June 19th, 2020

Creating a new website with Wordpress can be a daunting task, and inevitably the question arises as to whether to use an existing Wordpress theme or create a custom website. Many factors come into play, the two biggest being funds and timeline. A lot of our clients will choose to use an existing theme which can suit for the available funds at their disposal and a short timeline; however there are factors which sometimes are not considered.

Themes can have many benefits for a project which have an impact on performance, a project timeline and existing designs. These days it is more common to use themes, but when does a reliance on Wordpress themes negatively impact your project?


Not all themes are created equal

Wordpress themes control how your content and data is displayed in a browser -- the look, feel, and layout. They generally have both existing page layouts and components which can be created with ease. Many existing themes will focus on a specific type of website: blog, e-commerce, or business sites, to name a few. Then there are multipurpose themes which aim at allowing users to create any form of website with their components. Both have pros and cons.

Most of our clients ask for themes that will look similar to a specific design they have in mind which can lead to a very common trap: a theme does not allow much wiggle room or flexibility. Themes can range from being limited to specific page layouts that will display certain components, to themes that allow the ability to completely customize the entire website free of restrictions, but requiring more development. Many choose the former thinking it will save time in development, but at times can be the exact opposite. It is important when designing for a theme to understand the theme’s restrictions well. As the project timeline progresses, the project requirements will inevitably evolve -- whether due to user suggestions or certain content display requirements -- and developers will run into the limitations of the theme. At that point, they either have to change the content requirements, or start customizing the theme’s code.

 

What to look for

Would it have been better to create a custom theme tailored to a client’s request instead of purchasing a theme that exists already? In many cases, the latter can be more beneficial, when you keep in mind the following:

Content

Content is usually overlooked as a future to-do; however tremendous time and money can be saved if content is determined for every page before a theme is selected. It is very common for new requests for content to come in the final stages of the development process, only to run into the restrictions of the chosen theme. Up-front content planning allows us to consider everything that will be in the final version of the website and select the right theme to meet your project’s specific needs.

Design

When designing for themes, it is imperative to spend time understanding the theme’s components and shortcodes. One can easily assume a theme offers something they consider basic -- e.g. adding a button to a CTA -- and design for this specification, only to end up disappointed when it comes time for development and the component will require custom coding.

Plugins

Make sure you have a clear set of requirements for your website before theme selection begins. But one way to stay flexible in the face of a long list of requirements for a theme is to consider leveraging plugins to handle some of them, rather than finding one theme to handle everything on its own. There are several plugins that are commonly used on Wordpress websites, including Yoast SEO, W3 Total Cache for caching, and Mailchimp for email marketing.

Accessibility

Accessibility is important for all websites, but sadly often overlooked when choosing a theme. But luckily, there are themes that follow accessibility best practices, including 508 compliance. If this is a requirement for your company, which we recommend, you should be sure to add “Accessibility Ready” to your filter while searching for a theme.

Responsive

In this day and age, there is no need for me to go into the importance of responsiveness in websites. Themes will aid with responsive behavior, but when making custom updates, developers can find themselves wasting time removing unnecessary styles instead of focusing on new updates. We can work with you to find a theme that works for your audience’s responsive needs.

Browser Compatibility

What browsers are your users using? If you need to support older browsers, verify that your theme covers them. We can help determine this by looking at your site’s analytics to determine where your traffic is coming from, and how that affects your theme choice.

SEO

It’s very easy to say after a website is complete, “let’s improve the SEO now.” Plugins can help somewhat after the fact, but if the theme was developed without SEO being a requirement, the cost of true improvement can be much higher. Improving the SEO might mean needing to redo the current theme’s HTML markup, costing valuable money and time that could have been avoided by selecting a theme that focused on SEO in development.

Wordpress themes are beneficial in some instances, and detrimental in others. At the end of the day, configuring a Wordpress theme requires a good support system to help you audit the theme and customize it to do what you want. If you're looking to create a Wordpress site, let us know