WordPress Theme vs Custom Template Design

By Published 19 September 2013

When it comes to designing a website, as professional developers we are faced with many choices, but none more important than whether to start designing a website from scratch or whether to find an existing template or WordPress theme.

WordPressThere are some amazing themes available now – from the likes of Studiopress (Genesis), Woo Themes and Themeforest that have a good foothold in the WordPress theme market.  But be aware of their structure.  It may not fit your business model.

Fundamentally there is no right or wrong – however the biggest deciding factor is down to the clients requirements not just now – but in the future.

As a marketer, it’s incredibly important to get to understand fully the business for which you are building a website for.  Not just the products or services they are selling – but the future plans for the business in order to determine a strategy online.

So I thought I would put together Pro’s and Con’s of both:

Existing WordPress theme – Advantages

  1. Thousands to choose from – almost too many
  2. By choosing a popular theme with well known developers, the ongoing support can be good
  3. Can make putting a website together very straightforward and simple
  4. If you choose a popular framework like Genesis, then it’s easy to swap the themes around, but essentially keeping the same structure in place.
  5. Potentially more profitable as no development work required.

Disadvantages

  1. Can take you a long time to find the right theme for the client
  2. There are still a lot of themes that are not responsive – ie, that will work well on a mobile.
  3. Once you’ve found something the client wants, then all is fine until they want to change the layout “slightly”.  Most of the time “slightly” means development work, which means creating a child theme.
  4. Once you’ve created a child theme, then the chances are more changes are required to the theme, which means even more development work.
  5. The original designer/developer of theme could potentially move on to other things in future, which means there is no support for changes, so the theme will have no updates.

Designing new Theme from Scratch – Advantages

  1. Working from a blank page is always easier. However, getting a detailed brief from the client is paramount to making sure all aspects are considered and allowed for.
  2. The client can have a lot more input into the design – within reason though.
  3. As designers/developers, it’s important to follow new trends – so to create something new is always satisfying.
  4. Gives you the opportunity to create your own framework and your own plugins to give you the exact flexibility that you require for the site.

Disadvantages

  1. Can take a lot longer – both to design and to build
  2. Needs a lot more development work
  3. Can be a lot more expensive for reasons above

Conclusion – new house vs old house?

Fundamentally, you can liken building a website from a theme to moving into an old house.  Primarily you like the layout, but you might want to knock a few walls down and change the colours, and build an extension…

…whereas building a website from scratch means you buy the plot of land and build it from the ground up putting the walls where you want them in the first place – no knocking down involved!

So this goes back to my earlier point – what shape is the business likely to want to be in in the next few years – build something sturdy enough that’s going to last within the clients expectations.

This is another reason why professional businesses should be wary when working with individual freelancers – they normally come with one point of view and one skill, not the many marketing skills required for a long term web design project.

Let me know what you think?

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Author: Alison Boyle

Alison co-founded LA Marketing and is specialist in strategic online marketing for small businesses, and is passionate about teaching SME’s to grow their business through understanding social media, and empowering them to market themselves online. You can follow Alison on Twitter or Google+

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  • Ashton

    I think the best would be combination of wordpress theme + little customization and tweaks, design (plugins and css).

  • For 98% of use cases out there, a modern, 360 degree standards compliant theme can be found and substantially modified through the (usually several) pre-made layouts, built-in theme options (fonts, colors, etc.), and custom css/js code (which modern templates usually also have a place for).

    I believe the most efficient combination is buying a professional template and having a professional developer customize it to the extent needed. Chances are, even with templates sold over a thousand times, in your particular niche, in your language, you won’t find a direct competitor using the same design.

    In modern professional templates all current requirements like responsiveness, HTML5, CSS3, social connectivity, etc. are accounted for. The built-in customization options keep changes persistent through theme updates. That is mostly true for WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, and Magento, but covers some other platforms to a leeser extent.

  • Katie

    One very important thing to remember: ALWAYS make a child theme. This should not be considered a disadvantage for using a WordPress theme, it is (should be?) common practice whether the layout “slightly” needs to be changed or not. Some themes make changes to the theme without you realizing it when you’re making font changes or color changes via built-in selectors or editors, and when you update the theme it will be gone. Always make a child theme. 🙂

    I loved the comparison to building or renovating houses. Makes perfect sense!

  • Everything have its pros and cons. Custom websites are costly then the templates but templates are more easy to use. So both have some good and bad things in them. It totally depends on your requirements and budget..
    Custom Web Design Services

  • Gagandeep Singh

    really nice one..
    Thanks a lot!

  • Alex Price

    Interesting stuff – I like your point about developers not being able to provide support, this is something people should consider more often.

    I actually wrote a post about this here – https://93digital.co.uk/blog/the-problem-with-premium-wordpress-themes/

    For me speed is probably the biggest drawback of a premium theme when they are loading so many unnecessary resources in the background.

  • This is very insightful. I’ve been weary about using themes for my clients, but have often run into clients who need to get moving fast and have a smaller budget. I love the analogy of staging a house. That is incredibly true. Design can distract us from what we actually love about a site – the content.

  • Nice post and also the way of explanation is very nice.