photo of work at home desk researching wordpress website theme vs template

filed in:

WordPress Theme vs. Template: What’s the Difference?

Choosing WordPress for your new website is one of the best decisions you can make for your business! It’s one of the top website platforms in the world for a good reason – you have tons of flexibility to build the site of your dreams with almost any functionality you can think of. But once you’ve purchased your domain and shopped for hosting, the reality of getting your site online can feel a liiiiiiitle bit overwhelming. Suddenly, you find yourself in a world of themes and templates and plugins (oh my!)…and your head starts spinning with all the choices. 

What is even the difference between a WordPress theme vs. template?! And which one do you need? If any of that sounds familiar, grab a cup of coffee and pull up a comfy seat – let’s break down everything WordPress themes and templates!


Why we need WordPress themes and templates

WordPress is an incredibly flexible and powerful way to build websites. Still, you might have noticed that (at least on the surface) it takes a bit more tech know-how to use than a website builder like Squarespace, Wix, or Showit. That’s because WordPress is technically a Content Management System (CMS).


CMS sounds super techy, but all it means is that WordPress holds all of your website content – like copy, blogs, images, and design – in one place, so it will appear on your site whenever people type in the URL. Using a CMS (rather than a website builder like Squarespace) is ultimately a good thing because it’s the secret sauce that makes WordPress super customizable! However, to make the whole process of building sites in WordPress more approachable, lots of people turn to templates and themes to manage a site’s front-end design (aka, the way everything appears on the site.)


WordPress Theme vs. Template

These two terms are often used interchangeably, but they don’t mean exactly the same thing. They both affect the look and feel of a website design, but they control different parts of your site. The TLDR is that a WordPress theme affects the overall look of your entire website, while a template controls one page or one single element of your site.


What is a WordPress Theme?

WordPress themes are files that tell WordPress about the layout and design of your entire site. Themes dictate what your header and footer look like, what goes in the sidebar, and common design elements on every page of your site. Themes also control other pieces of a website design, like typography or color layouts. In short, installing a new theme will change the appearance and enforce a consistent design throughout your entire site. Because of that, you can only have one theme active on your site at a time.


Themes can be a huge time saver in comparison to custom-coding a website! Rather than having to copy and paste or install the same code for every single page, all you (or your website designer/developer) has to do is install a one-and-done theme. 


You can download and install custom themes from the official WordPress directory, independent theme marketplaces, or website designers.


The downsides of themes

While themes are super helpful (especially if you don’t want to code a website from scratch!), you’re committing to a predetermined website design. At first, that’s easier, but as your business and site grow, it might feel a little limiting in the long run. If you want to make custom tweaks to a theme, you’ll need to have some Javascript or CSS coding skills – or be willing to hire someone who does!


The other thing to keep in mind with themes is that it’s essential to choose one that is updated on the regular, so everything works well and your WordPress website stays secure.


What is a WordPress template?

A WordPress template is a file that controls the layout and design of one specific page, post, or section of a website. If a theme is a pre-made design theme, you can think of a template more like a pre-built page. For example, most websites have slightly different templates for the homepage, services pages, and blog. You can also have a template that dictates one individual piece of a page, like the header or footer.


Sometimes, a theme will come with ready-made templates for individual pages or several variations that give you options for a particular page. You can also buy templates separately from a theme to help design site pages that don’t already exist on your site. Some of the most common template add-ons are sales pages, landing pages, or blogs that coordinate with a theme that’s already active on the rest of your site. The bottom line is that a template controls the look of an individual page or element on your website.


Much like themes, templates can be a HUGE time-saver! Instead of working out all the strategy that goes into a specific page – like a long-form Services Page – you can rely on a template to provide most of the strategy for you. Unlike themes, you can have multiple templates live on your site at any given time.


If in doubt, use this handy cheat sheet!


WordPress Themes

  • Ideal for a redesign
  • Perfect for changing the style and design elements of your entire site
  • Goof for making an overall design consistent
  • Can only have one active on your site at a time
  • Important to choose one that’s updated regularly to protect the security of your site
WordPress Templates

  • Ideal for changing up the layout of one page or element of your site
  • Unique to one page or piece (like a footer) instead of being used throughout a site
  • Can have several active on your site at a time
  • May be included with your template or sold separately


How all this looks at Southern Creative


At Southern Creative, two of our signature services include semi-custom templates. With Launch Week, you can get a ready-to-go, five-page website with all the hosting and tech set up for you. Our Scalable One-Page Websites are ideal for people just starting out with their business but want to start on the right foot with WordPress from day one.

Both Launch Week and One-Page Websites are built on the WordPress Astra and Astra Child theme. It’s one of the most popular WordPress themes on the market, meaning it’s updated regularly (and has excellent security and functionality). Also, it’s super light, so there aren’t a lot of unnecessary add-ons clogging up site speed.

From there, we’ve built in custom templates designed by a professional designer + marketer (that’s me!) Each one is made especially for entrepreneurs and service-based business owners and is packed with marketing strategy for a proven client journey that converts visitors into paying clients.

After customizing a design with a client’s unique branding, images, and copy, we make sure clients have everything they need to keep up with updates on their new site. Drag-and-drop builders make it easy to make no-code updates, and our Launch Collective resources cover the most common post-launch tech questions. 

And if you ever want to add on a custom blog or sales page, we can always scale your site according to your needs later on down the road! That’s the beauty of WordPress – we can seamlessly customize your site according to your unique needs at any stage of business.


Do you need a theme or a template?

When talking about WordPress theme vs. template, It’s totally possible that you only need one or the other – or you might need both! If you’re looking for a total redesign of the look and feel of your website, then a new theme is the way to go. It’s a one-and-done way to change up the color palette, general layout, typography, and more for your site in one big sweep. 


But if you’re looking for strategic, well-laid-out designs for the pages of your website, templates are the way to go! They’re also ideal for adding on sales pages and other site “extras” or customizing the layout of the five main website pages.


If you want a freshened-up website with customized page layouts for different parts of your site, go with both. 😉


Looking for a WordPress template for service-based businesses?

That’s our jam! We offer semi-custom websites that attract your ideal clients…and we can do it for you in just one week. Book a call to chat about whether Launch Week or Scalable One-Page Websites are best for you!


And if you want more behind-the-scenes tips and tricks for WordPress, follow me on Instagram – that’s where I hang out daily, share my best advice, and chat about all things WordPress!


I'm Steph!

I'm the Founder & Creative Director behind Southern Creative, a.k.a your SEO and techy biz bestie. My passion is crafting websites rooted in strategy so you can put your focus where your heart is and launch a website that works for you - not the other way around.