Dissection of a WordPress theme: Part 3

Step 3 – Styling the sidebar

So far we’ve talked about the sidebar PHP functions, and made one or two changes. The sidebar still looks very basic, so we will now look at styling it.

If you remember, the sidebar consists of an unordered list, with each list item being a section. Each of these sections typically consists of a heading, followed by another unordered list. By default, an unordered list will be prefixed with a bullet-point. This is definitely not what we want for the heading.

The first step will be to remove the first level of bullets:

#sidebar ul {
  list-style: none;

Unfortunately it removes bullets from all unordered lists – including the sub-lists. This can be fixed with another style:

#sidebar ul ul {
  list-style-image: url(images/listitem.png);
  list-style-type: circle;

This puts the bullets back for unordered lists that contain sub-lists. Note that here I have used an image as a bullet and, if this cannot be found, it falls back to a circle bullet point.

Sidebar bullets

This isn’t quite what we expected because the bullets are too far left, and there is no hierarchical indentation. The reason is the global style we introduced in the previous guide, where all margins were reset to zero. A small change brings everything back:

#sidebar ul ul {
  list-style-image: url(images/listitem.png);
  list-style-type: circle;
  margin-left: 20px;

And now we have the bullets as we want:

Sidebar bullets

Remember that this and all other styles are not optimised. This is a guide to understanding a WordPress theme and will make use of as much verbosity as necessary. It is not a guide to creating the smallest, most efficient CSS code.

Next I will add some colour and a border to the sidebar and headings.

#sidebar {
  background-color: #FCF1E2;
  color: #4A2C00;
  border: 1px solid #FDE5C3;

#sidebar ul h2 {
  background-color: #FDE5C3;
  border-bottom: 1px solid #FADA96;
  border-top: 1px solid #FADA96;
  font-size: 1.2em;
  font-weight: normal;
  padding: 2px;
  margin-bottom: 5px;

This looks complicated but condenses to a few changes:

  • Colour is added to the sidebar and the headings (3, 4, 10)
  • A border is placed around the sidebar, and the top and bottom of the headings (5, 11, 12)
  • The heading font is defined at 1.2em so it is standard across all browsers (13, 14)
  • The heading margin and padding are changed to provide more space (15, 16)


The style is almost done, but we can still tweak the spacing. The most obvious change is to add more space between the heading and the previous list. We could add a top margin to the heading itself, but this would push the first heading down, and this doesn’t look good. Instead we add a bottom margin to the list style:

#sidebar ul {
  list-style: none;
  margin-bottom: 10px;

This does the trick, but introduces a margin for every list, including the sub-lists:

Sidebar margin

We need to reset the margin for these sub-sub-lists.

#sidebar ul ul ul {
  margin-bottom: 0;

And everything looks fine:

Sidebar margin

86 thoughts on “Dissection of a WordPress theme: Part 3”

  1. Excellent and very useful article!!!! Thank you for taking the time to share it with everyone.

  2. It probably is easier to keep search in a separate file, especially if you are likely to change your mind about it. You mention changing its location. You might also want to swap out the supplied WordPress search and use another search (e.g., Technorati, Google).

  3. Great article – really makes it all clear and inspires to make up your own layouts!

    PDF copy of all parts for offline brainstorming would be great! 🙂

  4. Superb resources – I’d echo the call for a printable version of the full article. PDF? *shudder* :o)

    Respect – a great effort, and a generous share.

  5. I’m working on putting together a PDF version and it’ll probably appear shortly after I complete the series. WordPress is a lot less print-friendly than I hoped for!

    Thanks for the comments too.

  6. Awesome articles. This + your “installing WP on a local server” post are a dream come true. Any chance you can also add a part some day about making two sidebars? That’s a feat that is soooo far beyond me that I’m stuck with only a few themes to choose from.

  7. Ugh. Help! This is a fantastic tutorial, and it’s providing me with exactly what I’m looking for. However, after concluding part 2, I am very close to achieving just what I wanted (with the layout, not the styles), but something isn’t right with the sidebar and I can’t seem to figure out what it is!

    Does anyone have any suggests?

    Thanks so much in advance.

  8. Hi Matt. What are you trying to do with the sidebar? There’s only one style in your CSS for the sidebar, and I imagine you want to get rid of the bullet points – you’ll need to change the list-style-type. Hope that helps.

  9. Hi John. Thanks so much for responding!

    I could see from your comment that you must have been seeing something I’m not, so I opened up my site in Firefox, instead of IE. In Firefox, the site is a nightmare, and I hadn’t even realized! Looking at in Firefox, everything you see in white (the header, the blog entries) should be centered. The sidebar should also have a white background (I just haven’t done it yet), and it should be right where it is, beside the content. I don’t know WHAT the hell those bullets are all about!

    Looking at the site in IE, you’ll see that everything is centered correctly, the way I actually want it (though it seems to have other problems).

    I followed your examples very closely, but of course had to make alterations because the elements of my design are different. (No header image, for example; instead, a whole series of html with rollover buttons, etc.) Somewhere in that process, something went wrong…

    Thanks again for responding. This is a GREAT site. You’ve done a better job that 99% of the other sites out there!


  10. You know what, John? I’m gonna start from scratch. My site is turning into a horrible mess, so I need to go one small detail at a time and fix it.

    But thanks anyway. 🙁


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  12. John,
    I hang my head low and yet again ask for your assitance. Arrrgghh! (pride growls)

    A while back I commented that a mysterious white box overlaid on only a few pages. (Welcome and Disclaimer) If you resize the window the box disappears. I did as you said and removed the hover links – yet the white box overlay remains on my site when viewing with IE. Firefox is my hero still because it never had trouble whatsoever.


  13. Hi jd,

    I’ve only managed to find the problem on the ‘Welcome visitors’ link, and I couldnt reproduce it on my local machine – it only seems to occur on the live website. Are there any other places it happens?

  14. Hey John,
    Yes, it still happens on the live site for me on the bottom Disclaimer link and when clicking on the newest category I created http://www.wels.net/wordpress/archives/category/general/living-bold/. Incidentally, that too may be a clue, because the previous “new” category, now works! I feel uncomfortable with my coding in single.php, archive.php and page.php when defining the 3rd column and with how I’m ending the body/html tags for page.php. Look at the code starting at the endif statement prior to the get footer.


  15. John,

    I have successfully styled the search form, and now that I have added a drop-down menu I’d like it to match. I tried this:

    #sidebar select
    border: 1px solid #a97

    But nothing happens. I tried adding a background color, and that worked, so I don’t know why the border isn’t working. Any ideas? Also, is it possible to color the little box with the arrow in it? I tried googling “styling drop-down menus” but everything out there is about JavaScript and DHTML and CSS-built menus… nothing for styling good old simple HTML forms, at least nothing that includes drop-downs.

  16. Drop down boxes are not very well supported by CSS, and are displayed differently in every browser and operating system. You can’t change the arrow without some major Javascript coding, and changing the border colour works in Firefox, but not IE. Some things are best left alone!

  17. Oh well — thanks anyway. Maybe I should undo the styling of the search form, so that the sidebar forms are consistent.

    (Actually, that border color doesn’t work for me even in Firefox.)

  18. Responding to a few of the earlier posts about the bullet points appearing in the wp_list_pages, anyone know why it shows up in the first place? I fixed it with this code here

    #sidebar li, #pagenav {
    list-style-type: none;

    but had to scratch my head over it for a fair while.

  19. The bullet points appear because wp_list_pages outputs the pages as an HTML unordered list, which will get bullet points unless you specifically turn them off in the CSS. You have the right solution to change this!

  20. I am trying to figure out what the ‘wp_specialchars($s, 1);’ function does, could someone perhaps nudge me in the right direction? Thanks for your explanation of the other things, I definitely learned something.

  21. wp_specialchars just encodes certain HTML entities (such as > and <) into a correct form to display on a page (such as &gt; &lt;)

  22. great read.
    I copy and pasted the “Author” code.
    I get a ?Author? as the title.
    How do I remove the begining and ending question marks ?

  23. Hey John

    Thanks for this great tutorial!

    Im having difficulty getting my photo to appear, as I have copied the code verbatim from part 3 page 3. You say that I need to change the part, but I guess Im not following exactly what I need to write here for my picture to show up? I uploaded my picture into the images folder and entitled it author.jpg.

    Cheers, Ryan

  24. Yeah Im getting this weird link for my picture when I right click


    Im getting these ? marks right after my URL and at the end of the URL

    If you click the link below you’ll see I have the right properties to the photo.

    I also was having that ‘author’ problem because of copying/pasting, so I changed it accordingly to your advice and I also changed the (‘template path’) command in the same fashion, but still having a problem making my pic appear.

    Thanks again,

  25. When I copy and pasted

    ’ . __(‘Pages’) . ‘’ ); ?>

    and refreshed my browser I am now getting a mysterious “About” heading that I can not find anywhere in sidebar.php. I don’t want it and I can’t figure out how to get rid of it.

    Thanks, Chaser

  26. John…
    I followed your instructions and almost created my blog site. I’m stuck at this one thing. Hope you can find some time to help me. I wanted to use the ‘Pages’ link in my header. I couldn’t figure out how to align the links (in the Pages section) in a row – and not in columns. Am I missing something obvious?

    P.S.: Thanx very much for the “tutorial”. Helped me a lot.

  27. Chaser: The code for the ‘about’ has to there somewhere! Try inserting text at different points in the filee and see if you can narrow it’s location down

    Ravi: Take a look here listamatic – it’s a great resource for displaying lists in every direction possible

  28. Thanks for writing this…I’ve been having trouble with learning WP, but now that I found your site, I think I will be able to figure it out. Thanks!

  29. Hi John

    I have installed the Giraffe theme and I really like it. I’m having a problem trying to edit the sidebar and what I want to do is to get rid of the Blogroll heading and its contents that seem to come with every fresh install of WordPress. I expected to find this in sidebar.php and thought I would be able to remove it from here, but I can find no trace of it here. Can you advise me on how to do this?

    Also, I presume that if I want to add a heading to the sidebar that I do this using sidebar-extra.php

    Hoping you can help.



  30. The links are configured from the WordPress administration section, and are not part of the theme. If you delete them all from inside WordPress then they will disappear from your blog.

    Yep, sidebar-extra.php is where you can add any extra element into the sidebar

  31. Hi and thanks for this good tutorial.

    There is only one thing which does not work on my side, the modification of the ‘#sidebar ul h2’ style. Nothing happened.
    I’ve checked all my CSS file, all looks good. Also I’ve tried with ‘#sidebar h2’, ‘#sidebar ul ul h2’, ‘#sidebar li ul h2’…but nothing better 🙁
    Any suggestion ?


  32. You can narrow down the problem by changing the background colour of the elements. For example, first do:

    #sidebar { background-color: red }

    And verify that the sidebar is red. Then turn #sidebar ul red instead etc. Using this method you can track at which point it stops working, which may help you determine if the problem is in your CSS or HTML.

  33. Thanks for your tutorial. I was using the Kuberick theme as the basis for my site, and this really helped me strip it down and modify it.

    I am still having one tiny issue. When you look at an individual post, or a category with few posts, and the post is shorter than the sidebar the background does meet the footer. http://www.mixedstudentresources.com/?p=51
    And the best part is that it is fine in IE, but messed up in Firefox.

    Any ideas?

  34. This tutorial couldn’t have made the process of creating a custom theme any easier. I personally thank you for taking the time to help all of my fellow theming n00bs in getting a custom theme on WordPress.

  35. Ani, you can force this in Firefox by adding a special clearing div element just after the content.


    <div id="container">
    <div id="content>YOUR CONTENT</div>
    <div style="clear: both"></div>

    That basically tells the browse to bring any floating elements (such as the sidebar) back into the main flow of the page, and so displaying the background in FireFox.

  36. If the sidebar is not vertical but horizontal, will it still be called ‘sidebar’… 🙂

    I think it disrupts the normal flow of browsing a blog if you arrange the sidebar horizontally

  37. Jo, if you increase the size of the sidebar you’ll probably need to decrease the size of the content area. Once you’ve done that the rest of the theme will fall into place

  38. […] Dissection of a WordPress theme: Part 3 | Urban Giraffe (tags: WordPress Reference Blogging Tips Themes) This was written by Carlos. Posted on Wednesday, December 26, 2007, at 2:18 pm. Filed under Links. Bookmark the permalink. Follow comments here with the RSS feed. Post a comment or leave a trackback. […]

  39. Hey!
    Great tutorial! VERY good!
    Now, it’s been a while since you wrote it according to the dates, so I don’t know if you’ll reply this or not.
    When I try to put the calendar up, the whole site freezes and it dissappears leaving only the header..
    And the menu bar is too big, it doesn’t fit properly..


    Do you know what’s wrong?

  40. Very good text. I’ve found your site via Bing and I’m really glad about the information you provide in your articles. Btw your sites layout is really messed up on the Kmelon browser. Would be cool if you could fix that. Anyhow keep up the good work!

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