WordPress Themes: Custom or Off-The-Shelf

There is much debate in the professional web development community these days as to whether or not to use an off-the-shelf WordPress theme like those you can purchase from sites like ThemeForest.com, or custom-code your own theme. While some web developers vehemently – and rather snobbishly at times – defend custom-coding all sites (WordPress sites, notwithstanding), others unashamedly cling to using off-the-shelf themes. After all, why reinvent the wheel, right? When debating this, it’s important to give consideration to the pros and cons of both sides.

The most important thing is that your finished project meet the goals and needs of the client for which it was designed. With that in mind, I’d like to talk about a few things I’ve learned about themes in my journey as a web designer.

OTST’s Advantages

Image: An example of an off-the-shelf theme site that we’ve done:

Fact: Many modern OTST WordPress themes are extremely customizable

The themes that are available today have so many built-in features available right from the admin that it essentially negates any argument that themes lock a user into one, cookie-cutter look. You can easily create a site that is, for all intents and purposes, completely custom and modeled specifically around the branding of your client; all with far less time and effort than it would take to custom code a similar site. This makes for a huge time saver, and thus, saves the client money.

Client need met: Custom look for an affordable cost

Fact: Many modern OTST’s have tons of really slick built-in features

As a web designer who loves cool gadgets and fancy tricks, it can be pretty exciting to see all sorts of fancy transitions, animations and various other eye-catching front-end effects that are available to me in a drag-and-drop user interface. Many of the features you find built right into many modern OTST themes would take hours to code by hand. Thus once again, offering optimal front-end experience for a fraction of the cost.

Client need met: High-end features for an affordable cost

Custom-Coded Theme Advantages

Image: An example of a custom-coded site that we’ve done:

Fact: Off-the-shelf themes are large and can be “overkill” for some sites

All of those customizable capabilities we just discussed come with a cost. Off-the-shelf themes often offer a ton really cool features and, thus, they can be bulky and bloated which can make your site run more slowly than you or the search engines would like it to. They often come with a heavy load of style sheets and javascript that can slow your site down. These days, page load speeds are more important than ever. A custom-coded theme can allow the developer much more control over page load speed by coding only the things that the individual project calls for.

Client Need Met: Site loads quickly in browsers

Fact: Many OTST’s require frequent updates

Because they are often rather bloated and heavily interwoven with the WordPress core hooks, etc., off-the-shelf themes are often in need of frequent updates in order to remain in sync and functioning well as WordPress core is updated.

Client need met: Site is more easily maintained

The facts are that there are advantages and disadvantages to both sides. The determining factor usually comes down to budget. If there is ample budget, then a custom coded WordPress theme is usually preferable. However, if the client has champagne wishes and caviar dreams on a mac and cheese budget, you may be able to better meet their needs better by taking advantage of the features and functions of an off-the-shelf theme. Just be sure that you are practicing responsible web development and educating your client as much as possible the differences between the two options. Happy developing!

For more info: Web Design Raleigh


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