It’s an exciting time in the website building process: your website looks amazing…in your head. But all you have in front of you is a blank screen and a blank stare. How do you get started?
If your new site will be in WordPress, you’ll need a “theme” to make your site beautiful. There are multiple routes to a theme, so here are the pros and cons of each.
What is a Theme
First, let’s briefly define what a theme is. Here’s the official WordPress definition:
WordPress Themes are files that work together to create the design and functionality of a WordPress site. Each Theme may be different, offering many choices for site owners to take advantage of in order to instantly change their website look.
In other words, a theme takes your WordPress pages, posts, menus, and widgets and tells them how to look. Themes allow you to manage your content separately from your design. With the click of a button, you can completely transform the look of your WordPress website. In the diagram below, you can see the home page of this website in the WordPress post editor, with the custom theme I made for this website, and with the default WordPress theme “Twenty Eleven.” It’s the same content in three forms.
One Theme, Many Paths
But how does one get a theme? There are two general strategies and one hybrid:
- Purchasing a premium theme
- Building a custom theme
- Building a child theme
Premium themes are made for use by hundreds of websites and sold to site owners for a profit. These themes are often designed with a broad audience in mind, and so they come with lots of features and customizable settings. Premium themes usually cost between $35 and $75 dollars. ((There are free themes as well, although they are often—but not always!—of lower quality. If you want to use a free theme, stick with one from the Official WordPress Theme Directory.))
Advantages of Premium Themes
- Premium themes are cheap when you consider the amount of work that went into them.
- There is a huge selection available on many websites.
- Some premium themes have very impressive customization options including ways to alter the design’s colors.
Drawbacks of Premium Themes
- Premium themes are often built with a one-size-fits-all mentality.
- Premium themes often contain “flavor of the month” features (like sliders) that increase sales but don’t offer lasting value.
- Premium themes require at least a working knowledge of all the standard WordPress features.
- Premium themes greatly vary in quality and do not always include support.
My Take on Premium Themes
Using a premium theme, you can have a complete site up in less than a day. However, that speed highlights the largest drawback: lack of planning and customization. With a premium theme, you are not getting a unique design made especially for your organization. My experience is that premium themes rarely do more than 80% of what you need. Unless you have a WordPress professional helping you, you’ll be stuck with a less-than-ideal site or forced into decisions you wouldn’t have to make with…
A custom theme is what it sounds like: A theme made from scratch (or very close to it) to implement a custom website design. I primarily build custom themes for my clients. When designing and building a custom theme, every decision is made with the paying client in mind.
Advantages of Custom Themes
- Custom themes are designed to exactly meet the needs of your website.
- With a custom theme, no other websites will look like yours.
- Custom themes have only the features needed for your site so you don’t have to wade through long options panels.
Drawbacks of Custom Themes
- Custom themes take more time and money to develop.
- A custom theme made by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing could certainly turn out worse than a well-made premium theme.
My Take on Custom Themes
Custom themes require that you work with a designer and theme developer—in my case, I do both—to define your needs, analyze other website designs, work through revisions of mockups, and then implement the theme. However, the end results are 100% unique and made exactly to your website’s specifications.
My advice: Whenever possible, go this route. The results speak for themselves.
The Hybrid: Child Themes
There is a third option that combines parts of both strategies. WordPress allows themes to build “on top” of other themes. This technique is called “child theming.”
When I make child themes, I work with a client to identify a theme they mostly like, discuss the parts they don’t like, and deliberately work to tweak and improve the look of the theme. If done wrong, this process can produce a hodge-podge “frankenstein” theme, but when done well, it saves time, but still produces an attractive site.
Using a child theme is still not a replacement for making a custom theme, but in certain circumstances, it’s appropriate.
So Which Is Best?
There is no best solution, but here are some common situations and what I’d recommend for each:
- Temporary site that needs to launch immediately: Premium theme
- Nonprofit organization or small business website redesign: Custom theme
- Modest Budget: Child Theme
- Do-it-yourself: Premium theme
- Need a unique brand/image: Custom theme
- Blog sites: Premium Theme, Custom theme or Child theme ((The premium theme selection for blogging is much stronger than many themes for other types of sites.))
Which of these solutions are you using on your WordPress site? How’s it working out?