Deciding between a premium WordPress theme and a custom designed WordPress website?

May 11th, 2018 by

I receive a lot of enquiries from people who are finding it difficult to decide between a custom designed WordPress website and a premium WordPress theme for their business. This was the inspiration behind this blog post, aimed in the first place at anyone who is finding it difficult to decide between the two, to ensure that they will end up with a website that will serve their business now and well into the future.

As a web designer I specialise in custom designed WordPress website development – that said, I have helped set up, fix and update numerous WordPress premium theme websites, which has given me a good understanding of both options.

I have noticed that I am also receiving an increasing number of enquiries from business owners who have hit a wall with their premium theme website and are now looking for help with fixing or customising their site: they either can’t get it to look or do what they want, the website is loading too slowly  or the layout and design doesn’t allow them to convey their business message effectively. In short: their website isn’t working for their business as well as it should. 

If you are wondering if you should invest in a custom designed WordPress website or go with a premium WordPress theme, here are some of the key points to consider:

Many businesses decide on a premium theme because of cost. Theme demos look fabulous and seem to have all the bells and whistles of an expensive custom designed website. It seems like a no brainer! Yet the many enquiries I receive and extensive work I have done to existing premium themes are testament to the fact that in the longer run this may not necessarily be the easy and cheap solution it can appear to be.

Which is why I think for those looking to build a new website, it’s imperative that they make an informed choice at the start of the project, to avoid sinking time and money into a website that won’t serve their business, especially in the medium to long term. An initially ‘cheap; premium theme, can, in the worst case, end up costing more than a custom designed website, lead to a lot of frustration, wasted time and lost business.

In a nutshell, what’s the difference between a premium WordPress theme and a customised WordPress website?

A custom designed WordPress website is built around your brand, business and content right from the start. When I develop a bespoke WordPress website I first get to know my client’s business – their target audience, their brand and their business goals. The creative process, from the start, is intrinsically connected to their business, with the aim of creating a website that will serve them now and well into the future. If the business is a start-up then the site may be small to begin with but built with expansion in mind. I discuss with my client what they need now and where they envisage their business will be in the years ahead, all of which will be factored into the design and development process.

With a custom website, the website isn’t an add on to your business, it is at the centre of it.

A premium WordPress theme is in many ways a ‘website out of a box’.The theme has been designed and configured by a third party developer, is bought online, and then installed and configured on your server. The design and development process in this case is disconnected from any particular business – premium themes need to be inherently  flexible in order to accommodate the needs of a variety of business types, brands and content.  It’s not uncommon to see the same theme in different configurations sold for restaurants, e-commence, photographers, to name a few. When you build your website based on a premium theme, your content needs to be flexible enough to fit around the parameters set by your chosen theme. Which means that when the theme won’t allow you to do what you need it to do, you will either have to accept it’s limitations or put in the extra work involved in theme customisation, which more times than not requires expert developer skills.

The user experience

But there’s more: a professionally designed website is not only created to perfectly suit your business. It is also created with your target audience in mind. Web usability and targeting is fundamental to your online presence. If your customers can’t easily find what they are looking for, they will go look for it somewhere else. And if you aren’t effectively communicating your message, then you are missing out on the opportunity to tell your web users about the unique services and products you offer.

Website performance and speed differences between a custom designed WordPress website and premium WordPress theme.

There are also big differences in the website code, which can and does often have implications on website performance.  Many enquires I receive from premium WordPress theme website owners include the question: why is my website running so slowly? This can be put down to lots of reasons, including large, unoptimised images or conflicting scripts. But in more cases than not, it’s because the WordPress theme is too code heavy. What does that mean? It means that because the theme needs to offer so many options and requires so many large plugins for the website build, these all increase the amount of website code. So when the website is loading, it takes longer for the browser to read the code before it can display the content.

A premium theme usually has many more options than you will ever require. Yet even if you’re not making use of all that the theme has to offer, these ‘options’ can still be hidden in the code in the form of plugin scripts and stylesheet, which in turn can have the effect of slowing down your website.

The code in a custom developed WordPress website is generally much more streamlined as it is hand coded using only as much code as is required to run that particular site – no bulky builder are plugins required. In a recent study, where the same website was created twice, once custom coded and once based on a premium theme, the premium theme required 16 times as many lines of code!

Slim website code means faster performance. And a fast loading website is one of the biggest assets to your business: it has been shown many times it’s not only important for SEO, it has a direct impact on website conversion:

Every second counts. If your website doesn’t load quickly, you will not only lose website visitors, but it can also have an effect on your organic search rankings or googleAdWords quality score.

47% of people expect your site to load in less than 2 seconds.

40% will abandon it entirely if it takes longer than 3 seconds.

You get a little bit more room to move with mobile visitors, but not much. 85% of internet users expect a mobile site to load as fast or faster than on their desktop.


That doesn’t mean a premium theme is always slow. It depends to some extent on the theme build, how many plugins it requires to run, and how large these plugins are. A simple, small website running a basic theme is likely to only be affected minimally. But if it’s a bigger website with lots of bells and whistles, performance can be a real issue, as it will require a variety of bulky plugins to be built. So if you do chose a premium theme, try to find out how fast it runs. If the demo is taking quite a few seconds to load, be wary. Demos are usually built to perform as well as the theme allows, so from my experience, the actual website, when all content has been uploaded, will usually take longer to load.

Cost consideration?

Yet as with everything, a determining factor is often cost. Premium themes are tempting as they can be bought for as little as a few pounds, whereas a professionally designed custom website will run into several thousands of pounds to design and develop.

So the question is: when and why is it worth investing in a custom designed WordPress website, and when will a premium theme be the better choice?

When deciding between the two types of websites, the aim really is to avoid sinking too much money into a website now and then realising that you need to to keep investing to to try fix a site which isn’t working for your business anymore. Don’t forget, your website is often the focus of all your business marketing efforts and needs to serve you now and well into the future.

My advice generally is that if you have a very limited budget, need a simple website, have found a theme that looks and works just the way you want it, have the time required to read through the theme documentation, and the patience to learn how to configure the theme yourself, and won’t require any changes to the theme design or functionality, then this could be a cost effective way to get your business online. It means you don’t spend too much money now, and when you have grown your business and have a bigger budget, you can invest in a custom designed website.

If however you do require a more complex site for your business, and are not sure if you should chose a custom designed WordPress website or a premium WordPress theme, then a good place to start is to look at initial and future costs. A custom designed WordPress theme will be easier to upgrade and maintain in the long run, so the main investment is at the start of the project, whereas a premium theme may be cheaper at the first stage, but may require a lot more development work in future, especially if you are aiming to grow your business..

So in short, if you are leaning towards a premium theme, it is important to factor in possible additional and future costs, incurred either by getting a developer to set up the site for you or by paying the developer to sort out the bits that you find difficult to do yourself. Be aware that setting up and customising a premium theme is generally a lengthy process. Theme customisations (overriding the template) will requires advanced coding skills and this needs to be factored in when working out costs And don’t forget that all pages will need to be optimised for desktop, tablet and mobile.

But before you make you final decision, I think its always worth talking to a WordPress developer – many things that may seem simple can in fact be more complex than they appear and therefore time intensive and costly to implement.

If you think a custom designed WordPress website is the right choice, ask yourself if you will you end up sinking more money into your website in the long term than if you just went with a custom designed WordPress website?

To summarise, a premium WordPress theme might be right for you if:

    • You need a small website
    • You don’t have a longer term business plan and this is just to ‘get you online’ and go from there
    • You have found a premium theme that you think will work right out of the box, without the need for any significant changes to functionality or layout
    • You don’t think you will need to develop your website in any significant way in the near to medium future
  • You have a very limited budget

A custom designed WordPress website is likely to be right for you if:

    • You need a unique design for your website and brand
    • You can’t find a theme that exactly fits your needs without modifications
    • You need a website that will grow with you business – allowing you to add functionality / make style changes at a later stage
  • You want a site that is optimised for speed, usability and quality, and that any issues can be easily resolved.

If you are still not sure, it’s always worth speaking to a web designer. I’m happy to talk through your website project with you and will always make the recommendations that I think will best suit your business and budget.