People are often confused about the different purposes of WordPress themes vs. plugins.  In this article, I hope to shed some light on when your website should use a theme to solve a problem vs. when your website should use a plugin to solve a problem or add some cool function to your site.

Every day (or so it seems), we see new themes come out with super-nifty designs, effects, and functions… And I totally understand why people get attracted to themes that come with tons of bells and whistles. However, I’m seeing a trend that newer themes are now starting to incorporate the functions that should really belong to plugins. And that’s something you should pay attention to when picking a theme for your WordPress site.

When picking a WordPress theme, you want to look at all the features that the theme has.  But it is important to know the difference between WordPress themes vs. plugins so you can make an informed decision when deciding to use a certain feature.  So if you are either starting a new website from scratch, or you have an existing site and you want to give it a total makeover, understanding WordPress themes vs. plugins is crucial. 

Difference between WordPress Themes vs. Plugins

If you understand the fundamental difference between WordPress themes vs. plugins, this will help you decide which features of a theme you should use. To put this in simple words…

  • Themes give the “look” of your site. This would include the design, layout, color schemes, templates, and so forth. In other words, it controls the appearance of a website.
  • Plugins provide your website with additional functions. WordPress comes with many functions out of the box, but plugins allow you to do even more with your website.

I often use the car metaphor to explain the difference between the two. Themes are like the exterior of the car, such as the color and design that determines how a car looks. Plugins, on the other hand, are like the special car features like remote key access, GPS, and a special sound system that you can add to a car. Or, for example, take an iPhone or Droid SmartPhone: The color and shape of a mobile phone correspond to the theme on a site, while the phone apps are like the plugins.

What is Wrong with Themes Doing the Work of Plugins?

WordPress, by design, is wonderfully flexible as you probably know. And that flexibility is made possible by the ease of adding/changing themes and plugins, which were meant to do different things as explained above. See this post on the 6 things to ask yourself before picking a WordPress theme

A big downside of using a theme function that should really be a plugin function is you can’t change the theme down the road without losing those functions. For example: let’s say your theme has some event calendaring functions and you already entered/collected some important data using those functions. Well, if you decide to switch that theme later, you might just lose all that… But if you were simply using a stand-alone plugin to handle the event calendaring instead, switching themes should not create an issue for you.

Or for example, if your theme has a testimonial feature built-in, then when you switch your theme in the future, you lose all the formatting of your testimonials.

Here, on a special case study page of one of my students who took the Website Creation Workshop, you will see me using the “Strong Testimonials” plugin. (See below for an example)

“…even the most “computer-challenged” will find this course easy to follow”

Suzanne Stengl

This is a self-paced course with excellent step-by-step videos. I am convinced that even the most “computer-challenged” will find this course easy to follow. Besides the online classroom, Christina has regular phone-in times where we can ask questions and listen to other students ask questions. The Website Creation Workshop helped me to get my site up and running in about four months. I love being in control of my site. I love being able to make changes whenever an idea strikes me. If you want your own website and you want to be able to manage it yourself, I highly recommend Christina’s Website Creation Workshop.

Suzanne Stengl

But on my home page, I am using the Divi "blurb" functionality for the testimonials there.   (Divi is a premium theme from Elegant themes. You can find more info about it from my affiliate link here: )

I like the look of it with the Divi feature, and do not mind that I may have to reformat it in the future, as it's only 4 testimonials.


Use WordPress Themes vs. Plugins Separately for Flexibility

There are probably cases where using a theme with built-in functions makes sense. Just know that in the future if you change themes then you will probably have to make sure your new theme also has that function, or pick a plugin to solve that function.

I always say one of the big advantages that WordPress offers is its scalability -- It can grow and change with your business. There may be excellent themes out there with amazing functions and sometimes you will use those, but in general I recommend using themes to give your website the look that's right for you, and use plugins to make it function the way you want!


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