Beautiful WordPress themes for sale on places like ThemeForest® are often created by small teams that generate revenue on the sale of the theme itself, not on the support or customization of the theme. Independent WordPress Designers and Integrators usually create their own themes for jobs with highly specific workflows or specialized functional requirements that have to be tied into the Content Management System (sort of, more on that later). This is because many prefab themes might be beautiful, but their code base can be unstable and difficult to maintain as WordPress versions evolve. These themes often require you to have certain plugins installed as well, so the Theme itself is not sufficient. Things are getting more technical all of a sudden, when most people just want a nice looking website without the expense of hiring a seasoned implementer. That’s a healthy way to approach any business expense, especially one that contains aspects to it that you might never be technical enough to truly understand. Never pay more than you should, especially in such a wildly priced market place like web creation services. Asking the right questions before buying a theme is therefor rather important.
So, why do websites that require specialized functionality often look less fluid and beautiful than those prefab $90.00 themes? It has to do with the code base mentioned above. Depending on how specialized the functional need actually is that a client is requesting, those themes can interfere by introducing conflicts in unpredictable areas with the code that is providing the specific features the website owner paid a web professional to implement.
Another consideration is the upgrade cycle. WordPress itself has to be updated at least once a quarter. Each time that happens, the code base is being changed. If that change conflicts with the prefab theme, or causes the theme to behave in a way that conflicts with the customized code that was already paid for and working just fine, or both, then the website owner has to pay to get this corrected. This happens far more frequently than most people imagine. Web projects have been cancelled over this issue. It is not trivial.
Cyber security, for yourself, your web host, and your visitors, is also something to consider. Where has the code been, who wrote it, is it safe and how would you know? If the theme has significant code weaknesses and you are not someone familiar with how to evaluate for such weaknesses, hackers will discover it before you do. Potential website owners should only purchase themes from reputable companies, and should be ruthless in their evaluation of what that means.
Prefab themes are, in most cases, closed universes. They are great at looking great, but not at supporting specialized functionality added to the overall WordPress code base. A lot of these themes are geared toward non-technical people. They have cool design features inside of them that enable a non-techie to customize the design, layout, and content within a severely limited range. Modern prefab themes are actually little “DIY” web builders in and of themselves, and that’s a big problem at many levels when it comes to using them for creating websites with specialized capabilities. It is so problematic that most web professionals will opt to build their own theme rather than charging the client for all the hours spent “fixing” code that wasn’t broken until the cheap prefab theme used to supply the site’s design broke it. It might be frustrating for the developer, but it is frustrating AND expensive for the client who thought to save money by going the prefab theme route. It is a dynamic responsible for a lot of unhappy web customers, and it is why web developers who run into this problem often decide they will never deal with WordPress again.
All of this is only really a problem if one assumes a prefab theme is more technologically flexible than it actually is. Once you understand why the inexpensive glitzy prefab theme exists, it is easy to understand why they are so inexpensive and when they are appropriate to use.
The prefab theme has only one goal in mind: make it so attractive that you feel you must buy it. Such a theme has no clue about your business, your pressure points, or what the website will actually have to do in order to prove ROI. It’s code base will be full of things that let you do design and content work (drag-and-drop layout builders, testimonial rotators, text formatting tools, image sliders, etc…), so long as you don’t modify things too much in terms of site functionality. It will not, in most cases, be agnostic enough to stay out of the way should you need to expand what the site can actually do. This might include things like posting jobs, creating paid membership aspects, creating a members-only research archive, making it possible for testimonials to be posted on approval to a specific section of your website, and more.
The down side to a custom design is that it’s expensive to achieve the same visual impact seen in great looking prefab themes without spending a few thousand dollars. Yes, you can immediately go from a $60.00 prefab theme to your own custom theme that costs thousands the moment you decide you must have a suite of capabilities a “general cheap WordPress site” does not provide. The reason is that the beautiful prefab theme incurs the same man hours to build regardless of whose building it, including the web designer hired for the job. The revenue model for theme builders is based on the number of sales of the same theme to different businesses. It is not based on spending those that same number of hours to build it and then only charging $60.00 to a single client. Of course the theme is only 1/2 the answer in this case. The website’s specialized required functionality now has to be created and the theme’s code must not interfere with it. It also has to work great and look good on mobile. If there is workflow involved and those work-based screens have to be mobile compatible, that can be an entirely separate expense for mobile testing of both the functional and layout integrity of the website on mobile devices.
This is why a lot of websites that contain customized features and capabilities for their owners, WordPress or otherwise, look more like work horses than show horses. A decision is made that the budget is more for functionality than design. The higher-budget website owner doesn’t have to worry about that as much, but will still likely be confused on this point if they don’t understand the trade-offs just described. After all, can’t we just take a great looking theme, configure some plug-ins that do what we want them to do, and call it good? Yes, sometimes. But for websites of any actual complexity and scale the answer is usually no.
To be sure, WordPress integration professionals usually don’t create their own theme from scratch. There are a class of themes that exist which are not aimed at the DIY web-building industry. Though not formally called as such, I refer to them as “Integrator” level themes. These are themes that come from places like ithemes.com. iThemes® is a company that also provides web professionals with a suite of security tools and plug-ins that are perfectly matched to their theme systems and therefor conflict-free and performance optimized. They are also very safe to use out of the box. With themes like this it is assumed web professionals will be using the themes to create websites for clients. That is a very different use case than the glitzy prefab that might have spotty support. These types of themes are aggressively supported at a deep technical level by their producing companies. Such themes tend to be relatively plug-in agnostic, open universes that readily support feature expansion; that is in fact why they exist. Their design customization is accomplished mostly through code level work, and in particular through something called Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). They don’t look like much design-wise when you first encounter them, and that’s the point. The expectation in this case is that the theme is a starting point, a basic set of functional layouts and navigation elements that will be visually modified (rather heavily in most cases) by the web professional integrating an approved custom design.