Mastering WordPress theme development in 2023: A step-by-step guide

WordPress theme development becomes easy when you are aware of how to use it. In this article, you will be able to learn about creating the theme with simple tricks and tips, and the importance of customizing the WordPress theme.

Blog Author

Rama Krishna

July 7, 2023

There are multiple themes available on the WordPress website for you. However, you may choose to pay a premium for professional usage of the WordPress theme. If you are wondering what is the need to create your WordPress theme?

Here is an answer. Though WordPress is open source and has so many themes available for you, with a custom WordPress theme you can make changes to your website. In this article, we will guide you through simple tips and tricks to develop a WordPress theme without any hassle.

To start with WordPress theme development, all you need to make sure of is the environment you will be using to create a theme and CMS installed on your computer. It will be an added advantage if you are aware of the basics of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to modify the code. Despite any coding knowledge as well you can build your theme on WordPress.

Creative Website designers

What do you need to create a WordPress theme?

To develop a custom WordPress theme, you need to install WordPress and have a development environment configured with Apache, PHP, and MySQL. You can always update the database credentials and download WordPress from the official website.

Now, let us learn about the structure of the theme you want to create. In general, a WordPress theme is just like any other page created using HTML and other template files that include-

header.php: Contains the header code that sends raw data from a server to a client or browser as header information with the request to acknowledge. The header starts from < !DOCTYPE html> code.

footer.php: Has the footer code that contains the copyright stating Proudly powered by WordPress. In code, represents the end of the code.

sidebar.php: it is to understand the location where the buttons added on the side of the page are configured.

style.css: Style always controls the visual presentation and layout of the theme.

index.php: This should always be present inside the theme folder. The index contains the settings displayed on the home page.

single.php: Single.php folder contains codes about single pages detail of all types of posts except static page that has fixed codes.

page.php: This folder contains codes that display the content of a single page.

archive.php: Shows the list of articles and pages that are created by the user and placed in the archive.

functions.php: This is the folder that helps you locate some functions that add more functionality to themes, such as the logo, menus, color, thumbnails, scripts, and stylesheets.

404.php: This folder is to track the error codes that the requested file was not found.

With the help of these folders, you can easily customize each template file. Now, based on the templates hierarchy, WordPress will select and generate the templates for you.

Now create a new folder for the components within your WordPress themes folder before starting WordPress theme development from scratch.

Important Tip: The folder’s name shouldn’t be the same as another theme’s name. Additionally, if you plan to share your work, check that there’s no theme with the same name on the Theme Directory.

Simple steps to create a WordPress theme

Once you are aware of the templates that can be used to develop a theme, let’s get started on how to develop a WordPress theme in these steps.

Setup a local environment

First, you need to create a local environment for your WordPress. The environment here refers to the server that you are willing to install on your computer. Using this server, you will manage and develop local WordPress sites. A local site is the best way to develop the theme without altering the live site by any means.

You can use any local environment available such as Local by Flywheel, WampServer, XAMPP, MAMP, Vagrant, Laragon, Laravel Valet, InstantWP, and many more. Most new creators choose local as it’s the fastest and easy way to install a local version of WordPress for free. This is compatible with both Mac and Windows computers.

Steps to set up local environment

  1. Choose your platform >> add your details >> download the installer.
  2. When the installation is complete >> open the program on your computer.
  3. Now, configure your new local environment.

Once setup is ready, your new site will look and perform exactly like a live WordPress website.

Download and install your starter theme

You have several starter themes available on the internet such as Astra, WP Bootstrap Starter, Underscores, Naked, Responsive, Quark, _tk Starter, Joints WP, Sage, HTML5 Blank. However, we are using Underscore to make it easy for you to understand.

  1. All you have to do now is, go to the website and name your theme.
  2. Click Advanced Options to customize the base theme.
  3. Here, you’ll be asked to configure your new local environment.
  4. Now, fill out the information, such as the author’s name, and provide the theme with a description.

Different components of WordPress

As discussed, and mentioned in the requirements for creating a theme for WordPress, all you need to do is understand the templates and make use of them. Apart from the requirements discussed above, another important element is the Loop folder.

You can refer to the Loop as the main content of the site that appears in most of the templates that display content. For example, index.php or sidebar.php. it is one of the complex subjects to analyze, if you are using underscore, the Loop will already be integrated into your theme environment.

Configuring your theme

We all know the theme imprints highly on-site functionality. Here we’ll see a few basic customizations that can be done.

Improve functionality using hooks

Hooks are nothing but the code that is added to the templates to run PHP on various areas of the site to display information that is required. Generally, Hooks are applied directly to the WordPress core software, however, some are useful for theme developers as well to customize the theme.

Let’s see the most common Hooks applied in customization and their use-

wp_head(): Adding < head> in the header.php. It helps to run a few functions like style, scripts, and other information when the site loads.

wp_footer(): this is added just before ending < /body> tag. Used to add Google Analytics code for your website.

wp_meta(): Used in the sidebar.php to make use of additional scripts.

comment_form(): Included in comment.php just before the file’s closing < /div > . this is useful in displaying comment data.

Add styles with CSS

CSS or Cascading Style Sheets outline the appearance of all content on your site. This can be accomplished using the style.css file in WordPress. A basic version of the code has already been implemented in the folder; however, you can edit and save the files to see various effects.

Export the theme and upload it to your site

Now, the built theme has to be tested to make sure it works appropriately. To verify that you can make use of a free application for WordPress theme unit test data. Here, you will be using a set of mock data to upload on your site and to verify if all the content data and style are intact.

Once testing is completed successfully, now it’s time to export it.

To export the customized theme, you need to find the location of your website on your local system. You can always find the customized theme in the folder called Websites, inside your default Documents directory.

Now, open the website’s folder and access /wp-content/themes/, here you’ll find your customized theme.

You can make use of any compression tool to create a .zip file. All you need to do is right-click on the folder selected and select compress “your folder”. You will be able to find your folder with the name of your theme.

When your folder is zipped successfully, it’s ready to be uploaded and installed on any WordPress site just like others have been installed at the start. If you are happy with your result you can upload your code in WordPress Theme Directory!

Tips and tricks for custom WordPress theme development

Make sure to have a backup of your website before customizing

It is always suggested to keep a backup of your site before editing your WordPress theme. It is to make sure if anything goes wrong, you can easily restore from your backup.

Do not edit WordPress code directly

If you are not a professional WordPress developer like Webomindapps, try to edit the theme without editing the core code. Simple coding errors can risk your entire website and can make it inaccessible. If you are a beginner, it is suggested to make use of Theme Customizer or a page builder to create a WordPress theme.

Always make use of the staging site for editing

This is a safe way for you to test your customization for your site. A staging site as the name itself suggests, is a copy of your site. Once you set up a staging site, you can update or test new plugins without affecting your original site.

Creating a responsive design

A responsive design is very much important for any site as most people use multiple devices to view a site. Since smartphones, desktops, and tablets vary in their screen size, creating a responsive design becomes a necessity. Make sure you change anything on the site, your WordPress Theme should look apt on all screens.

Why should I customize WordPress themes?

  • By customizing the WordPress theme, you give a unique appearance to your website.
  • It becomes easy to recognize your site and the audience tends to remember the unique functionality of the site.
  • Increases brand reputation and recognition.
  • Provides contented user experience and aesthetic designing enabling easy navigation.

How to customize a site using a child theme?

It can be said that WordPress has both Parent and Child themes. Where a parent theme holds a complete pile of theme files. A child theme inherits all the features and functionalities of a parent theme.

Using a child theme is the simplest and easiest way to create a WordPress theme without common design mistakes . With this approach, you can safely implement all the necessary changes and not worry about any data loss. You can also keep your site safe while trying any trial-and-error codes or plugins as the changes don’t reflect on the parent theme.

Steps to create a child theme

  1. To create a child theme, set up style.css and functions.php files.
  2. Place set-up files in a separate folder within your WordPress file structure.
  3. You will now see the folder named after your Child theme.
  4. Now, you can create templates and apply various modifications.
  5. When the parent theme is updated, the alterations you made in the Child theme will remain intact.
  6. You can also create a child theme using a plugin like the Child Theme Wizard. Once completed, it gets automatically activated. You can locate it under the Tool section in your dashboard.

  7. Not navigate to Appearance > Themes and activate your child theme.
  8. Now, you can start editing your WordPress by applying changes to the child theme.


Be it a personal website or a business website, WordPress can always benefit you in a wide range by offering too many options to help you set up your website globally.

Although it’s easier to use pre-installed themes, it doesn’t help your business as every other website looks similar. Therefore, it creates a need to build a theme that gives a unique appearance to your website. With all the detailed views on WordPress theme development, you should be able to develop your work WordPress theme.