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Custom Website Design vs Themes and Templates

As in any industry, there is a lot of industry specific terminology used. If you do not work in the industry, grasping what is being discussed can be overwhelming.  This applies to the field of website development too. 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 are affected by this.

Website development can be broken down into web design and web programming. Web design is what you see. Web programming is the logic coded to make a functional website. This posts discusses 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 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 end result is your custom built dream home.

custom web design from scratch


Website Themes and Templates

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 tend to be used interchangeably. But to people that don’t work in the field of website development, they mean different things.

A website theme is a pre-built website design that has been fully coded in HTML. 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.

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 end 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 meant to meant to be a starting point for website development.

Some web designers will really put down website themes saying custom is always the way to go. Starting with a professional design that can be easily customized can save many hours of work and hundreds to thousands on a website budget. With today’s technology, its difficult to even know if a theme was used or not by just looking at a web page.


web design template concept


Custom website 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 image, custom web design is probably the best choice for your project.


Pros and Cons

Consider the following:

Custom Web DesignWebsite Themes
ProsEnd result is exactly what you want

Future enhancements can be taken into consideration during the planning phase

You won’t have “code bloat” to clutter up the website code

Faster development time

Can saves money on your web development costs

You know up front what it will look like

ConsUsually more expensive

Adds time to the overall project

Ultimately users care about finding the content they want.  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 in

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 it’s noted that the code has been optimized for SEO
  • if it’s noted 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.

This is the wrong 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 a 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 10 years or so. 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, just about all themes have many many hours of development put into them. They are all 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 me 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 and how quickly it needs completed.

Get in touch if you want to discuss if a custom website design or a customized website theme will work best for your project.

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