Choosing the Right WordPress Design Strategy for your Website

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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.

The homepage of MRWWeb.com in the WordPress editor and two themes
One page, three ways.

One Theme, Many Paths

But how does one get a theme? There are two general strategies and one hybrid:

  1. Purchasing a premium theme
  2. Building a custom theme
  3. Building a child theme

Premium Themes

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…

Custom Themes

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.))

Talk Back

Which of these solutions are you using on your WordPress site? How’s it working out?

Source Image: FHKE. Some rights reserved.

19 thoughts on “Choosing the Right WordPress Design Strategy for your Website”

  1. Hey Mark, I do agree with you on some of this, but I still think that premium themes are a viable long-term solution for many small businesses. Customized of course is great, but from experience I have found I can brand most businesses very well with a premium theme, including myself : )

    I think there are lot’s of options out there and you just need to find what works best for you and fits your needs. And yes, the premium themes are more “out of the box” but again, some of these themes are making it easier to do what customization most people really need.

    I have found too many small businesses, with small budgets, spend too much of their wanting that perfect look, and have come to find that a premium theme really does the job of making them look professional while realizing the content is what really sells them in the end.

    Your post if a good guide and does spell out what people should look for : )

    1. Bob,

      Thanks for the really thoughtful comments. I was hoping someone would come in to defend premium themes!

      I think your point about fit is dead on. If people picked more appropriate themes rather than basing their decision entirely on a cool slider or unique short code, I would have a much better impression of themes. However, even with my guidance, I’ve had clients pick themes that proved to be terrible choices shortly thereafter. (My favorite story: Guy buys a theme, sends it to me, and asks for me to modify it so it looks like a different theme he didn’t buy. Good times.)

      I know you do education to help people learn how to pick appropriate premium themes, and I think that’s a really great way to help people with limited budgets still get good websites.

  2. I prefer Child Theming, and customize the default 2010 or 2011 WordPress theme for my 90% of my clients.
    In my experience, Custom Themes are often too expensive for small businesses and nonprofits; plus, Custom Themes, unless developed really well, seem to have more problems with WordPress upgrades.
    Premium Themes may be ok for sites with really rich content. However, most of the Premium Themes and Theme Frameworks that I look at include lots of bloated non-SEO-friendly code; pages can load slower, accessibility is not always a consideration, etc.

    1. Scott, you bring up an interesting point that I chose not to expand on. In the article, I mentioned that a custom theme is “a theme made from scratch (or very close to it).” When I look at your themes, they seem to float in between my definitions of a child theme and custom theme because they are so heavily [and nicely!] modified.

      I personally base most of my themes off of the HTML5 WordPress blank theme (http://html5reset.org/#wordpress), but I think it serves a similar role to Twenty Eleven in your development process. And yet I consider my themes to be “custom.” I’m not sure where one draws the line. (Thoughts?)

      I think for both of us, starting with a base theme that has solid code is a way we can save some of our time and pass that along as savings to the client.

  3. That was a great article, Mark. I think I’ll use it in the future to explain the different options to clients.

    I also do mostly custom themes, but I agree that premium/child themes are the best choice for certain projects, especially entrepenuers and small businesses on tight budgets.

    I do have a couple extra reasons why I don’t generally dislike premium themes — and by extension, child themes — though:

    1) Like Scott said, they’re usually bloated with features you don’t want/need, which slows down load time and increases the chance of conflicts with plugins. If the theme is written properly, you can usually disable most of this in the child theme, but it adds extra time to the project, which reduces the primary benefit of using a premium theme in the first place.

    2) You can often spot a premium theme a mile away, and I think that makes the organization look unprofessional. It’s like if you hand somebody a business card you created in Office and printed at home on your HP Deskjet. Potential clients/customers won’t take you as seriously if they know you didn’t put much effort into your branding.

    3) Personally, I don’t trust most theme shops to write secure, standards-compliant, cross-browser code/markup/style, but some of them definitely do.

    1. Hey Ian, thought I would pop in as I defended the premium themes so much.

      I do agree, a lot of them are bloated and basically a piece of crap : ) But there are some really well-coded one’s out there as well, as you mentioned. But it’s a matter of knowing what is what.

      As someone who has worked in marketing and design for 20 years, I tend to still disagree with your second point. I think the fact that premium themes can be spotted easily, isn’t always true with the users. Yes, WP developers and designers see them all the time, so we can. But most people won’t or don’t even think about it. You can brand a company with a good premium theme and your customers of course, like the look of a professional site, but easy navigation and great content is where you will make the sale in the end. And there are plenty of premium themes that can make you look professional : )

      1. I agree that as a WordPress professional, maintaining the ability to see things like Average Jane User is quite the challenge, and that probably does bias me a bit toward premium themes.

    2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Ian!

      The bloat is big reason to avoid premium themes. I think that comes with the “one-size-fits-all” approach to many (most?) premium themes that’s good for sales and bad for users.

      One development in the premium theme world I am excited about, though, is the creation of niche themes. I think the evolution will be slow, but I’ve read about and begun to see a move toward themes that are more targeted at specific uses. When designing with a specific use in mind, I think some (but certainly not all) of that bloat may clear up.

  4. Wonderful article, Mark. It is well-crafted, and shows your experience and expertise in the field.

    I have not yet delved into custom WordPress design (I’m an HTML/CSS coder), but work mostly with premium themes. Your blog is beautiful! It definitely stands out, and for a web designer who looks at tons of sites, it was nice to be ‘wowed’ upon arriving here!

    I agree with Bob that premium themes work well for many small to medium sized businesses. Professionalism, as art, is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve observed successful professional businesses that have websites and marketing materials that are nothing special, and are often old. Their reputation is what stands out for them, which is what brings in new clients, and visitors to their websites don’t care if it has the same structure as another business.

    I think you laid out the differences and what each type of theme is best for, despite your bias toward custom themes.

    If any of you have recommendations for premium theme designers that have clean, compliant, etc, code, I would love to hear from you.

    Thanks again for your article!

    1. Thanks for joining the discussion, Lynn.

      I always think of themes as being “laid over” the site’s content, and so to extend the metaphor, a beautiful site is only as good as the foundation upon which it is built!

      Thanks for the compliments on the site as well (it’s only been about 6 weeks since I redid the site)! I’ll keep your request for recommendations on good code in mind as I write future articles.

  5. In general I would agree with your assesment, but these choices are someone plotted from
    least expensive to most expensive. Which is generally how decisions are getting
    made regarding theming approaches on projects.

    There is are larger questions of best practices and support. Some of those issues are
    temporarily made moot by wordpress’s fanatical backward compatability. So you
    can update wordpress and your site should not fail even if you aren’t using
    current best practices.

    This doesn’t point to a solution that speaks to all of the concerns. The easiest solution
    for an individual design / development shop is to get as much of a budget for
    implementing branded best practices in the form of a custom theme for every
    client. As we all know this is rarely the case and not particularly practical.
    There are a lot of specializations with this field, and there are many tools
    that you will just not be able to build and would be hard presses to support on
    a budget if they didn’t just work. And but creating a custom theme we remove
    the client from the possible of inexpensive updates to a premium theme do to
    its wider customer base.

    Even given a set of tools and complete documentation of best practices a single client isn’t
    typically going to pay to completly vet a theme.

    So with the assumption being that a design/developer should have a solution for all issues
    that lands somewhere between a free or almost free premium theme and a completely
    custom branded solution, the choice gets more complicated.

    Should you hire a developer that doesn’t unify their them design approach into a premium
    theming direction charging for custom development every time? Or should we all
    build on a premium theme or on one child theme platform so that we become
    expert in a certain approach allowing our bids to be more competitive and the
    upgrade paths to be clearer. Or should we pile as much on common sources of
    code that are paid and have a higher chance of being supported and upgraded in
    the long term.

    At the end of the day the job is to provide branded solutions that deliver a clients
    information and interaction points in the cleanest most supportable way
    possible. I think that we all need to get comfortable leveraging any and all
    tools that we can to move the costs from the technical side of theme
    development to a more complete process of applying best practices to the end
    product. It’s ok if your clients only want a wordpress site with a premium
    theme if you can then provide ongoing support on guidance on platform usage,
    content styling, seo, sem, analytics and optimization, A/B testing, etc..

    I know that we all want to apply our core expertise, we want to do the design, we want to
    build the design, but in order to remain competitive we need to place more
    value on the management and communication side of the business and not be so
    focused on having our design and our code in every project. Less is more. How
    do we use the less to provide the smallest house of cards for our clients to
    knock over. An how can we move the budget from development to checking off more
    of the boxes on our best practices list.

    Our job is not only to tell our clients what to do, but to tell them what not to do and
    what they do that is not going to right or productive if not done with sufficient
    budget, tools, and will to fulfill their part of the project. It is also to
    direct them to supportable sources of code. WordPress, gravity forms, wpmu,
    joost, backup buddy. These are source of code with large client bases and in
    most of a cases a way better value than having your theme developer throw down
    custom code that is never going to be touched again and will eventually have to
    be scraped to add new features because your dev has moved on. That is part of
    why we are all migrating to wordpress, I think the major reason, so that we can
    provide solutions to client based upon standard practices that aren’t going to
    fail if we move on. Let’s just accept that an evolve to providing those
    solutions and get better at coming together on what those common practices and
    tools are. Including picking themes that have built a community.

    Lets strive for custom configurations, not custom code.

    That is one of the major problems that I see with the premium theme market, in the effort
    to be competitive they throw in everything they can, even things that they have
    no intention of ever supporting or touching again. If you don’t want to support
    and expand a feature, let someone else put it in a plugin and become the expert
    and just point your clients to use it. Like gravity forms. Don’t put a
    competitor in your premium theme unless you are going to compete to be the
    expert in user generated forms or at least are going to tend the code and keep
    it fresh.

    This is why I prefer some of the frameworks, because you can met somewhere in the middle,
    some of the technical concerns are standardize such as browser resets,
    doctypes, common basic layout elements, without adding a bunch of items that
    are going to break if you color outside the lines, and you can add your extra
    functionality with plugins.

    That beings said, I think the industry winners are going to be paid sources and we should
    all use them to offload things that are in core but are fundamental and
    shouldn’t be retooled for each client. Backup buddy, gravity forms, and yes
    theme foundations and premium themes. Unfortunately there is not a clear winner
    in theming yet because most of the paid themes and foundations appear to make
    to many assumptions and put to many rails on so that you have to do as much
    work devolving and customizing them as you would do to just make a custom
    theme. I think this will eventually work itself out, but premium theme
    developers are going to have to do a way better job of modularizing their
    approach and advocating for their methods so that its clear to a design/dev
    shop that they aren’t going down a road that is going to paint them in a
    corner. And that they upgrade path for their code is not going to break client
    sites where there is no more budget for fixes or upgrades.

    Did I write enough yet? I’m spent now, need to go reheat my coffee.

    1. Trevor! Wow. I’m honored you’d spend so long on a comment. You raise a lot of good points, and I like your forward-looking direction. That’s not something I took on in this post, but it’s certainly relevant.

      In response to a few of your points:
      – I am 100% with you in the need for building businesses based on best practice consulting. I actually try to position myself in that exact way. Not just someone with tech knowledge but someone who can competently guide you through the myriad decisions that come with building a new website.

      – Custom themes may contain custom designs, but I’ve never actually written a theme completely from scratch. I think code reuse is an important part of remaining affordable to clients, and I hope I didn’t give the opposite impression.

      – With that said, I still worry that only custom themes can truly avoid code bloat. In my experience with both premium and custom themes, I’ve had more problems with premium themes interfering with other plugins than code I have written breaking. In my experience, compliant, forward-looking code (at this point that means html5/css3 that gracefully degrades and WordPress-standard PHP) will last. I think it’s healthy to reevaluate and rework a website every 3-5 years. If we want our systems to improve, that usually means breaking the old things that used to work (see: IE6).

      – You don’t mention it by name, but you seem to be thinking about “canonical plugins.” (http://wordpress.org/news/2009/12/canonical-plugins/) That idea seems to have been dropped, but I wonder whether we’ll see it come back at some point. I certainly understand the argument made for them (although how does that fit in with the world of open source where competing product improve each other). In terms of themes, though, I’m not sure that such a thing as a “canonical theme” can exist. The Twenty Ten/Eleven series might be the closest, but I don’t think that really counts.

      Thanks again for the comments! You raised some excellent ideas.

      1. That canonical plugin idea is interesting, but I’m not enamored of community colabaration the way that some are. I think that part of the problem of having code in an ecosystem that doesn’t have committed developers behind it. Loosly coupled teams can do some really cool things, but at the end of the day it would be best if the sites we build have clear centers of responsibility. And the lower the budget the more that should not be the developer implemention the solution.

        WordPress has a solid core team and a commitment to backwards compatibilty. It is when we extent it that we have to be realy careful to make sure that we aren’t painting our clients in an expensive corner.

        I agree, custom themes are the best way for a developer to insure that they are putting in only what the client needs in a way that that developer understands and can cost effectively support and change. And when done well another developer should be able to come along and understand what was done and why.

        My difficulty comes in the vetting process for code that you trying and adopt from third parties because its not cost effective to do it from scratch. And often is to costly to fully vet the code.

        I much prefer paid addons to wordpress for plugins, and if a client desires a theme that has lots of features I prefer if it is a premium theme that is paid for. I feel much more comfortable that the code is going to be maintained and upgraded.

        I agree that a 3-5 year refresh is probably a good time frame if your sites are well constructed. But I would like to see the buyers budgeting on a much shorter timeframe.

        The constant question for me is how do you get your clients treat thier website more like another store front and less like a brochure in a drawer. Clients that can really work there content once you turn over a site are a rare thing for me.

        I also get frustrated sometimes when I see developers talking about all of the things that they do for thier sites because the average client is only going to budget for a fraction of things that they could proactively do to be successful, make their site fast, and work everywhere. So we are constantly cutting corners to include things quickly that are not bulletproof. Or are done to satisfy a design that doesn’t fit the realities of web development.

        It’s late, so you caught me in the morning rambiling and in the evening. I’ll stop now :).

        1. More good thoughts, Trevor. Thanks.

          The quote I really love: “The constant question for me is how do you get your clients treat thier
          website more like another store front and less like a brochure in a
          drawer.”

          That is SO right.

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