WordPress development: custom theme vs. pre-built – advantages and disadvantages

October 7, 2021

As a branding and marketing agency, we’re frequently tasked with planning, designing, and building websites. That’s why we care deeply about website themes — the overall look, feel and style of the site.

The theme includes elements like color scheme, layout and styling parameters, and it’s critical the theme gives us enough flexibility to execute our clients’ brands exactly just right.

We’ve worked with many CMS platforms, including Joomla, HubSpot, Blackbaud, and more. But for most projects, our preferred website content management system (CMS) is WordPress — the world’s most popular CMS. It is a robust system that’s open source and super user-friendly. This means that once we deliver a site to a client, we want it to be as easy as possible for their teams to maintain, update, and expand.

To build or not to build

WordPress offers virtually unlimited possibilities — but that means choosing a direction for each client project. With two major options available, a custom theme or a pre-built theme, we must weigh the pros and cons for each project carefully.

Essentially, these are the options:

  1. Custom theme – FVM develops WordPress functionality and page templates according to our own design files from scratch
  2. Pre-built theme – FVM works with an existing theme from a reputable theme developer and adjusts it to meet our design needs

Traditionally, we’ve employed custom themes across the board. But recently, we’ve been testing more pre-built themes for clients in need of an especially fast turnaround. Rather than build from the ground up, a pre-built theme can help plant the seeds for design direction, or it can provide a development head start with a “plug and play” approach.

But as with every “quick fix” solution, there are pros and cons to consider. In this blog, we’ll explore both.

Custom themes
As noted, this is a theme our developers build from the ground up in WordPress. When your dev team knows their stuff, the possibilities here are limitless.

Pros:

  • Enables an exact match with our original page designs, without any trouble.
  • Maximum extendibility – easily able to handle any future changes that may arise.
  • Limited code conflicts, since it’s a clean build.
  • Smaller learning curve for agency design and content teams because we control the UI.
  • Very straightforward back-end management for clients.
  • Plays nicely with other plugins – we can address plugin conflicts right away since we know the code inside and out.
  • Easier CMS and plugin maintenance, with no licenses required.
  • Ability to connect to third party systems using API.

Cons:

  • Higher cost, as a custom build is heavier on development hours than a pre-built theme.
  • Slower delivery time — development for a small to medium sized website is at least 6-8 weeks, often more.
  • Can bog down developer resources due to heads-down nature of the build.


Pre-built themes

This is a completed theme, ready for purchase from several major sites. That said, we can still customize them to a client’s specific needs, such as working in bespoke animations or conversion forms. Overall, pre-builts are best aligned to web projects with fast timelines.

It’s important to us that we work with themes that enable maximum flexibility in design and functionality to ensure our client’s brands shine through properly. BeTheme and OceanWP are two of our favorites.

Pros:

  • Faster overall project timeline thanks to fewer development hours, since basic design and functionality are already in place. Minimum timelines are closer to 2-3 weeks of development.
  • There are thousands of pre-built themes to choose from, with a wide range of capabilities.
  • Simple “plug and play” approach (although they still require some setup).

Cons:

  • More hands-on design is required, often taking the place of some of the reduced development hours.
  • Potentially greater learning curve for a designer who’s not yet worked in a particular theme. Updating the existing templates and layouts to match our designs can be time-consuming.
  • Pre-built themes are often bulky and heavily reliant upon multiple plugins, as they are created as “one size fits all” for general use. (There may be five different options for sliding carousels, for example.) Functionality your site doesn’t need can result in slower site load times and greater complexity in the long run.
  • Limited customization – we can’t always achieve exactly what our designers plan for, and some concessions must be made at times.
  • Limited extendibility – building on top of a theme frequently means running into issues. It’s not as “future-proof” as a custom build.
  • Theme updates can be problematic. Once you’re locked into a theme, updates that come along must be adopted, sometimes throwing off the site functionality you’ve painstakingly customized. This can require manual development correction.
  • Back-end management for clients can be more complex. Pre-built themes may require significant training before page layout can begin.

Summary

There’s no one right answer, and definitely a lot to consider.

At FVM, we’ve found pre-built themes can be helpful in a pinch – for example, when a client needs a very quick microsite, we have team members available who are familiar with an appropriate pre-built theme, and we know it’s not a long-term solution.

That said, while pre-builts have their merits, we still prefer a custom build scenario. It’s the best option for stronger, long-term planning and site functionality.

We’ll continue to update this article as we learn more about what works well for our clients. It’s a constant learning process — one we’re grateful to be a part of, as our capabilities get sharper, faster, and more comprehensive with each new client site.

If you’re interested in learning how FVM could help your business’ website, reach out and start a conversation now.

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