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Custom Website Design vs WordPress Themes

Custom vs Templated Website Design

Clash between Templated vs. Custom Built Websites

by Dr. William Sen

When it comes to website development under WordPress, there is often a clash between two worlds: custom design versus templated design. In this article I will explain the differences between using ready-to-go WordPress Themes and a custom design in web development.

Not Custom Made: WordPress Themes

One of the reasons why WordPress as a content management system (CMS) has become so popular is that it can be installed by anybody without any technical knowledge under 5 minutes. Studies and researches including websitesetup.org reveal that as of 2018 WordPress is the no. 1 content management system—60% of all CMS out there are using WordPress. Everybody is way behind, like the second market leader Joomla with only 6.6%, Drupal by 4.6%, and Magento by 2.4%. Individuals, small companies as well as big corporations such as Bayer, Ford, Procter & Gamble and many others use WordPress for their day to day business. It is said even that 30% of the whole internet is run by WordPress.

One of the reasons why WordPress is so popular is because of its vast collection of the so-called WordPress Themes. Novice users can define the look & feel of their WordPress website by just choosing any of the free themes offered at wordpress.org. And since WordPress is an open source platform, more than 90% of the themes have no license fees. Installing a theme couldn’t be easier—just login to your WordPress install, choose a theme, click “activate”—that’s it.

In web design that kind of concepts are called “templated”. It means that you can choose a template—in this case a WordPress Theme— and you don’t have to bother creating your own. It’s contrary to what is called “tailored” or “custom made”.

Who creates all these WordPress themes?

All these WordPress Themes have been created by someone. Mostly they are being created and then released to open public by programmers and coders who believe in sharing their work for free. These people see themselves as a part of the open source community, the public domain movement, or the white hat hacker culture where the hacker ethics dictate that information should be free.

Anybody who can program can create his or her own WordPress Theme.

WordPress developers encourage coders to create their own themes. For this purpose, WordPress has released the WordPress Codex under codex.wordpress.org. It contains documentations, tips, tools, and anything a programmer needs to understand how to do it.

Web Design Companies offering Templated Designs

In the earlier days content management systems did not provide templated designs like WordPress does. Even today as of 2018, the theme or the design on other CMS  has to be coded by a web developer. However, if a web design company is providing web development under WordPress, it’s very tempting to use one of these WordPress Themes.

To say it bluntly: If a web design company provides  a WordPress Theme , they will not only bypass the design process, but also the coding of the design. Thus, the web development will no longer include the costs for design, and coding—the costliest parts of web development. Actually, the design and coding make for about 95% of all costs.

The web design agency will drop its costs down to 95% by using an existing WordPress Theme rather than creating their own. And even if they choose one of those Themes that cost money, the $40 to $80 license costs for a so-called Commercial WordPress Theme is nothing compared to what they would pay a designer and coder if they had to do it from scratch.

In the past few years I came across many web development agencies which have been offering only templated WordPress Themes.

I’m fascinated by this approach—the same way I’m fascinated by heist movies.

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Not only they charge the client thousands of dollars for something that takes 5 minutes to accomplish—I’ve seen web development companies charging $15K and more for a templated WordPress design. They are also excellent in sales, communication and project management. And eloquence is what it takes to convince clients to pay them astronomical prices.

From what I could witness so far is that these of web design agencies tell their clients that they have to go through a costly evaluation process to choose a specific WordPress Theme that will fulfill their needs. Many of them tell their clients about how much they know about their space, and the Themes they’re using are a perfect match for this specific branch. And they tell them they have to tweak the Theme afterwards, so it is “custom tailored” … all this blablah.

Of course, that’s all nothing but excellent pitch chatter to justify the high cost. Even more, they would tell their client that creating your own WordPress Theme is considered “hard coding”, because they know that if you ask savvy coders about “hard coding” they will tell you it’s bad… very bad.

Well there is of course a problem with this spiel—it’s pure balderdash.

It’s just a lot of words to create trust, and to justify the web agency’s needs, but there is no truth in it. A templated design can’t be called “tailored”—even so if you tweak it—it’s just wrong by definition: you can’t buy a suit from the rack and the call it “custom”, because you have changed its buttons and shortened the pants. Tailored or custom in information technology means  “done from scratch”. Also, creating your own WordPress Theme has nothing to do with “hard coding”—I won’t budge into what “hard coding” means, but all you have to know is that it’s something “very bad”, and it doesn’t apply to when you create your own WordPress Theme.

All these web developments with this approach I worked with also have no coders or programmers aboard. Some of them weren’t trained designers, but knew how to work with Photoshop, enough to layout some designs that looked exactly like the WordPress Theme they were about to use—what a coincidence!

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What’s the problem with WordPress Themes?

You might think, if it costs so less and is being used by so many, what’s the problem? First, I don’t like web design companies swindling clients like this. Since I have been a software engineer and a web developer with a PhD for over 20 years, it hurts to see that a web development company would charge someone for an open source WordPress Theme they would install in 5 minutes. Second—and that’s the most important—there is now way a WordPress Theme can fulfill the client demand.

You see, web development projects need research. In fact, any web development agency offering a web design without the process of a thorough competitor research should not be taken seriously. Web design is not just based on aesthetics and feelings but must be also based on economic values and results. You have to be able to answer these questions before you can move forward with design:

  • What is the competitor using and why is it successful?
  • What’s the message of the product/service?
  • What are the elements needed on the website to create trust for the user?
  • What conversion elements are needed to get a high conversion rate?
  • What are the engagement elements that will motivate the user to click further on the website?
  • What SEO elements will drive more traffic and conversions as of 2018?

Because every branch, product, and service is different, the more of these questions are being revealed by a research, the more the individual needs for a website increases.

And with that the value of the website and the prospects for conversions.

Based on the research results, a wireframe has to be created to see what elements the website needs. I’ve outlined the process of a thorough website process in my article “8 Steps to a Successful Website“.

In my experience (>300 website projects), I have never stumbled upon a WordPress Theme that would fulfill all the needs of a client. If you have research results on your hand that would ask for a certain WordPress Theme, then I would call the research biased. There is just no such thing.

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Who Uses WordPress Themes?

Let’s take a step back for a minute: 30% of the internet is run by WordPress. And most people use WordPress Themes. How is that possible?

WordPress was once built as a blogging platform—and besides the fact it is being utilized as a CMS, it still is a blogging platform. A banana is a banana, and WordPress is a blog platform.

In 2003 blogging became extremely popular, and around that time, WordPress was released—a blogging software that could be installed and used quick and easy: the right product at the right time. Thus, WordPress became popular among bloggers and individual users. Until today, it’s a great software if you are an individual and have not enough budget nor time, WordPress is the perfect solution.

When corporations also started using WordPress, they mostly started to create their own Themes rather than choosing from what was shared by individuals. Repurposing WordPress was a great idea, since WordPress is much easier to use and has many other advantages. However, even as of 2018, the naked WordPress install lacks many features a company needs. That’s why there is a vast of Plugins available that will somewhat help to add new features to WordPress. And even with these third-party Plugins, I concluded that some of them are very helpful (such as Woo Commerce for e-commerce, Yoast for SEO), but you still have to code your own plugins for the individual needs of a business.

Conclusion Custom vs. Templated Website Development

WordPress is a great platform for both individuals and companies. Individuals can use the WordPress Themes and don’t have to waste their time with programming. When it comes to business, you need a Web Development company that offers a custom WordPress Theme and custom WordPress plugins.

However, if you are a business and come across a web development company that uses third-party WordPress Themes… that’s the paradox right there. Why hire a web development company if they don’t develop in the first place? Just hire your cousin who knows how to do it and buy him a dinner. And then you have to ask yourself, does this sound like a professional business approach to you?


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