Custom Web Design vs Themes

custom website design

Custom Web Design vs Starting with a Theme or Template

Within any industry, there are a lot of terminologies used. If you are unfamiliar, grasping concepts can be overwhelming. The field of website development is the same. There are so many buzzwords.  

When potential clients contact me to build a new website, they need to understand how custom website design differs from starting with a theme. The budget and timeline to complete a project will be affected by this.

Website development consists of the actual web design and the web development (programming). Web design is the graphical design of what the website looks like. Web development is the coding of the design and logic to make a functional website. This post focused on the web design side of a project.


Custom Website Design

Custom website design consists of hiring a web designer (graphic designer) to create a unique design from scratch. They start with a blank page and define all colors, fonts, elements and layout of the page, exactly how you want it.

Compare this to building a new home. With custom built new construction, you hire an architect to first draw up blueprints to your exact specifications. The result is your custom built dream home.

Custom Web Design From Scratch


Website Themes (sometimes referred to as a Template)

Again, in terms of comparing building a website to building a new house, a website theme would be analogous to choosing from different house plans a builder presents to you. A website template could be compared to be different floor plans within the house plan.

The terms website themes and website templates sometimes are used interchangeably. To people that work in the field of website development, they mean different things. A theme refers to an overall website design, where a template refers to the layout of a page within a theme.

Website Theme

A website theme is a pre-built website design that has been fully coded. A theme refers to the overall design of the website, not necessarily how the content of each page will look.

It has placeholder content in it to show you how it could look. Usually, there is a demo version of the theme available for you to preview that includes every possible feature and functionality. Sometimes it can be overwhelming to look at a demo and grasp how your website may look when complete. When reviewing website themes, look at the overall feel of the design, don’t focus on the placeholder content and images used. The actual page layout is flexible.

Website Template

A template refers more to the structure or layout of content on a web page. So within a website theme, you may have multiple page templates to work with.

When you start with a website theme, the result can (if you choose) look very similar to the demo website, or you have the flexibility to change just about everything on it. (colors, fonts, page layout….) A website theme is a starting point for building a website.

Some web designers will speak negatively of website themes, saying custom web design is always the way to go.  My response to this is, how often do you start with an architect to design a house?  Most people don’t have the budget to do this, and its simply not necessary when there are so many designs/floor plans created to save time as a starting point.

Starting with a professional theme that can be easily customized can save many hours of work and hundreds to thousands of dollars on a website budget. In the earlier days of the Internet, website themes, looked “templated”, giving the concept a bad reputation. With today’s technology, it’s difficult to even know if a theme was used or not by just looking at a web page.


Web Design Template Concept


Custom web design or website theme, what’s right for you?

As with just about any type of project, major determining factors are time and budget. Obviously, creating a custom web design from scratch is going to add time and costs to a job.  If you have a vision of an exact website design, or you have to match an existing corporate brand, custom web design is probably the best choice for your project.


Pros and Cons of Custom Web Design vs Website Themes

Consider the following:

Custom Web Design Website Themes
Pros End result is exactly what you want

Future enhancements can be taken into consideration during the planning phase

You won’t have “[tooltip title=”Code bloat is extra code in an application that is not used or needed. It adds clutter that is not used, decreasing efficiency.”]code bloat[/tooltip]” to clutter up the website code

Faster development time

Can saves money on your web development costs

You know upfront what it will look like

Cons More expensive

Adds time to the overall project

Ultimately users care about the content the are looking for.  A clean, professional design is important, but your users don’t know/care if the site is custom designed

It can get expensive to customize in features beyond what has been built into the theme.

You still have “templated” page layouts to work with. This can lead to forcing your content into the layout, or having to add time/money to the job to customize the layout to work to your needs.

Code bloat

A poorly coded theme can complicate the job

It can be hard for the client to visualize how the theme can be modified.*

* This can be the biggest challenge for me when presenting a website theme as an option to start a new website.


What to Look For in a Website Theme

When I am looking for a website theme to use, I look past the filler content and images on the page and look at the overall layout of the site. If there is a specific feature my client wants, I will consider if this is built in, but for the most part, I am reviewing it from a technical perspective.

  • How clean the code looks when viewing the source
  • If  the code has been optimized for SEO
  • If the code has been optimized for speed and page load time
  • Comments and reviews from other users that have purchased the theme

If a client comes to me staying they want to build a website and they have been researching themes, they often choose themes that are specific to their industry. ie. Building contractor site theme or dentist website template.

I don’t necessarily take this approach. When you buy a website theme, you are not buying the content and images that are included in the demo. You are buying the overall layout and structure of the design and features built into it. For marketing purposes, theme designers will create themes targeting an industry like a computer repair website template or electrician website theme.  I could take an electrician website theme and turn it into a website for a dog walking business website. Once you strip out the demo content, it can be purposed for anything.

Website themes have evolved tremendously in the past 20 years. Back then, themes truly were templates, with little flexibility to customize. They looked OK with the example content shown, but trying to integrate your company’s content into it and it looked like you plugged your logo into a template. It was obviously a templated solution. Not pretty.

Today, professional themes have many many hours of development put into them. They are mobile friendly and search engine optimized. They are flexible enough that the end result could have been a custom design.

I will build websites for my clients if a website design has already been created, or start with a theme and customize it to your needs. It’s up to you, your budget and how quickly it needs to be completed.

Whether you are looking for a custom website or theme customization services, I can help.


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