Shopify Theme Development: How to Make a Custom Shopify Theme From Scratch

September 14, 2021

Rhys Williams

6153e0de0be1a78186587285 Shopify Theme Development How to Make a Shopify Theme From Scratch create a custom shopify theme

When it comes to creating the perfect look and layout for your Shopify store, there are a world of options to choose from.

You could decide to go with one of the many paid or free themes that the Shopify Theme Store has to offer. Many businesses do and they work great, up to a point.

But if you’re a bit more ambitious, you’ll want to move beyond the cookie-cutter style and limited functionality of these themes.

However,  getting to grips with Shopify theme development can be a daunting task.

So how do you create a unique theme that will give you the freedom and capacity to build the online store your brand needs?

Keep reading to learn what it takes to create a Shopify theme from scratch and the various ways to do it so you can decide what route makes the most sense for your brand.

In this post, we’ll cover:

#cta-visual-pb#<cta-title>Create your own theme completely code-free<cta-title>Try Shogun for free and start building out your perfect Shopify store, no technical fussing required.Try for free


What is a Shopify theme?

A Shopify theme is what defines the overall design, look and feel of your store. It’s the framework that you use to build all the elements of your store around.

The theme is the foundation of your store.

It’s what all your pages, apps, images, etc rest on, so making sure they have a solid foundation is crucial to its success.

#cta-paragraph-pb#If you’re unsure where to start with finding the right theme style, you can use this handy guide for detecting Shopify themes to compare what themes other stores are using.

Can you create your own Shopify theme?

The short answer is yes!

But it might be a bit more of an endeavor than you realize when you first set out.

Shopify has developed a marketplace where both premium and free pre-built themes give store owners a library of visually stunning themes that make short work of getting a store up and running.

You can save time and money by going the pre-designed route.

But if you’re reading this post, then the chances are you’re already aware of the drawbacks:

  • Limited scalability designed for non-technical users
  • Limited customization
  • Designed for aesthetics and not necessarily for conversions

The alternative to these pre-built themes is to create your own custom theme for your Shopify store.

shopify theme store
Shopify Theme Store

Can I switch from my existing theme?

It’s a reasonable expectation that your store will grow and expand.

And as it does so, you’ll need to adapt your theme so it can handle the extra demand your newly popular site puts on it.

You’ll need more control over the layout of every page and element on your site. You’ll also need more flexibility to test the placement of content and measure the impact it has on customer experience and conversions.‍

Your brand will also benefit from having a more memorable and easy-to-recognize experience if you’re not using a theme that’s been licensed by hundreds (or thousands) of other online retailers.

The good news is you can easily change your theme from an off-the-shelf Shopify offering to a customized or completely custom-built theme by following a few simple steps.

Shopify lets you hold up to 20 themes in your theme library, so you can change themes without worrying about losing content.

Planning for your custom Shopify theme

Before you can start building, you need a plan for your online store. It’s more than just the color scheme and placement of your logo.

You have to plan their whole journey, and you’re doing it from scratch.

#cta-mini-fe#Find out if your store is a good fit for headless commerce.Take the quiz


How to create a website template from scratch

Your store layout should be designed to facilitate the ideal flow of customers from where they enter to the point where they leave.

If all goes well, that’s the checkout.

That ideal flow is your funnel. It’s similar to the way retail stores are carefully plotted to move customers toward the register (with plentiful cross-selling happening even at the end).

When creating a plan for your store, consider the placement of your elements like steps in a journey.

Think about:

  • Where they enter the store (i.e. which page they may start at).
  • What they’ll be looking for. Whether your customers visit your site looking for a new black t-shirt or inspiration for Christmas gifts, you need to get them to what they want as quickly as possible.
  • What’s the first step? Do you want them to enter a search term? Click on a special promotion? Where you want your customers to click should be obvious as soon as they land on the site.
  • Where they’ll click to get to the next step, then the step after that, and so on.
  • How many steps is too many to get where they want to be?
  • Where secondary elements/links will be placed (blogs, return policies, related items, testimonials, etc).
cettire collections page
Cettire encourages visitors to explore their collection clearly on their landing page

Your plan for page layout should take into consideration conversion best practices that create an enjoyable shopping experience while minimizing friction.

It doesn’t need to be super technical—it can be little more than a line drawing depicting the layout of your website before decoration is added.

This approach to a plan brings together site mapping and wireframe building to help you decide how your store will be laid out.

Wireframe product page moz
Moz uses this ecommerce mockup as an example of elements to optimize on a product page

#cta-visual-pb#<cta-title>Create your own theme completely code-free<cta-title>Try Shogun for free and start building out your perfect Shopify store, no technical fussing required.Try App Free

How to design a Shopify website

Shopify lets you create pages of all types when you’re setting up a store, and Shogun Page Builder allows for unlimited page creation when you’re working with the platform.

While your store will likely differ from others in the content and products you’re selling, you’ll still have standard pages that are crucial to running a successful store.

You’ll want to focus on building eye-catching and easy-to-navigate layouts for the following must-have pages:

  • A homepage with a clear value proposition, simple navigation, and unambiguous calls to action.
  • Landing pages with well-placed, attractive images, and elements that display stock levels and sales countdowns, creating a sense of urgency.
  • Product pages with optimized product titles, customer testimonials, and simple add-to-cart functionality.
  • Collection pages that group together products by brands, customer interest, promotions, and more, making products easier to find and reducing friction.

And while not absolutely essential, you should also consider a blog page to help boost your site ranking and get you to show up in more customer searches.

#cta-paragraph-pb#Once you’ve designed your perfect Shopify store, you’re going to want to learn all the tips for selling on Shopify. So, when you are ready, head over to read our Ultimate Guide to Start Selling on Shopify.

manitobah gloves mittens collections page
Collection pages can be easily created and customized in just a few simple steps using the Shogun editor; Image: Manitobah Mukluks

How to build a custom Shopify theme from scratch

Once you’ve got your site planned out, it’s time to start building!

But before you get started you should be aware that creating a custom theme can be a costly and time-consuming process.

If you don’t have any coding experience then you’ll likely need the help of a developer who can make your custom Shopify theme design and implementation as smooth as possible.

Getting under the hood

If you’re feeling adventurous and already know your way around CSS and HTML, then you could consider taking on Shopify theme development yourself.

There are plenty of helpful resources available that can give you an introduction to Liquid, the templating language you’ll be using to build your custom theme.

#cta-paragraph-pb#Note: JavaScript and JSON are also used alongside Liquid when you create your own website theme to give you greater functionality, so you’ll need a working knowledge of these languages and formats too.

But even if you do have some experience, building a Shopify theme from scratch can still pose a significant technical challenge.

In the end, it will come down to a personal decision about where best to allocate your time and energy.

If you’re still ready to get going, the first step is finding the right tools for the job.

Understanding the essentials for creating a Shopify theme

This is where the rubber hits the road.

Building a unique theme from scratch is going to require familiarizing yourself with some specialist terminology. Once you understand the concepts involved, the process should become much clearer.

To build your theme, you’re going to need some essential tools: Shopify CLI (or Theme Kit if you’re customizing pre-Store 2.0 themes), Dawn, and Shopify GitHub integration.

Let’s break them down:

  • Shopify CLI (Command Line Interface).

A CLI is a tool for telling a computer program (in this case Shopify) what to do.

If you’re not a developer, you may be more familiar with a graphical user interface or drag-and-drop editor (eg. Shogun’s Page Builder) that removes the need to get involved with all that terrifying-looking code. With a CLI, the commands are issued in lines of text (hence the name).

So you can let Shopify know what changes you want to make on your custom theme, you’ll need to install Shopify CLI on your machine.

  • Dawn theme.

This is Shopify’s reference theme. Think of it as the starting point for you to design your Shopify store.

Once you’ve cloned Dawn, you can make changes to it using Shopify CLI.

shopify dawn theme
Dawn theme in the Shopify Theme Store

‘Cloning’ Dawn means saving a copy of the GitHub repository for the Dawn theme to your local machine.

A GitHub repository is a file containing a library of all the changes and updates you’ve made. Think of it as an instruction manual for Shopify, one that you write and update regularly!

When you create your own version of Dawn, you’ll need to rename it.

This is the basis of your custom Shopify theme. Once you’ve renamed your theme, head over to your Shopify account to associate the theme with your Shopify store.

Congratulations, you’ve successfully initialized and authenticated your very own Shopify theme.

This connects your GitHub account to your Shopify store.

Once you’ve renamed your repository and made your customizations using Shopify CLI, you can use Shopify’s GitHub integration to link your newly created theme to your Shopify store.

Theme development workflow

While It is possible to build your theme right in the Shopify admin panel, using the GitHub workflow is better for version control.

Having a Git repository for your theme provides you with a history and a backup.

But remember: the Shopify GitHub integration means that any changes you make will go live on your theme, so don’t go straight to the GitHub integration stage until you’ve previewed and tested your custom theme.

We’ll look a little closer at how to do this later on.

#cta-visual-pb#<cta-title>Scale content creation across multiple storefronts<cta-title>Designed for larger brands, Shogun Page Builder Advanced enables your team to copy and clone content across your sub-brands and various storefronts with ease.Learn more


Understanding Liquid

If you want to build your Shopify theme from the ground up, you’re going to need to come to grips with Liquid.

Liquid is the programming language that all Shopify themes are written in.

More specifically, it consists of HTML files that contain embedded code in them, so you don’t need to be a master backend coder to make it work for you.

If you’re familiar with HTML and CSS, then Liquid shouldn’t be too much of a challenge to get your head around.

Liquid acts as a bridge between the data that Shopify holds for your online store and the code in your customer’s browser.

Much of the functionality for an eCommerce store is already built into Shopify, you just need to learn the language for altering how the content is displayed.

You’ll still be working with CSS and such so there are some traditional site design elements you may be familiar with.

Here’s an example from Sitepoint on how Liquid is used:

Liquid example in template editor

Mark Dunkley of Shopify curates an up-to-date Liquid cheat sheet for those creating their own Shopify themes. And we put together some of the top elements you should know from that cheat sheet.

If you’re new to Liquid, this is an incredibly helpful resource.

Liquid cheat sheet for shopify

Making it all fit

So now you have all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, you just need to put it together!

If you’re new to this, it’s going to take some trial and error. Remember to create versions and only go live once you’ve tested everything.

The challenge is to take the plan for your ecommerce site—homepage, product page, etc—and turn it into reality through the design of your theme.

The key to meeting this challenge is an understanding of Shopify’s theme architecture.

There are many different parts to your Shopify store: page layouts, the elements on each page, how and where images are placed, etc.

So that Shopify can tell the difference between them and where to put them, it needs to be given specific instructions.

These instructions come in the form of different file categories.

If you’re serious about building your own custom theme, Shopify’s theme architecture overview is a great place to start to come to grips with which components make up a Shopify theme.

Test and preview

Once you’ve initialized your theme and authenticated it in Shopify, you’re able to preview your work before going live.

This is a crucial step, especially if you’re new to development, as the process will inevitably involve a lot of experimentation to see what works best.

Shopify lets you preview your work by creating it as a development theme.

Run Shopify theme serve with Shopify CLI to create this development theme. You need to use Google Chrome to be able to do this.

Get ready for the launch

Once you’re happy with how your theme looks and feels and you’ve road-tested it, you’re all set to launch your theme.

The only step now is to link up, or ‘push’ your theme’s Git repository to your online store through Shopify GitHub integration.

Shopify Online Store 2.0: Some changes

netflix using shopify online store 2.0
Netflix’s new merchandise store is built using Store 2.0

In June 2021, Shopify announced that it is rolling out a new set of developer tools and increased functionality with Online Store 2.0.

The intention is to create greater flexibility for developers and merchants working with customized or bespoke themes.

One of the standout features of Store 2.0 is the ability to add sections to every page on your store—not just the homepage—removing the need for complicated coding workarounds to deliver the flexibility online retailers need.

It means some technical changes to the process of creating a Shopify theme from scratch (although if you’re already working with a custom theme built pre-2.0 you’ll be able to carry on using it as is, with the option to migrate if you feel you need the increased functionality.)

The important technical changes are:

  • Theme Kit will be replaced by Shopify CLI
  • Dawn will become Shopify’s new reference theme. If you want to start building your own theme, the place to start is by making a clone of Dawn

#cta-paragraph-pb#If some of this seems a bit too advanced or you’re pretty happy with what you’ve already got but want to add functionality, customizing an existing theme could be a happy medium between a completely new Shopify theme build and an off the shelf option.

The downsides of custom Shopify themes

While the benefits of a custom Shopify theme are substantial there are still downsides to crafting a theme from scratch.

As you’ve probably gathered if you’ve got this far, custom Shopify theme design is no joke.

It requires:

  • A big investment of time and if you need to hire a developer, money too.
  • A much longer lead time from initial concept to final deployment.
  • Devoting more time to communication, design approvals, the design process, testing, and implementation.
  • Diverting time and money could be better spent in other areas of your business.

The simplest way to build a custom Shopify theme

If you need a site up fast and you’re facing a looming launch deadline then coding a Shopify theme from scratch might not be possible.

And while a pre-built Shopify theme can be installed with a few clicks, you may find it doesn’t have the necessary functionality and flexibility to support your online business.

You can still create your own Shopify store theme using other tools that give you all the control you need to drive traffic through your sales funnel, deliver an outstanding customer experience, and increase conversion rates.

Here’s what you’ll need to do that.

Use a drag and drop page builder

shogun page builder drag and drop builder for shopify
Hey, look, it’s us!

Here’s where Shogun steps in to save you from having to deal with Liquid and coding the individual pages.

In a traditional approach, the site designs are handed over to development in order to code the pages.

Those pages then go through testing and QA in a sandbox and live environment before eventually being approved and published.

With a drag and drop page builder, you eliminate the development process as well as the separate speccing and outlining.

Shogun allows you to go in, make the entire page, and shift elements as you go, basically allowing you to do quality assurance in real-time.

When you’re happy with the template you’ve created you can begin using that layout for the rest of your eCommerce store.

This is huge if you want to build a Shopify theme from scratch because you can design every page visually, without any coding, and the pages you create plug right into your eCommerce platform just like any of the themes in the Shopify marketplace.

If you’ve used any kind of drag-and-drop program, even Word, then you’ll be comfortable using Shogun.

All of the elements you need throughout your store can be easily added to any landing page.

This approach is ideal for anyone who needs to get a store launched quickly or reskin an online store without sacrificing control.

Benefits of using a page builder include:

  • You’re not forced into a theme with page layouts that don’t fit your vision
  • Individual landing pages can be launched faster than your competitors
  • Get promotional content up fast
  • Reduce the cost of changes since you don’t need a developer for every store update
  • Fully scalable and room for customization with custom elements
  • Drag and drop snippets for reusable elements to save more time

Not bad, right?

Get the best of both worlds with Shogun

Pre-built pages from the Shopify marketplace are without a doubt the easiest way to get your store online fast with an attractive design, but they sometimes fall short of meeting the vision you might have for your store.

Instead of committing a considerable amount of time to learn Liquid and all the other development tools required to create a Shopify theme from scratch, you can do the same job using a simple drag and drop builder like Shogun.

Once you’ve designed the theme for each of the page types listed above it becomes incredibly easy to further customize and maintain any online store.

#cta-visual-pb#<cta-title>Create your own theme completely code-free<cta-title>Try Shogun for free and start building out your perfect Shopify store, no technical fussing required.Try App Free

Rhys Williams

Rhys is a writer specializing in enterprise software, ecommerce, and SaaS. He describes himself as a geek and a wordsmith and relishes making complex, technical topics come to life in easy-to-understand web copy.

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