The anatomy of a WordPress theme

With all the WordPress theme frameworks that arose over the past few years, you’d almost forget what a normal WordPress theme looks like. Almost, because Yoast has got your back and we’re about to remind you!

Check out our anatomy of a WordPress theme infographic:

Anatomy of a WordPress theme - Infographic

For reference, here is the copy in the infographic:

Anatomy of a WordPress theme

The cheatsheet for how your blog works

WordPress themes consist of a folder of template files, each of which controls a specific piece of your theme. Parts of your site that remain static no matter what page you’re on are controlled by header, sidebar and footer files. You can hack these files so they detect what page you are on and serve different content accordingly, such as display different navigation on posts than on pages; however it is most common for these sections to look the same throughout the site.

  • header.php
    Global file that displays headers and navigation. Also contains HTML code.
  • The Loop
    The display of contents of the main area of your site are controlled by individual WordPress theme template files using what’s called “the loop”.
  • sidebar.php
    This file controls your sidebar display. You can set up multiple sidebars in functions.php, and contents of sidebar widgets are set up from the WordPress wp-admin panel.
  • footer.php
    Contains instructions for global footer and closes HTML tags.

index.php – home

The index file controls what the homepage of your WordPress theme looks like. By default it is a loop that queries and then displays the most recent blog posts, with a link in the bottom to view previous posts.

Alternately, you can specify in wp-admin -> settings -> reading to have the home page be a page you created yourself in WordPress. In that case, you specify a different page/URL for the regular blog posts to appear on, and index.php generates that page.

single.php – individual posts

The display of individual posts in your WordPress theme is controlled by a little file called single.php. It contains a loop that queries just one post and displays it.

You can specify if you want sidebars (and which you want), if you want it to look different than the other pages on the site.

page.php – individual pages

Page.php controls what pages look like. You can choose to eliminate sidebars or other elements, add other unique elements for pages alone.

WordPress also allows you to create different page templates within your WordPress theme for different types of pages. To create a page template, simply copy page.php, rename it to whatever you want, then add this code to the top:

/* Template Name: YourPageNameHere */ 

archive.php, category.php, tag.php – archives

You can control the look and feel of different archives using template files also. If there is no archive file, the archives will look like index.php; however, you can create an archive.php to override that. If you create a file called category.php, it will override archive.php for categories only. If you create a tag.php, you can override it for tag archives only.

The Loop in your WordPress theme

The loop is perhaps the most powerful part of your WordPress theme. It starts with a query (which determines which posts or pages to grab), and ends with a PHP “endwhile” statement. Everything in between is up to you. You can specify the output of titles, post content, metadata, custom fields and commenting all within the loop and each element is output for each post or page until the query is done. You can set up multiple loops and queries on a single page; for example: on a single.php you could have the loop showing the entire content of a single post, with a loop outputting just titles and thumbnails for related posts below it.

  • Query post or page
  • Start Loop
  • the_title (outputs the title of the post)
  • the_excerpt (outputs the post excerpt)
  • the_content (outputs the full post content)
  • the_category (outputs the post categories)
  • the_author (outputs the post author)
  • the_date (outputs the post date)
  • other tags (there is a variety of other tags you can use in the loop)
  • endwhile;
  • Exit the loop

Background files of a WordPress theme

In order for a WordPress theme to work, it needs a few essential background files. You can modify these files to your needs and quite powerfully affect the custom look and functionality of your site.


This controls the output of comments, which can be included in the loop if you desire comments on your theme. Comments.php can be overridden by plugins such as Disqus, which then take over comment functionality on your blog.


Functions.php allows you to put your own custom PHP code in order to modify core elements of your theme. Often, you use it to specify multiple sidebars, change the number of characters in the excerpt or add custom admin panel options for wp-admin.


This is the main CSS stylesheet for your theme. It also contains text at the top which tells WordPress what the name of your WordPress theme is, who the author is and what the URL of your site is.

Read more: What is a headless CMS and what does it mean for SEO? »

Coming up next!

112 Responses to The anatomy of a WordPress theme

  1. Greg Magnus
    Greg Magnus  • 13 years ago

    Excellent job with the WordPress illustration and the overview of the processes. Thx for taking the time to do it so well.

  2. Elaine
    Elaine  • 13 years ago

    You should sell this as a poster. I know I am going to print out a copy for my wall!

  3. Mick Gordon
    Mick Gordon  • 13 years ago

    I am just starting to explore creating my own theme and this was a great resource.

  4. Sborez
    Sborez  • 13 years ago

    Hello, can i get that jpg file in psd, or pdf to translate into czech language? It is very helpfull for me and i think that it will be for my friends in CZ too. Thanks a lot for your answer. I will post that on my blog and i will introduce you as author.

  5. Raj Sharma
    Raj Sharma  • 13 years ago

    We have just redesigned our website and also a Blog/Article template; wherein we are planning to install wordpress for its functionality, I have been looking for an article which would help us find a way to get wordpress on our template, thanks for your contribution on this topic; if possible kindly send us any useful link on this topic. thanks

  6. Rosemary
    Rosemary  • 13 years ago


    Thank you so much for your clear and detailed description above. I had been struggling for ages to understand exactly what each page represented – apart from the obvious of course.

    I also wanted to say thanks for your Google Analytics plugin, I just watched your screencast, which was very easy to follow and I am looking forward to implementing it (the plugin) on my sites. I have also downloaded the SEO plugin which I hope can help clear my information overload on this topic.

  7. Jacob Carvidge
    Jacob Carvidge  • 13 years ago

    Excellent infographic. It’s posts like this that keep me a subscriber to this blog, Joost.

  8. Konstantin
    Konstantin  • 13 years ago

    I think you’re missing the navigation menu and the thumbnails, and custom post types, that might have been a little bit more valuable, since the template hierarchy is already in the Codex. Great graphic btw :)

  9. Nick Burman
    Nick Burman  • 13 years ago

    Brilliant. I love infographics, being a graphic designer and thinking graphically! Thanks for this.

  10. Lucian
    Lucian  • 13 years ago

    Probably the best infographic for this year.

  11. Eric Strate
    Eric Strate  • 13 years ago

    Great layout, that is very informative. I wish we could get an anatomy of how to make a landing page that sells ;)

  12. Tom Ireland
    Tom Ireland  • 13 years ago

    Like this infographic very much. Nice and simple. Would be useful for future posts and newbies if you did a summarised breakdown of each bit and some examples? Thanks.

  13. Javi Moreno
    Javi Moreno  • 13 years ago

    It has been a long time since I have seen the structure of WordPress explained so well. It is great for any beginner. Thanks.

  14. Denise
    Denise  • 13 years ago

    Love it! First useful info-graphic I’ve seen that smoothly outlines the process.

  15. Damion J.
    Damion J.  • 13 years ago

    Finally! Great for visual learners. Thank you!

  16. Jared
    Jared  • 13 years ago

    Thanks for the explanation. I never really understood the whole “loop” thing until now. I really enjoy your posts!

  17. Allen Resha
    Allen Resha  • 13 years ago

    I am an avid blogger and use Word Press. This was a very excellent post on the break down of what makes a Word Press theme. As I get more into customization and tweaking on themes, posts like this help me to understand the break down of the theme piece by piece. It was written in a way that even the novice user can understand! Two Thumbs Up!

  18. Pushpendra Pal
    Pushpendra Pal  • 13 years ago

    Very informative post.
    Tells every thing(Basics) about a wordpress theme design.
    Going to try my own WP Theme .. Thanks

  19. Ronald Smith
    Ronald Smith  • 13 years ago

    Excellent anatomy. Great tool for helping to explain wordpress to my clients. Thanks very much for producing this.

  20. Robert Dreher
    Robert Dreher  • 13 years ago

    Dank je. Duidelijk en praktisch.

  21. Pam Wright
    Pam Wright  • 13 years ago

    Lovely and clear description – this is really useful, thanks!

  22. Marc Saxe
    Marc Saxe  • 13 years ago

    Great graphic Joost. Nobody’s done it better:

  23. Jeff Lambert
    Jeff Lambert  • 13 years ago


    This is great and nice that passed it along.

    Any problem with my sharing this on my site with a reference back?


  24. Diana
    Diana  • 13 years ago

    Thank for this information. I will bookmark this page to refer back to often, I’m sure.

    Thanks for all your tips.

  25. Ray Hiltz
    Ray Hiltz  • 13 years ago

    Very helpful. I’ve been working exclusively within themes. So peeling it back to the basics is very helpful.

  26. Lam Nguyen
    Lam Nguyen  • 13 years ago

    This is very informative and useful, but the font using is a little hard to read. Anyway, thanks for this work.

  27. Wang Jinyu
    Wang Jinyu  • 13 years ago

    Very informative reference, bookmarked it at first impression.

  28. Look
    Look  • 13 years ago

    A picture worth a 1000 words. Maybe even more. Thank you so much for this!

  29. Lily Sun
    Lily Sun  • 13 years ago

    Comic Sans really?!?

  30. Steve Thoeny
    Steve Thoeny  • 13 years ago

    I found this so helpful and well done. Outstanding! Thanks.

  31. Yatin Mulay
    Yatin Mulay  • 13 years ago

    I had to comment due to those AWESOME images. Great illustrative post Joost !

    Do you plan to develop something similar to Thesis OpenHook plugin which could apply universally to all wp themes out there?

    I think many people would be willing to even buy such premium plugin that’d make hacking wordpress themes simpler.

  32. Jibun
    Jibun  • 13 years ago

    Hey nice and brief informations for newbie in WordPress designing like me.
    However there is perhaps a little bug with your images title attribute. When hovering on images it shows ‘Anatomy of WordPress theme Yoast’. Maybe that tag wasn’t parse?

  33. Ricardo
    Ricardo  • 13 years ago

    Thank you. Excellent post :)

  34. Doug
    Doug  • 13 years ago

    This is BEAUTIFUL! Can I use this image on my website to explain to my clients how WordPress works if I leave a link back to the author and Yoast?

  35. Tommy Linsley
    Tommy Linsley  • 13 years ago

    Some commenters ask for a printable version. Just do screengrab. For example can use firefox extension Fireshot.

  36. Steve
    Steve  • 13 years ago

    Very Helpful article, just sent it to a few other WP coders I know…Thanks

  37. CodeZ
    CodeZ  • 13 years ago

    hello from germany and big thx 4 this great illustration. i like it :-)

  38. Sparrow
    Sparrow  • 13 years ago

    Thanks, very helpful overview

  39. SenseiMattKlein
    SenseiMattKlein  • 13 years ago

    Sometimes it’s easy to forget what is sitting under our websites, that we place such a high importance on. It is easy to take it for granted. But it sure helps to know where to find things if there is a problem. This post is extremely helpful in that regard. Thanks Joost.

  40. Peter L Masters
    Peter L Masters  • 13 years ago

    I’m using this and Yoast is very good! I’ve said enough.

  41. Natalya Murphy
    Natalya Murphy  • 13 years ago

    This is a wonderful reference. I’ve thought many times about sitting down and trying to figure out how all the pieces fit together, but you’ve done the work for me now. Thank you! I’m sure I’ll be referring back to this page often.

  42. Arun Pal Singh
    Arun Pal Singh  • 13 years ago

    Thanks for making it clear. Though ever the years, I have gained knowledge about working of WordPress but it is always great to see it explained in images and words.

    A very nice article

  43. Jack ng
    Jack ng  • 13 years ago

    Wowo thank you for the great share:)

  44. Rob McCance
    Rob McCance  • 13 years ago

    VERY nice. WP is a little mysterious to old school developers. This is great.

  45. Ankit Saini
    Ankit Saini  • 13 years ago

    Never Know the secret of wordpress theme Like this way..

  46. Craig Bak
    Craig Bak  • 13 years ago

    Thanks man, yiu have made it very easy to describe the workings for those who need to explain it to others!
    Very useful Joost!
    Thanks again

  47. DinoThemes
    DinoThemes  • 13 years ago

    Very well put together. This could be used as a visual tool to teach/learn how to create WordPress themes. Kudos++

  48. Geoff
    Geoff  • 13 years ago

    great diagram but how cool would it be to make each header clickable with as a link to a sample of the code which is also annotated as clearly!

  49. Theo
    Theo  • 13 years ago

    This is really useful stuff, thanks!

  50. uxyogi
    uxyogi  • 13 years ago

    It helped me a lot :)

  51. Rev. Voodoo
    Rev. Voodoo  • 13 years ago

    I’m using your SEO plugin, so I get your updates on my dash…. and I liek to stop in every now and then to see what’s up. That is a very nicely laid out little tidbut you have there. Very easy to look at and follow!

  52. PR i Marketing Agencija
    PR i Marketing Agencija  • 13 years ago

    Nice Infographic :)

  53. Stefano
    Stefano  • 13 years ago

    Very well done!
    Can I translate it in italian and post it on Obviously I’ll keep all credits and link to you.


  54. Jeff
    Jeff  • 13 years ago

    Clear outline on WordPress structure, thanks!!! PRINTABLE VERSION PLEASE!

  55. Aaron
    Aaron  • 13 years ago

    Well done. I’ve worked with WordPress for years and this graphic is the best yet I’ve seen to help beginners “see” what WordPress is all about. Much appreciated.

  56. Fredrik
    Fredrik  • 13 years ago

    Great stuff! I will most certainly use it when explaining WordPress to clients. Many Thx!

  57. Graham
    Graham  • 13 years ago

    Awesome and handy WordPress infographic.
    It would be really cool if there was a printable version :)

  58. Dennis van den Broek
    Dennis van den Broek  • 13 years ago

    Wat een goede infographic. Goed om met geavanceerde gebruikers te bekijken wat wel en niet kan, of wat wel en niet handig is. Complimenten!

  59. Rick Ong
    Rick Ong  • 13 years ago

    Very helpful Joost, wish we had this when I was learning WordPress Themes

  60. Adam Leyton
    Adam Leyton  • 13 years ago

    This is a fantastic resource. Thank you very much!

    As someone else has mentioned, a PDF would be really useful.

  61. Shane Jones
    Shane Jones  • 13 years ago

    Brilliant work here Yoast. Am definately saving this page for reference.!

  62. Trevor Turk
    Trevor Turk  • 13 years ago

    FWIW – I made “the simplest possible WordPress theme” in an effort to understand what the bare minimum WordPress theme requires (to get into their theme directory).

    You can see it here:

  63. Martin Duggan
    Martin Duggan  • 13 years ago

    fantastic post – thank you very much for this resource. I’m a graphic designer trying to appreciate the mechanics of the WordPress system, so I can design for it better. I will keep this as a cool reference.

  64. Vlad
    Vlad  • 13 years ago

    Always wanted to see what it was like. Wish I’d seen this a week ago when I was trying to augment the theme myself – had to learn it the hard way.

  65. Bjorn van der Neut
    Bjorn van der Neut  • 13 years ago

    Really nice and easy to understand! Only a little strange that its an image…not really seo friendly ;-)

  66. Tommy Linsley
    Tommy Linsley  • 13 years ago

    Yes, I have to agree with Ondrej for an Automattic medal.
    Yoast is to be commended for such an eloquent
    presentation of wordpress anatomy.

  67. Gerry Hoch
    Gerry Hoch  • 13 years ago

    This is a great asset to anyone starting out in building sites with WP.


  68. Karen Bennett
    Karen Bennett  • 13 years ago

    Great info. Any chance of getting a PDF of this infographic? Reading the text in a png made my eyes hurt.

  69. Ken Jansen
    Ken Jansen  • 13 years ago

    Thank you. This is really a nice resource for the non-programmer. I tweeted it. Very helpful. :)

  70. Fulmega
    Fulmega  • 13 years ago

    Fantastic article, I posted on my blog. If there is any problem with that, let me know and delete it.


  71. Landon Zirkelbach
    Landon Zirkelbach  • 13 years ago

    Very helpful! Starting my first WordPress site in a week or 2. So this helps greatly.

  72. joe ekine
    joe ekine  • 13 years ago

    Good start for users who want to convert from drupal to wordpress. (:

    • Koko
      Koko  • 13 years ago

      Yep nice basic infos – tbh i hate drupal, had to use it a couple of times anyways ~~

  73. John Housholder
    John Housholder  • 13 years ago

    Great tool to show the framework. And, I agree with the comic sans comment, LOL!

  74. Douwe Schaaf
    Douwe Schaaf  • 13 years ago

    This is awesome! Very helpful to explain WP templates to others!

  75. Nick Plekhanov
    Nick Plekhanov  • 13 years ago

    This is really useful. Thanks a lot man.

  76. Gert Ooms
    Gert Ooms  • 13 years ago

    Very usefull …

  77. Nathan
    Nathan  • 13 years ago

    Comics Sans for the illustrations? REALLY?!

  78. Tami
    Tami  • 13 years ago

    Will print it out and keep it. Gives the information in an easy to understand manner. Thanks.

  79. Ondrej
    Ondrej  • 13 years ago

    Magnificent! You should get a medal from Automattic. I can’t begin to tell how many hours I wasted trying to Google out what’s shown so simply a beautifully here!

  80. Krystian
    Krystian  • 13 years ago

    Great illustrations. Simple and full of content.

  81. Joseph
    Joseph  • 13 years ago

    Now i’ve got it Really useful and practical illustrations. Thanks

  82. Andor
    Andor  • 13 years ago

    Cool und useful scheme about the basic concept from a WordPress theme. Thanks.