WordPress Theme Development

WordPress Theme Development in 2024: A Step-By-Step Guide

Andy Gibson
Andy Gibson
Calender Img
Getweb Inc - Full-Cycle Web Design and Development Services

Want to develop a custom WordPress theme all by yourself? Or, looking for professional WordPress theme customization services in your area? If so, you’re in the right place.

In 2024, WordPress theme development will be the most popular way to create custom websites. The use of WP has increased by almost 12% each year since 2011, and today, it powers almost half (43.2%) of all the websites in the world! It seems like WP isn’t going anywhere soon.

Whether you need a custom WP theme for your personal use or want to professionally develop and sell a custom WP theme, you’ll need to have a solid understanding of the step-by-step process of WordPress theme development. And that’s our goal today.

This guide will take you through the step-by-step process of creating a custom WordPress theme from scratch so you’ll have a better idea about how to make your own WordPress website.

We’ll also give you a simplified overview of the WordPress theme development process and all the necessary information. Without any further ado, let’s get started right away.

What is WordPress Theme Development?

So, what is a WP theme exactly?

Themes are the core structure of your website. It’s a collection of elements like UI/UX graphics, code, functions, and style sheets that control how your website looks and feels.

You may think of it as the “skin” of a website, but a theme can do much more than increasing the visual appeal.

WordPress theme development is the process of creating custom themes for this CMS platform. This can involve modifying an existing theme or developing a completely new one from scratch.

What is WordPress Theme Development?

So, if you’re asking questions like, ‘Can I create my own theme in WordPress?’, the answer is, yes you can. The task isn’t easy. However, if you’re determined, there are several different tools and resources to help you get started with WordPress theme development.

For example, there are many online tutorials and how-to guides that can walk you through the basics of coding your own themes.

There are also plenty of software platforms that make it easy to build responsive WordPress themes that look great on any device or screen size.

Prerequisites of WordPress Theme Development

If you are new to WordPress theme development, it’s important to start out by getting familiar with some key concepts.

At its core, a WordPress theme consists of two main parts – the code that controls how your website is displayed on the front end and the functionality that controls how it works on the back end.

To get started with creating your own custom WordPress theme, you’ll need to have at least some basic understanding of HTML, CSS, JS, and PHP.

These are all languages used to create websites, and they are essential components in any WordPress theme development.

In this guide, I am assuming you are familiar with all the basic elements and technologies involved in WordPress theme development. If you aren’t, build up a basic understanding first, and then try again.

What is Inside a WP Theme?

Have you ever tried to look at what’s inside a theme? Basically, a WordPress theme is a folder that contains stylesheets, visual elements, template files, and PHP/JS scripts that’ll control how the information is displayed on your website. However, there is a special hierarchy to maintain, and each element serves different purposes.

See inside of WP Theme Content

A WP theme usually contains 3 folders: wp-admin, wp-content, and wp-includes.

As we’re dealing with the theme only, our primary concern is the wp-content folder. Inside this folder, there is a dedicated folder named “theme” where all the default WP themes are placed.

The Easiest Way to Develop a Custom WP Theme

So, what’s the easiest way to do this?

There are two main approaches when it comes to WordPress theme development. You can either create a theme from scratch, or you can use a starter theme and modify it until you are happy with the results.

A starter theme is a bare-bones WP theme version that you can customize as per your liking. It’s the easiest way to develop a custom WP theme.

The theme comes with all the basic structures of a theme. Some of the known starter themes are UnderStrap, Underscores, and Bones.

Of course, you are free to choose both a starter theme and building from scratch. However, we will portray how to build your own WordPress theme from ground-up.

The Essential Parts of a WP theme

As mentioned earlier, there is a special hierarchy and structure that WordPress theme developers have to maintain.

Without having a sound knowledge of the functionality and position of the files, the WP engine won’t even recognize your file as a theme file.

Let’s explore the hierarchy of the files that a WordPress theme has to have:

index.php: this file contains all the key functions the main page has
style.css: this file is used to style all the visual components
functions.php: it contains necessary functions for the whole website
header.php: this file contains the header code
footer.php: it has all the functions that make up the footer part
archive.php: this file contains saved categories and functionalities
404.php: This is an error code displayed if the requested file can’t be found

There are a lot of other files needed to enhance the functionalities of a WP theme. However, above mentioned are the key files essential for a theme to be registered and work like it is supposed to.

WordPress Theme Development: Step-by-Step 

Let’s explore the WordPress theme development process step-by-step. I feel like I need to provide a disclaimer about the complication of the process. WordPress theme development requires an advanced level of coding expertise.

What I am trying to do is to oversimplify the process using simple terms almost anyone can understand. If you want to seriously learn every step of the way but have zero coding experience,

I strongly suggest you learn the basics of HTML, CSS, JS, and PHP first before diving into all the technicalities.

Step 1: Create the Parent Folder

As said above, a theme has to follow a certain structure to be recognized by the WP engine as a theme. WP themes come within a folder located within the ‘wp-content’ folder.

The theme you’re going to create will have to be inside the ‘themes’ folder. The WP installation usually uses the WP directory as its root directory.

WP offers three free themes with the basic installation. You’ll need to create a new folder and name it as you like. This will be shown as the name of your theme.

Now, it’s time to create the necessary files.

Step 2: Create the Essential Files

Here, you need to create two empty files – style.css and index.php. The theme won’t be registered as a WP theme if there is no index.php file present inside the folder.

Without the style.css, the WP engine will register your theme but as a broken one.

Once you create those two files, your theme will be registered and you’ll be able to customize your theme the way you like. And just for the show, write something like,

H2 Tag Example

This will help you to check if the theme is working properly. The CSS file will also contain information like the name of the theme, the author, version and license number, text domain, and tags.

Step 3: Activate the Theme

Once you’ve created the bare-bone structure of your theme, it’s time to upload the theme into the WP engine and start customizing.

To do that, you’ll need to go to your WP dashboard, click Appearance >>Themes, and import the folder that you’ve created so far.

As the folder is small is size, it won’t take more than a couple of seconds. Once finished, you’ll be able to see your theme among the available theme options.

How to activate wordpress theme

Just as you click ‘Activate,’ your newly developed theme will be active and you’ll be able to modify it afterwards. If you want to look into the information, check the ‘Theme Details.’

Step 4: Start Customizing Your Theme

Once you’ve activated your custom WP theme from the dashboard, the code you wrote will pop up, showing that the style.css file is connected to the theme.

The next step will be to configure the theme. In this stage, you’ll have to make sure that the database is properly connected to the theme and it returns the data you’re looking for.

Hooks are a great way to do this. These are code snippets that help PHP scripts to work on different areas of your theme.

Here are some of the most used hooks in WordPress theme development.

wp_head(): it contains all the necessary information, styles, and scripts that need to run as soon as the website loads
wp_footer(): it adds in the footer.php, right before the </body> tag. It’s usually used to insert codes from Google Analytics
wp_meta(): this hook is used to include additional script, and is usually located in the sidebar.php
comment_form(): this is used in comments.php to display comment data

You can also style the elements through the style.css file. If you are using frameworks (like bootstrap), don’t forget to incorporate the bootstrap.css file into your theme.

Step 5: Add Header and Footer

Once you are happy with the result, you’ll have to add the header and footer parts of the theme. To do that, you’ll need to add two different files named header.php and footer.php into your theme folder.

WordPress Theme Header and Footer

As you’re customizing the theme from scratch, you’ll need to call the get_header() and get_footer() functions manually.

Step 6: Create the Functions.php Folder

This is the last step of the process. Once you are done with all the technicalities, the final task will be to add another file named functions.php.

This file allows WP to change the default behavior of the CMS through the command line.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, customer WordPress theme development is a complex process that requires expertise in a variety of technical languages.

I’ve tried to simplify the process in a way that is easily understandable even for a non-technical person.

How Do I Become a WordPress Theme Developer?

If you’re up to the challenge and want to take WordPress theme development as a career, you’ll need to invest a lot of time and effort. There are multiple ways to go about it.

Academic Degree

This is the most time-consuming way of getting into WordPress theme development. A number of colleges, universities, and professional institutes now offer professional web development degrees. This will cover WordPress theme development in it’s entirety.

WordPress Academic Degree

The process usually takes around 1 year or more. This will teach you how to design WordPress websites, themes, plugins, and 3rd-party API integration, among others.

However, this certification holds the most value in the job market as most WordPress theme development jobs require a bachelor’s degreee or an associate degree in a related field.


You can also become a professional WP theme developer even if you don’t have an academic degree. The typical boot camps run for about 12-18 weeks that may help you land your very first job!

However, if you want to become a skilled developer, you’ll need to spend a significant portion of your time and effort. The more you practice, the better you’ll become.

Look for a boot camp nearby or join online. Either way, you’ll be able to cover all the basics of the WordPress theme development.

Self-Paced Learning

You also have the option of choosing a self-paced environment. It’ll take around 3-6 months to become skilled enough to be able to create your own custom WP themes.

There are countless resources like ebooks, blog articles, cheatsheets, tutorials, and guidelines online for WordPress theme development that you can use to hone your skills.

Platforms like Skillshare, Udemy, W3school, etc. are offering the opportunity to build up WP skills at your own pace. These online learning courses are usually known as massive open online courses (MOOCs).

Why Do You Need to Create Your Own Theme?

Whether you are a web developer, a small business owner, or just someone looking to create your own website, creating your own WordPress theme from scratch will give you more control over how your website looks and feels.

Choosing a free theme might sound tempting, but it won’t give you the level of control you want over your website. Here are some of the benefits custom WordPress theme development offers:

  • You’ll be able to create a unique online presence
  • The custom theme is less likely to have security issues
  • Your theme will be lightweight, fast, and contain nothing more than exactly what you need
  • You’ll be able to control the plugin use
  • The fast website will help you improve your SEO score

Thanks for reading this far. We tried to provide a simplified and non-technical representation of the WordPress theme development process. If you’re confident enough and want to develop your own custom theme, you’re more than welcome to it try out.

However, if you need professional WordPress theme development services to develop your custom theme fast and efficiently, you can look for a reliable web development agency near you. Getweb can be the help you’re looking for. Contact us today to get started creating your dream theme!

Andy Gibson
VIP Contributor
Andy Gibson
WordPress Developer

Andy began using WordPress since its inception. He has worked on numerous projects designing, coding, and operating WP sites for over a period of more than 14 years.

Andy has a knack for developing a complete platform from just an idea and enjoys optimizing complex integrations so they run for years on their own requiring little or no maintenance. He also crafts features based on what the job at hand calls for; rather than using pre-existing plugins and themes for an easy way out.

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