WordPress Template Themes vs. Custom Themes

March 18, 2016

Websites

The Battle of Website Development: Template vs. Custom Design

I want to explain what I believe are the differences between the most common approaches to building a website. At the heart of this topic is the question all business owners need to ask…what kind of a website do I want? For most, this means two options. Let’s just say for the sake of simplicity, we are going to use WordPress. You then have the option of a WordPress Template theme website or a custom designed and built WordPress website. What is the difference between the two? What is best for you and your business? Well, I am here to go over the pros and cons of both. But, prior to becoming a website designer, I should explain that I played competitive hockey, and as a goalie I like to keep score. So, let the battle begin!

What I mean when I say a custom designed and built theme website is that it starts with a blank slate and is designed based solely on your company’s needs, brand, personality and what you need it to be. I will talk about our web process here at Switchback Creative, because this is what we do. We only do custom. I am very passionate about this point, as I believe your website design should fit your business and not have your business fit into the design of a pre-made template. Your business, or your brand, is unique in every way, and should have a website that fits this uniqueness. I don’t believe using a template, that possibly thousands of other business are also using, will fit this uniqueness. Your business is not the same as any other business. Don’t you think your website should reflect that? With that in mind, let us start looking at the major points in building a website and how each is handled in the battle of template vs custom design.

Design, Look and Feel

First, let’s talk about custom design. I will tell you how the design process goes with Switchback Creative. First, we get together, usually over a coffee at either of our offices, and do a one to two hour creative brief. We have a process of questions that help draw out the design wants and needs of your business. We want to really get to know your business, understand your brand, and who your target market is. Then we go back to our office and have a meeting with our designers and developers. We start brainstorming, trying to imagine the structure of the website, and from there sketch up the bones of the site.

After this creative brainstorming, a web designer will put together your sitemap and wireframe. At this stage, there is no design but rather we show the client our vision of the site, where we want to take it and what we feel your needs are. We get this initial plan to you and make sure you are okay with it. While relatively few keys have been punched on our keyboards to actually code and develop the site, we have agreed on a game plan.  That is a major step forward. A web designer then starts the website’s style guide and home page. The home page will be a flat PDF to show you how we want to breathe life into the site. The style guide is to show you how the look and feel will be followed throughout the site. You will see the typography, the colours, the feel and tone of the images, buttons and more. You need to carefully review this material to ensure we get your business, your brand and your vision for the website. Once we get your approval, then, and only then, will we send it to development. The process then continues with design of the rest of your site, with all materials being sent and approved before the final launch.

We want to really get to know your business, understand your brand, and who your target market is.

Now, let’s go over using a pre-made template for developing your website. First, you have to find a template you like. This might be a little harder than you think as there are literally thousands of free and paid templates out there. If you find one you like, make sure that it is built by a well known developer, with good reviews. And, make sure the ongoing support is good. Always check the reviews and always do some research on your own. Even if you hire someone to do your website and they are using a template, make sure they are using good themes with good reviews. You can ask the name of the theme before hand. Once you find one that works, you may be surprised to find it only works well until you want to change the “layout.” This means development work, or adding code. The only way to properly do this is by making a child theme and changing/adding code from the original theme. I heard a good analogy comparing web development to building a house. Building custom is like buying an empty lot so you can design and build the house of your dreams. Modifying a template is like buying a house and knocking down some of the walls and renovating to get sort of close to the house you want. Keep in mind that if the original designer/developer of this theme moves on to other things, you may be left with no support for changes and no more theme updates.

Therefore, based on design, look and feel, I think that this round goes to the custom design. Not that a template can’t be good, but you will never get the design quality of a custom build. Also, most custom builds are done by teams and have more than one person looking at the project. The group process will always bring greater creative ideas and experience to the process.  Opting to go with a WordPress template means working with an existing theme which will be limiting. Going for a custom design means, the sky is the limit, with all the functionality you desire.

SCORE ROUND ONE: 1 – 0 with one point going to custom website development.

Development (Coding)

Template themes are built for mass markets and are written full of functionality and code that you may never use. The reason why there is so much code bloat is they have to appeal to a large group of people in order to make money. They often have ‘theme options’ panels with hundreds of options to customize the design and functionally. Sliders, shop section page layouts, background colours, font types, social media integrations…and on and on with the options. All these options may look awesome, but the average website will not use half of these. This is very important because it means a huge draw on load time due to unused CSS and JavaScript loading in the background. This slower speed will have a big effect on user experience, SEO and your website search ability…and even worse, security issues.

When a website is custom developed just for you, not just the design and look but the structure of the site is built with your company in mind.

With a custom design website you don’t have that problem. All the code is written specifically as needed for your website, and only your website. We start with a framework that we created ourselves call swbtheme. It just has the core functions needed for WordPress to work. When you start from scratch, it is easy for our developers to just include what is needed to make your site work the way you want it to. We optimize all images so they load quickly, minify our CSS and JavaScript files, again to create better load time and in turn better user experience. We also keep all our websites on git version control. So, if there is ever an issue or a change needed, we can make it easily and quickly from anywhere. This system also keeps track of all the versions or changes that have happened on the site. For this service we use Beanstalk. Great company! We also make sure all code is validated, and use rich Snippets structured data to help Google better understand what you do and make it easier for people to find you.

When a website is custom developed just for you, not just the design and look but the structure of the site is built with your company in mind. Ask yourself if a template, used by thousands of people and websites, really fits your company’s needs.

SCORE ROUND TWO: I think it is safe to say round 2 goes to custom designed website development. 2-0

Cost

Hands down, templates are cheaper. But cheaper does not necessarily represent value. If all you care about is cost, then no question, templates are for you. If you want something that separates your business from the crowd, then maybe custom design will out weigh the cost advantage. With millions of websites using WordPress, any pre-made theme template is going to be used by not just a couple of other companies, but possibly thousands. So right out of the gate, you have a huge advantage in terms of setting yourself apart from your competition with a custom design and build.

Cheaper also doesn’t necessarily mean less hassle. You need to factor in what you think your time is worth. As the saying goes, “time is money”. Also, consider that if you are setting up your own template, or having someone help you, things might not be optimized the way they should be. Paying a web developer for a custom design ensures everything is setup the way it is suppose to be and prospective customers can easily find you. What is the point of having a website, if nobody ever sees it? Even if you save money on development of a new website, but does nothing to help dive your business or brand recognition, what’s the point?

But cheaper does not necessarily represent value.

Custom design traditionally comes with an option for ongoing support. Switchback offers support options for all our websites and are always there if something goes wrong. When developing your website with a template, if something goes wrong, it is up to you to put in the hours in to get it to work again. So, while you are saving on the initial cost, you need to factor in your time.

Still, if we base this category comparison on cost alone, and leave value out, pre-made templates are cheaper.

SCORE ROUND THREE: 2-1 Custom Design Web development is still in the lead.

Time (How long the project takes)

If time for your website to be up and running is critical, templates are quicker. To build a custom website takes time…lots of it! There are many steps that need to be taken even before coding starts. It has to be designed based on exactly what you want and need. This requires thought, and lots of back and forth communication. So, if you want something up in a week or two, templates are the way to go. But if you are willing to wait and put in some work along side a website designer on creative briefs, approvals and content, the outcome will be a website that you can truly call your own. No one else will have anything like it.

To build a custom website takes time…lots of it!

If you have a time sensitive project or just need something quick and simple, then templates win this battle. Custom designs don’t take days or even weeks. When you get into a custom built theme, months are the timeframe. For us, we like to start with a minimum of six to eight weeks and go from there.

SCORE ROUND FOUR: Just taking into consideration the time you would wait from start to finish to see your site, templates win (usually). Custom design takes time to get right. 2-2

Conclusion

Well, how are we going to break this tie? I think I’ll leave that up to you.

While custom sites allow for unlimited design possibilities with all the functionality bells and whistles you could possible think of, they may not be necessary in every case. Start-ups that need only a simple online brochure, or small businesses with tight budgets that only want a modest online presence, may find that a pre-built or template site is a good alternative. Also, if you have an extremely short timeline to have something up and running, these pre-built options offer you a solution. But be warned, if your website is not setup correctly, it might turn into a bigger ‘time sucker’ than you had anticipated, and may run slower and be harder for prospective clients to find.

A website that is built to your brand, rather than trying to find a template to fit into.

If you put a strong value on your online presence and identity, your brand will soar higher with a custom designed website. A website that is built to your brand, rather than trying to find a template to fit into. If you want something that is completely unique to your company, that separates you from all your competitors, then custom design wins decisively. I personally find the process of building a website exciting! Doing it custom, you get to be there and see it all happen! Have input, make changes, give approvals. It’s fun! And when we are all done, hopefully you didn’t just get a new website, but also made some friends that will be around to help you out as your business grows.

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