Why we don’t use off-the-shelf themes

One of the things that we, as WordPress developers, hear all the time is “I’m thinking of using the [insert theme name] theme, will that work?”

Inevitably our answer is “no”. But it’s a bit more complicated than that – and as with all web design and development questions – it depends.

At the most basic level, those themes are built so that you don’t need to hire developers. They are meant to put all of the creative control in your hands. In theory they should save you money.

Some of the themes look absolutely stunning when you view the demos. They have all the bells and whistles, and it’s easy to see why people are impressed.

With great looking design, and a very attractive price point, why would we advise against these off-the-shelf themes?

Content management is more difficult

In some cases much more difficult. These themes are trying to cover all bases. They provide options for every layout and content type under the sun, including many that you don’t need.

This leads to overly complex administration screens. Sometimes content on one page has to be edited in many different places. Often the editor screens just break under the complexity. Does this look like easy content management to anyone?

WordPress is supposed to make content management easy. Some themes make it almost impossible.

Additional to this we have seen many sites where there is code added to the code blocks which the theme provides as part of the page builder add-ons. This creates a problem in that one wrong edit in the WordPress admin can break your sites layout. We believe if there is something that you shouldn’t change in a site because it could cause problems, then you shouldn’t be allowed to even see it, never mind change it.

Difficult to customise

In one sense these themes are easy to customise. Just check a box to change the layout, or select a new colour scheme, or font. However, many website owners need more customisation than that. If you have specific needs beyond what the theme is capable of, then you’ll need to bring in a developer. Now you have problems.

It’s a bit like building a house. If you had an architect design a customised house for you, would you buy a house and modify it, or would you build from scratch? Unless you could find a very close match to the house your architect designed, then it will probably be cheaper to build your own.

In the same way, an off-the-shelf theme can get you so far, but if you need custom work done you’re going to have to work within the current structure (which is highly complex), or do significant restructuring. Both of these will be more difficult and expensive than working with a custom built theme.

They always look better in the shop window

The demos of these themes can look amazing. They show off all of the layouts, content types, animations, and some of the options. But remember, the content of these demos has been specifically selected to show the theme in it’s best light.

Reliant on images

Very often the themes rely heavily on imagery for their visual appeal. That’s great if you have lots of high quality photos at your disposal, but in my experience most businesses don’t. They will more likely be using lower quality photos, and/or stock images, which won’t have the same visual appeal or impact.

Too many options

Once you start configuring a theme yourself, you’re often met with a staggering array of options. These are necessary so that any business can use the theme, but it can lead you down a rabbit hole of choices, that can see your beautiful theme gradually fall apart.

Some themes have literally thousands of options (see above). This gives you all kinds of power but has the drawbacks of a steep learning curve, pulling your focus away from content, and giving you thousands of opportunities to break things.

Focus on design over content

The goal of most websites is to display content to a site visitor in an intuitive and compelling way. The content is the most important thing, and design should be used to enhance the content.

Off-the-shelf themes encourage the opposite way of thinking – i.e. “We have this beautiful design and layout, what content do we need to add so that it looks good?”

This leads to words for the sake of words, just because there was a space to fill. Or irrelevant images, just because a module requires one. Your site becomes bloated with unnecessary information which distracts from the important content that your users need.

Poor site speed and SEO

All of those fancy animations and images come at a cost. Often the complexity of the front-end means that the theme relies on a range of front-end libraries, from CSS to jQuery, and more. In a custom theme you would be able to combine and minify these, and only load the ones that were being used.

However, many of the popular off-the-shelf themes load up a whole host of these files on every page load. This slows your site down, costing you valuable conversions and search traffic.

Difficult to integrate with other services

One of the services we offer is integrating Broadbean with WordPress. This often involves creating additional theme template files. When using an off-the-shelf theme, most of the time when we come to integrate, the theme has been heavily customised with the multiple options that are available in their extensive settings pages. These often involve layout, and making these options available in the new template files can be very time consuming and take much longer than if a custom built theme was used from the start.

Additional to this, off-the-shelf themes save the options in the WordPress database using the theme name.  The WordPress method for making alterations to a theme is to create a child theme. This means that if the theme is updated, the modifications are not overwritten.

However when doing this, due to the way the options are saved, it means that often the settings are lost. Some themes have import/export options for the settings which can be of use, but overall it is not as straight forward as it could be.

In conclusion integrating additional templates and other services can be very problematic and take much longer than it would with a custom theme built for the project.

When to use off-the-shelf themes

Ready made themes have their place. There are many good themes out there, and many business cases for using them. Some of the reasons for using an off-the-shelf theme are:

  • Low budgets
  • Tight timescales
  • Minimal custom functionality required
  • Generic design

Bear in mind though, that although the upfront costs are low, if you require significant customisation further down the line, it might be worth investing in a custom theme.

The advantages of custom themes

At Highrise Digital we build fully custom WordPress themes. This means that the website is tailored exactly to our clients’ needs. The advantages of this are:

  • Easy content management
  • Streamlined code, meaning lower ongoing maintenance and development costs
  • Better search ranking
  • A better user experience
  • Content focused design that meets your business needs

If you’re convinced that a custom WordPress theme is the right choice for you, we’d love to hear from you.

About the author

Co-founder and lead front-end developer at Highrise Digital. Keith has a passion for building beautiful, fast and usable websites.