When it comes to your WordPress blog, your theme represents the ‘skin’ of your site.

Themes typically (although not exclusively) affect the look and ‘feel’ of your site, rather than the functionality (which is typically left to plugins).

If you’re using responsibly designed themes, you should be able to switch from one to another and completely change your site’s design without actually affecting how it works.

To give you an idea of what I mean, take a moment to absorb the design and appearance of this site.

Now take a look at this…

Beginner Blogging (Twenty Thirteen Theme)

…and this…

Beginner Blogging (Wilson Theme)

That’s this exact same site, with the exact same content, just with different themes.

That’s the power of what we can do with themes. Best of all, you don’t need to know a single thing about design or coding to create these kinds of looks for your blog.

Should You Choose a Free or Premium (Paid For) WordPress Theme?

The lines are often blurred between free and premium themes, but the three key benefits of premium themes over free are as follows:

  1. Better designed. Premium themes often look better and are more ‘cleanly’ coded, leading to an aesthetic, faster loading and more future-proof site.
  2. More customization options. Free themes are typically characterized by their limited customization options, which means you tend to be stuck with the default design and color scheme.
  3. Support. You may struggle to get support for your free theme, but premium themes are almost always supported should you have any questions.

As I’ve already alluded to, there are exceptions to the above points – there are very good free themes and very poor premium themes out there. Nonetheless, the benefits of choosing a premium theme should be obvious.

However, since you are just getting started with blogging, I recommend that you start with a free theme. Far better you learn the ropes by fiddling around with free themes than waste your money on a premium theme when you’re not yet quite sure what you’re doing. Besides, you may well find a free theme that suits your needs perfectly for the time being.

Why You Should Only Download Free Themes from WordPress.org

There is but one simple rule when it comes to choosing a free WordPress theme: only ever use themes that are hosted on WordPress.org. I’ll explain why.

WordPress.org’s Free Themes Directory is the official directory for free WordPress themes. In uploading a theme design to the directory, a developer can expect their theme to be downloaded and reviewed. It’s the easiest and most effective way to introduce your theme to the WordPress community.

As such, there is no logical reason why an honest theme developer wouldn’t upload their free theme to the WordPress.org directory.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of people out there who inject malicious code into themes available from their own sites in an attempt to wrest control of blogs. If you install one of those themes, you could be unwittingly granting an unscrupulous type access to your site.

Fortunately, WordPress.org has security measures in place to ensure that such themes are either rejected access to or removed from the official directory.

The system isn’t 100% secure, but it’s secure enough that you shouldn’t concern yourself with the small inherent risk.

Exploring the Themes Already Installed On Your Site

WordPress comes pre-installed with several ‘default’ themes.

These are themes designed by the WordPress.org team – they release a new one every year, and as such, the themes are given year-based names. You can typically expect these themes to be well designed, fully responsive (meaning that they will look good on any device) and excellently coded. They also cover a wide range of design styles.

As such, despite their ubiquity, they are an excellent choice for beginner bloggers.

You’ll find the three most recent default themes pre-installed on your site. Let’s take a look at each in turn.

Twenty Fourteen

WordPress Twenty Fourteen theme

Twenty Fourteen is what’s known as a ‘magazine theme,’ and as you can probably imagine, is designed for magazine-style websites.

It features a fixed toolbar at the top as well as a sidebar (much like the WordPress backend). The main section is split into the content column and an optional side column that features images and videos in the demo.

It’s a very good-looking theme, but its beauty in relies in part on the use of colorful and vibrant images and photographs.

If photography and/or design is your bag, Twenty Fourteen could be an excellent choice. However, if you’re looking to start a simple blog and have no photographical/design skills, you might think twice about using this theme.

You can check out a live demo of Twenty Fourteen here.

Twenty Thirteen

Twenty Thirteen WordPress theme

This is a real blogger’s blog, and rather striking to boot.

The design itself is simple – you can see a header followed by a navigation bar and then the content. Different ‘post types’ (you don’t need to worry about what they are right now) are represented by different background colors.

The site benefits from endless scrolling, which means that older posts will continue to load for as long as you scroll down.

Its simple design means that it is a breeze to navigate across multiple devices – your visitors are unlikely to get lost. However, its simplicity also makes it less practical for more complicated sites.

You can check out a live demo of Twenty Thirteen here.

Twenty Twelve

Twenty Twelve WordPress theme

This theme is a great foil to Twenty Fourteen and Twenty Thirteen, as it offers a far more neutral and flexible design. It is also the first responsive theme that WordPress.org developed.

As you can see from the above screenshot, you can incorporate a welcome message into the homepage, or revert to a list of your most recent blog posts.

If you’re looking for a simple, no-nonsense design to tide you over while you concentrate on the more important aspects of blogging (i.e. your content!), Twenty Twelve could be ideal.

You can check out a live demo of Twenty Twelve here.

Switching Between Installed Themes

Your site’s active theme is Twenty Fourteen by default, and if you have followed the course to a tee so far, it will look something like this:

Default WordPress theme

Switching between Twenty Fourteen and the other two themes is a piece of cake.

Navigate to Appearance > Themes from the sidebar in your WordPress blog’s Dashboard. You’ll be presented with a gallery of installed themes – namely, Twenty Fourteen, Twenty Thirteen and Twenty Twelve.

Let’s assume we wanted to take a look at our site with the Twenty Thirteen theme activated. Now if we were doing this for an established blog, the best thing to do would be to preview the theme first, so that’s what we’ll do now.

Just hover your mouse over the Twenty Thirteen box and click on the Live Preview button:

Theme preview

This will bring up the Theme Customizer screen (don’t worry about this for now), with a preview of how your site would look like with the new theme:

Theme preview

Let’s assume for a moment that you liked what you saw. Just click the Save & Activate button and you’ll be taken back to the Themes screen with a confirmation message:

Theme activated

As you would expect, if you click on the Visit site link, you’ll be taken to your blog’s homepage where will be able to see that Twenty Thirteen has now been activated and will be seen by any visitors to your site.

Finding New Themes

Now, let’s continue under the assumption that you don’t want to use any of the default themes. Welcome to a world of near-infinite choice – the WordPress.org Theme Directory features over 2,500 free themes.

However, quantity does not necessarily lead to quality.

If you start rummaging around, you’ll find that plenty of those free themes (arguably the majority) are not particularly attractive nor compatible with the more recent versions of WordPress. Furthermore, the sheer quantity of themes makes it difficult to locate the ‘diamonds in the rough.’

With the above in mind, I have created a carefully curated list of the best free WordPress themes for bloggers. If the default WordPress themes don’t float your boat, pick a theme from my ever-growing list.

Check out the best free WordPress themes for bloggers here.

Installing New Themes

To start searching for a theme for your WordPress blog, head over to the WordPress.org Theme Directory. From this page you can access Featured themes, Most Popular themes, Newest themes and so on.

All download pages within the directory have the same structure. For example, here’s the download page for one of my favorite free WordPress themes, Highwind:

Highwind WordPress themeYou’ll see the theme’s name followed by a description and a small screenshot.

You won’t ever need to Download a theme from this screen as we’ll be uploading and installing them from within the WordPress Dashboard (we’ll come onto that shortly).

Unfortunately, the Preview option is typically next-to-useless – it’ll typically take you to a demo site with poorly-populated posts that don’t really give you a proper idea of what the blog will look like in real life. (That’s why we try to include a demo link to our featured themes whenever possible.)

The Last Updated date is useful – you’ll know that you probably shouldn’t use a theme if it is more than about a year old. This is a somewhat indiscriminate rule of thumb, but generally speaking, if a theme hasn’t been updated in over a year, it’s probably no longer supported and thus isn’t a good long term prospect – even if it is still currently compatible with the latest version of WordPress.

Downloads and Ratings can give you a good indication of how popular a theme is, but take both metrics with a pinch of salt. There are some very nice themes out there with a low number of downloads and some poor ratings – there are some in the WordPress community who are somewhat overzealous when reviewing.

Finally, you’ll see a link to the Support forum, where you can ask questions and read through existing support threads relating to the theme.

Let’s assume you wanted to install and activate Highwind on your blog. The process is a piece of cake and can be repeated for any theme available to download from WordPress.org.

Log into your WordPress dashboard and navigate to Appearance > Themes from the sidebar. You’ll be taken to the now-familiar Themes screen, from which you should click on the Add New button:

Add New theme button

You’ll be taken to the Add Themes page, where you’ll find a gallery of Featured WordPress Themes:

Add Themes screen

You can use the tabs near the top of the screen to select the Latest and most Popular themes too. The Feature Filter isn’t particularly reliable at the moment, so I wouldn’t recommend using it.

Besides, we don’t need to as we already know what theme we want to use!

To find any theme available on the WordPress.org Theme Directory, you just need to enter its name into the Search themes… box in the top right. In this case, we’re searching for Highwind, so type that into the box.

Via the magic of instant search, relevant results will be return to you immediately (without you having to press enter or click a button). In this case, our desired theme is the only match:

Highwind search

Just hover over the theme and click on the Install button:

Install Highwind

WordPress will then upload and install the theme from WordPress.org to your site. Once that process is complete, you will see a confirmation screen from which you have three options:

Highwind installation confirmation

You may remember earlier that we were able to activate a Live Preview when switching between installed themes. The Live Preview option here behaves in the same manner, showing you a preview of how your site would look with the new theme activated alongside the Theme Customizer interface.

The other two options are self explanatory – Activate will of course activate the theme and Return to Theme Installer will take you back to where you were, in case you want to install any more themes before picking from them.

Let’s go ahead and Activate the theme by clicking on the relevant option. Upon doing so, you’ll be taken back to the Themes screen, complete with a confirmation that the new theme has been activated:

New theme activated

Go ahead and click on the Visit site link to check out how your blog looks with Highwind installed. You should see something like this:

Highwind theme

That wasn’t too difficult, was it? Best of all, this process can be easily replicated for any free theme on WordPress.org that you like the look of – all you need is the theme’s name.

I encourage you now to take some time in choosing, installing and activating a theme you like the look of. Don’t obsess over it – for now, pick something that you feel reflects the style and ‘personality’ of your blog. Then we’ll be ready to move on.

Customizing Your Theme

This course intends to whittle down the process of creating a blog to the bare bones. It intends to make the process of creating a blog completely accessible to those who may feel that they don’t have the necessary skills. With that in mind, I have chosen to avoid discussing theme customization altogether.

Why? There are two main reasons.

First, theme customization is akin to wandering into the world’s largest hedge maze – you may never come back out again. There are so many more important things that you should be concentrating on as a blogger than what shade of red your site’s title should be, or what pattern you should use for your background. (But in case you were interested, the answer is no pattern at all – you should almost always use a flat, light-colored background.)

Second, if you’re not particularly creative or design-oriented, one can make a very good case for you avoiding theme customization altogether. Why? Because good themes have been deliberately designed in way that the sum of its parts (font, structure, style, etc.) operate in harmony. Once you start meddling with one element of that design, things can get ugly pretty quickly.

With the above said, I encourage you to put thoughts of theme customization out of your head and move onto more important things for the time being.

Part 6: Installing and Configuring WordPress Plugins »