How to Change Your WordPress Theme: A Step-By-Step Guide

how to change your wordpress theme step by step

Change is exciting — but also a bit terrifying, right?! We know you work hard on your blog, and changing your WordPress theme is a big step, especially if you haven’t done it before. While the process is pretty straightforward, and we do our best to walk you through setup and how we’ve organized the different options, sometimes issues still arise and you may not know where to look for a solution. So today we’re sharing how to change your WordPress theme, step-by-step. Read on for our complete guide, with tips for fixing common errors (or avoiding them completely!), and getting your new theme to look just right. Let’s get started!

1. Put up a coming soon page.

While it’s tempting to set up your new theme in the Customizer and activate your changes when ready, we only recommend this in two instances: 1) for preview purposes only, when you want to see how a new theme looks on your site before you commit, or 2) when you want to make simple tweaks to your current theme. Instead of using the Customizer, we prefer to put up a coming soon page while setting up your new theme, which allows you to activate your new theme immediately and see exactly how it works on your site. So even before you install your new theme, we always recommend putting up a coming soon page first.

Why is this so important? For one thing, once you’ve installed your new theme, if something does go wrong, it’s much easier to troubleshoot when that  theme is actually active. The Customizer does a great job creating a preview for the front-end of your site, but it’s not great at showing you what’s happening in the WordPress admin area, nor does it give you an easy way to test for plugin conflicts. Furthermore, your new theme has to be active to properly resize thumbnails, which we’ll discuss later in this post! Finally, a coming soon page will give you peace of mind—you’ll feel a lot better about messing around with your new theme and admin area if you know your users can’t see all your tinkering!

how to change your wordpress theme step by step

2. Remove unnecessary plugins.

While you should regularly keep tabs on the plugins you have installed on your site and delete plugins you no longer need, we know this doesn’t always happen! Switching themes is the perfect time to clean up your plugins list, particularly since you may have installed plugins for your previous theme that are no longer necessary in your new theme.

One big culprit is the WooCommerce plugin. Many themes that are WooCommerce-compatible will add it to their recommended plugins and prompt you to install it. However, you only need to install WooCommerce if you intend to use the e-commerce portion of their theme. Similarly, Genesis child themes may recommend a number of Genesis plugins, most of which only work on Genesis themes (<em>press themes do not run on Genesis).

In most cases, these usually don’t cause major conflicts with your new theme. But it’s always a good idea to remove plugins you no longer need, both to ensure that there are no conflicts, and to save server space.

Psst— we also wrote a post with everything you need to know about plugins.

3. Install and activate your new theme.

Once you’ve removed all unnecessary plugins, you’re ready to install and activate your new theme! Our themes and plugins come with a license key, which you’ll be prompted to enter upon installation.

If you’re setting things up on a temporary URL or staging site, wait until you go live to enter and activate your license key. This will ensure your license key is associated with the proper URL, so that you receive all the latest updates straight to your dashboard and can run them successfully.

how to change your wordpress theme step by step

4. Flush your cache, if needed.

Most caching plugins will reset when a new theme is activated, but it’s always a good idea to clear your cache just in case. Don’t forget to clear any server-level caching from your web host as well!

Uh, what is a caching plugin, exactly? There are lots of them out there—we’ll write another post about them soon! But basically, WordPress creates pages dynamically by fetching values saved to your database, and a caching plugin can speed up your site by saving static files of those pages with the values already entered, so they don’t have to be fetched every time someone visits your site. Most of the time, this is what you want, but not when your site is in active development — and changing your theme and making site tweaks fall under that. If something doesn’t look right in the process of setting up your new theme, always try flushing your cache first, and consider temporarily deactivating your caching plugin during the process.

Bonus tip: you should never have more than one caching plugin installed on your site.

5. Install and activate recommended plugins, if needed.

When you install your new theme, you may be prompted to install recommended plugins, and in some cases, required plugins. While <em>press themes don’t require any plugins to run, we do recommend the Regenerate Thumbnails and Smash Balloon Social Photo Feed plugins upon install. Keep in mind that recommended plugins do not have to be installed. For example, if you aren’t planning to display an Instagram feed, you don’t need to install the Smash Balloon plugin. Themes simply offer recommendations that have been tested with their theme.

Why aren’t the features of the recommended plugins already built into the theme? In this particular example, we know there are a lot of options out there for displaying an Instagram feed, and it just doesn’t make sense to accommodate them all — it would just add more code to your theme. It also doesn’t make sense for us to code our own Instagram display, as the API is constantly changing, and plenty of plugin developers are already keeping up with it. So we recommend the plugin we find to be most stable and compatible with our theme. This is usually the case with other recommended plugins too!

6. Resize thumbnails.

Now, we just said that recommended plugins do not have to be installed — but we do strongly recommend installing the Regenerate Thumbnails plugin, if your site has a blog and you have previously published posts. We recommend this when switching to any theme, not just an <em>press theme. Why? Every theme has its own image size settings that work best with that particular theme, and WordPress will not automatically resize old images when you install a new plugin. This means that thumbnails from old posts will not display at the correct size in your new theme.

Note that this only affects images previously uploaded — any images you upload after activating your new theme will be appropriately resized. This means that if you are starting your blog from scratch, you don’t need to install this plugin. This also only affects thumbnails in your theme, which come from your featured image. So be sure to select the option to resize featured images only — it will save you a lot of time! You can also keep the process running in a separate tab while you continue to set up your theme, as it may take a while if you have a lot of posts.

EmPress themes have the option to enable Retina images, which optimize image sizing for retina displays. Visit the Welcome tab in the Customize to enable this option, before you run the regenerate thumbnails process.

Finally, keep in mind that the plugin will only resize images that are already large enough. If thumbnails are still too small after running the plugin, you’ll need to upload a new featured image that is large enough for cropping. You can view image sizing for all of our themes in our help desk, under the help articles for your theme.

Bonus tip: you can deactivate and uninstall the Regenerate Thumbnails plugin after you run it!

7. Go through Customizer settings.

While it used to be common practice for themes to add their own options pages (and some still do), these days most of the magic happens in the Customizer, which you can access under Appearance > Customize. This loads a preview of your site with a sidebar of various tabs with options on the left. Here at EmPress, we’ve organized all of our theme options into logical steps that appear in tab order in the Customizer — simply start at the top and work your way down!

8. Set up menus and widgets.

Although you can set up menus and widgets within the Customizer in tabs automatically created by WordPress, we find the user experience is much better within their individual pages under Appearance > Menus or Appearance > Widgets. There are just so many things you can do with your menus and widgets, and it’s hard to display all of that in the sidebar of the Customizer! By accessing each individual page, you get a full-screen visual of all of the options available to you, and it’s much easier to move things around. Furthermore, we’ve noticed that widget areas don’t always show up in the Customizer if they don’t already have widgets in them.

9. Take down your coming soon page and go live!

Once you’ve selected your settings in the Customizer and set up all of your menus and widgets, your new theme is ready to go live! Visit your site from the WordPress toolbar, and click through various sections of your site to make sure everything looks just how you want it. Here are the areas you’ll want to check:

  • the home page
  • a single full post page
  • a blog category to check your archives display
  • an info page
  • click through any menu and sidebar links to make sure they go to the right place

Once everything is in order and you’re happy with how it looks, simply turn off the coming soon page to take your site live!

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