The Ultimate Guide To Customizing WordPress
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WordPress.org powers more than 25% of all websites, and with good reason.

Whether you speak in HTML code or barely use computers at all, it’s easy-to-navigate customization options make it possible for anyone to build the website of their dreams without taking a course in web design.

But before we dive into talking about how to customize your WordPress site (which can be intimidating for some), let’s talk about why WordPress is the perfect platform for your site.

After all, there are dozens of website builders out there. Why should you choose WordPress?

Because WordPress makes it REALLY easy to customize your site without accidentally screwing things up.

WordPress Has Your Back

WordPress.org

NOTE: This guide assumes you already have a domain name, hosting plan and SSL certificate. If you need to get those set up, here’s how to register a domain name. There are a lot of hosting options, but I’d recommend signing up for hosting with Bluehost, and installing WordPress.

If you’ve worked with computers, you know the agony of pressing one-too-many buttons and losing your hard work forever. You feel like you want to toss your computer through a window and live as a technology-free hermit for the rest of your life.

Many backend platforms for web design still require you to integrate your content and the source code, which essentially means that trying to italicize one word theoretically could crash your whole website.

WordPress prevents this, by separating the administrative dashboard and the code responsible for how your site looks. This means that even if you can’t figure out how to bold a section header, you’re not going to make everything you wrote last year disappear with a one wrong click.

Here’s an easy way to think about what WordPress does to make customizing so easy (and ruining your website so hard):

Content In the Cloud

The content on your WordPress site is stored in its own database, separate from the design files for your site. So whether you want to experiment with a new color scheme or an entirely new template, your words and images will still be there.

Change Themes Without Risking Core Content

One of the great strengths of WordPress is that it has thousands of free and paid themes to choose from. WordPress developers make it easy to switch and customize your themes, without putting your site content at risk.

So, they’ve separated out theme changes from content changes. This means you can easily experiment with colors, fonts, and layouts without risking your core content.

Understanding and Choosing a WordPress Theme

Now, before you start playing with themes and changing fonts and themes left and right, you need to think about a few things.

First, and most important, is what type of content is already on or will be on your site. This will shape the customizations you make.

Are you aspiring to be a major news outlet? Building an online photography portfolio to gain new business? Just wanting a place to share your thoughts and experiences with friends and family? Each of these goals requires different customizations.

Whether you need advanced SEO capabilities, a scalable site that can handle traffic and content growth, or just an intuitive way to add words to the web, WordPress makes it easy to customize your site for your specific goals.  

Once you decide your core goals, you can start browsing themes and templates and scheming what you’d like to change to make it your own.

Understanding How Themes Work

WordPress Theme Directory

Before you get into customizing a WordPress site, you need to have a feel for how themes work.

The WordPress theme you choose defines every aspect of how your website looks when people visit it. Your theme is the the bones of your site, the skeleton underneath everything. It provides a framework for how your site will look, how it will be laid out, what colors you’ll use, etc.

The beauty of WordPress is that you really can customize extensively, from the fonts in your headers down to the social media sharing buttons on blog posts.

Because your theme will give shape to your site and the customizations you make, you need to use care when choosing one. This goes back to your site goals.

Choose a theme that fits your overall site goals and then customize your WordPress theme to make it fit those goals even more.  

Themes work a number of ways:

  • Fully Custom: If you have a specific vision and either a lot of talent or a decent budget, you can hire a developer to make your website look pretty much exactly how you envision it in your mind or on your cocktail napkin.
  • Customize An Existing Theme: Maybe you found a free (or paid) theme on WordPress that you like, but wish a few things were different. You can either edit portions of it through the dashboard or create a “child” theme that allows you or your developer to make more extensive modifications without starting over.
  • DIY: Thanks to the incredible processing capabilities of WordPress, it’s possible to select a theme template and essentially give it a complete overhaul without using any code at all.

Choosing A WordPress Theme

Now that you know how themes work, it’s time to pick a theme for your site. I’m assuming that you already have WordPress installed, which means that the default theme is already in place.

You don’t want to use the boring default theme though. You want a theme that’s going to capture who you are.   

You can get themes (free and paid) in a variety of places.

If you’re taking your site seriously (and you should), I’d recommend you get a WordPress theme from Themeforest.

ThemeForest

ThemeForest is the largest directory of premium WordPress themes on the web and a staple of the web developer community. Just within the eCommerce category alone, they have over 2,700 eCommerce themes to choose from.

When it comes to choosing a theme, many people make the mistake of selecting based on the colors, because these are what catch the eye in thumbnail view. However, colors and fonts are the easiest parameters to customize.

Instead of only going for what catches your eye, look for themes that were designed with your use goals in mind. If you’re building an ecommerce site, it will be far easier for you or your developer to customize an eCommerce theme look than to make a cool looking personal blog support online product orders.

Once you’ve got the theme of your dreams, the true customization can begin.

Test Out Customizing Your Theme

Depending on the theme you choose, there can be a staggering array of potential for customizing. Again, everyone’s taste varies, and with the massive amount of themes available for free or for purchase, it is difficult to prescribe what to change or how to change it.

The best way to go about doing this is by dividing the process into a few steps:

  • What do I want people to see/feel/do when they visit my website?
  • What do I like about the theme a selected?
  • What do I wish were different?
  • How do I make those changes?

I highly recommend spending some time starting with a trial-and-error approach. Pick out one or two customization options (like font color or footer style) just to see how the WordPress customizer changes affect the actual website.

No tutorial can replace the feeling of actually seeing a website change before your eyes, and nobody can tell you what looks good to you, unless you specifically want to hire someone based on a portfolio that you admire.

Remember, this is just the options that are available in the dashboard with no backend, code, or plugins required. In other words, you can customize all these things without doing anything fancy or technical on the backend. If you want to change your menus, header image, or homepage settings, you can do so with just a few click.

How to Customize WordPress

WordPress is a remarkably flexible platform. It allows you to do an incredible amount of customization without touching a single line of code.

Now, let’s jump into how to customize both the frontend and backend of your WordPress site.

Customizing The Frontend of WordPress

Customize WordPress Appearance

Even if you know nothing about coding, there truly is an amazing amount of customization and site management possible straight out of the gate.

From the main admin dashboard of WordPress, you’ll see “Appearance”. When you hover over this, you’ll see a section popup called “Customize”. The Customize section controls most of the theme options of your site.

This includes things like your Site Title, Logo, Fonts, Colors, Menus and more.

Change The Site Title

The first and most important aspect of your website is the title. It sets the tone for your site and gives you a clear mindset for what your site is “about.” Plus, the title is featured prominently on almost every theme, so the way the title itself looks is an important part of the design.

Under the Site Identity tab on the Customizer, you will see several options related to your site’s title:

In addition to naming your website, you can give it a tagline, which will be displayed underneath the title if the theme is laid out that way. Many themes also leave room for a logo, which will be displayed wherever your theme has a space for it.

You’ll notice the “pencil” icon to the right of the Site Title blank. That indicates an area (in this case, the title) is being edited by the current customizer screen.

You can also set fun things like the Site Icon, which means when people have twenty tabs open on their browser, yours will stand out with its own mini icon.

Go ahead and change the site title and tagline to your own. Then look at the live results. Amazing, right! You’ve just done your first customization.

Change The Header

Almost every WordPress theme requires at least a few pictures if you want it to look the the theme demo, and pictures have a lot to do with how your site looks and “feels” to visitors.

Most WordPress themes lean heavily on header images (and, in some cases, logos) to structure the site, so whether you want a striking image or a subdued colorway to anchor your page, this is one of the biggest ways you can “customize” your site without doing anything more than uploading an image.

To change the header, go to the WordPress Customize screen and click on Header Image. This is where you upload your custom header to the site.

Customize header image

When it comes to picking a header image, taste is subjective, but here are a few best practices:

  • Make sure the predominant color(s) of the image don’t clash with the text overlay
  • Make sure the source image is at least as large as the “maximum resolution” recommended by WordPress. If it’s larger, you can crop or resize it to fit. If it’s smaller, it will be stretched and look pixelated (and downright unprofessional)
  • Visualize the overall content selection and color palette of your site. If your website is a photo portfolio, maybe your header shouldn’t be a visually-rich photo. If your color palette is a neutral greyscale, perhaps an appropriate burst of color will nicely anchor the pages as readers scroll through.

Pick a Font

Moving down the list in the customizer, Fonts are a small thing that can make a big difference in how your website looks. Changing fonts is easy and all changes you make in the customizer can be previewed in real-time to give you an idea how how your site will look with your given choices.

Simply pick the fonts you like, test them out, and then finalize them.

Change Your Color Palette

Color plays a big role in how everything looks and feels – from cars to rooms to outfits to websites. You likely have a good sense of what looks good together to you or your intended audience. And again, WordPress makes it easy to tweak your colors until you get them right.

Customize WordPress colors

Actually, WordPress makes good design really easy. If you have a base color you like, the WordPress customizer uses an algorithm that integrates with your selected theme to suggest other colors that might pair well. Of course, it also lets you pick any color in the rainbow for each customizable asset.

Blank Pages (and How to Fill Them)

Now that you’ve got a general ‘look’ you’re happy with, it’s time to build a strong homepage and create additional pages for the functionality you desire.

For a minimalistic personal portfolio, you might choose a theme where all of the content lives on the main page, like a traditional blog with ‘infinite scroll.’ For a business or other more extensive website, adding individual pages like About, Team Members, Blog, Contact, Shop, etc. will allow you to build out content to represent your company well and keep a visually appealing homepage.

Adding a new page is as easy as clicking “Add New” that’s found under the “Pages” section of your dashboard:

Add new page

A new page looks much the same as a new Blog Post, with a few more customization options.

Look at all that blank space! And all those easy-to-understand customization options. Imagine all the possibilities.

To get started, simply type in the text you want and add any images. Once it’s the way you want it, simply publish it by clicking the Publish button on the right side of the screen. It really is that simple.

PlugIns, Widgets, and Changes

Add new plugins

While researching WordPress customization, you’ll come across the words plugin and widgets a lot. Both of these are essentially “bolt on” items that you add to your theme to make it do more things that you want it to.

Imagine a modular bookshelf from Ikea. It starts with three tiers of skinny shelves, but if you bolt on every option, it could become a queen bed with multiple rows of wall-sized shelves, each one holding useful things like books, decorative things like plants and paintings, and functional things like reading lamps.

The theme is the base shelf, and the plugins and widgets are everything you can add to make your theme do all the things you want it to. Just like modular shelving systems, there is a limit to how much you should do with plugins. If you go crazy with plugins, you can run into technical issues such as plugins conflicting with one another. This won’t be an issue, however, if you don’t add dozens upon dozens of them.

To add a plugin: Simply click on the “Plugins” menu and then click “Add New”. You can then either search for plugins or upload plugin files if you have them.

To add a widget: Navigate to “Appearance”, then click “Widgets”:

Customize widgets
High Design, Low Effort

There are a number of plugins out there designed to help users “drag-and-drop” to edit their WordPress websites instead of using code in the backend. Visual Composer, Beaver Builder, and Elementor all bring effortless web design to your computer screen using only front-end actions.

For personal and “light professional” websites, these plugins offer a lot of customization and functionality without diving any deeper into the web design world.

Adding Social Media Buttons To You Pages

There are lots of simple plugins that allow for everything from placing the familiar style of social media sharing buttons to creating a “Buy It Now” option for your e-commerce website.

Some good social sharing plugins are:

  • ShareThis
  • AddToAny
  • Jetpack
  • And numerous others…
Optimize For SEO
MonsterInsights

Search Engine Optimization, also know as SEO, is simply the process of ensuring that your content shows up as high as possible in web searches. Thankfully, you don’t need to be a SEO expert to optimize your content.

Plugins like Yoast SEO and MonsterInsights give you specific steps to follow to ensure that your content is as optimized as possible.  

Protect Your Site

There are plugins that add layers of web security, prevent potential spam from infiltrating your site, and create caches to enhance website load times. All of these are potentially helpful but should be used sparingly.

Just like plugging twenty devices into one electrical outlet with multiple extension cords isn’t exactly a good idea, running too many plug-ins on one website increases your exposure for hacks, compatibility issues, and the amount of code in the backend, which leads to slower load times.

Ideally, your web host will provide a significant amount of security, protecting your site from those who would try to break in. Adding the Akismet Anti-Spam plugin should be sufficient to keep your site from being flooded with spam comments.   

What’s a Widget?

Widgets are “drag and drop” objects that can be inserted into your website straight from the WordPress dashboard. Whether adding recent Tweets to your website, integrating an RSS feed, or tweaking the navigational options of your page, widgets allow you to add small features to your website that make it work how you want it to, without adding as much “weight” or complexity as plugins.

To add a widget, simply click on the “Widget Area” of the customizer and then drag and drop widgets to your site.

Widgets

Create A Permalink Structure

Every page and post on your site has a “permalink”. It’s simply the link that people type to get to that particular page. WordPress comes with a default permalink structure, but it’s not a very good one. Instead of giving descriptive names to links, it simply assigns numbers. You want to change this.  

Click on “Settings” and then “Permalinks”. You’ll see this:

Permalink settings

Change it to the last option so that each page and post you create contains the name. This is much better for SEO.

Customizing The Backend of WordPress

Depending on your goals, there comes a point when plugins and widgets won’t work. If your customization needs go beyond dragging a few buttons to different places or selling a couple of products, it’s time to dive into the backend of WordPress and truly customize your website to fit your needs.

First Thing’s First: Make A Child Theme

Whether you’re hiring a developer right away or want to see how much tinkering you can accomplish on your own, there is one step you can’t skip: Create a Child Theme.

What does that mean?

If you pick a theme from WordPress and start modifying it before creating a child version, all of your hard work will disappear as soon as WordPress updates the theme you’re using.

And that happens often because WordPress is great about updating themes to remain functional with browser updates and fend off security threats.

The files in your backend are what tell the internet “how to display” your website. When you select a theme from WordPress, all of the code is already written and the content you insert into the dashboard is automatically integrated into the source code.

But as soon as you make changes beyond what the dashboard button options allow, you’re at risk of losing all your edits when the theme is updated. To prevent this, you have to “layer” a child theme on top of the theme you’re borrowing code from.

How To Make A Child Theme

First, create a folder and file to bring the theme you’re working with “offline” (that is, out of WordPress’ backend and into your computer’s local storage). Most people name these using the convention ParentThemeName-Child. Say your parent theme is named “Dragon,” the child theme would be called Dragon-Child.

So now you’re making Dragon Children. If you’re familiar with things like .css editing, then you can start writing code in a plain text editor just like you learned. Inside of your  Dragon-Child folder, create a file named style.css. Here is the code you must insert into your style file.

/*
Theme Name: My Dragon Child Theme
Theme URI: http://mywebsite.com/
Description: This is my Dragon Child.
Author: My Name
Author URI: http://mywebsite.com/
Template: Dragon
Version: 0.1
*/

The most important part of creating a child is telling your source code who the parent theme is. In this case, that would be “Dragon.” You have to name the Template after the theme you are working in, otherwise WordPress won’t know they’re related.

Make Sure Your Cloning is Successful

One last thing. If you want WordPress to know that your child has the same DNA as the parent, you need to add this line of code to make it official:

@import url(“../parenttheme/style.css”);

Now WordPress knows who the parent and child are. It’s time to add the child theme into your WordPress site using an FTP connection program. Once you connect, you can upload the child theme folder to your /wp-content/themes/ folder.

Once you’ve done this process, you should see the child theme in your dashboard. Now you can activate the child theme and edit the style.css folder to make tweaks and retain the skeleton of the parent theme.

So your clone is alive and online, now it’s time to figure out what you want to customize and how to do it.

If you’re really serious about doing this development yourself, it’s important to study the WordPress Codex on child themes.

DIY Or Hiring A Professional?

It’s fun and exciting to look at a blank canvas and dream of what all it could become.

However, the time, energy, and resources required to create a website must be balanced against what the website will actually do (here’s our detailed comparison: Website Costs: DIY vs Hire a Professional).

If it’s a website for a small brick-and-mortar business or a personal portfolio, a DIY approach using a high-quality theme and plugins will likely achieve a professional look and plenty of functionality with a reasonable amount of effort.

However, if you’re building a website expecting it to drive commerce or receive high traffic, plugins alone probably won’t be enough to make it do what you want.

Is your website like a Christmas tree with a few strands of lights plugged in, or is it more like a restaurant-size kitchen running blenders, ovens, toasters, coffee makers, and other appliances around the clock?

Do you want it to look pretty when friends and family visit or be able to handle a constant onslaught of paying customers with high expectations and no tolerance for mistakes?

Thinking about it this way makes it easier to decide if you can run plugins and widgets and build something beautiful with basic front-end tools or if your job calls for some more substantial backend development.

WordPress themes and templates provide a truly impressive amount of design, functionality, and bandwidth for out-of-the-box solutions, but as you spend more time studying, you’ll no doubt notice that without more extensive customization, you can always see those templates in the “shadows”. In other words, there are certain things that can only be modified with a huge chain of clunky plug-ins or some clean custom .css code in the backend. Whether these things matter (or whether you’ll ever even notice) is a question that only you or your customers can answer.

When it comes to customizing WordPress, it ultimately comes down to what you want your site to accomplish. If your livelihood depends on your website, you may want to consider hiring a professional to implement your customizations.

However, in most cases you can do all the customizations yourself using the steps above.

Whatever the case, enjoy turning the blank canvas of WordPress into the site of your dreams!

Originally published on December 11, 2017 updated March 19, 2018