WordPress Themes and Templates Explained

What is a WordPress theme?

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.

Page Attributes box - select an alternate template
Select an alternate template in the Page Attributes box.

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

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14 thoughts on “WordPress Themes and Templates Explained”

  1. Hello Kirk,

    If I downloaded a template (Apartment HTML) would I need to install a theme to make it work?

    1. Kirk Biglione


      That’s just an HTML template. To use that with WordPress you will need to turn it into a WordPress theme. That would involve breaking up the design elements into the appropriate WordPress templates (header.php, footer.php, sidebar.php, index.php, etc.). As you create those files you’ll need to add the WordPress tags that merge content with the template.

      If you’re up for the challenge I suggest you read through the WordPress Codex entries on the topic. Start here: https://developer.wordpress.org/themes/basics/


  2. I have a self-hosted WP blog site. My current WP theme is outdated and I believe no longer supported by WP. When I log in as an admin, I’m prompted to update the theme, but I’m not sure what will happen if I do so. Will I lose the graphic design elements? I’m not married to the design anymore. It too is quite dated. But I haven’t performed the update because I don’t know what my site will look like after I do.

    1. Hi Monica, Updates can be scary, no doubt. Generally speaking, you shouldn’t lose any of your design elements with a theme update. If you’ve only made design changes through the WP Admin there’s nothing to fear.

      However, if you (or someone you’ve hired) has customized the underlying theme code (CSS or PHP templates) without first creating a child theme, then there’s a real chance that you’ll lose your customizations.

      To be safe be sure to make a full backup of your site before installing the update. That way you can restore your old site if something goes wrong.

  3. Hi Kirk,

    This relates to WP Themes & Templates that you have elaborated above. I am new to website building. I have a free theme on my website. Can I add a HTML Template ?

    1. Hi Nadir, Yes, you can add a new template, but it will have to be PHP. You include your HTML in the template along with WordPress template tags (which are really specialized PHP functions that only work with WordPress).

    1. Kirk Biglione

      Hi Nancy, I have no experience with this product, but after looking at the sales pages I would say you need the WordPress theme version. The Website Template version is not a WordPress theme (just the static HTML, CSS, JavaScript files, etc.)

  4. Hello Kirk,
    I would like to buy a wordpress theme that I like but does not have the landing page template. In the web I found some codes to create landing.php
    Can I simply create a template like landing.php or is it a more complex thing?
    Thank you in advance

  5. Hi Kirk
    I don’t understand why I see a mix of the layout of my template and the layout of my theme on my website. There are 2 websites shown on top of each other.
    When I go to my homepage for example, I see the heading of my template. The rest of my homepage is similar to my theme. I want to use the heading of my theme however.
    I want my website to look like my theme, not my template.
    Is this because I’m working with the free version of my theme? I see there is a pro version. Should I buy this pro version and will my problem be solved then?
    Thank you

    1. Maybe. But if you stick with a quality theme it’s much easier than attempting to build your site any other way. Beginners shouldn’t need to worry about the technical workings of WordPress themes.

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