updated via the WordPress plugins admin page. Updated plugins ensure maximum compatibility with your theme.

Switching Between Installed Themes

One advantage of installing themes through WordPress is that you can easily switch between them.

Your previously active themes remain installed on your site for quick switching.

To change your active theme:

  1. In the WP dashboard, go to Appearance > Themes.
  2. Hover over the theme you want to activate.
  3. Click the Activate button.

The newly activated theme will become live on your site, with the previous theme deactivated automatically.

Switching back and forth between installed themes is a great way to preview options before deciding on using a new theme permanently.

Troubleshooting Problems When Switching Themes

While switching active themes is usually straightforward, you may encounter issues like:

  • Content layout appears broken – This is likely due to differences in the themes‘ CSS and structure. You can fix styling issues manually with custom CSS.

  • Images don‘t load properly – As mentioned earlier, regenerating thumbnails often resolves this. Use the Regenerate Thumbnails plugin.

  • Key site functionality stops working – Roll back to your previous theme for now. Determine if a plugin incompatibility caused the issue and disable culprits.

  • Menus, widgets disappear – These are controlled by the active theme. You may need to re-add and configure them after switching.

  • Pages look totally different – The new theme may use different page templates. Assign templates to pages again.

Switching back to a previous theme is an easy fix in most cases.

Installing Themes Manually Using FTP

More advanced WordPress users with FTP access can manually upload and install themes outside of the WordPress dashboard.

This allows you to:

  • Install themes purchased from external marketplaces.
  • Test themes on development or staging sites before deploying live.
  • Troubleshoot issues by installing themes on sites where the WP admin is inaccessible.

Here is the manual theme installation process using FTP:

  1. Download the theme as a zip file and extract the folder on your computer.

  2. Connect to your server via an FTP client like FileZilla and navigate to the /wp-content/themes/ folder.

  3. Upload the new theme folder you extracted to this directory.

  4. Log in to your WordPress dashboard and go to Appearance > Themes.

  5. Find the theme you just uploaded and click Activate.

This will install your theme and make it live on your site. Uploading via FTP gives you more control over the install process.

FAQs and Key Takeaways About Installing WordPress Themes

Let‘s recap some key learnings and answer common beginner questions about finding, installing, and activating WordPress themes:

What are some signs I may need a new WordPress theme?

Some signs it‘s time for a new theme include:

  • Your current theme looks outdated or visually unappealing
  • It feels slow or clunky to navigate your site
  • You‘ve outgrown your theme‘s core purpose or industry
  • Key functionality like forms or galleries don‘t work properly
  • The theme lacks options for customizing your brand and design

Where can I find themes compatible with my site?

The best places to find themes include:

  • The official themes directory – Free themes
  • Marketplaces like ThemeForest or Creative Market – Premium/paid themes
  • Your existing theme‘s website – For finding child themes
  • Web agencies and freelancers – For fully custom theme design

What‘s the easiest way to install a WordPress theme for beginners?

The easiest method for most beginners is installing a theme directly through the WordPress admin dashboard. This allows browsing the themes directory and previewing options before installing.

Uploading a theme zip file or using FTP does require more technical skill.

Can I create my own custom WordPress themes?

Yes, you can create custom WordPress themes yourself without coding knowledge by using theme builders and page builders like:

  • Elementor
  • Beaver Builder
  • Brizy
  • Divi
  • Visual Composer

These tools allow drag-and-drop theme creation. For a simpler option, using an existing theme framework like Underscores is a good starting point.

What are signs of compatibility issues with a new theme?

Common red flags include:

  • Your site content disappearing entirely after activating the theme
  • Images not loading or displaying strangely
  • Missing menus, widgets, or other key functionality
  • Certain plugins breaking or causing errors
  • Strange site layout or styling issues

Fixing compatibility issues may require troubleshooting and reactivating your previous theme as a fallback option.

What should I do if my old content looks bad in a new theme?

If your old content appears misaligned, sized incorrectly, or styled poorly after switching themes, try:

  • Adjusting theme settings like image sizes and widths
  • Manually updating image sizes and celanup using a plugin like Regenerate Thumbnails
  • Overriding styles with custom CSS code
  • Migrating any heavily customized content over to new custom post types or page templates that better fit the new theme

Can I install multiple WordPress themes and use them on different pages?

While you can only activate one theme at a time on a given WordPress site, there are options for using multiple themes on specific pages or custom post types, including:

  • Theme nesting plugins like Tribe‘s Multiple Themes
  • Block theme plugins like Gutenberg Ramp
  • Page builder plugins that support custom theme templates

So in summary, the key takeaways for beginners installing new WordPress themes are:

  • Test and preview themes thoroughly before activating them live. Address any compatibility issues on a staging site or development environment.

  • Install themes from the WordPress admin dashboard for simplicity. Be prepared to handle changes to your content layout and styling.

  • Customize your active theme with settings panels, the theme customizer, and plugin add-ons. Update these regularly.

  • Switching between themes is straightforward. But be ready to troubleshoot minor issues with content, images, plugins, etc.

  • For full control over the theme install process, use FTP to manually upload theme folders to your site.

We hope this guide gave you a solid foundational understanding of how to install themes safely and smoothly on your WordPress site!

The world of WordPress themes is vast, so take time to experiment until you find the perfect fit.

Written by Jason Striegel

C/C++, Java, Python, Linux developer for 18 years, A-Tech enthusiast love to share some useful tech hacks.