Using theme mod defaults

As more and more theme authors begin to make the move to the customizerCustomizer Tool built into WordPress core that hooks into most modern themes. You can use it to preview and modify many of your site’s appearance settings., many are also making the switch to storing theme options as theme mods rather than rolling a custom database option. This is awesome because theme mods have a bit more to offer.

One of the common mistakes I’m seeing is not making use of the $default parameter of get_theme_mod():

get_theme_mod( $name, $default )

That second parameter is pretty important as you’ll see below.

Common usage

The following is some common code I see in themes.

$example = get_theme_mod( 'example' );

if ( $example ) {

	echo $example;

} else {

	echo 'Some default';

While that’s not technically broken, it’s kind of clunky and can be handled so much more elegantly as shown in this next bit of code.

echo get_theme_mod( 'example', 'Some default' );

Yep, we just cut that down to a single line. No need for an if/else check or anything like that. You can let WP handle the logic behind the scenes.

Basically, that tells WP to output the example mod. If that mod hasn’t been saved yet, output our pre-defined default.


Theme Mods API or Settings API?

A few days ago, Chip Bennett wrote a good tutorial on the APIs related to theme options and broke down how those APIs can/should be used depending on the context. If anyone can really go in depth with theme options, it’s Chip. I’m hoping we see more from him on theme options in the future. I highly encourage reading his post to make sure you have the foundation you need.

In this post, I want to cover a question that has been popping up, particularly about the Theme Mods vs. Settings and which to use.

Essentially, we allow three different methods of handling theme options on the repository (technically, there are other methods, but we allow three):

  • CustomizerCustomizer Tool built into WordPress core that hooks into most modern themes. You can use it to preview and modify many of your site’s appearance settings. APIAPI An API or Application Programming Interface is a software intermediary that allows programs to interact with each other and share data in limited, clearly defined ways. + Theme Mods
  • Customizer API + Settings API
  • Theme options page created with the Settings API

The customizer is so much easier to use and requires a lot less code. It’s something I strongly recommend. It’s also what I’ll be focusing on as I write more about theme options. This post is going to focus on whether you should use the Theme Mods API or the Settings API for storing options.

Theme Mods

The thing many theme authors get hung up on is that theme mods are saved on a per-theme basis. So, this means when you switch child themes, any theme mod options will need to be saved again for the new child themeChild theme A Child Theme is a customized theme based upon a Parent Theme. It’s considered best practice to create a child theme if you want to modify the CSS of your theme. Sometimes, users might even see this as “losing their settings”.

This is both a blessing and a curse. I love it because it allows my users to have seasonal or holiday child themes. Imagine you wanted to have a child theme specifically for the Christmas season with its own color scheme. It’s nice to be able to change those color options just for the Christmas child theme.

What happens when you switch back to your regular theme in January? Well, it still has all of its unique options saved for it. There’s no work involved except for switching child themes.

The other nice thing is that coreCore Core is the set of software required to run WordPress. The Core Development Team builds WordPress. WP has hooksHooks In WordPress theme and development, hooks are functions that can be applied to an action or a Filter in WordPress. Actions are functions performed when a certain event occurs in WordPress. Filters allow you to modify certain functions. Arguments used to hook both filters and actions look the same. already built in for each new theme mod you create. That’s very nice for child theme authors who want to quickly filterFilter Filters are one of the two types of Hooks They provide a way for functions to modify data of other functions. They are the counterpart to Actions. Unlike Actions, filters are meant to work in an isolated manner, and should never have side effects such as affecting global variables and output. options in the parent theme.

Settings API

I’m less of a fan of the Settings API because it means that an option is saved based on the parent theme. The great thing about it is that users only have to save options once and not save them again if they switch child themes (technically, you can get around that if anyone wants me to explain the code).

Going back to the Christmas theme example: What happens when you switch to a Christmas child theme? In this scenario, you’d have to change your colors. Then, you’d have to change them again when switching back to your non-holiday child theme.

However, not all theme options need to be changed when a user switches child themes. Some options make more sense to stay the same, regardless of child theme.

What about a combination?

Actually, you can use a combination of both the Theme Mods API and Settings API with the customizer. It’s not an either/or thing. That’s just another example of its awesomeness. I even encourage this practice in some situations.

I imagine things like colors and fonts would generally make more sense as theme mods. But, an option to either show excerpts or content on the front page might be better served via the Settings API.

Each option should really be given this consideration rather than blindly doing one or the other.

#customizer-api, #settings-api, #theme-mods-api

Understanding the APIs Related to Theme Options

There seems to be a great deal of confusion regarding the various APIs involved with Theme options, especially regarding the interactions among those APIs. This confusion is obvious in discussions involving the CustomizerCustomizer Tool built into WordPress core that hooks into most modern themes. You can use it to preview and modify many of your site’s appearance settings.. This post will attempt to explain the various APIs and how they work together.

The first thing to understand is the various interactions with options: storing options in the database, retrieving options from the database, and user configuration of options.

Storing and Retrieving Options

WordPress has two APIs for storing and retrieving Theme options: the Options API and the Theme Modification (Theme Mods) API. The Options APIAPI An API or Application Programming Interface is a software intermediary that allows programs to interact with each other and share data in limited, clearly defined ways. is the “granddaddy” API, used by coreCore Core is the set of software required to run WordPress. The Core Development Team builds WordPress. and Plugins, as well as Themes. The Theme Mods API is a Theme-specific API.

The Options API uses the add_option() and update_option() functions to store options to the database, and get_option() to retrieve options from the database. The Theme Mods API uses the set_theme_mod() to store options to the database, and get_theme_mod() and get_theme_mods() to retrieve options from the database. Neither API deals with user configuration (e.g. Settings pages) of options.

User Configuration of Options

There are essentially three ways to allow users to configure Theme options: a Settings API-generated settings page, a custom settings page, and the Customizer API. Both a settings page and the Customizer display options retrieved by either the Settings API or the Theme Mods API, then return user-configured settings to that same API for storage in the database.

(Note: where the Theme Review Guidelines formerly recommended using the Settings API, that recommendation applied to using the Settings API to generate the settings page, rather than the Theme creating a custom settings page. That recommendation has been superseded by the recommendation to use the Customizer.)

The Settings API includes a robust set of functions to generate a Settings page, but is missing some key elements such as default markup for settings fields, and standard sanitization/validation based on option data type. This void is frequently filled by the various option framework libraries available. Using such frameworks avoids the necessity of the Theme developer to roll their own code. These frameworks generally also handle the sometimes complex callback structure needed to implement the Settings API fully. (And no joke; fully implementing the Settings API is so complex that I wrote a ten-page tutorial on it a few years ago.)

Until the Customizer, the only other option was a completely custom Theme settings page. These used to be all the rage (and can still be found in many options frameworks), and were promoted as a Theme “feature”. All they really did was add a non-core UIUI UI is an acronym for User Interface - the layout of the page the user interacts with. Think ‘how are they doing that’ and less about what they are doing. and increase the learning curve for Theme developers and users alike. That’s why the Theme Review Guidelines used to recommend use of the Settings API to generate Theme settings pages.

Now, for Themes that opted to use the Theme Mods API, a custom Theme settings page was the only option. The Theme Mods API is, overall, probably a better and easier API to understand and to use – but it did not include an API for creating a settings page.

Customizer API

Now, a third option exists: the Customizer.

It is important to keep in mind here that the Customizer is not an API for storing or retrieving settings; it is an API for user configuration of settings. It is not a replacement for either the Settings API or the Theme Mods API for storing/retrieving options; it is a replacement for Theme settings pages. The Customizer does not store options to or retrieve options from the database. It merely displays options retrieved by either the Theme Mods API or the Settings API, and returns settings to either the Theme Mods API or the Settings API for storage in the database.

This is a very important distinction to remember, because, while the Customizer defaults to using the Theme Mods API, it can be used with either the Theme Mods API or the Settings API. This flexibility is important for existing Themes as well as for new Themes. Developers of existing Themes that use the Settings API, and who want to migrate away from settings pages and toward use of the Customizer can do so quite easily. And Developers of new Themes that want to take advantage of the Customizer from the beginning can do so just as easily.

Key Points

  1. Theme Mods API and Options API are used to store/retrieve options
  2. Settings pages and the Customizer are used to allow users to configure options
  3. The Customizer can replace a Settings page and the Settings API, but cannot replace either the Theme Mods API or the Options API
  4. The Customizer can be used on top of either the Theme Mods API or the Options API
  5. Themes that currently use the Settings API, either directly or using an options framework library, can use the Customizer without changing any of the underlying options code already in use
  6. Themes that currently use a Settings page with the Settings API can add Customizer support without impacting or removing the current Settings page
  7. New Themes are recommended to use the Customizer with the Theme Mods API

#customizer-api, #options-api, #settings-api, #theme-mods-api

Using Sane Defaults in Themes

With the releaseRelease A release is the distribution of the final version of an application. A software release may be either public or private and generally constitutes the initial or new generation of a new or upgraded application. A release is preceded by the distribution of alpha and then beta versions of the software. of WordPress 3.9, one of the changes to the Theme Review Guidelines is that Themes must use sane defaults. That means that Themes must not write default setting values to the database. For many Themes, this may seem like a major change; but it doesn’t have to be. This post will step through a few ways to implement sane defaults.


To make this method easier, put all of your defaults inside a function:

function themeslug_get_option_defaults() {
	$defaults = array(
		'option_1' => 'value_1',
		'option_2' => 'value_2',
		'option_3' => 'value_3'
	return apply_filters( 'themeslug_option_defaults', $defaults );

(Note: by making the return valuable filterable, the Theme defaults can be easily overridden by a Child ThemeChild theme A Child Theme is a customized theme based upon a Parent Theme. It’s considered best practice to create a child theme if you want to modify the CSS of your theme. or PluginPlugin A plugin is a piece of software containing a group of functions that can be added to a WordPress website. They can extend functionality or add new features to your WordPress websites. WordPress plugins are written in the PHP programming language and integrate seamlessly with WordPress. These can be free in the Plugin Directory or can be cost-based plugin from a third-party.)

We’ll make use of this function later.

Options APIAPI An API or Application Programming Interface is a software intermediary that allows programs to interact with each other and share data in limited, clearly defined ways.

Most Themes use the Options API, and will use get_option() to put Theme settings into a global:

$themeslug_options = get_option( 'theme_themeslug_options' );

Knowing that this get_option() caall will return FALSE if the option has not yet been saved to the database, Theme developers have taken to saving default values to the database as part of Theme initialization, like so:

if ( false == get_option( 'theme_themeslug_options' ) ) {
	update_option( 'theme_themeslug_options', themeslug_get_option_defaults() );
$themeslug_options = get_option( 'theme_themeslug_options' );

But this is entirely unnecessary. And everything needed to implement a better solution already exists.

As a first step, consider that get_option() includes a second parameter, which specifies the default value to return, if nothing is returned from the database:

get_option( $name, $default );

So, the simplest solution is merely to tell get_option() to return the defaults, using the function we previously defined:

$themeslug_options = get_option( 'theme_themeslug_options', themeslug_get_option_defaults() );

This works, but isn’t perfect. It will return the Theme-defined defaults if the user hasn’t saved settings to the databse. But if later versions of the Theme add, remove, or change options, this might break, since the return value is either/or: either the database-saved setting, or else the defaults. So, if the user saves settings, and then a new setting is added in a later Theme version, the new setting value won’t be included in $themeslug_options unless/until the user saves settings again.

The solution is to merge the arrays, rather than to return one or the other. WordPress has a coreCore Core is the set of software required to run WordPress. The Core Development Team builds WordPress. function specifically for this purpose: wp_parse_args(), which will use the settings array, and “fill in the blanks” with the defaults array:

wp_parse_args( $settings, $defaults );

Caveat: bearing in mind that wp_parse_args() expects both parameters to be arrays, and knowing that get_option() returns FALSE by default, be sure to specify get_option() returns an empty array by default: get_option( ‘theme_themeslug_options’, array() ); otherwise, wp_parse_args() will (might – see note below) choke if the user hasn’t saved settings to the database.

The construct will look something like this:

$themeslug_options = wp_parse_args( 
    get_option( 'theme_themeslug_options', array() ), 

This is perhaps the simplest, most elegant way to implement sane defaults.

(Note: according to Otto, passing an empty arrayy() as the second parameter to get_option() isn’t necessary. In his words: “The wp_parse_args() function checks for the first parameter to be an object or an array. If it’s neither, then it calls wp_parse_str on it, because it can take a GET URLURL A specific web address of a website or web page on the Internet, such as a website’s URL array of parameters too. The wp_parse_str() function calls PHPPHP PHP (recursive acronym for PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor) is a widely-used open source general-purpose scripting language that is especially suited for web development and can be embedded into HTML.’s parse_str on it, and does a deep strip_slashes if magic quotes is on, then filters the result. So, because false maps to the empty string, parse_str will return an empty array for it, so passing false to wp_parse_args should be A-OK and probably has been like that for a very long time. Doesn’t hurt to add the empty array(), but doesn’t really change anything.” YMMV.)

Theme Modification API

Using the Theme Modification API (get_theme_mod()/get_theme_mods()) is fairly similar.

An individual setting can be called via:

get_theme_mod( $name, $default );

But perhaps more useful, all settings can be called via:

$themeslug_options = get_theme_mods();

Since get_theme_mods() returns an array, you can use the same technique as with Options API settings:

$themeslug_options = wp_parse_args( 

Portability/DRY (Part 2)

To be able to use this method throughout the Theme, wrap the wp_parse_args() call inside a function:

function themeslug_get_options() {
    // Options API
    return wp_parse_args( 
        get_option( 'theme_themeslug_options', array() ), 
    // Theme Mods API:
    return wp_parse_args( 

Then, wherever you need access to Theme options:

$themeslug_options = themeslug_get_options();

From there, you can globalize $themeslug_options, or cache/transient it, etc. When you need to add a new option, simply add the new option default to the defaults array, and the Theme will handle it automatically.

#guidelines, #sane-defaults, #settings-api, #theme-mods-api