Custom Theme Design vs. Existing Themes

When we start discussing a new website project with a client there are two primary paths that we walk. We can base the new design on an existing theme or we can create a custom theme design. There are usually some immediate reactions to these options depending on the client. In this post we’re going to look at the pros and cons of each approach and talk about how to make good decisions for your project.

The Almighty Dollar

When we have the discussion about choosing a custom theme design or basing a design on an existing theme it’s usually for two reasons. The first is that a client has found or had a theme recommended to them by someone that they think is “perfect” for their website. The other is because we’re discussing budget for a project. More than any other factor, cost drives many clients to choose to base their project on an existing theme. While this can be a valid component in making the decision, it shouldn’t be the only factor that you’re taking into consideration. Let’s take a look at some of the other factors.

An Existing Theme

When a new design is based on an existing theme we’re hoping to leverage 95% of the appearance and functionality of the theme we’re using as a starting point for the project. By doing this, the idea is we’re not having to repeat a lot of work and there should be a big savings in time and effort (which should translate to dollars). We often utilize a theme-builder as the basis of a design instead of a standard theme. Tools like the Make theme or Beaver Builder are working hard to bridge the gap between customization and leaning on preexisting elements. This works a lot of the time but there are some key factors to consider that can cause this assumption to fail.

The 95% Rule

  • As mentioned, we’re hoping to leverage 95% of what’s already built. We want to use the page templates, styles, menuing as close to the stock theme as possible. Of course we’re going to want to make sure the theme meshes with the branding for the site but this is usually a minimal change. The 95% rule becomes problematic when the theme chosen doesn’t really match the needs of the website. This can be because of a poorly coded theme, a kitchen sink theme, or even just incorrect assumptions about the needs of the site. If you can’t leverage enough of the theme it may end up costing you more than building from scratch.

Kitchen Sink

  • Many themes try to be everything – built in custom post types, built in sliders, built in galleries, built in ecommerce, built in everything. Sometimes this can be a great advantage for someone who isn’t sure exactly what they want. Most of the time we find these themes to be overly complex, poorly optimized, and a poor starting point. We operate from the paradigm that functionality should not be built into your theme, it should be built into plugins. Some themes require a ton of themes be loaded just to get the theme functionality operational. While this is an improvement over having everything baked into the theme, it can still cause issues with bloat and there may be a lot of functionality that you don’t utilize.

Scope creep

  •  Similar to the 95% rule, if the needs of your project change during the course of the design you may find that you’ve drifted away from your starting theme. The surest way is to have a very defined set of goals for your website. If you know that these goals are going to change over the life-cycle of your website then you need to be prepared to repeat the design process or you want to utilize a theme that’s going to handle this potential growth.

Custom Theme Design

When you’re creating a theme from scratch you have infinite flexibility. The theme can match your branding completely, the templates will match your exact needs, and the functionality for the site can be tailored to only those elements that you need. In essence it’s the site of your dreams. However, even with this route there can be some drawbacks.

No Net

  •  If you need something new for your theme then you’re going to need to pay for the development of the item. An extra template, or additional features, or a change to an existing feature will all add time. There are no extra features built to handle changes (unless you identified this need during your planning).

Scope Creep

  • As with the problems with existing themes, scope creep is the bane to custom theme development as well. If you have changing needs it’s going to mean a changing plan. One advantage with a custom theme is the ability to change direction depending on how far into the process you are.


Either of these routes can deliver a great result. The key to making the process work is to identify the business needs and goals of the website early. We, as developers, will guide you through this decision-making and offer solutions to help achieve those goals. However, if you haven’t defined the goal, we can’t help build it. The biggest takeaway is that cost should not be the only factor involved in your decision-making. What may seem like an initial savings can later be a large expense.

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