Chapter 9. Activating a WordPress Theme

This is a chapter from my book “A Practical Handbook for WordPress Themes”. Keep reading here, or download the full Amazon Kindle version.

For [ .COM ] and [ WP ] (?)

[ WP ] This chapter assumes you already have a theme uploaded to your server. If not, see previous chapter.

[ .COM ] You already have an unholy ton of themes available for you to activate. You get to activate a theme directly from the marketplace found in the Themes screen (Appearance > Themes).

This Is Your ‘Go Live’ Moment

You have waded through all the tedious (but necessary) parts of getting a theme, and now you are ready to ‘go live’ with it. Once you hit “Activate” in the Appearance > Themes screen, your visitors will see the new theme. Are you ready?

available wordpress themes

Screen capture showing three themes in the Themes screen in the Admin Panel. The middle one shows a hover state revealing the “Activate” button.

When Should I Do This?

This largely depends on your website and type of theme. If you are creating a new website on a new domain name (www.example.com), then don’t worry about it: no one is really going to see it since it is new and likely has no visitors. So, you could activate the theme and take the week or weekend to start populating the content. Keep in mind you will be doing this on a live website, so you don’t want to drag this out for weeks on end.

If you are swapping out an existing theme for a new one, when you should activate it depends on a couple factors. Does your website have hundreds or thousands of people visiting it every day? How much new content do you need to add to the new theme? If you have a ton of visitors each day and or weeks worth of work getting new content in place, I would highly recommend using a development website and migrate it over when you are ready. Your downtime would be significantly less.

Setting up a development website and migrating it over to your current domain is beyond the scope of this book. A savvy web developer can do this for you, or you can learn how to do it yourself by doing a web search for:

  • How to create a WordPress development environment
  • How to move WordPress to a different server and web address

Pro tip: Some backup services, such as VaultPress, have a one-click option for you to create a development (“staging”) version of your site. You can then make all the edits you want and when you are ready it’s one-click away from deploying it to the production site. I STRONGLY recommend looking into this, be it Vault Press or another service.

Or…

The manual way: An amazing and detailed video tutorial on how to migrate your WordPress website by hand can be found at eduChalk.

What Does Activating Mean?

So far we learned that purchasing or downloading a theme merely means you are taking possession of it. Uploading it to your website is simply storing it in a folder on your server. But to activate a theme is essentially you saying “this is the look and feel I want my visitors to see on my website/blog.”

More importantly, an activated theme is what you are controlling with the Appearance panel’s Customize, Widgets, Menus, and Editor tabs. As an admin for the site, this also means that any special widgets, custom fields, and theme management areas that are part of the theme also become available to you in the Admin Panel.

Example: if your current theme has a Widget area called “Expanded footer”, you will not see that anymore in the Admin Panel when you activate the new theme. If your new theme has a Widget area called “Twitter feed”, you will now see it available in the Admin Panel upon activation of the theme.

What Happens During Activation?

In chapter 1 we mentioned that you must have at least one theme activated for your site to work. And you can only have one theme activated at a time. So, when you activate a new theme, WordPress will deactivate the old theme you were using. This means that all widgets, custom fields, theme management areas (“Theme Options”) that were part of the previous theme are no longer accessible via the Admin Panel. The settings and content of those Widgetized areas are stored in the database should you ever need to re-activate the old theme.

For the geeks in the room: when you activate a new theme, WordPress is updating the “template” and “stylesheet” records in the wp_options table in your database. Both of these records are using the name of the folder for your theme. So, if you upload and activate a theme where the developer named the theme folder “FooBar1234”, your database will be looking for exactly that name (and it is case-sensitive.) This is important to know because once you activate a theme you do not want to rename the folder it is in.

template and stylesheet in wordpress database

A screenshot of the database using phpMyAdmin. Note the option_value lists the theme’s folder name, not the Theme Name you see in the style.css header.

Caution: Some (thoughtful) developers will code their themes and plugins to clean up after themselves by deleting all the tables and records in the database that are pertinent to that theme/plugin upon deleting it. Do not delete an old theme until you are sure you have no need for it, and any of the special widgets and custom fields it once controlled. See Chapter 15, Uninstalling/deleting a theme, for more information.

Estimating Time Needed to Complete WordPress Theme Setup

So, how do you gauge the amount of work it will take to get the new theme up and running and looking the way you want? Being that there are thousands of themes out there, each with dozens of settings and content areas that are special to that theme, it is impossible for me to give you a solid answer. But here is how you can get a feel for how long it will take before you dive headfirst:

  • Read the new theme’s documentation before you activate it. Are you ready? Do you have everything it needs? Do you understand what they are asking you to do?
  • Review the customer forums for the theme. These are often open to the public, and by reading the latest comments you can get a sense of the developer’s support, outstanding bugs, and other problems you may run into. If one exists, it will likely be linked to from the theme’s marketing pages (where you found the theme.)
  • Review your current website and note all the additional images you will have to create, and any copy you will have to write for any new widgets or features this theme comes with. Getting as much ready as possible before you activate the theme will make for a smooth process.

Things to Watch for

Not all themes are the same. Some of the many things I have seen:

  • In one case we were moving from a theme that had the ability to show featured images on blog posts to a theme that did not. The new theme simply did not have it, and we had to create a child theme to add that functionality back in.
  • In another case the featured image functionality was used to populate a very wide and thin image along the top of the blog post. The website owner had no feature images set, and the developer didn’t plan for there being no feature image, thus showing a giant, ugly black box at the top of the page. (That client chose to spend hours sourcing and uploading and assigning a feature image to all 50+ posts she had.)
  • The old theme had its own custom shortcodes allowing for the admin to create columns of text in her Posts and Pages (like a newspaper.) The new theme didn’t recognize them and simply displayed them to visitors as they were written: [column1] blah blah blah [/column1] She had dozens and dozens of Pages with these column shortcodes on them that took her a week to fix (remove) by hand.
  • In virtually all cases, any widgets you had assigned to sidebars or other widgetized areas will be moved to the “Inactive Widgets” area of the Appearance > Widgets screen. This is because the two themes are not the same. Don’t worry; moving them to the “Inactive Widgets” is a normal function of WordPress to preserve them. You simply need to drag them back over to the widgetized areas on the new theme. Note that the new theme dictates the placement and amount of Widget areas, meaning, you may have more or less of them and they may be displayed in different places than your last theme.

Hide Unwanted Shortcodes: If you run across the problem stated above where you have tons of unused/unstyled/unpopulated shortcodes, an easy, non-developer way to hide them is using the Hide Unwanted Shortcodes plugin. They will remain in the content, but basically be rendered as unstyled, hiding the brackets and names. Any content it wraps around should remain untouched.

And that is just a hint of the snafus I’ve come across when switching themes in WordPress. The truth is that there will often be no way for you to plan for every little thing that could go wrong or missing, but planning can certainly mitigate your problems. Or, you might not have any problems at all. Here’s hoping!

How Do I Turn It Off?

I have had quite a few people get confused over WordPress’ choice of words when it comes to “Activate” and “Deactivate”. When it comes to plugins, you can do both “Activate” and “Deactivate”, but for themes you only get to activate them. As we mentioned in chapter 1, you can only have one theme activated at a time. All other themes you have installed are deactivated, like in standby status.

So, to ‘turn off’ a theme, you must activate another theme in the Admin Panel under Appearance > Themes. If you do not have another theme installed, you will need to install a second theme and activate it, which will turn off or deactivate your current theme.

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