Theme First or Spec First – The Danger of Ready Made WordPress Themes

That’s a pretty typical client request that most web designers get. Assuming your client actually has a realistic budget, it’s usually the start of a great project.

The next step you take can make or break the project though.

Should you purchase a ready made theme or should you build (or hire) a custom theme? As with most things in life, the answer is ‘it depends’.

Which is better?

Jumping on theme forest and finding a cool theme can seem like the logical choice. You’ll be able to customize it quickly and be done with the project without much effort, right? In some ways that’s true, but what if your client wants custom functionality or a specific design that the theme doesn’t support? Now you need to get your hands dirty and start modifying theme code. That’s when things get messy.

The problem with ready made themes

Ready made themes are built for people to use the way the theme author intended. They’re usually built with features that allow you to change color settings and modify the logo. When you use a ready made theme the way it’s been designed to be used, it can be a wonderful solution to building a website. However, ready made themes are not usually built to modify large chunks of code. If you start changing large chunks of code, you’ve essentially created a custom theme with a whole bunch of code you didn’t write and therefore probably don’t understand (without spending considerable time reading the code and documentation). That can lead to unexpected consequences at best and an absolute nightmare of broken code at worst. This problem is usually compounded by the fact that using a ready made theme seemed like the quick and easy option.

Isn’t a custom theme a lot of work?

A custom built theme can certainly seem like a lot more work. You have to create all the code yourself, there’s nothing ‘ready to go’. However, that drawback is also your biggest asset toward building and maintaining a working theme. When a client requests a specific design with specific features, you can build exactly what they want. You don’t have to strip out unnecessary code or try to work around theme features you don’t need. Just build it and be done.

So how do you choose?

It all depends where you start. I like to think of the two options as “Theme First” and “Spec First.”

In a Theme First process, you begin with a theme and define the design and spec based on that theme’s built in capabilities.

In a Spec First process, you define the specs of the project first, then build the design, and finally build the theme to match the specs and design.

Either process can work well, but it’s important not to mix the two. That’s the biggest mistake I see people make is they start with the spec, then come up with a design, and then try to pick a theme that will give them their exact design and specs. That leads to disaster as it becomes very difficult to work the theme backwards into the spec and design.

In the end, either option can be a great choice. Just make sure you pick a process and remain committed to it throughout the project.

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