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Theme-designed vs. Custom-designed Websites

When getting a website, it's crucial that you understand how the website is built.

When hiring someone to build your website, there are two ways that they can create the website--they can build you a custom website, or they can create your website using a website theme (AKA templates).

The aesthetic differences between custom and theme websites are subtle, but the differences in production, cost, and future maintainability are huge.

A custom-designed website is one that’s coded from the ground up, specifically for your needs. Building custom websites requires a highly advanced skill-set and much more time. As a result, custom websites start at roughly $5,000, but usually range anywhere from $10,000-$100,000, based on your needs.

A theme-designed website is one that uses an existing website with pre-designed website elements as a starting point. Skilled designers can then customize the theme for the client in order to avoid recreating the wheel for every new website. Creating websites this way drastically reduces the amount of time needed to build a website, and as such, theme-designed websites range from $700 to $5,000, depending on what you’re looking for.

Budget aside, when should you get a custom website?

If you have special features that you absolutely need for your website, then going with a custom solution may be right for you. Some examples may include:

  • You need users to have unique logins where they can do things like view their account, leave reviews, post to forums, etc.

  • You want a website that’s an exact live version of a mockup that's designed, but not coded. (Note: we don’t recommend building websites like this, but if you want a website that perfectly reflects a mockup, it will likely need to be custom-designed).

While some website features can have some benefit, it's important to understand that some of those features can be the difference between a custom-built website and a theme-designed website. As a result, subtle differences can create huge differences in cost.

For example:

The below website has a portal where users can login to access their own personal dashboard, which requires that it was built with a custom database.

Instead, the following website has a password protected page where all users enter the same password to access the same page that only users with the password can see. To build this, the designer simply made one page and made it password protected.

While these two websites have only a subtle difference in functionality, the first site will likely cost over $10,000, whereas the second could be under $1,000.

Risks of custom-designed websites

Mobile-responsiveness is not guaranteed

Having a mobile-responsive site is an absolute must. Mobile-responsiveness, like the rest of a custom website, must be built from the ground up. This is a very time-consuming and technically challenging task, so if you are going to get a custom website, make sure the person making your site is planning on making it mobile-responsive and has the ability to do so.

It may not include a content management system

Similarly, every website needs a content management system (a way to add / edit content on the website), but custom-designed websites do not automatically have them. Anyone who is building a custom website needs to have a very clear idea of the elements of the site that will be updated, so that you can do this on your own. Otherwise, you’ll have to go into the code yourself to make changes, which requires web development experience.

SEO-friendliness not guaranteed

Just like mobile-responsiveness, creating a website that’s SEO-friendly is technically challenging.

If you decide to get a custom-designed website, make sure it’s by someone with an incredible track record.

Theme-designed websites, on the other hand, are always mobile-responsive, come with a content management system, and are built to be SEO-friendly.

In some circles, however, theme-designed websites carry an outdated stigma of being lower-quality.

The truth is, theme-designed websites are the best solution for most people

Theme-designed websites come out-of-the-box with the essentials

Theme-designed websites are always mobile-responsive, come with a content management system, and are built to be SEO-friendly. As mentioned above, these things are not guaranteed with a custom-designed website.

Websites built with the same theme do not look the same

An image is worth a thousand words, so take a look at the following three websites (click on the images to view the live sites).

If you look closely, you may be able to find common elements that these websites use, but overall they look completely different. Yet they are all built with the same theme! There are literally hundreds of great themes like this out there, and a great designer will customize a theme to create a site specific to your brand.

Theme-designed websites can look incredible

Let’s take a look at a website for an Australian cinematographer (click the image to view the live site).

This is a beautiful website! It turns out, it was created with a theme. Check out the demo for the theme here and you’ll see they share very common website elements.

But themes do have some restrictions

While theme-designed websites are much more affordable, offer substantial customization, and come out-of-the-box with a lot of important features, there are some limitations.

The main limitation is that customizations that may seem trivial can actually be difficult to implement. This is why if you want a carbon copy of a website concept that's been designed, but not turned into a live website, it will need to be custom-designed.

Here are some examples of requests that may seem small, but can be very difficult:

  • “Can you put the logo in the middle of the header instead of on the left?”

  • “Can you make the text fade-in, left-to-right?”

The answers to these questions depend on whether or not the theme supports these request.

The moral of the story is that unless unless you need a custom experience for each user, complex app-like features, or a carbon-copy of a design you created -- and are willing to spend at least $10k on a website to make sure it's done right-- you should get a theme-designed website. Website themes are getting more powerful and flexible, and in the hands of a great designer, you can get an awesome website using a theme.



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