WordPress Themes: Custom or Canned?

September 24, 2020

As a website platform, WordPress makes it easy to create and customize a website for just about anything– whether it’s for your business or for your blog, for selling through e-commerce, for housing your portfolio… I could go on. Out of the box, it’s accessible, incredibly customizable, and has a myriad of other perks and positives. If you’ve decided that WordPress is the way to go for building your website, you’re in good company. WordPress powers well over 30% of all sites on the web. 

If you’ve landed on WordPress as your platform of choice, or even if you’re still deciding, one thing you’ll need to consider is whether or not you’ll use a custom vs. a premade theme. In this article we’ll explore the difference between Custom & Canned, and hopefully provide enough information for you to be able to decide on your best route. 

What is a WordPress Theme?

So, to start, what is a WordPress THEME, exactly? Themes are an inherent part of WordPress. Essentially, a WordPress theme is a package of files such as graphics, style sheets, and code. This package dictates the overall appearance of your website, from the layout all the way down to smaller details such as button colors. Not only that, the theme is what enables you to control how your site is presented overall. 

For example, if you are a photographer who also sells prints, you may want part of your site to display your work in a gallery format and for another part of your site to show products for sale in an e-commerce style layout. A good wordpress theme will enable you to display your portfolio one way, while allowing for a completely different presentation and experience on your store pages. 

What’s a premade theme and what’s a custom theme? 

With WordPress themes, you really have three options for your site:

  1. Use a free, prebuilt theme
  2. Use a premium, prebuilt theme
  3. Use a custom built theme

Prebuilt themes are themes that allow you to implement your site using components that have already been built. Those components usually involve a prefabricated set of page templates that will determine how your site appears and displays on the front end for your visitors, and plugin integrations for providing functionality. 

A premium, prebuilt theme is a template or theme that isn’t free, and is available for purchase from a third-party WordPress theme marketplace.

A custom theme is a one-off. It’s built and created based off of the designs and planning for a single, particular website (yours). They are completely unique so as to adapt to the style and needs of the website owner, with all the parts and functionality integrated together seamlessly. There are no unnecessary plugin integrations included, so your theme contains only what you need – no bloat. 

Why go with a PreMade Theme?

There are some pros and some cons to going with a premade, out of the box WordPress theme. Starting with the pros, small businesses and solo-preneurs who are concerned about budget, and who have relatively straightforward functionality needs can certainly benefit from a canned theme. Even using something like Wix or Squarespace can provide an attractive, simple website solution (although beware of site builders like that as you often do not retain the rights to your own content). Canned themes also come with a lot of additional page-types and functionality options. While not necessarily a good thing, this does make adding new content, new content types, and some additional functionality relatively easy. One other pro is that if you are on a tight or limited timeline as far as launching your new website, a canned theme might be a faster route to take. 

Premade Theme Pros:

  • Budget-friendly if your needs are straightforward
  • Can be easier to add additional features and functionality (because it already comes with the theme)
  • Can save time

While budget and timing can certainly be major pros to using a canned theme, there are a few cons to be aware of. First and foremost, a canned theme is not unique. If standing out and standing apart is part of your website strategy, then you should know that it’s just as easy for anyone else as it was for you to purchase the same theme. There are hundreds, even thousands or more websites on the internet that use the very same theme that you selected. It’s quite possible that you (and your website users) will stumble upon another site using the same theme at some point, so you want to consider how that cmay affect your brand & brand reputation. It might not affect it at all — but for others differentiation may be quite important. 

Another con to using a premade theme is that the industry standards for best practices in terms of website development do not come baked in. Things like site security, server optimization, preventing unwanted crawlers and even hackers; none of these things are generally addressed unless you build it on top of the canned theme. Which brings me to the next issue: MAJOR security risks. 

Hackers are constantly trying to crack premade themes to exploit their vulnerabilities. It’s more bang for their buck, so to speak, to hack a canned theme which will essentially give them access to a number of websites, vs. hacking a single site or one-off theme. So if a hacker happens to figure out the theme you’ve selected, you could be in for some security issues. 

To add to that, canned themes often come with 3rd party plugins to extend your functionality. While that’s all very well and good, do you know where those 3rd party plugins come from? Or how often those plugins are updated (if at all)? Developers can be notorious for abandoning a plug in once they have developed it (especially if it’s a free plugin), which means after it is built and released into the world — there are no more updates to it, including security updates. 

Canned themes come with a lot of stuff in that package of files — much of which you will not need for your site. Having a site that is bogged down by additional code and files can slow down your page load time (which hurts your search engine optimization and bothers your users). As if that wasn’t enough, uninstalling these extra plugins and pieces that you do not need can and will often break the theme itself, so there’s no real way around the added bloat of using a canned theme. 

When you purchase a prebuilt theme, the images, fonts, and content all needs to be switched out from what the canned theme provides to content that you own and have the rights to use. You may find that you will need to purchase photos, and make adjustments to the theme itself to make your content “fit” appropriately. This takes a little bit of time — especially because your developer will have to learn the template system used by the theme you’ve selected (and they are all different). Additionally, replacing the canned content with your own may not look or present itself quite the way you expect it to. 

That said, canned themes are difficult and time consuming to customize. 

basket of fresh ingredients next to a can of WordPressPremade Theme Cons:

  • Not unique 
  • Not secure
  • Industry standards and best practices not baked in
  • Bloated
  • Learning curve 
  • Doesn’t always look the way you expect it to
  • Not easy to customize

Why go with a custom theme?

For starters, using a custom theme gives you complete creative control over how your brand looks, feels, and functions. That means full control over your information architecture and navigation. Using a canned theme can be difficult if you have a business model that is not oriented towards the site structure of the theme that you’ve selected; and since most themes are out of box, those templated structures don’t usually suit most business’s needs. There’s really no one-size-fits-all solution in web design, so having a custom theme ensures that your site structure and functionality are suitable for your business, and it allows you to really dig in and dictate your needs & wants for the website on a very granular level. 

Custom themes mean a more complete and intuitive design process, as well. Starting with content organization, on to user flows & visual design, and then to coding — because you are handling the website from start to finish, your process can be cohesive which ultimately produces a better end result for your users. 

Because you have complete control over a custom theme, you also have greater scalability and flexibility in terms of what you can do with your site. Should you want to add an e-commerce feature onto your blog website, that option can be planned for and added into your custom template when you need it. It won’t come with superfluous features or code, as it will be tailored to your particular needs and build. 

Really the only limitation is your budget and your imagination when it comes to what your website can do and what it can scale to. 

One thing that we at Pixelstrike Creative like to do on our custom theme development, is to use a feature that WordPress has called Advanced Custom Fields, or ACF. ACF enables us to create a back end experience for you, as the website owner, that will allow you to easily update your website contents with minimal developer assistance. With ACF, we create a series of fields that you fill out on the back end and when you publish it — poof! It’s formatted and assembled appropriately for you on the user-facing side of the site. While ACF is something that can be added to a canned theme, doing so requires additional development time and can tack onto your costs to reconfigure an existing backend set up. Instead, you can just build ACF in along the way when creating a custom theme. 

Pros of creating a custom theme:

  • Your theme will suit your business needs
  • Total creative control, and full control over your IA and navigation options
  • You can dictate your needs on a more granular level
  • A more complete design process start to finish
  • Greater scalability & flexibility
  • Advanced Custom Fields make it easy to update and maintain your own website without a developer

With all those pros, it’s hard to imagine any cons to using a custom WordPress theme. However, there are a couple. On the outset, your initial investment in the website may be a bit higher than it would be with a canned theme. A custom designed, custom built theme with all the considerations made for Search Engine Optimization, site structure, accessibility, and user experience can start at $2,000-3,000 for even a relatively simple site – a number that can certainly seem outrageous when compared to a $50 or even free canned template. However, canned themes appear to cost less because they do not include  your costs for creating and filling in your own content and images, and functionality & development tweaks made once purchased. With a custom theme, those costs are generally factored in & included with your price quote, should you decide to hire an agency or outside team to work with. 

Custom themes can often be (but not always) more time consuming to build and populate, as well. If you’ve invested in a tailored solution for your business that includes everything like content strategy, Search Engine Optimization, ADA compliance and usability on top of the design and build of the site — these things can take a bit more planning to prepare for and thus more time to launch. This work can take a matter of weeks or even months depending on the complexity of your site needs and functionality. 

Cons of creating a Custom Theme:

  • Costs more 
  • Is often (but not always) more time consuming to build and populate, especially if you’re investing in a tailored solution for your business that includes content strategy & SEO on top of the design & Build of the site. 

Ultimately, it’s up to you to weigh the options and determine what the best solution is for your specific needs. We recommend going with a premium (paid), canned WordPress theme if you need a small website, have a very limited budget, lack design and/or development skills, and if you don’t plan to make any functionality updates to it in the future. 

However if you want a unique design created to fit your own branding and your functional needs, and if the ability to scale and update the functionality in the future is important to you, go custom. You’ll be able to ensure that your site is fully optimized for page load speeds and to be found in search, you’ll have a uniquely-you website that nobody else has, and you won’t have to squeeze or finagle your business to fit into a theme that was manufactured for the masses.


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Juliette Oliva, a drawing

About the Author

Juliette Oliva, partner and Creative Director of Pixelstrike Creative, combines her love of empathetic design with tactical know-how to help steer our ship. As Creative Director, Juliette has been the mastermind behind many of our print & web designs, even dabbling in animations, tattoo design, and comic strips. Juliette is also an animal whisperer. Not only has she given a comfy home to many dogs and cats, but we also once saw her catch a fly right out of the air!

Mike Oberdick
October 26, 2020 at 11:30 pm

Excellent post! This is such an important topic and one that is often misunderstood in this space. Often times a canned theme seems like it is “too good to be true” because it’s free and downloaded in a matter of seconds but you often find yourself struggling to make it work the way you’d like in the same amount of time it too you to find it and download it. Great points about “must-use plugins” and security vulnerabilities. Another major downside is that some themes, Divi for instance, makes it next to impossible to switch to a different theme down the road without losing your content because of the way it is stored inside of the database as shortcodes.

February 16, 2021 at 7:19 am

Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you penning this write-up and the rest of the site is very good. Hestia Claiborn Wira

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