The Follies of Prebuilt WordPress Themes

My favorite way to start any project is from scratch. When I’m able to create the look and feel of something with a clean slate, rather than having to work with too many established structures, the end results are reliably better.

In the case of web design, it’s especially important to have either a completely clean slate, or a really well-built framework to start from.

The reasons for this extends beyond my desire for creative freedom. A clean slate is when we design every important page of your website first in Photoshop, and then we engage a talented developer to build a 100% custom WordPress theme. From a user perspective, this allows us to organize your content in a way that makes the most sense for you and your audience. From a design perspective, this gives us the freedom to style every detail in a way that’s most expressive of your brand vision. From a technical perspective, this enables a developer to build a site just as we’ve designed it. It also means we can setup an intuitive backend for your site that will be easy to add to and build on as your business grows.

I understand that when you’re first starting a business or getting a blog off the ground, a custom website might not always work for your budget. Also, you may not want to invest the time it takes to review multiple rounds of page layouts and then have a developer build them separately.

So what’s a good budget-friendly, efficient way to get a starter website up?

Many people like the idea of taking an existing WordPress theme and then hiring a designer and/or a developer to customize it. On the surface, this approach makes sense. There are many good looking WordPress themes out there. You see the glossy live demos and think, all I need to do is update the fonts and colors, switch out the header image, move a few things around and I’ll have a great site. This should be cost-effective since you don’t need to hire a developer to build multiple pages from scratch.

The problem with this is twofold. First, the idea of “light customization” is a slippery slope.

It seems like a few small cosmetic tweaks could transform a cookie cutter template into something unique, but the reality is that, once we start tweaking fonts and colors, it’s hard to limit ourselves to finessing just those elements. When custom elements start interacting with default settings, a palpable tension emerges. Why does the header look refined, but the footer looks generic? So we redesign the footer to match the header, and so on. What started out as a quick re-skin of a template quickly turns into a custom design.

The second part of the problem comes when it’s time to set up the actual site.

Every prebuilt theme is designed with a few things that are easy to customize. Everyone wants to add their own header image and change colors, so there are usually simple ways to make those changes to the theme without having to understand code. But other things that should be easy to change actually aren’t. For example, I’ve worked with themes where you can’t change the background color of the social media icons, even with the help of a developer. So even if we customized those things during the design phase, we may discover that we can’t actually implement them. Already, the design integrity starts to break down, and we haven’t even launched the site.

Then, in order to implement the other design changes, a developer has to add custom code to the existing site. This starts to get messy, because instead of coding the site with the end result in mind, a developer is adding new layers of code to fix or overwrite the theme’s original code. As a result of these extra layers, it can be difficult to update certain content areas or make simple changes without engaging a developer again. This makes the project more costly, and slows down the process even more.

The real potential problems, however, mount after we launch the site. Sometimes the prebuilt theme has an update that causes the custom code to break. Or imagine, after a year or two of business, you realize that you need to redo your home page or change the layout—if the original developer isn’t available to help, it can be hard to find someone else who’s willing to work with bandaid code that they didn’t author.

I’ve learned these things after years of working with many different kinds of websites. Early in my freelance career, I teamed up with a developer to offer customized WordPress theme packages. Our intention was to provide a cost-effective alternative to building websites from scratch. We succeeded in getting nice-looking sites up that worked well for a year or so, but over time, as each client needed to optimize, I realized that our approach was shortsighted. The savings that we provided in the initial launch of those sites was overtaken by the headaches and costs incurred later down the road.

Now, when I meet clients who want to get a simple site up quickly, I point them to Squarespace.

I prefer this to customizing WordPress themes because it’s much easier to make general layout and style changes without knowing code. This means that we don’t need a developer to get a site up, and whatever customizations we do make, we handle within the Squarespace backend. We don’t need to add layers of messy code to a site and therefore initiate its gradual, inevitable breakdown. We’re simply working with the tools that have been designed to function as we’re using them. These sites aren’t perfect, but they are a good budget-friendly option for someone who is getting a new business or creative project off the ground.

For people who have been running their businesses for a while, and are ready for a second or third iteration of their online homes, I always recommend designing and building a custom theme from scratch. If you are making serious green from your website, then a “ground up” approach is absolutely worth the investment. Your business and your nerves will thank you.