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WP essentials: Choosing a theme

The first thing you must do once you have signed up to a free WordPress account, is select a theme for your website. It’s worth taking time to choose an appropriate theme for your needs because choosing the wrong one can be the web equivalent of turning up at a cos play event in black tie.

‘But why?’ I hear you ask.

Because your theme sets the tone for your website. The fonts, colours and layout you choose will help to communicate what you are about, and either help or hinder people from finding, and reading, what you have to say.

Look at other websites in your niche, see what they are doing. However radical you like to dress, unfortunately, the chances are your website theme should be something like most others. That’s because the way people read websites is pretty much standardised: the short version is that everyone looks at the top left corner of the page first.*

On the whole, it is best to keep things simple. Dark text on a light background looks tidy and is read easily. Big, clear, crisp, images are always engaging and a good way to signpost content.

If you choose the wrong theme, it can always be changed, but you’ll save yourself time and tinkering if you take a moment to consider a few things before you install yours.

Firstly, you need to choose between a theme that you pay for and one that you don’t. I have listed a few pros and cons below to help you decide.

  • Free themes are good because they are free. They are also good for beginners because they tend to have fewer functions and customisable options making them simpler to use. On the downside, free themes are widely used. When many other websites look similar to yours, it is harder to make yours stand out. If using a free theme, it can be safest to choose a widely-used one too. Developers have less incentive to ensure that unpopular free themes work with current and future versions of WordPress software and plugins, which can lead to security issues or a reduction in your website performance.
  • Premium themes are good because you can really make them your own. There are many free themes to choose from, but there are many more paid for, or ‘premium’ ones. Because premium themes tend to have more customisable options, they make it easier to make your website look and function exactly the way you want it to. On the downside, premium themes tend to require more knowledge and more maintenance. You may find that in order to get your money’s worth, you need to ‘self-host’ your WordPress blog, which also requires more know-how and/or more cash.

The next thing you need to decide is what style of theme you need. You can choose a pre-designed theme with templates for pretty much every kind of website you can think of. Essentially though, theme templates are all variations on, or combinations of, the following categories:

  • Blog. A diary template perfect for keeping a journal for entertainment, research or coursework, usually under a single subject matter.
  • Magazine. A blog template designed for multiple authors and/or content relating to a variety of topics.
  • Portfolio. An interactive business card comprised of galleries to exhibit images and text organised by project.
  • Shop. That’s right, a shop.
  • Directory. A listings template, for a jobs board or dating site, for instance.

The one thing your theme must be these days is responsive. This means it has an integrated function to display content clearly on desktop computers, tablets and phones. If your website isn’t mobile-ready, Google will penalise it in search rankings.


It’s easy to choose and install a theme from the WordPress dashboard. Simply browse through the available themes via the personalize > themes menu. You can preview how a theme looks with your site content by clicking the button marked ‘…’ below each theme. This takes you through to the customizer, which is also where you make changes to your chosen theme once it is installed.


Depending on your choice of theme, the customizer will look something like the above example for the WordPress ‘Editor’ theme. Generally speaking, all themes will allow you to add a custom logo and change the fonts or background colours of your website. Additional changes, even with a free theme, may need to be paid for. So-called ‘Custom Design’ for the Editor theme, for instance, requires a WordPress Premium subscription, costing £85/year at the time of writing.

*If you want to learn more about web design, usability and how readers engage with online content, I recommend reading the evocatively-named and concisely-written Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug.



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