Should web designers use theme templates?

When to consider website themes...and when NOT to

Once in a while, I come across a website in which I’m compelled to study, and being a little nosier than most I can’t help myself but take a peek under the hood to get the real story.

While completely out of the mind of most visitors, the underlying source code of a website reveals far more than you think. Those with a keen eye can even determine which content management system was used by file structure alone. (Or you can let search engines do the sleuthing for you.)

Most of all, it can take all of eight seconds to discover that website is simply a lightly reskinned third-party theme or a framework template likely in use by hundreds (if not thousands) of other websites (as the site Every F*cking Bootstrap Website playfully parodies).

There are good arguments for using pre-built themes; they are useful for clients who don’t have a huge budget for custom work and just need something simple to get going. However, I am always upfront with clients about the usage of a third-party template as I think it’s disingenuous to pass them off as your own custom design work.

But sometimes these templates don’t always save as much time and cost as you might think. The catch with them is that you really have to stick with the intended layout and functionality that the theme provides you, and going against that compromises any perceived efficiency or cost.

I’ve known clients whom insisted on using a specific theme only to find that it doesn’t provide the type of features that they hoped for or wanted things to work in a different way, requiring a developer to get involved to make heavy modifications. In those scenarios, it might have been more cost-effective to consider building a custom theme from scratch rather than trying to reverse engineer someone else’s work.

I’ve heard some critics scoff that custom theming is wasting time “reinventing the wheel” by doing what others have already established for you, but the irony is that many prebuilt themes do nothing but reinvent the wheel.

Theme developers sometimes ignore standard conventions of the platform they’re theming for and adopt proprietary control panels and APIs that requires additional research time in order to become familiar with it’s nuances. Sometimes it’s an obnoxious scavenger hunt to find simple functionality that the theme developer buried deep in a clunky admin panel or bloated source code.

As I said, themes templates have their place in the business and custom solutions shouldn’t always be done for the sake of custom. But there are no shortcuts for complexity either, and many perceived answers to cutting production time often do not expedite the process at all. Take this into account when considering a pre-built theme and don’t be afraid to consider custom work if the situation calls for it.

Patrick Shannon

About Patrick Shannon

A creative professional, photographer and design+technology advocate based in St. Louis, I have worked with a number of businesses, agencies and clients on design, production and marketing for everyday brands. In my spare time, I enjoy woodworking and am still attempting to build a life-sized replica of Optimus Prime out of wood.