How to Customize a WordPress Theme

It might happen that you install a WordPress theme but it doesn’t quite work for you. Luckily, WordPress is extremely customizable. You will just have to choose the right way to do it. In this article, we will teach you several different ways how to customize your WordPress theme safely and efficiently.

customizing wordpress themes

Options for Customizing a WordPress Theme

There are different options for how to customize your WordPress site’s theme depending on your situation. Here is a quick overview of the options:

  • Install a plugin to add functionality to your theme
  • Use the Customizer in your WordPress admin screens to customize fonts, colors, and layout, depending on your theme
  • Use a page builder theme’s features to customize the design of your site
  • If you have installed a framework theme, use one of the available child themes to customize your website
  • If you have the capability and theme is specific to your site, you can edit the theme’s code directly
  • Create a child theme if you want to edit the code of a third-party scheme

How to Know if You Need to Customize a WordPress Theme

In some instances, you actually don’t need to customize your theme. Rather, you can install a plugin instead. Themes determine the design of your website, the way it looks and displays content. Plugins simply add extra functionality. If the changes you require are based more on functionality than design, you might want to consider installing a plugin rather than customizing your theme. You can write a plugin, download one from a plugin directory, or buy one.

If you want to edit the functions.php file in your theme, ask yourself “Would I want to keep this functionality if I switched themes in the future?” If you say yes, that code should go in a plugin rather than your theme. You might use a plugin rather than a theme if you want to add a widget, register custom post types and taxonomies, create custom fields and add extra features like a store or SEO enhancements.

how to customize a wordpress theme

How to Customize Your WordPress Theme via the WordPress Admin Screens

Another option is to customize your WordPress theme via the WordPress admin screens. This works if the changes you want to make are fairly simple and design-focused. The Customizer offers several choices for adjusting your theme. The choices available will depend on your theme. If you see the Editor in the Appearance menu, make sure to avoid it.

Customize a WordPress Theme via the Customizer

The simplest way of customizing your WordPress theme is by using the WordPress Customizer. You can do this in one of two ways:

  • When you are logged in and viewing your website, click the “Customize” link in the admin bar at the top of the screen.
  • Or, in the admin screens, click on Appearance > Customize.

Either way will take you to the Customizer.

The WordPress Theme Editor 

When you look at your WordPress website’s admin screens, you might see a choice called the “Theme Editor,” which you can see via Appearance > Theme Editor. This allows you to see the files in your theme and directly edit them. However, this is a bad idea. Even if you know how to write CSS or PHP, it’s not a good idea to edit the files in your theme. First of all, if you have bought or downloaded a third-party theme, any changes you make will be lost next time you update. Second, if you make a change that breaks your website, it won’t be tracked and the previous version of the file won’t be changed. It’s possible that you could permanently break your website.

Even WordPress knows how dangerous it can be to use the theme editor and gives you a warning when you try to access it. So, follow WordPress’ advice and never use the theme editor.

If you do want to edit the code in your WordPress theme, you can do it using a code editor. And never edit the files in your live website until you’ve tested it on a staging site. If you need to edit a third-party theme, you can do so via a child theme.

can i customize my wordpress theme

How to Use Page Builders and Frameworks to Customize Your WordPress Theme

Many WordPress themes have customization options, which means you can change the design and layout with the Customizer. However, some themes are actually meant to be extended and customized, even significantly. These themes are actually called frameworks. Or, you can use a plugin that helps you design your website with a user-friendly interface, called a page builder.

Use a Page Builder to Customize Your WordPress Theme

The point of Page Builder plugins is to make it simple for you to set the design of your website. The interface allows you to see what you will get in advance. First, you install a page builder plugin with a compatible theme, then use the options in order to design your site how you like it. One of the most popular page builders is Elementor. However, there are several options. One of the benefits of page builders is that you can edit your posts and pages with a drag-and-drop interface. This lets you create unique web pages and see how your content will look. They also provide plenty of flexibility when it comes to layout and design.

Use a Theme Framework to Customize Your WordPress Theme

If you prefer not to use a page builder, you can also use a framework to customize your WordPress theme. A theme framework is a suite of themes designed to work together. There is one parent theme, which is the framework, and various child themes available that you can use to customize the main theme and make it look the way you like. Divi is an example of a theme framework. It has customization options that allow you to adjust the design of your child theme even more, similarly to the drag and drop interface like that in page builders.

how to customize wp theme

How to Edit the Code of Your WordPress Theme

If you know how to edit CSS and/or PHP, you can edit the code in your theme in order to customize it. This allows you the most control, but also requires the most technical knowledge. If you are editing your own theme that was developed especially for your own website, then you can edit it directly. However, if you are working with a third-party theme, you will need to create a child theme to avoid losing any changes the next time you update.

How to Edit Theme Files

The first step of editing your WordPress theme is to know which theme files control what, and which you will need to edit.

The Stylesheet

Each WordPress theme has a stylesheet, which is called style.css. This has all the code for styling your website, including the layout, fonts, color schemes, and more. For example, if you want to change the colors in your website theme, you can edit the stylesheet. And if you wish to add a new font, you can use the stylesheet to apply the desired font to various elements, like the body text and headings.

However, pay attention when you edit the stylesheet. Specificity means that the code for an element isn’t always coming from where you think it is. For instance, elements will inherit styling from other elements that are above them in the hierarchy of the page unless you add styling that is specific to the lower element.

To see what CSS affects each element on the page, you can use the inspector in your browser to view the CSS. Then, you can use this to write new CSS that targets the individual elements or the range of elements or classes on the page that you want to change.

If this talk of CSS and specificity is new and confusing to you, we suggest that you avoid editing your theme’s CSS yourself and rather try a different option to customize your WordPress theme, or allow the experts at SEO Design Chicago to help you!

The Functions File

Most themes also have a functions file, which is called functions.php. The functions file is written entirely in PHP. This file makes a bunch of stuff in your theme work. You can find the code in this file to register theme features like featured images, widgets, andmore. You can also add functional code to your theme in the functions file. However, you might want to consider writing a plugin instead of adding code to the functions file.

The Theme Template Files

The majority of the files in a theme are theme template files. These files determine what content WordPress outputs on a given page, and are picked according to the template hierarchy. You can edit these files, or create a new one, in order to change the way content is output on a certain post type, page, or archive.

For instance, if your theme has an archive.php file that is used to output archive pages for categories and tags, you can make changes to the way tags are output. Then, you create a file called “tag.php,” which would be based on archive.php with your changes.

Once again, be conscientious when editing files because they could break your site. Always use a staging site first!

Customizing a Third-Party Theme with a Child Theme

If you are running a third-party theme on your website and you want to edit its code, you will need to create a child theme. If you edit the theme directly and then update, you will lose all your changes.

How to Create a Child Theme

  1. In wp-content/themes, create a new folder.
  2. In this folder, create a stylesheet. In the new stylesheet, tell WordPress that this is a child theme of your existing theme.
  3. Then, add copies of the files you want to edit to the child theme. Edit the files in this folder.
  4. Finally, activate the child theme on your website.

WordPress always uses the file from the child theme to output content, unless there is a file higher in the hierarchy in the parent theme. Even if there are two versions of the same file, WordPress will use the one from the child theme. Basically, the new file in the child theme will always override the file from the parent theme.

wordpress themes

Best Practices for How to Customize Your WordPress Theme

These are some best practices to follow whenever you customize your WordPress theme.

Customize Without Adding Code Whenever Possible 

Anytime you can make your customizations via the Customizer, or anywhere else in the admin screens, this is a much better option than editing the code. Only edit the code if you are familiar with CSS and PHP and you know how to do it safely.

Use a Local Development Site to Makes Changes

If you are editing the code in your theme, or creating a child theme to make changes, always do the development work on a local installation of WordPress with your theme installed and your content copied from your live site. This way, you can live-test your updates on a mirror site. This has no effect on your live site, and is a lot quicker.

Use Version Control

Anytime you make changes to your WordPress theme, you should use version control to track your changes. At a minimum, you need to change the version number of the theme and keep copies of both versions. But in order to do version control right, you will need to use a service (like GitHub, for example) to track your changes. If a change causes any issues, you can roll it back simply without making manual edits. This is an especially important step if you are working as a team.

Use a Staging Site to Test Changes

If you can access a staging site, make sure to test on this site before activating your new theme on your live site. Any local site will have some slight differences than your live site because it’s on a different server and might run on a different version of PHP. Make a copy of your live site on your staging server, then upload and activate your new theme. First test your site to make sure it all works correctly, then push the changes to your live site.

Make Your Theme Mobile-Responsive

It’s important to ensure that your new theme is responsive for mobile, not just desktop. In 2021, mobile accounts for half of web traffic. That is why it is key that your new WordPress theme is mobile-friendly, otherwise you can lose up to half your traffic. You can always use a tool like BrowserStack to see how your website appears on various devices.

Make Sure Your Customizations Are Accessible for Everyone

Any customizations you make to your website need to be accessible for everyone, including users with disabilities or sensory impairments. Consider any changes like making your colors brighter or text smaller, and ensure that they are ADA compliant.

Stick to WordPress Coding Standards

Any time you edit the code in your WordPress theme, or create a child theme, you need to make sure your code is in line with the WordPress coding standards. These standards are meant to ensure that code is consistent and high-quality.

how to edit a wordpress theme

Customize Your WordPress Theme with SEO Design Chicago

One of the reasons that WordPress is the best platform for website building is because it is extremely customizable. However, it can be difficult to customize your site. SEO Design Chicago’s web developers are WordPress experts and can customize your theme for you, so you get the exact website you want. Contact us today!


  • Do you need to customize your WordPress theme?
  • Why shouldn’t I use the WordPress Theme Editor?
  • How do I find the Customizer in WordPress?
  • How do I edit the layout, fonts, and colors of my WordPress theme?
  • What are some best practices for customizing WordPress themes?

Contact Us Today!

Call Now