What is a WordPress Theme?

This is one in a three-part series exploring WordPress themes, what they are, and how to choose one. If you’re new to WordPress and aren’t sure what all of this geek-speak means, hang on and I’ll explain.

We’ll start by exploring what a WordPress theme is and what role it plays in your WordPress site.

What does theme mean?

First, the definition of a theme, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary:

Merriam-Webster Definition: Theme

Let’s explore the second definition, B.

a specific and distinctive quality, characteristic, or concern

A theme, by definition, is an identifying trait that sets it apart from the rest. For example, Halloween is a theme for a party that differentiates it from just a regular party. Halloween parties usually contain a specific color palette, costumes, food, games, and traditions.

A theme is a concept or subject that persists throughout a talk, event, or subject matter.

What is a WordPress Theme, then?

First, let’s start with what WordPress is.

WordPress is an open source, database-driven content management system that, once installed, allows you to manage content, pages, media, create menus, etc. Generally, it gives you power to take control of your website without your web administrator’s help. ☺

…for the most part.

WordPress, out of the box, doesn’t look ‘pretty.’ The front of your WordPress site, when first installed, is basic, simple, and rather boring.

WordPress Twenty Twelve Theme
WordPress’ Twenty-Twelve Theme

That’s because the theme that comes pre-installed with WordPress is very basic, simple, and boring. ☺ Yes it’s responsive, and yes it does look slicker than most 90s websites. But it’s still pretty plain. That’s the theme of the theme: simple. It’s meant to be uncomplicated.

But that’s not really how we want our site to be, right? We want colors, and cool tricks, and we want to stand out!

So you change your theme. And lo, you get something like this:

Portfolio Theme from ThemeFoundry
Portfolio Theme from theThemeFoundry.com

Or this:

WordPress - Annasbay.org
Custom WordPress theme for annasbay.org

But the backend of your website, the place that gives you the most power, still looks like this:

WordPress Dashboard - Basic
Out of the box WordPress Dashboard

The Beauty of WordPress Themes

That’s what a WordPress theme does. It changes the aesthetic look of your website, the theme of your website, without changing the core functionality of WordPress that we all love and enjoy.  Sometimes, we think of themes as the designer-ey lens through which you show your content, or as the clothes your website wears.

Pretty nice, huh?

Now some of you who have experience with WordPress might be saying:

“Hey, that’s not true. I’ve swapped themes before and it completely hosed my site.”

Well yes, when you’re switching themes, sometimes that happens. We’ll cover how to change your theme safely in a later blog post.

But the point is that all of your content is there. All of your pictures, images, links and other content still exist in the same place in your WordPress database. It might look different, but it’s still there. No need to redo all of your content from scratch. You can change your website’s clothes 100 times if you want.

And for some people that are locked into outdated website systems with little flexibility, that a big advantage.


So themes dictate the way that your WordPress website looks. You can consider it the skin of your site, or the look and feel of your site, it’s the eye-candy that you hope website visitors ooh and ahh about.

Further Reading

5 responses to “What is a WordPress Theme?”

  1. Marty Diamond Avatar

    Themes is a concept that most website owners have a problem with – they understand that they’ve got a WordPress site but they don’t have a clear idea what goes into making it look different/better. Looking forward to the rest of the series

    1. Laura Espinosa Avatar
      Laura Espinosa

      Thanks, Marty! :) I hope to explain themes better for the lay person crowd. If you have any questions you think should be answered, let me know.

  2. Eric Amundson Avatar


    One thing I’d like to see you address is the difference between functionality that is built into themes as opposed to plugins.

    We often see commercial theme houses pack their themes full of all sorts of functionality and, while that may seem like a good idea, it can come at quite a cost, if you’re not prepared for it.

    As you know, I’m a strong believer in keeping as much functionality in plugins, rather than themes, so the site’s behavior or capabilities aren’t changed if/when you switch themes.

    Maybe you can explain this a bit more in an upcoming post.


  3. Laura Espinosa Avatar
    Laura Espinosa

    Hi Rick!

    There are a lot of great developers for WordPress out there. And yes, I completely agree that if you don’t have the time or the skills to set up your own WordPress site, it might be best to hand that off to a pro. :)

    I just wanted to start of the post series by explaining what themes are, and how it empowers the average user to make their own sites if they’re the DIY type. But if you’re aiming for a look that’s really specific to your vision, that’s probably when you’ll need a web developer or administrator. ;)

  4. […] What is a WordPress Theme? […]