Pre-Built WordPress Themes vs. Custom WordPress Development

Pre-Built WordPress Themes vs. Custom WordPress Development

Posted on December 13, 2016 Mary Merritt

First off, NerdyMind loves WordPress. It's such a great website platform - especially when your marketing people are managing the site content (and content strategy). It's also surprisingly scalable; we've found that this CMS works great for just about 99% of the websites we build with our clients. So the question is: Should you utilize a pre-built WordPress theme? Or should you get a customized theme built from scratch for your business?

There are most definitely two sides to this story. On one hand, we have people who believe that the only way to develop a WordPress website is to simply utilize a pre-built WordPress theme (or "template") and hack away at it until it incorporates the company's brand. On the other hand, there are people who believe templates and themes are a waste of time because they can't possibly bend to the exact needs of a business who goes through proper website planning.

Sure, premium WordPress themes seem awesome, but we would like to help you understand the pros and cons of both. We've contacted a couple of our last clients to ask them what they thought, too, just to show you that we're okay with representing both sides of the debate. One client wanted to save money, so they went with the pre-built theme. The second client was actually a larger company, and they had the budget to go the custom route with us. We got some nice insights that we would like to share with you!

Pre-Built WordPress Themes

When you decide to use a pre-built WordPress theme, your reasons are your own. Perhaps you want to save time? Perhaps you are trying to save money? Maybe you having gotten REALLY comfortable with a certain theme and you love working in it? Whatever the reason, you've decided that this is your method of creating WordPress websites for your clients (or for your company).

PRO: Using a pre-built WordPress theme is great for saving money.

For instance, if you are a start-up company who just needs a very simple brochure website, this is definitely a good route to take. You can save money, but always remember that the theme's functions might be frustrating to you, and they might not be exactly what you need. The nice thing about the web is, you can use a theme as you are getting started and then "graduate" to a customized solution after you've had some time to prove your business concept.

Here is a quote from one of our past customers who decided to utilize a theme:

"As a small business starting out with a tight budget, using a WordPress theme was the best option for us. The template is easy to use and gave us the opportunity to launch our site quickly without having to make many big decisions about the design and layout. As our business grows, we will certainly entertain the idea of moving to a custom design, but the simplicity of a WordPress theme has worked well for our needs in the meantime."

- Ashley (NerdyMind Client)

PRO: There are some really nice themes out there.

There really are some great themes out there that will work for some businesses. We've used a lot of nice ones from places like WooThemes and Envato (which is Just be sure to read on so you can understand what to look out for when choosing a theme. Historically, going through an actual WordPress Theme "company" is the best way to go because they usually have good customer service and support.

PRO: Using a theme can save you time.

As our client said above, utilizing a theme saved them time by eliminating the need to go through a heavy decision-making process with regard to design and functionality. The theme was laid out for them and they could see the demo -- so we were able to move through their project relatively quickly. This was good for them since they were itching to deploy fast and iterate, like smart business owners.

CON: Who developed the WordPress theme and what is their skill level?

This is so important to at least look into. Find out who the author of the theme is; see what kind of ratings they have in various communities. Check out their website. Stalk them a little...why not? Why is this important? The bottom line is that not every web developer is created equal. There are so many skill levels out there, and it's important to realize that theme marketplaces can sometimes have...crap. There, I said it. Crap.

If you find an awesome WordPress theme developer that you love and they are willing to work with you to advance the theme and make it more user-friendly, that is good fun. So there is a plus right there!

CON: Will the developer stay up on the theme and keep up with WordPress updates?

WordPress is software that actually runs on your web server, and the original software engineers update the software every 3-5 weeks (give or take). The reason for the frequency of the updates is for bug fixes, security fixes and more. Sometimes these updates can be pretty massive (in a few weeks, WordPress 4.0 will release and there are supposed to be a ton of great changes coming up); it is important to stay up on the software updates because your website will become susceptible to hackers if it falls too far out of versioning. Since WordPress rocks so hard, a lot of people use it. There are just bad, sad, bored people out there who target WordPress for their hacking shenanigans because it is so widely adopted. Keeping WordPress up to date and running some security apps is a great way to keep it safe.

So when you update WordPress on your server, does your theme "break?" This just means that maybe some plugins don't work like they used to, maybe some visual aspects of your theme look strange...or perhaps you are getting .php errors? All we're saying is that we hope the theme developer stays up on that stuff and releases updates for their theme(s) when they get reports on theme functionality "bugs" upon WordPress updates.

CON: Client expectations. Theme demos always mislead clients.

When you view a theme demo, you should always remember that the very thing you LIKE about the theme could be a piece of content (some great headlines, an amazing photo, a high-production video, etc.). Theme companies and WordPress theme developers work really hard to "stage" their demos. Just like a real estate agent would stage a house to sell it, they are enticing you to purchase their theme by showing you the potential of the theme they built. This is a good thing, but make sure you are paying attention to everything we've mentioned thus far. I will admit, there are some pretty amazing themes out there. We've just seen what happens when the finished WordPress website doesn't resemble the staged demo precisely. It's confusing, and frustrating for the client.

If you do use WordPress themes and you let the client do the choosing, give them some education. Let them know what they should look out for, or even give them access to your premium theme account so they can look around and see what you have access to.

Custom WordPress Development

PRO: You can actually PLAN your website out with custom development.

Let's squash something right up front: Custom development costs more, so there is that. However, the reason custom development has a higher price tag on it is because of the planning phases (user scenario exercises, wireframes, user mapping, functionality scoping, etc.). If you believe in the power and magic of having a WordPress theme built to your user's specifications...then you're a believer in the importance of the planning piece. You understand that taking the time to do some foundational, collaborative planning will result in a website that has more potential to be a "sales engine" for your business.

Here is a quote from one of our past customers who went the "custom WordPress development" route:

"When you do a custom theme, everything looks a little more professional and well-suited for your company. Kind of like the difference between buying a pair of dress pants off the rack, and having a tailor make a pair of pants for you.  The off-the-rack pair are still pants, but the custom pair of pants are a perfect fit.

I love working on the site because the back end is so easy to navigate through. Since the site was built to do what we needed, there aren't a bunch of fields we don't use, and everything I'll need to pull together a page is in one place. It makes changes and additions fast and easy - so fast that people at work are often surprised how quickly I can pull changes through the site. Our site makes me look good!"

- Jenny (NerdyMind Client)

PRO: Your customized website has taken user scenarios into account.

If you stop, breathe, and explore your different user types and create a plan that addresses their needs, you are dedicated to getting a website that is more effective than a boxed solution. This requires a custom development touch in order to make those plans come to fruition. Make sure you are working with a web development partner who has the skills to do this. We've found that some web developers can ONLY hack at themes...and they don't have the ability to create custom fields and custom post types in a clean, intelligent and efficient way. So be careful who you choose!

PRO: Your site doesn't have a bunch of "stuff" that you don't need.

This is one of my favorites, and it is supposedly one of Jenny's favorites as well (from the client quote above). When you have your website customized to your specs, you will have nothing more or less than you need. Some content management systems can become bloated with fields that you don't EVER use. It's nice to have someone who can build you a customized WordPress admin so you can concentrate on your content management.

CON: Custom WordPress development costs more.

It's more expensive! But we kind of discussed WHY it is more expensive above. If you are going the custom route, then you are dedicated to planning, strategizing and being user-centric about your website build. If you want to just pick a theme, go for it. You will save a lot of time and money. Just remember to think about the opportunity cost of not planning your website out properly.

CON: Custom WordPress development locks you in.

Sure, it is scary to think about it. A company builds you a very customized theme and any time you want something added, you have to contact them. My question is this: Wouldn't you have to contact the same development company that used a theme if you ran into the same issue? So remember that websites are iterative, and will usually go through many phases of development. Your website is never done, and having the right web development partner will help you and your organization constantly make fruitful iterations that lead to more sales and leads down the road.

Why NerdyMind loves custom WordPress development.

We love custom WordPress development so much, we want to marry it. Not really, but we did create an incredibly awesome barebones, base starter theme that we use as the foundation for every new website we create, and we've released it for free on GITHUB!

The planning process in website design is the funnest part about what we do. If someone comes to us looking for a website redesign, we want to know how we can improve the experience so the website can actually drive business for them. In our opinion, the only way to achieve this is through foundational research and planning. Looking through historical analytics, doing keyword research, constructing user scenarios, mapping user scenarios with wireframes, helping with navigational and content planning; when you do this kind of planning it is rare that a template will address all of your needs right out of the box.

There you have it! We hope you enjoyed reading both sides of the story! As you can see, we are just a *tad* bit biased towards custom development because we love the planning process. However, we love the planning process because we've seen how effective it is in creating a website experience that really WORKS. If you're ever interested in talking through our process, be sure to contact us! Thanks for reading NERDS!