Top tips for building a WordPress theme

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Creating your first theme is a big deal. You might know how to turn a functional site into a thing of beauty, but building a WordPress theme means acquiring a new set of skills to make it function the way you want it to. 

Here are some top tips for designers looking to build their first WordPress theme. You'll learn what makes a good theme, some of the tools you should be thinking about and what you need to know about coding. 

Not ready to build a WordPress theme yet, or looking for something different? Take a look at our roundup of great WordPress tutorials to pick up some more skills.

01. Explore existing themes first

Before you begin building your first WordPress theme, you need to have an idea of what works and what doesn’t. This is the inspiration stage. Now, that doesn't mean stealing other people’s work. 

What it means is researching into what different themes look like, how they function, and how they are put together, taking that idea, and turning it into something different. It’s all about the execution. Take a look at these WordPress portfolio themes for some inspiration.

02. Don't dilute the purpose

When it comes to building a WordPress theme, you should have the end goal in mind at all times. What do you want your site to do? Do you want to create a theme to sell products? Or maybe improve brand awareness? Or build a blogging platform? Or drive lead generation? Decide on the purpose of your theme, and keep it focused – don’t dilute things by choosing too many different aims.

03. Start with a template

You’ve got your goals in mind and the foundations for a strong theme are laid, so now you need to decide whether you are going to build your WordPress theme from scratch or customise an existing template. 

Starting with an existing template and adding your own customisation is an easy way to start. Take a look at our roundup of great free WordPress themes if you want to go down this route. Using an existing theme framework means you’ll get access to a lot of functionality and structure (which could be key if you don’t want to spend hours learning basic coding). However, you won’t have the same level of customisation you’d get if you were building a WordPress theme from scratch. 

04. … or code from scratch

To build from scratch, you need to be prepared to put in the time to learn code. If you do decide to go down this route, embrace Stack Overflow and the WordPress Codex to help you build and customise your theme. 

The WordPress Codex serves as an incredibly useful online manual from the developers of WordPress. It’s a huge resource bank of information on every template, function, plugin and feature you can think of, including tutorials on how to use and develop WordPress sites and themes. 

Stack Overflow, on the other hand, is an unofficial but trusted online community for developers to learn and share programming knowledge. Both are very useful. WordPress also has a helpful tutorial on how to develop a WordPress theme from scratch.

05. Hunt out some quality images

You want your website to look the best it can and perform to a high standard. This means you need images that will catch the eye. 

The good news is tools like Design Wizard are readily available and easy to use to help you create stunning images. Design Wizard actually has thousands of pre-made templates to suit every need. Other tools, such as Pikwizard, PixelDropr and IcoMoon allow you to gather free stock images, create buttons, icons and fonts. Check this out for more essential web design tools. 

06. Don't forget plugins

One of the best things about WordPress is the amount of tools – called plugins – that are readily available to add functionality to your site. WordPress plugins can easily be integrated with your theme to capture information, insert social posts, add Google Maps and so on. While building, you’ll need to ensure sure your theme is compatible with any major plugins you may want to include. Here are a selection of popular plugins to consider: 

Yoast SEO: An SEO plugin for improving website visibility and search rankingsContact Form 7: A customisable, flexible contact formAkismet: A spam-fighting plugin to protect against comment and contact form spamJetpack: An all-in-one plugin for analytics, design, marketing and securityWP Rocket: Rocket fuel caching for speeding up WordPress and improving web traffic
07. Don't mess with core code

Just keep in mind, everything you want to build should be done in the WordPress wp-content folder – you don’t want to be messing around with core code! There are lots of folders within WordPress, each of which are responsible for different functionalities. 

A word of caution before you make the decision to build from scratch or not – it’s fairly easy to end up building a theme that looks nice, but doesn’t work. So be careful to ensure you don’t end up with a theme that doesn’t actually function and requires hours of effort to improve the coding. 

Read more:

6 top tips for CRO success in WordPressHow to start a blog: 11 pro tipsThe 14 best iPad apps for designers

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