There’s a lot of confusion surrounding WordPress design terminology. I am frequently asked questions like, “can you recommend a good WordPress template for a business website.” When this happens, I understand that the person asking the question is actually looking for a WordPress theme suggestion.
While it may seem pedantic to dwell on these seemingly interchangeable terms, there’s a real difference between themes and templates in the WordPress world. Once you’ve finished reading this post, you’ll know the difference between a theme and a template — and, more importantly, when to use each.
What Are WordPress Themes?
A WordPress theme is a complete design for a website.
A WordPress theme includes all of the things that you typically associate with web design. From color selection to headers, footers, and sidebar positioning. Through its CSS stylesheet, a WordPress theme controls everything related to typography — including font face, font style, margins and indentation, and line spacing.
You can find themes in the official WP theme directory or from any number of WordPress theme designers.
When you install a theme through your WordPress admin area, the theme files are downloaded to your web server automatically.
If you download a theme to your computer, you’ll find it packaged in a single zip file. Open up the zip file, and you’ll find a folder full of files (and even more folders!).
That messy collection of files and folders is the guts of your WordPress theme. Some of those files are WordPress templates.
So, What is a WordPress template?
This is where things get a bit confusing. Some other web design systems refer to the overall site design as a template.
In WordPress terminology, a template is a page layout that’s available within a theme. In other words, the template is just a single-page layout, not the whole site design. With WordPress, there’s no limit to the number of templates a theme can contain.
Some standard WordPress templates are common to almost all themes. For example, the archive.php template displays a list of all posts (within a category, tag, or date range). And the single.php template is used to display single blog posts. Consult the template hierarchy to figure out which template WordPress uses on any given page of your website.
Besides the standard templates, some themes have special templates designed to deliver special design features. For example, your theme may have a special template for a contact page or a full-width template with no sidebar.
You apply templates to individual pages in the WordPress page editor. Just keep in mind that not all WordPress themes have special templates. If yours does, you’ll find them listed in the Page Editor. Look for the Page Attributes box just to the right of your page content.
To summarize the difference between theme and a template: A theme controls the design of your entire site. A template defines the layout of a single page. Themes include several different templates.
Changing WordPress Templates
Templates are page layouts designed to work within a WordPress theme. It’s not possible to install a single template. WordPress doesn’t work that way. To change templates, you install a new theme.
However, it is possible to create your own custom templates — I’ll save the details for a future post. You will need to have a good understanding of web design (CSS, HTML, and PHP). Strong knowledge of the WordPress template hierarchy helps too. In the end, both themes and templates are made of the same ingredients that make up any web page — HTML and CSS.
Still, have questions about WordPress themes and templates? Leave a comment below, and we’ll help you sort things out.
Updated October 1, 2020