How to Design a WordPress Theme

Almost one in every four websites on the Internet is powered by WordPress. WordPress is a free content management system that allows even non-technical people to quickly and easily build beautiful websites, and it’s used by major corporations and small businesses alike. But to make your WordPress site truly unique, you can design your own customized WordPress theme. I was recently checking out some sites that I like and I realized that while I like those ones, I wanted something a little more minimalist and me. That’s when I decided that it was time to start learning to make my own theme (I think this will be an ongoing project for me).

Before You Begin

In order to design a new WordPress theme, you’ll need to have some basic knowledge of coding first. WordPress themes generally use HTML, CSS, and PHP. Once you have a basic understanding of the languages, you’ll want to check out WordPress’s own guidelines for building a theme, found in their Codex. After all these basics are out of the way, it’s time to get creative!

Most web designers begin by making a mockup of the webpage – a graphic representation of the design. This is usually an image or a graphic file and can be created with GIMP, Adobe Publisher, or even MS Paint. If you want a different style for your homepage (different headers, different slideshow, etc.), you’ll need to do two separate mockups.

Coding

The first thing you need to code is the stylesheet – the core of every WordPress theme. Make sure that you use WordPress’s guidelines for the stylesheet header, and code with current CSS. Almost every theme will use a functions PHP file, so that’ll be the next big file to code.

The next relatively easy pages to code are 404.php (the page that shows up when a visitor hits a 404 error), image.php (which tells your theme how to process and display images), and attachment.php (which tells your theme how to process and display attachments). After that, the index.php, front-page.php, and home.php will provide the actual designs for those pages. The single.php, single-{post-type}.php, and archive.php pages will come next.

Finally, you’ll want to finished out the coding with comments.php, page.php, category.php, tag.php, taxonomy.php, author.php, date.php, and search.php files. The right-to-left stylesheet (rtl.css) can be generated automatically for you using a WordPress tool found on their website.

Testing

If you’ve been designing for WordPress before, you may already have a dummy installation of WordPress on your local computer. If not, you’ll need to first download Xampp (free download) to set up your local host. Then, add WordPress and any existing plug-ins or extensions to your Xampp. Once this is done, you’ll have a basic hosting environment that allows you to test your theme locally.

When your theme is complete, you’ll want to compress all the files into a .zip format, then install the theme through your WordPress installer just as you would with any other theme. Experimenting with your new theme on a localhost allows you to pinpoint errors and troubleshoot your code before adding it to your website or to the WordPress community directory.

Designing WordPress themes can be a fun and easy way to build a customized website for yourself or your friends. It’s also good karma; if you release it to the public, you’re giving something back to the WordPress community. Finally, it can be marketable! A good WordPress theme designer can be a valuable asset to any modern web design team.

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