This week I've been amazed to discover that nearly all WordPress web designers are customising WordPress themes as standard. Here are 5 reasons why I think this is a bad idea.
What are other WordPress web designers doing?
As part of my current search for good WordPress web designers, I've spoken with lots of WordPress designers and developers. To my surprise, nearly everyone has said that all their theme-based projects involve making major customisations to the theme. They use an existing WordPress theme as a starting point, and use it to create something more bespoke. Several expressed surprise that Barn2 Media can find clients who are happy with WordPress themes as they come, without major customisations.
Of course, lots of WordPress web designers are design websites from scratch and produce custom themes. This is absolutely fine. It's a great option for websites with higher budgets and specific requirements.
What I'm concerned about is the unhappy middle ground that a lot of WordPress web designers are in. They aren't designing websites from scratch OR using a theme as inspiration for the design. Their service is somewhere between the two.
What's wrong with that?
This seems crazy to me. At Barn2 Media, we are successfully meeting many client's requirements simply by using an existing WordPress theme the way it was designed to work. We can create almost any type of professional website. Simply by implementing a theme to its full potential and making effective use of its capabilities and features.
So what's going on? Why are other WordPress web designers spending their time customising themes? And why do I think this is such a bad idea?
Reason 1 - It's impossible for WordPress web designers to quote for
When we first founded Barn2 Media, we fell into this trap. Because we weren't experienced in managing WordPress web design projects, we included theme customisations as standard. In the very early days (2009-2010), we didn't even tell clients that we were using a theme to build their website. This caused numerous problems, for us and our clients.
A WordPress web designer leaves themselves wide open if they don't explain that their service is limited to implementing the features provided in the theme. The client can - quite reasonably - request ANY change to the design of the website within the original quote. Regardless of how significant the customisation might be.
The WordPress web designer might have to spend days recoding large parts of the theme. They might have to make the website look completely different to the original theme. After a while they start to realise that they'd have been better off designing the site from scratch and building a custom theme. (This is generally much easier than making major customisations to an existing theme). They'd have been better off using a different theme that the client prefers.
There's no way to predict the amount of work in advance because the WordPress web designer doesn't know that the client will request changes of such magnitude. The scope of the project keeps growing and the quote doesn't provide a point at which you can say "No" or re-quote.
Surely you can just give a website price estimate?
Some WordPress web designers try to overcome these problems by providing estimates rather than fixed quotes, or setting a limit on the number of revisions/customisations. Neither of these approaches are customer-focussed because the client needs to know upfront what they will pay for a website that meets their requirements. I have never found a WordPress web design client who is happy for the bill to continue increasing every time they request changes. They believe that these changes are necessary for meeting their original requirements, so they won't be prepared to pay more than they planned.
Compare this to a standard Barn2 Media project to set up a WordPress website using a theme. The quote clearly states that we will set up the website using the theme, making full use of the theme's features to make your content look really professional. It's worded in a positive way that emphasises the benefits, rather than in a negative way full of disclaimers about what's not included. This meets the client's need for a professional website for a fixed price. It meets our need for a non-stressful project that can be implemented within the time we have quoted. Everyone wins.
Reason 2 - WordPress themes aren't designed for heavy customisation
It's easy enough to make minor customisations to a WordPress theme. However, a lot of themes start to fall apart when you make more significant changes.
The most popular WordPress themes at the moment are the huge ones that you get on ThemeForest. These themes contain a huge amount of code and look great, but they're not so good under the covers. Big themes like this are so complex that it's almost impossible to know all the possible implications of the customisations you want to make. You can't possibly test every possible scenario on a theme with so many features, so it's a risky game for WordPress web designers to play.
In the past, we have tried to customise major themes that simply weren't designed to be modified in this way. The code was brittle and was completely dependent on being used according to its original purpose - trying to change this caused major problems. These take a lot of time and effort for a WordPress web designer to sort out, and leave the client with a less stable website.
Other themes, such as the ones on our list of preferred theme authors, are cleaner and more lightweight. They're much more suitable for customisation. However, customisations can be more work than you anticipated even if the theme is small and well coded. For example it may sound simple to add a parallax effect to a background image, but this can have wider implications due to the way the code interacts with other elements of the theme.
Reason 3 - There's usually no need to customise a WordPress theme!
In my search for good WordPress web designers, I have received over 60 proposals from people interested in working with Barn2 Media. I've waded through dozens of links to theme-based websites that other people have set (most of which were heavily customised and bore little resemblance to the original theme). The strange thing is, these over-customised themes are less professional-looking than the demo site of the theme that they were originally based on! This made me think.
My theory is that less experienced WordPress web designers are customising themes to make up for their own lack of vision. They install the theme and think the website looks a bit bland, so they start making tweaks and customisations. They show the first draft to the client, who also thinks it looks bland and starts requesting changes - many of which aren't possible in the theme, hence the need for more customisations. Many of the changes that the client requests aren't a good idea - they're not WordPress web designers, after all!
Most people don't know that the best way to work with a designer is to describe the problem and trust them to propose a solution - instead, they propose a solution for each detail they don't like about the site. If the WordPress web designer follows these instructions blindly then they will end up with a complete mess, as nothing fits together visually and they are working against the theme rather than with it.
It's far better to present the client with a genuinely professional-looking website from the outset which is loyal to the theme demo. If you do this, the client will be much happier and won't start requesting customisations that are outside the scope of the theme.
Is your client losing confidence in your design skills?
In my experience, clients start to micro-manage the design of their website when they lack confidence in the WordPress web designers' expertise. You can stop this from happening simply by looking more closely at the demo site for the WordPress theme you are using.
Think about what makes the demo site effective. Is it the images? If so, think carefully about what sort of images to use for the WordPress website you are designing. Is it the spacing? Then replicate the spacing closely rather than just accepting the default spacing. Is it the way they have used shortcodes and other styling features on the theme demo? If so, look at the available shortcodes and format your client's content in an equally effective way. Is it the size of the logo and the height of the header area? Then replicate this on the website you're designing, even if it means resampling the client's logo.
WordPress websites do look rubbish if you install a theme, paste in the content and leave it at that. Designing a professional WordPress website using a theme involves analysing the theme demo site and carefully planning how to design a website that is equally effective. If you fail to do this, you'll end up with a website that is a mere shadow of the theme it is based on.
No wonder so many WordPress web designers end up hacking around with the design - they have lost sight of how the theme was supposed to look in the first place. If you implement the theme in the way it was actually intended, then you can create a fantastic website without needing any design or coding skills of your own. The design is already there, and you just need to implement it!
Use a flexible theme instead
It's also worth noting that the most popular themes are incredibly flexible. If you investing time in learning how they work, you can do almost anything without any customisation. For example the popular Divi Theme is really an entire framework and shouldn't need customising to achieve your exact requirements. While you need a good eye for design to create an effective website using Divi and it's easy to get it very wrong, customising it is not the answer. You can read a good review of it here.
Reason 4 - It's harder to set client expectations
I love projects to design a WordPress website using a theme because the client knows exactly what to expect, before we even start work. With a custom web design project, a lengthy process of planning, wireframing, design etc. is needed. The designer may need to provide multiple concepts and undergo numerous rounds of revisions before the client is happy with the website designs.
Sometimes the client feels that the designer hasn't understood their vision for the website and it can be a challenge to create a design that achieves the look and feel they had imagined. Happily, none of this applies to WordPress theme setup projects.
When we design WordPress websites using an existing theme, we get the client's approval as follows:
- First, we speak with the client about their requirements and discuss examples of other websites they like. We ask useful questions such as what they do and don't like about each specific site.
- Next, we research suitable themes and provide a shortlist (based our list of high quality theme authors).
- The client chooses a theme based on the shortlist.
- We plan the website by discussing which elements of the theme demo site the client does and doesn't like.
Why is this a good idea?
This process works well because the client has effectively signed off the design for the website before we have even started building it! Because the client has approved the choice of theme, we have their buy-in and support. They understand that if they request something that isn't possible in the theme (and would therefore require customisation), this will be a change to the brief and will cost extra. You know what to expect, and so do they.
Some WordPress web designers worry that by using a theme exactly as it comes, they will have to lower their costs as client's won't see the value in their work. This isn't my experience at all. Designing a WordPress website using a theme is a skilled job, as you can see from the fact that so few people get it right.
As the WordPress web designer for the project, you are providing a professional service. This includes:
- Providing expert advice on how to use WordPress to meet your business objectives
- Adding the content to the site and presenting it in an effective and professional way
- Sourcing and optimising suitable images for the website; knowing which plugins to install
- Speed and performance; search engine optimisation (SEO)
- And so on
(And if you don't do all these things as standard, maybe you should. These services are much more important to clients than being able to customise a theme!)
Reason 5 - It makes the website harder to update in future
Any half decent WordPress web designer knows to make their customisations in a child theme. Modifying the main theme (often called the "parent theme") is a bad idea because your customisations will be lost if you install any updates that are released for the theme in future. Good WordPress theme authors release regular updates to keep their themes compatible with new versions of WordPress, update them in line with the latest web standards, etc. WordPress website owners are therefore better off if they have uncustomised themes that can be updated.
Can't I just use a child theme?
Even if you use a child theme, customisations can make the website harder to maintain in future. A child theme makes the website slightly more complex and has a very slight impact on performance and page load times. If something goes wrong, for example after an update, it makes it harder to discover the cause of the problem as the WordPress web designer has to test the website twice by deactivating the main theme AND the child theme.
When you install a theme update, there's a risk that your customisations in the child theme won't work with the updated version. If you're looking through the code, e.g. to fix a problem, then you have to look in the theme AND child theme. It's also easy for WordPress web designers to make silly mistakes that could cause problems in future, such as putting some customisations in a child theme and other customisations in the 'Custom CSS' box that some themes provide.
While the finished website may look great with its heavily customised theme, WordPress web designers should consider whether they're making things more difficult for the client in future.
When is it ok for WordPress web designers to customise a theme?
I'm not saying that a WordPress web designer should NEVER customise a WordPress theme. Here are some examples of when this is entirely appropriate:
- If you want to make some minor tweaks to make the theme work with the website content, for example by adjusting the spacing slightly. As I explained above, I wouldn't recommend making major styling changes that compromise the overall design of the site - however minor tweaks like this are often beneficial
- If you want to add some additional styles to format the website content, for example toggles or accordions to match the theme (although you may wish to do this via a separate plugin rather than as a theme customisation...)
- If you need to add additional features to the website. Many WordPress designers fall into the trap of making major customisations to "app themes" - i.e. themes with complex functionality such as estate agent themes or car dealer themes. "Tweaking" features such as the Advanced Search is rarely a good idea and will usually take longer than building this feature from scratch as a custom WordPress plugin. However it's ok to add extra features to a theme-based website, so long as you integrate these nicely and they don't look 'bolted on'
- If you're adding a plugin to a website (e.g. e-commerce) and need to style the pages added by the plugin to match the theme
My concern relates to the common practice of making major theme customisations as an integral part of the web design process - rather than something that should only be considered when there is an actual reason to do so.
WordPress web designers - think before you customise!
I hope this article helps fellow WordPress web designers to consider how they approach theme setup projects. By having clear processes, clear communication and good attention to detail, you can design professional WordPress websites that meet most requirements. If you truly understand the theme you're working with, and your client has approved the choice of theme, then you can create fantastic websites that make everyone happier all round.