Updated 14 May 2018.
WordPress is designed to be flexible and customizable as a platform.
Being able to switch your website’s theme and change the look of your website is one of the big attractions.
So when you decide on a new theme, in theory, it’s simple: go to Appearance > Themes in the Dashboard, search for a new theme, install it and click Activate.
Except it’s not usually that simple.
In fact, it can be a pretty complex thing to do.
Why? Read on…
What To Watch Out For Before And After Changing Theme
Be aware of what will and won’t change
Your post content will remain the same.
The most likely changes will be in the display and placement of post metadata (author name, date, number of comments etc).
Some themes support featured images for posts, others don’t. Check the demo for your new theme to see.
Another issue is in featured image size: featured images you’ve already got may not match the dimensions specified by the new theme.
Here’s how the same featured image looks in two different themes:
If the existing images are smaller, you may have to replace them with wider ones. This could be a hassle if you don’t have the original images.
This applies to regular images too.
Some helpful plugins for images are:
- Default featured image – sets a default for posts.
- Set All First Images As Featured – if you don’t have featured images set, it pulls out the first image used in the post to use as a featured image.
- Regenerate Thumbnails – regenerate all your images; useful after a theme switch.
Page content should not change –
it depends how you built your pages.
Some themes have theme-specific shortcodes added to them.
If you use them, beware! The shortcode content won’t be transferable, because it was written for that one theme.
An example is the shortcodes in Canvas.
Pages created with a page builder can have similar problems. What you may end up with on switching is a bunch of gobbledegook!
Here’s an example – changing from the Divi theme:
This is how it looks in Twenty Sixteen:
The solution to this particular example is to install the Divi Builder plugin, which preserves your content. You’ll still have some configuring to do to get the page looking nice in your new theme.
Page templates change the look of an individual page. These are most definitely theme-specific and non-transferable.
If you have any special page template layouts you absolutely must have, you’ll need to replicate their layout in the new theme – which means knowing code – or find a plugin to do the job.
I have found this rather nice plugin for blog layouts: Blog Manager Light
There are a number of free and paid plugins to create landing pages.
Or you could just use a page builder plugin.
Custom post types
The standard post types for all themes are posts and pages.
But some themes have custom post types built into them e.g. events, portfolio items, podcasts.
The problem is that custom post types are better added in plugins as the data is more easily transferable.
For example, the Extra theme has a Projects custom post type with a number of custom fields you can add to a project. This includes an image gallery and project skills.
Change it to another theme like the Vantage theme, and Projects no longer shows up in the admin menu.
What’s more, the project page created in Extra goes to a 404 page not found in Vantage!
Why? Because the Projects post type is unique to the Extra theme. Vantage doesn’t contain it.
The data isn’t lost, though – switching back to the original theme makes it reappear.
If you’ve created a lot of custom content through a theme rather than using a plugin like Advanced Custom Fields, you’re going to find it difficult to move to a new theme without a developer’s help.
Any menus you’ve created will still exist.
What may not happen is that they’ll appear by default in the right place.
If they don’t show as expected, go to Appearance > Menus, choose a menu and set the location to where you want it to show. This will often be the Primary Menu location – though not always.
Some themes have top and footer menus as well. You’ll need to make new menus to use them.
Alice Eliott has a great tutorial on creating WordPress menus if you’re new to them.
The number of widget areas and their placement will almost certainly change from one theme to another.
You might find that some are labelled “inactive” because the widget area no longer exists. You’ll need to drag and drop them into a new widget area.
Watch out for any widgets that are theme-specific, the content of which won’t be carried over.
Any widget content which matched your old theme may not fit with your new one, e.g. a newsletter sign-up form. See if you have the option to alter the colour scheme if necessary.
What other functionality is built into your existing theme?
Lots of themes come with a Theme Options area which stores important data. (It might be named after the theme or called Settings.)
This can include things like:
- Logo upload
- Favicon upload
- Google Analytics tracking code (important – you don’t want your visitor data disappearing when you switch!)
- Breadcrumbs display
- SEO options
- Social media icons
- MailChimp API key (for email marketing)
Check to see in your existing theme if you’re using any of these features.
With the exception of logo upload, all these things can be handled with plugins.
You could use plugins such as these to replace any missing functionality:
- Google Analytics by Yoast
- Yoast SEO – for SEO and breadcrumbs
- Favicon by RealFaviconGenerator
- Social Media Widget by Acurax
Each needs to be installed and configured.
Do you suffer from theme lock-in?
If you find a lot of features baked into your theme, you might be a victim of theme lock-in.
This is where there is a lot of functionality bound to the theme that should really be in the form of plugins.
It means it will take longer and be more complicated to transfer from one theme to another. So much so that you may conclude it’s better to stick with what you’ve got.
Steven Gliebe has an article about theme lock-in worth reading. Ironically his first theme, Risen, suffers from this problem. He’s since learned from his mistakes and built plugins instead to manage certain features such as sermons.
What plugins are you using?
It’s worth auditing the plugins you’re using with your current theme.
Are you still using them? Delete any that aren’t in use.
Consider finding alternatives for any that aren’t being updated regularly.
Occasionally a plugin will not be compatible with a theme. For example, here’s a list of plugins not compatible with Thesis.
If no-one has flagged a specific issue you’ll have to test by trial and error.
Note that some themes have recommended plugins: take heed of these.
How much can you customize the look of your new theme?
I recently helped someone switch theme. He really liked the look of the new theme, but was ultimately disappointed that he couldn’t customize it much himself. There just weren’t the inbuilt options to do so.
Theme demos, good documentation and video tutorials help a great deal here. If in doubt, contact the theme vendor and ask.
Backup, backup, backup
Always back up your site before you do a theme change.
If something goes wrong, you can restore it back to the way it was.
The Best Way To Change Your WordPress Theme
The best way to switch from one theme to another is to set up a staging site first and test out the changes there.
That way, if you break something, you haven’t messed up your existing site.
A staging site is a test site which is a clone of your live site. Ideally it will be on the same web server. Why? Because server configurations vary, and you want to replicate your website as closely as possible.
Here are instructions for creating a test site to try out a new theme (geeky).
A much simpler solution is to use the clone tool within ManageWP to quickly create a staging area.
Once you’ve switched theme and configured the new one (and any new plugins) successfully on the staging site, you can implement the new theme on your live site.
Site staging on managed WordPress hosting
Some hosting companies run managed WordPress hosting which includes staging as a feature alongside improved security, customer service, backups and site speed.
As well as testing out theme changes, you can also test out new plugins with the staging area.
When you’re done making changes, you can push the staging configuration to your live site with one click. (Yes, one click!)
Some of the best known names in this area are WP Engine, Flywheel and SiteGround.
The downside? Managed hosting isn’t cheap.
Read more about managed WordPress hosting.
DIY with a maintenance mode plugin
If you want to work on your live site, consider using a plugin like the Coming Soon Page & Maintenance Mode by SeedProd while you make the changes.
This will put up a custom page for your viewers while you work on the site “behind the scenes”.
The longer you work on your site, though, the more traffic you will lose! Keep the time to a minimum, and let your users know when the site will be ready to view again.
This isn’t a good option for you if you run a membership site where people log in, or an ecommerce site. In these cases seek specialist help.
After you have implemented your new theme
Test your site on different devices
That new theme may be responsive, but is it actually working as it should? Check it on mobile devices to see.
Check your site’s performance
You can use tools such as:
Google Analytics – check visitor numbers and bounce rate (the % of folks who only view 1 page on your site). Do your pages convert better?
Pingdom Website Speed Test – check how fast your site loads.
If you’d like further tips to speed up your site, read 22 Tips to Speed Up WordPress Site Performance (Step by Step Guide).
Keep tweaking as necessary, and ask your visitors for feedback.
To sum up
Moving from one theme to another is straightforward if you have a simple blog site.
The bigger and more complex your site, the less trivial a process it becomes. As you’ve seen, there’s a lot to think about!
Have you experienced issues moving from one theme to another? Need help to change your WordPress theme? Please feel free to contact me for advice.
David Withington says
Thanks Claire. Very informative as usual. I’m using a Genesis child theme, which I’d like to change to a different Genesis child theme. Hopefully it’ll go smoothly, but I think I’ll take your advice and try it out in a test area first.
Claire Brotherton says
Thanks David. One Genesis child theme to another should be smooth enough, but better to be safe!
Teresa Cuervo says
This is just what I needed. I presently have Divi theme and thought I suffered from the theme lock-in until and delayed the transfer for many months. I took the chance and experimented with the twentyseventeen theme and surprisingly the shortcodes were there but could be deleted. I still have Divi theme installed though. However, since I want to customize twentyseventeen to fit my brand, my question is : Do you transfer directly from Divi to twentyseventeen (parent) and then twentyseventeen (child)? I will be using Child Theme Configurator plugin for the parent -child theme creation.
Claire Brotherton says
You could go straight from Divi to a Twenty Seventeen child theme. You just have to have both Twenty Seventeen and your child theme installed.
You can also keep your Divi layouts by installing the Divi Builder plugin from Elegant Themes. Just be aware that the pages may look a little different in another theme and need some tweaking.
Hope this helps,