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WordPress Theme Development: How to Build Themes People Want to Buy

WordPress is a popular content management system that allows users to easily create and manage websites. One of the key features of WordPress is its ability to use themes to change the design and layout of a website. In this article, we will explore the topic of WordPress theme development and how to build themes that people want to buy. 

Creating WordPress themes for sale takes more than just coding chops. You need strong design skills, business savvy, and market knowledge too. This guide covers everything from coding best practices to marketing your themes successfully. Follow these tips to build themes that stand out and sell.

What is WordPress Theme Development?

Understanding the basics of WordPress themes

Before diving into WordPress theme development, it's important to understand the basics of WordPress themes. A WordPress theme is a collection of template files that control the appearance and layout of a WordPress website. It includes files for the header, footer, sidebar, and other sections of the website. Themes allow users to quickly change the design of their website without modifying the underlying code.

Importance of custom WordPress themes

While there are thousands of free and premium WordPress themes available, creating a custom theme can offer several advantages. Custom themes allow website owners to have a unique design that reflects their brand and stands out from the competition. They also provide greater control over the website's appearance and functionality. Custom themes can be tailored to specific needs and requirements, offering a more personalized user experience.

Creating a custom WordPress theme from scratch

Creating a custom WordPress theme from scratch may seem daunting, but it is achievable with the right approach. To build your own theme, you can start with a starter theme that provides a basic structure and template files. There are several popular starter themes available, such as Underscores and _s, that can be used as a foundation for your custom theme. From there, you can customize and modify the theme files to match your design requirements.

How to Create a WordPress Theme

Choosing a starter theme for development

When creating a custom WordPress theme, one of the first steps is to choose a starter theme to work with. A starter theme is a bare-bones theme that provides a starting point for theme development. It typically includes the necessary template files and basic styles, allowing theme developers to focus on adding their own customizations. Popular starter themes include Underscores and _s, which can be downloaded from the official WordPress website.

Step-by-step guide to creating a custom WordPress theme

Once you have chosen a starter theme, you can begin the process of creating your custom WordPress theme. This involves modifying the template files, adding custom styles, and integrating any additional functionality you require. It is recommended to use a development environment to work on your theme, such as a local server or a staging site, to avoid making changes directly on a live WordPress site. This allows you to test and refine your theme before making it live.

Utilizing template files for theme development

Template files are at the core of WordPress theme development. They control the layout and structure of different sections of a website, such as the header, footer, and sidebar. By modifying these template files, you can customize the appearance of your WordPress theme. It is important to familiarize yourself with the template hierarchy, which determines the order in which WordPress looks for template files and how it selects the correct file to use.

Tips for Building an Engaging WordPress Theme

Understanding the needs of your target audience

Before starting the development process, it's essential to have a clear understanding of your target audience. Research their needs, preferences, and the type of content they consume. This information will help you tailor your WordPress theme to meet their expectations and create an engaging user experience.

Design strategies for creating visually appealing themes

In the competitive market of WordPress themes, aesthetics play a crucial role in attracting users. Focus on creating visually appealing designs that are modern, clean, and user-friendly. Consider the use of color schemes, typography, and images to create a cohesive and visually appealing theme.

Ensuring functionality and responsiveness of the theme

A great WordPress theme not only looks good but also functions well. Ensure that your theme is responsive, meaning it adapts to different screen sizes and devices. Test your theme on various devices and browsers to ensure a seamless and consistent user experience.

Key Considerations for Successful WordPress Theme Development

Optimizing the performance of your theme

Performance optimization is crucial for any WordPress theme. Poorly optimized themes can negatively impact the loading speed of a website, leading to a higher bounce rate and lower search engine rankings. Optimize your theme by minimizing CSS and JavaScript files, optimizing images, and using caching plugins.

Compatibility with popular WordPress plugins

WordPress offers a wide range of plugins that extend the functionality of a website. Ensure that your theme is compatible with popular plugins to provide users with a seamless experience. Test your theme with popular plugins and make any necessary adjustments to ensure compatibility.

Enhancing user experience through intuitive design

User experience is a critical factor in the success of a WordPress theme. Create a theme with a user-friendly interface, intuitive navigation, and clear call-to-actions. Consider incorporating customizable options, allowing users to personalize their experience with your theme.

Researching In-Demand Theme Opportunities

Before starting development, research what types of themes sell well on marketplaces like ThemeForest. Discover opportunities to fill needs.

Research Tactics

  • Browse bestsellers across niches to identify common elements
  • Look for outdated themes lacking modern design - potential to modernize experience
  • Note niche industries and use cases lacking quality themes
  • Follow discussions in community forums to identify pain points
  • Search Google to see high volume keywords related to themes
  • Use tools like Google Trends to find rising theme interest and demand
  • Study reviews of existing themes to learn what buyers want
  • Sign up for new theme notification lists to stay atop trends

Opportunities exist where demand exceeds quality supply. Use research to uncover underserved needs ready for great themes.

Planning Themes for Commercial Success

The best commercial themes solve specific needs rather than just looking pretty. Build your theme around buyer goals.

Tips for Planning Winning Themes

  • Identify a specific niche, industry, or use case to focus on
  • Outline the exact problems your theme will solve for that niche
  • Design features and functionality addressing those points of pain
  • Prioritize must-have features over nice-to-haves
  • Evaluate leading competitors and how you’ll differentiate
  • Consider how you’ll market and sell the theme
  • Weigh popular frameworks like Genesis orcommercial licensing

Having a strategic plan and commercial angle makes developing much more efficient. Don’t just build randomly and figure out sales later.

Creating Intuitive, Useful Designs

Beautiful themes are great, but buyers also want designs focused on usability. Make intuitive interfaces that enhance functionality.

UX Tips for Themes

  • Use clear visual hierarchy, spacing, and typography
  • Make key actions prominent with color and contrast
  • Use minimalist designs avoiding clutter
  • Guide users with clear labels, messaging, and icons
  • Pay attention to details like hover states, transitions, micro-interactions
  • Follow conventions and patterns users are accustomed to
  • Use animations purposefully to enhance interactions
  • Mobile-optimized layouts and touch interactions
  • Comment code thoroughly for modification later

Functionality suffers when form trumps user experience. Avoid overly artsy designs that sacrifice intuitive navigation.

Developing Both Front-End and Back-End Securely


Both the front and back-end of your theme should follow coding best practices for quality, security, and performance.

On the front-end:

  • Follow HTML5 structural elements for semantic markup
  • Implement responsive mobile-first designs
  • Call stylesheets and JavaScript assets efficiently
  • Validate code compliance with standards
  • Write CSS using methodologies like BEM for organization
  • Use preprocessor languages like Sass for cleaner CSS
  • Optimize images and media assets delivered
  • Implement accessibility friendly elements

On the backend:

  • Validate and sanitize all user-submitted data and forms
  • Hash passwords and store them securely
  • Never directly output or log sensitive data
  • Implement CSRF tokens on forms
  • Limit unnecessary database calls and queries
  • Use prepared statements for database interactions
  • Implement reCAPTCHA on registration and contact forms

Sloppy code creates headaches down the line. Building both frontend and backend securely from the start saves future tears.

Optimizing Performance With Caching and More

A fast theme leaves a good impression on visitors. Optimize loading using caching, image compression, minification, and more.

Performance Optimization Tips

  • Compress images and media without compromising quality
  • Set server and CDN caching parameters for assets
  • Concatenate and minify CSS and JavaScript files
  • Load non-critical assets after page render
  • Optimize web fonts for fast display
  • Enable GZIP compression on text assets
  • Reduce DNS queries with optimal asset hosting
  • Follow progressive enhancement principles
  • Review PageSpeed Insights and other speed test reports
  • Monitor site with real user monitoring to find chokepoints

Fast performance demonstrates your coding skills. Follow best practices to make themes feel snappy.

Extensive Theme Options Panel

Theme customization settings empower users to modify designs without coding. Build options they need.

Useful Theme Options Features

  • Easy site logo, favicon, and branding upload
  • Navigation and menu customization settings
  • Page layout configuration options
  • Styling settings for colors, fonts, etc.
  • Controls for text, content, and image sizing
  • Widget visibility and sidebar configuration
  • Blog feed settings and customizations
  • Flexible home page settings
  • Contact form selectors and customizations
  • Import/export to reuse configurations between sites

Make settings intuitive yet powerful. The right options panel vastly extends what users can customize.

Thorough Documentation and commenting

Clear documentation helps users customize your theme efficiently. Comment code thoroughly too.

Effective Documentation Tactics

  • Feature list detailing included features
  • Full setup and installation guides
  • Customization instructions and theme options explained
  • Tutorials for advanced modifications via child themes
  • API reference for theme functions, hooks, classes
  • License terms detailing usage rights
  • Changelog detailing fixes and changes in each version
  • Troubleshooting FAQs for common problems
  • Support forums or channels for questions
  • Product preview images for marketing materials

Key Areas to Comment Within Code

  • Sections of code performing key theme functions
  • Hooks and filters for customization
  • Places requiring customization work like footer credits
  • Sections with complex logic like menus and widgets
  • Third-party scripts and libraries included

Thorough docs make it easier for customers to use your theme successfully. Commented code eases future editing.

Building Conversion Elements Into The Theme

Subtly integrate lead generation opportunities right within the theme to capture sales.

Examples of Built-In Conversion

  • Email subscription forms on blog and core pages
  • Scan code on documentation driving to sales page
  • Credits in footer linking to your store or offerings
  • Reviews and testimonials strategically placed
  • Custom widgets driving traffic to related products
  • Display ads and banners for your products
  • Survey forms to collect buyer feedback
  • Email/SMS signup forms for alerts of new themes
  • Freebie opt-ins in exchange for email addresses

The theme itself provides opportunities to drive interest to your other products and services. Plan conversion flow.

Crafting Demo Content That Sells

Professionally designed demo content showcases the theme better than placeholders. Invest in great demo sites.

Characteristics of Effective Demo Content

  • High-quality, relatable sample images reflecting niche
  • Logos, graphics, and branding supporting use case
  • Meaningful written content - avoid generic lorem ipsum text
  • Realistic names, contacts, details matching industry
  • Charts, diagrams, and visuals aligned to niche
  • Links, buttons, and CTAs to believable destinations
  • Engaging about and service pages
  • Testimonials and social proof elements like reviews
  • Sample ads and banners as a potential client would have

The demo site is often the first touchpoint driving sales. Make it exemplary.

Building Child Themes to Simplify Customizations

Child themes enable users to modify and extend parent themes without altering core code.

Benefits of Child Themes

  • Only Child theme files overridden - parent theme stays intact
  • Can update parent theme without affecting changes in child
  • Safer way to customize - avoids tampering with core logic
  • Allow distributing modified child themes only
  • Enable branding and white labeling parent theme
  • Support multiple child themes using one parent theme

Building child theme functionality empowers users. Make parent/child modding accessible even for novices.

Providing Responsiveness Across Devices

With much of traffic now mobile, themes must adapt across mobile, tablet, desktop seamlessly.

Building Responsiveness

  • Mobile-first CSS styles and media queries
  • Test across range of viewport widths
  • Ensure tap targets sized properly for touch
  • Eliminate horizontal scrolling
  • Friendlier navigation and menus on mobile
  • Adaptive image loading based on device
  • Touch optimization like swipe actions
  • Performance improvements specific to mobile

Don't just shrink desktop sites down. Craft natively responsive mobile experiences meeting touch user needs.

Validating Accessibility

Accessibility is both good design and opens your theme to more users. Validate WCAG conformance.

Accessibility Points to Address

  • Add ARIA roles and attributes for dynamic content
  • Ensure sufficient color contrast ratios
  • Provide text alternatives for images
  • Support screen readers and keyboard navigation
  • Make links, buttons, and controls easily identifiable
  • Allow sufficient time to complete tasks
  • Design to avoid triggering seizures
  • Transcribe or caption audio and video
  • Make pages linearly navigable in logical order

Accessibility should be built in upfront, not an afterthought. Leverage automated tools to catch issues.

Implementing White Label Customization

Allow agencies to rebrand your themes with client branding by enabling white labeling options.

Flexible White Label Options to Offer

  • Hide or replace footer credits
  • Ability to upload logos and favicon
  • Change theme name, description, author
  • Modify default URLs and paths
  • Replace default demo content
  • Whitelabel documentation/readme files
  • Eliminate promotional elements and links back to you
  • Provide unbranded versions without your assets
  • Add custom CSS class hooks for branding overrides
  • Offer multi-site licenses to web agencies

White labeling makes your theme appealing to agencies who want to present themes client work.

Configuring Theme Settings Import/Export

Ease setup by enabling users to import and export theme settings across sites.

Import/Export Functionality

  • Save all theme customization values into exportable file
  • Generate files users can share or store as backups
  • One-click theme settings and content import
  • Migrate configurations across staging and live sites
  • Switch domains seamlessly without reconfiguring
  • Quickly replicate setups across client accounts

With import/export features, users avoid tedious reconfiguration when migrating sites.

Incorporating Advanced Custom Fields

Custom field plugins like Advanced Custom Fields enable adding flexible fields site-wide. Integrate with them.

Benefits of Custom Field Integration

  • Users can add fields without coding
  • Reduce custom posts and metaboxes needed
  • Fields can be reused across post types
  • Conditional logic based on values
  • Validate and sanitize field values
  • Change markup and styling based on fields
  • Save reusable field groups for consistency
  • Integrate custom fields into your theme's options

Custom fields are powerful for users. Combine with their capabilities.

Building Modular Design via Hooks

Leverage hooks to design modular components users can move around. Don’t hardcode everything.

Examples of Modular Theme Hooks

  • Header hook for branding, navigation, menus
  • Footer hook for copyright, credit links
  • Sidebar hooks to place widgets anywhere
  • Pagination hooks to add "Load More" buttons
  • Breadcrumb hooks to display navigation trails
  • Page title hooks for H1 replacement
  • Content hooks for groups of posts and pages
  • Display category, tag, and taxonomies dynamically

Flexible hooks enable users to inject components anywhere without editing PHP files. Support customization.

Utilizing Theme Frameworks

Leverage established frameworks like Genesis or Themify for faster theme development.

Benefits of Using Theme Frameworks

  • Standardized code format and theme organization
  • Modular architecture right out the gate
  • Hundreds of included hooks
  • Security and accessibility already addressed
  • Mobile responsive configurations pre-built
  • CSS reset stylesheet for cross-browser consistency
  • Follow WordPress best practices and coding standards
  • Advanced features like page builders and widgets built-in
  • Required licensing and credits handled
  • Support and tutorials encouraging usage

Good frameworks handle the heavy lifting so you can focus on end-user features and design.

Creating Demos and Documentation

Great docs explain how to use themes effectively. Create multiple docs tailored to users.

Types of Documentation to Provide

  • End user guides - How to set up and customize the theme
  • Developer guides - Making child themes and custom functionality
  • Code API references - Hooks, functions, classes for developers
  • Changelogs - Version history and release notes
  • Licensing terms - Permited usage explained
  • Feature lists - Summarize everything included
  • FAQs - Common issues and questions
  • Tutorials - Video walkthroughs for setup and usage
  • Demo content - Provide samples tailored to niche

Even if the theme seems intuitive, don’t assume users know how to unleash its full potential. Thorough documentation fills knowledge gaps.

Promoting Your Theme Effectively

Don’t just launch your theme and expect sales. Actively promote new releases to your target audience.

Theme Promotion Ideas

  • Build an email list to notify followers of launches
  • Pitch to bloggers and influencers in your niche for reviews
  • Discuss in relevant forums and communities you’re a member of
  • Run giveaways and contests around new releases
  • Advertise on social media channels frequented by your niche
  • Send out press releases to industry publications
  • Write in-depth blog content highlighting features
  • Create unique demo sites for each market you want to reach
  • Make video screencasts showing the theme in action
  • Write educational guest posts for other blogs driving awareness

Without promotion, even the best themes languish in obscurity. Get the word out far and wide.

Analyzing Market Research and Reviews

Keep improving your theme based on buyer feedback, reviews, marketplace data and more.

Research Areas to Monitor Post-Release

  • Marketplace chart rankings and rating
  • Reviews on marketplace and community forums
  • Feedback from support inquiries
  • Google Analytics traffic and usage data
  • Search trends around theme-related keywords
  • Performance metrics like speed tests
  • Feature requests and complaints from users
  • Comparison to competitors' improvements
  • Viability of pricing and licensing model

Use research to guide iterative theme improvements over time. Roll out updates fixing issues and delighting customers.


WordPress theme development is an exciting and rewarding endeavor. By understanding the basics of WordPress themes and following proper development techniques, you can build themes that people want to buy. Keep in mind the needs of your target audience, focus on creating visually appealing themes, ensure functionality and responsiveness, optimize performance, ensure compatibility with popular plugins, and enhance user experience through intuitive design. With these considerations in mind, you can create successful WordPress themes that stand out in the competitive market. 

Designing WordPress themes with wide commercial appeal takes a mix of coding chops, design skills, business savvy, and market knowledge. You need compelling visual design as well as robust backend logic and performance. Understand buyer needs and pain points, then craft tailored experiences addressing them. Plan themes deliberately around customer goals, not artistic whims. Support customization and extensibility. Promote creatively to reach potential buyers. Solicit feedback to drive ongoing refinements. Approach theme development strategically rather than hoping generic themes will somehow sell themselves. By providing real value to webmasters, agencies, and site owners, you can build a sustainable themes business that thrives.



By Dani Davis

Dani Davis is the pen name of the writer of this blog with more 15 years of constant experience in Content marketing and informatics product, e-commerce niche.

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