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To choose a custom WordPress theme… or not.

By Drew Strojny on October 23, 2014

Earlier this year, we published a post about how to find the best WordPress themes, whether free or premium. That post speaks to some of the issues you’re likely to encounter as you scour the Web for themes. It provides guidance on subjects like:

  • where to search for free themes and how to identify the highest quality (and most secure) choices among them
  • the difference between theme marketplaces and independent theme shops
  • how to gauge the quality of a WordPress theme provider

However, one thing we don’t cover in that post is why you might prefer a readymade free or premium theme to a custom WordPress design, or vice versa. There’s the obvious response to that question – that everyone would prefer a custom theme if they could afford it – but we think the initial cost difference isn’t the only issue. There’s so much more to the story!

Whether to invest in custom design is a question many bloggers, freelancers, and small businesses using WordPress wrestle with. Let’s look beyond upfront cost and consider all of the factors that should influence this important decision.

Three decision drivers

Let’s face it: a theme’s price tag matters a lot. Custom designs, which in the WordPress world are usually custom themes, cost thousands. Premium themes cost less – anywhere from $50 to a few hundred bucks. And free themes, well… you know.

Costs are what they are; however, what if you’re in a position where you think you can afford a custom theme but aren’t sure it’s worth it? That’s when you should pay close attention to the following three factors, all of which should influence whether you go the custom route:

  • Support: When you have a problem with your design or want to tweak it, you’ll need to work with a provider who offers support in some form or fashion. Otherwise, what do you do when something goes wrong? You could face serious downtime. You might even have to hunt for a new theme!
  • Updates: Does the theme creator actively update your theme? Before investing in any theme, custom or otherwise, you should know beyond a shadow of a doubt whether the provider actively updates the theme to stay current with WordPress. If he or she doesn’t, the theme may eventually “run its course,” so to speak – and it could compromise your site’s security.
  • Experience: How long has the theme creator been active? If you like a theme a lot and think you’re ready to commit, check whether its author has been around awhile or is new to the WordPress scene. Being new isn’t always a bad thing – we were new once! – but some publishers may be wary of working with somebody without a track record.

Having established the relevance of these considerations, let’s dig into each of them, one-by-one, and see how readymade themes and custom themes as categories stack up. Hint: there may be costs – monetary and otherwise – that many publishers haven’t fully considered!

Support

Maybe you just want to make a small change to your theme – increasing the font size, say. Or perhaps you’ve encountered the white screen of death after tweaking your theme’s code. Either way, there’s no denying it:

You need support from the people who created your theme.

Support comes in various flavors, and you’ll want to study how your theme provider delivers it. At The Theme Foundry, for example, we have a Help Center for theme users. We actively monitor Help Center questions and guide users to the best possible solution to their problems. In addition, we publish comprehensive documentation for all of our themes and have an archive of over 40 WordPress tutorials for users to reference.

As you may have noticed, we also publish tutorials on this blog.

Many other theme shops provide support in a similar fashion, whether through a formal Help Center or members-only discussion forums. What’s important to consider is that all of this support comes with the theme you purchase. It’s a value-added service you get when you invest in a premium theme with a capable provider!

Free themes, on the other hand, can be hit and miss when it comes to support. When committing to a free theme from the official WordPress Theme Directory – the only place from which you should download a free theme – check whether the theme author is actively replying to discussions in the “Support” tab.

But what about custom designs? Support for custom WordPress themes can vary widely, and you will need to ask the designer/provider the following questions:

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  • Is any support included in the initial cost? It’s possible that your upfront investment includes some support hours. Find out if that’s the case. If it’s not, you’ll also need to ask…
  • What’s your hourly rate for customer support? Here’s where additional, often unexpected, costs start to add up. If the cost to design, develop, and implement your theme doesn’t include any support, you’ll probably have to pay extra for it.
  • What’s the likely time-to-value for theme support? If your designer doesn’t have a process in place (like a Help Center) for fielding and addressing support requests, he or she may have to schedule your support hours far into the future. In other words, you could be waiting awhile.

Bottom line for support: Premium themes from reputable, active providers will include support as part of the nominal, upfront cost of a theme. Many purveyors of free themes monitor support requests, too, but you should verify that’s the case before committing.

For custom themes, support depends on the provider. Be aware that in addition to the thousands you spend on the design itself, there is a high likelihood you will spend even more on support down the line. It may also take longer for you reap value from the support you receive, so there’s a time cost in addition to a monetary cost.

Updates

All theme creators must actively update their themes to stay current with the latest version of WordPress. Consequences of not doing so include:

  • Loss of functionality: When a theme doesn’t mesh with the functionality and UI of the WordPress core, it will eventually stop working and wither into obsolescence.
  • Security threats: WordPress websites get hacked all the time, but they don’t have to. One surefire way to make your site more vulnerable is to stick with an old theme that isn’t compatible with the version of WordPress you’re using.

While free themes from the WordPress Theme Directory may receive enjoy updates from the author, you should always verify whether a theme is up-to-date before using it. Premium theme providers, on the other hand, have an incentive to keep themes current: a multitude of paying customers signed up in part because they expect and require the theme to be up-to-date. There’s a huge onus on theme providers to periodically update themes!

Do custom WordPress websites benefit from regular updates? As with theme support, the frequency and availability of updates is something you will need to discuss with the designer(s). If your initial investment in the design doesn’t include ongoing updates, you will probably have to book more hours with the designer to keep your theme secure and functional for the long haul.

Bottom line for updates: Every WordPress theme needs a little love now and again, and you should only invest in themes that are actively updated by their creators – no exceptions!

Good premium theme providers will aggressively update their themes so that customers can benefit from the latest WordPress enhancements and avoid malfeasance from hackers. With custom designs, the question remains: how much do the updates cost, and how long will I have to wait?

Experience

When it comes to custom WordPress sites, gauging a designer’s experience is a classic exercise in service provider due diligence. You will need to pore over portfolios, find references, and communicate one-on-one with the provider about process, timelines, and costs.

But this is WordPress, and an experienced provider should also be able to speak to the following issues:

  • Methods and standards: In 2014, it would be a bad idea to work with a designer who isn’t using HTML5 and CSS3, doesn’t use a mobile-first approach, and whose overall orientation fails to align with the latest WordPress best practices.
  • Plugin compatibility: Will you need the custom theme to work with specific, standalone plugins? If so, will the theme support those plugins, or will the theme need to incorporate identical functionality into its core?
  • Ongoing costs: We’ve touched on this already, but it’s worth repeating. Users need ongoing support, and themes need to be updated. What’s the provider’s system for ensuring these issues are addressed – and what are the associated costs?
  • Niche: If you’re prepared to invest in custom design, you might want to investigate whether a designer has done work for businesses similar to yours. This could be an advantage if the designer is already aware of the unique challenges you’re likely to face.

At premium theme shops, accumulated experience will be apparent because of providers’ adherence to the latest methods and standards. Issues like plugin compatibility should be addressed in public documentation, and competitive pricing structures should minimize or eliminate ongoing costs. A company’s longevity, active status in the WordPress community, and customer rosters are also good indicators of experience.

Thinking about a free theme? If assessing the provider’s experience proves difficult or elusive based on the above, you should probably look elsewhere.

Bottom line for provider experience: A good premium theme provider should really know its stuff, and it should be clear from publicly available information whether the group has adequate experience. The same holds true for free theme creators. Don’t hold them to a lower standard just because they’re giving away their code!

Likewise, custom WordPress designers should possess a solid portfolio of successful projects and a cadre of happy customers. They’ll be able to speak to all of the above issues – confidently – and provide evidence for any claims they make regarding methods and standards, customer satisfaction, and theme compatibility.

Making an informed decision

According to the Pareto Principle, around 80% of the effects from an event stem from 20% of the causes. When it comes to custom WordPress design vs. readymade themes – and this assumes you choose a high quality theme from a high quality provider – you can usually enjoy 80% of the benefits of a custom theme for about 20% of the price.

The big thing you lose is the most obvious thing: a 100% unique look and feel and the highly personalized attention from a boutique service provider.

In turn, you save thousands of dollars, enjoy faster time-to-value, and can determine more easily whether a provider’s experience is up to snuff. For some businesses, those benefits may not outweigh having a custom website that aligns with existing brand attributes – and that’s perfectly fine! Custom WordPress design is, hands down, a much better fit for many organizations than a premium theme that’s widely available to the masses.

Regardless, it’s important to consider all the associated costs. Just as some first-time homeowners forget about the ancillary costs of owning a home – maintenance, taxes, mortgage interest, power tools, time spent mowing the lawn – it’s easy to forget about the additional time and money required to maintain a custom design.

So go forth and find the theme that makes the most sense for your blog or business! Maybe that’s a custom design; maybe it’s one of our themes (hey, we couldn’t resist!). Or maybe it’s something else entirely.

Have you wrestled with the readymade theme/custom design conundrum? Use the comments to explain how you made a decision.

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