Choosing a theme is one of the most important decisions you’ll make when building a WordPress website. It can also be one of the most difficult. After all, themes are what ultimately display your message to the world.

The WordPress marketplace is filled with plenty of ready-to-use themes. Sometimes, you’ll find one that’s the perfect fit. But there are also a number of reasons why you’re better served by creating your own custom theme.

So, how do you know when it’s time to go with something custom? We’ll review some scenarios when a custom theme is your best bet, along with the effect it can have on your business. But first, let’s take a look at the potential downsides of using readymade themes.

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No Single Theme Can Do It All

WordPress themes are often marketed as being a jack-of-all-trades. From a theme author’s perspective, this makes perfect sense. If the goal is to appeal to the widest possible audience, your theme had better be flexible. But the reality isn’t so cut-and-dry.

The idea that a single theme can effectively handle all (or even most) use cases isn’t necessarily accurate. Sure, you could use the same theme to power a site for a barbershop, a car dealership and a hotel. But does that best serve your clients?

There are times when this approach is acceptable. For instance, in situations where the budget is small and the timeline is short.

For anything more, however, it’s best to think about client needs. Each industry has its own nuances. And, every business has their own unique style and personality. In these cases, readymade themes can come off as too generic.

Beyond that, we should also be aware of potential customization roadblocks. A well-crafted theme can be flexible, but only to a point. You may find yourself digging through someone else’s code to make changes. It can be a very frustrating experience.

Lastly, it’s unlikely that you’ll want to use every single feature that’s built in. Unused features can result in loading unnecessary code. That means your site will take a performance hit.

Swiss Army Knife

When Custom Themes Make Sense

Building a custom WordPress theme can be a lot of work. Whether you’re starting from scratch or using a starter framework such as Underscores or Genesis, it takes commitment. But it’s worth the effort.

Because you’re actually building something, you can charge more for your services. Plus, the finished product can be leaner and more personalized. Your clients won’t have to settle for something with limited options.

With that in mind, here are some situations where you’ll want to steer clients towards a custom theme:

Your Client Has Very Specific Needs

Have you ever dealt with a client who “loves” a theme, save for a “just a few” changes? To them, it may sound like a simple task. But for designers it can really open up a can of worms.

If those specific tweaks aren’t readily included within the theme’s options, you may be in for a lot of work. Locating the exact areas to change can take precious time. And, there could be unintended consequences in making those changes.

A custom theme provides a more direct way to please your clients. You’ll spend less time ripping code apart and more time getting things done.

Stability Is Crucial

Nobody wants to deal with a broken theme. Unfortunately, there’s only so much you can do to protect yourself. Even the use of a child theme is no guarantee of problem-free updates.

For instance, I once dealt with a theme that saw massive code rewrites in an update. While it brought some outstanding new features, it also broke my child theme. It turned out that much of the legacy code was no longer supported. I was left to go through every customized template and swap out code.

Granted, this was an isolated incident. But it goes to show how much faith we put in theme developers. When trust and stability are crucial, build it yourself.

A True Reflection of Branding

It’s hard to take an existing theme and bend it to fully match a brand. Sure, you can add a logo and change colors and fonts. But that only gets you part of the way there.

Branding is more than just design assets. It also showcases a company’s personality and values. You need a carefully-crafted approach to make this shine through.

This can be accomplished much more effectively if you’re starting from scratch. Why? Because you’re building with these ideals in mind. That should produce a better result that trying to reshape a prefabricated site.

Multiple devices on a desktop

The Effect on Your Design Business

Beyond serving the needs of your clients, custom themes can also be important for your business. As we mentioned previously, there’s a positive effect on revenue.

For instance, it would be nearly impossible to convince a client spend big money on customizing a $50 theme. But if you’re building something just for them, that cost is much easier to justify. That higher revenue stream will help you stay in business for the long haul.

In addition, creating your own custom solutions can really boost your portfolio. Personally, I’d be very uncomfortable promoting projects that used an existing theme. Because I didn’t fully build or design the website, I can’t claim it as my own work.

Modifying readymade themes can help you earn some quick cash. But in the long run it may actually hurt your business. Your work won’t be seen as original. And, you’d need a large volume of projects to make a steady living.

Women using a laptop computer

Custom Themes Put You in Control

In the end, the decision to go with a custom theme rests on several factors. Your skills as a designer and developer play a large role. If you don’t consider yourself a theme developer, it’s worth taking the time to learn.

Check out the WordPress documentation for the rules of the road. You can also learn a lot by dissecting the default WordPress themes, such as Twenty Seventeen. Over time, you’ll start to gain a better understanding of the processes involved.

From there, it’s a matter of serving the best interests of both your clients and your business. Clients will benefit from having a website that is a true reflection of who they are. And, you’ll be able to both increase revenue and proudly add these projects to your portfolio.

Share Your Thoughts

Do you prefer to build custom WordPress themes for your clients? Or, do you enjoy working with existing themes? Let us know in the comments!

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Posted by Eric Karkovack

Eric is a freelance web designer and writer with over 20 years of experience. He works with a wide variety of clients and specializes in WordPress. Connect with him on Twitter.