Custom vs Premium Themes – The Debate

custom-carCustom vs premium themes is a hotly debated topic and my opinion is a little bit heretical within the upper echelons of the web design community. I am a big fan of premium pre built themes.

In my own experience on using both custom and premium pre built themes, I felt that while there were some issue with the pre-built themes, there was nowhere near as many with the custom themes. And the cost of customising the pre-built themes was also much less.

I believe there are business cases for custom themes, but would be hesitant for projects under $50k. Certain brands need uniqueness and Nike’s invention of parallax scrolling created a lot of buzz in the industry. But they had the budget for this design differentiation. I can also see a business case for SAAS platforms or websites where the website is the business. We use Saasu for our accounting and mailchimp for newsletters, to name just 2, and I can see that they need more granular control and a custom solution.

Adroll.com is an example of a business case for a custom site where it is very interactive and you need to be able to create ads for Facebook. I challenge this and find Adroll infuriating to use. It presents a whole new learning curve just to do some simple tasks. If the Adroll interface was almost identical to Adwords, which I am already familiar with, I would be much happier. Even if the Adroll interface was better than Adwords, it’s still an extra thing to learn.

How many customers gave up that would have been able to achieve their campaign if the interface had been more like Adwords, which they were already familiar with?

I’m not suggesting Adroll use a premium theme. What I suggest is that they don’t try and re-invent the wheel and replicate as close to possible the advertising platform that most people are familiar with, i.eAdwords.

Better Ways to Differentiate than Through Custom Themes

For most businesses, there are so many ways to differentiate their business such as service or product offer, guarantee, customer service, ethical or environmental position, quality, price etc. etc.

Web design, while crucial to convey how the business differentiates itself, is way down on the list to the extent that a custom design is required.

Should all website look the same? Maybe. As a web user, it would make my life a lot easier if sites were more standard and similar.

On the other side of the coin I do appreciate good design, but not the bold changes. It’s the subtle differences that make my life easier. It’s the clever combination of nice and easy-to-read fonts, the correct use of white space that guides my eye to the next chunk of information, the intricate mathematics of the spacing between elements, and the size of those elements and relationship to each other.

In good, pre-built themes at least half of this is already done and they are generic enough that the user is not left thinking. “This is pretty, but how the hell do I get what I want done and get out of here?”

Perhaps the most important thing for the brand is the emotional response the user has to the website design and if that is in harmony with the way they perceive the brand. Again, some clever design on top of an existing framework (theme) instead of a complete custom will achieve this goal.

The website is the vehicle not the offer.

Imagine how ridiculous it would be if a sales manager said he needed custom cars for his sales force to differentiate the brand. That he proposed to go to one of the car manufactures and get a quote for a new car with a whole new shape. Even car manufactures use the same “framework” across a range of their own brands. Although I’m not sure I agree with a Falcon and Jaguar having the same chassis.

You would tell your sales manager, “I understand this is important to you, and I think the sales fleet should be differentiated and that will give us a strong brand presence. So why don’t we get a custom colour, or even a pattern in the paintwork, and some branding with our logo.”

You can do a lot more customisation than this building a website from a pre-built theme. In fact you can make two different websites from the same theme and they will look far different than a Falcon and a Jaguar when compared.

Resistance from Designers to Premium themes

One of the recurring complaints about pre-made themes from designers is that they like to work on code they have written themselves. Pre-built themes actually take them longer to work on. Since good developers charge upwards of $100 per hour, that makes a pretty good business case, but let’s look a bit deeper.

What if your designer gets hit by a bus? Even if they used really good code you’re still left with a code that another designer has to learn. Or they need to completely re-build to their own standards and preferences. If your designer was prepared to build on a pre-built theme, then it would be much easier to replace them if needed. A pre-built theme was made for use by many developers and in almost all cases of “quality” themes it will be easy for a new designer to come in and take over someone’s custom theme.

I also reject that it takes them longer to work on a pre-built theme. Maybe if you decide to customise the theme beyond what it is meant for then I can see it taking longer, but that shouldn’t happen in the first place. Why does the design need to be so different from the solutions that are already available? Those solutions are already tried and tested by thousands of other website owners.

Or if you do hit that wall then you can try another theme that will meet your needs. It does take a bit of forward thinking, but if you use a popular framework like Genesis or Storefront and stick to some rules, then it shouldn’t be too hard to swap over to another child theme on those frameworks if needed.

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