WordPress has great appeal because it’s a free, powerful content management system with thousands of pre-made themes to choose from. There’s so much you can do yourself using free or cheap pre-made themes, so when is it time to hire a developer/designer to do custom work for you? When is it better to save money and build it yourself?
This article will evaluate the good, bad, and the ugly of custom made themes and pre-made themes so that you can decide which is best for you and your business. There’s a time and place for both, and I’ll do my best to give a level-headed, professional opinion on which is best in different scenarios.
TL;DR: Custom vs Pre-Made Themes Flowchart
I think you should read the whole article, but if you want the quick version, use this flowchart to help you make your decision. The rest of the article explains the reasoning behind this chart.
Custom WordPress Themes
A good custom theme will always be better than the best pre-made theme. It’ll be more lightweight, load faster, and be more reliable. When building a site from scratch, you can tailor all design and code to accomplish your site’s goals.
For example, a site’s goals could be:
- People will know within 20 seconds what kind of business we are and who our clients are.
- We want to build an email list of 1000 people who will become long-term customers within 6 months of launch.
You don’t need to know your site goals ahead of time. A good designer/developer will help you figure out appropriate goals, and walk you through the process of how you can set, measure, and refine those goals.
Who Should Use a Custom WordPress Theme?
A custom site isn’t just about code and design, it’s about accomplishing goals. So, if you answer “yes” to any of these questions, you should seriously consider hiring someone to create a custom theme for you:
- Is your website going to be your main source of revenue? If your website is heavily tied to your revenue, such as an ecommerce site, you should invest in your business and hire someone who can help you evaluate and implement the best set-up for you. Little details can make a huge impact on your site. Read The $300 Million Button to see what I mean.
- Is your site going to have complex functionality or structure? For example, are you running a business with multiple locations that each have separate hours, directions, contact info, and employees? Are you starting a restaurant and want to have online ordering, online booking, and a menu that you can easily update daily specials, menu items, sections, and prices?
- Will your website serve the role of a sales person or secretary? Automating tasks while connecting with customers is great, but it’s easy for these to be ineffective or difficult to manage. Hire someone who can design solutions that will work for you.
- Will a great website give you a competitive advantage? Make it worth your customers’ time and yours by investing in a custom site. Websites aren’t checkboxes on the business list. If they’re not serving a purpose, it’s not worth the money.
- Will your site have thousands of visitors per day? You’ll need to highly prioritize performance, or you’ll end up with a slowly loading site and lots of server crashes.
Pros of Custom WordPress Themes
- Tailored exactly to your needs.
- Lightweight code.
- More stable. Less moving parts means less variables that can break your site.
- Site goals lead the design Rather than trying to retrofit a design to meet your goals.
- Unique design. No site will look exactly like yours.
- Future-proof. If coded well, you should be able to easily move to a new design in the future.
- Experienced web designer. You get the expertise of the person designing and building your site to guide you through the process and help you avoid common, costly mistakes.
- Saves time. You don’t have to build and design your site yourself.
- Easier to manage complex tasks. For example, with the restaurant example above, a good developer can build a custom plugin that will allow you to easily enter your menu items, price them, rearrange them, etc.
- Accessible for people with visual disabilities. Accessible sites are made by designer/developers who prioritize it. MANY websites are not friendly for screen reader programs. It’s not overly difficult to do, but oftentimes it’s not prioritized.
Cons of Custom WordPress Themes
- Expensive. For even the most basic site, plan to budget at least $2000 for an experienced designer and developer. This is not a hard and fast rule. Pricing is all over the place, so you may be able to find someone for cheaper. At the same time, don’t be surprised if an experienced designer/developer’s starting rate is $5000 or more.
- Highly dependent on hiring the right person/firm. It’s hard to find someone with experience when there’s so much to understand when creating a website. How do you evaluate someone’s code when you don’t code? Make sure they’re honest and can point to specific goals they’ve accomplished for their clients. Test their sites on your phone, tablet, and desktop computer. See if they really work how they say they do.
Pre-Made WordPress Themes
Pre-made WordPress themes give a low barrier of entry to a website. It’s cheap, easy (sometimes), and allows you the satisfaction of building a website yourself. Before we go into the pros and cons of pre-made WordPress themes, it’s good to take a look at the main goals of companies and designer/developers who make WordPress themes:
- Built for customization. When building a pre-made theme, the more adaptable it is, the more people you can sell it to. This means bloat. It’s like buying a toolbox when you only need the screwdriver.
- Give tons of options. You’re not going to see any themes that promote themselves as “Totally Inflexible! Only One Font Choice and Color Palette! Limited Options!” But, in the end, you don’t need 400 fonts on your website, you only need one or two.
This does not mean that pre-made themes are inherently bad. Pre-made themes serve a wonderful role by offering decent sites that can be set-up by people who don’t code. That’s a great thing. You just need to keep in mind what goals pre-made themes are trying to accomplish, and weigh the pros and cons to see if it fits your needs well.
Who Should Use a Pre-Made WordPress Theme?
A well-made custom WordPress theme is always going to be more lightweight and faster than a pre-made WordPress theme, and a Corvette is always going to be faster than a Prius. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for both. If you answer “yes” to these questions, a pre-made theme may be a better choice for you:
- Do you have a budget of less than $2000? This is a rule of thumb. You can find people for cheaper because experience is varied.
- Is your website just an informational “business card” site? If you won’t be making money off of your site or attracting a substantial amount of new customers from it, save your money.
- Are your competitors’ sites poorly made? For example, if you’re a plumber, and all plumbers’ sites in your area are awful, then you probably don’t need much in order to be the cream of the crop in your market. Spend your marketing budget on a good Search Engine Optimization (SEO) person instead.
- Is your site personal? If it’s just your personal blog, save your money and buy a pre-made theme that you like the design of and that works well.
Pros of Pre-Made WordPress Themes
- Cheap. Pre-made themes range from $0 to $150. High price does not necessarily mean quality though.
- Lots of Options. You can easily select your own color palette and font choices.
- You don’t need to know how to code. You might have to copy/paste complex shortcodes that are difficult to understand, but you don’t need to know any programming languages.
- You can see the outcome. When you hire a custom designer/developer, you’re paying them before you actually see what they make for you. A good designer/developer will always make sure you’re happy with the outcome and explain why design decisions were made and what their impact is. With pre-made themes, what you see is what you get.
- Satisfaction. It’s empowering to completely control your website and get it set-up on your own. If you’re someone who isn’t scared of learning new things and loves problem solving, you may have a great time learning the ins and outs of your WordPress site.
Cons of Pre-Made WordPress Themes
- Beware of switching themes in the future. Most of the time, pre-made themes heavily rely on shortcodes and custom fields. If you ever change themes, be prepared to start from scratch.
- Difficult to set-up. Sure, you can display a page with a custom format, responsive grids, and a slider; but be prepared for a steep learning curve even if no code is involved.
- Bloated. Offering tons of options goes hand-in-hand with bloat and sluggish sites.
- Difficult to fix. As someone who makes websites for a living, anytime I’m hired to fix or add something to a pre-made theme, it takes me twice as long because pre-made themes are offering so many features and options. Every change you make, you have to check that you didn’t unintentionally break something else, and in pre-made themes, there’s a lot more to check.
How to Evaluate Pre-Made WordPress Themes
If a pre-made WordPress theme is right for you, how do you decide which one is best?
- Test it. If it says it’s responsive, resize your browser and see how it handles it. Do things restack and reorganize well? Does the menu work well on an iPhone? If the theme demo site doesn’t work well, don’t expect your site to work well.
- Run a speed test. Does it say it’s lightweight? Go to Pingdom’s Website Speed Test and enter the theme’s demo site URL. If the demo site has more than 40 http requests, it’s not lightweight. I tested a few pre-made themes, some of which said they were lightweight, and generally got anywhere from 80 – 130 requests. My website is run on WordPress, and the custom base theme I made only has 11 requests. Pre-made themes on the Genesis framework were by far the best, but I didn’t test that many.
- Does it use scroll hijacking? Scroll hijacking is when you scroll the website, and the website changes your scroll speed, or doesn’t allow you to scroll how you normally do. I’m extremely biased against scroll hijacking for many reasons. When I see a theme that implements it by default without a specific, good reason, I skip it. There are so many themes out there, that a litmus test like this for quickly evaluating themes is helpful.
What if Custom Themes and Pre-Made Themes Sound Right for You?
If you answered “yes” to a lot of the questions on both the custom theme and pre-made theme sections, then hiring a consultant to install a pre-made theme might be right for you.
For example, say you’re a small business who needs a website, and you have $800 budget to get everything built. You don’t have time to build it yourself, and you don’t have the budget or need for a custom website. A great option is hiring someone to implement a pre-made theme for you. The consultant you hire can help you decide on your site’s goals and pick a theme that will be best for your needs.
There’s No 100% Right Answer
Each business and site has different needs and goals. You might decide a custom theme is right for you, but you run across a pre-made theme that perfectly fits everything you need. Or, you may think a pre-made theme is right for you, and end up running into lots of problems. Lots can happen.
Get the information you need to make the right decision, and do what’s best for you. Don’t feel bad or let people judge you for not making the “perfect” site.
I’ve tried to be unbiased in this review, and I’m open to feedback. Think I’m wrong? Have more questions? Leave a comment and let me know.
If you need to develop a custom theme, let’s get in touch.