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Custom WordPress Development VS Premium or Free Themes

Written on September 13, 2018 at 6:01 pm

When building a new website using WordPress, your web designer can either start with a pre-built theme or build a new one for you.   Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing which is best for your business.

Starting with a free or premium WordPress Theme

There are thousands of free WordPress themes available at, as well as many paid themes available on websites like ThemeForest or Elegant Themes.


  • Quick setup – Themes can be installed and customized fairly quickly.
  • Less expensive – Starting with a theme can save between 10 – 20 hours of development time compared to custom design and development.
  • Design changes can be made easily using a WordPress “child” theme.
  • Enables trained volunteers to make changes to design and content without code (drag and drop editors).


  • The theme won’t be designed for your website’s content.
  • Free and even “premium” themes vary in quality and in the number of features available.  I’ve occasionally found some themes from ThemeForest to be poorly built (bugs and other surprises).
  • There’s no way to test a premium theme before purchase.
  • Some themes may be out of date.  For example, Elegant Themes still offers many themes that are not responsive (mobile friendly).
  • Some themes are built to include as many features as possible, making it more difficult for clients to find what they’re looking for when they try to make changes to their website.
  • Slow page load times.  With all these extra features that you may not be using, the website may be slower than a custom built website.  A slow loading website can affect your website’s ranking in Google.
  • Your website will look a lot like thousands of other websites out there, which may include your competitors.
  • Many paid themes include visual drag and drop editors.   While these tools can be great in some cases, it gives the client a lot of control over the design, which might mean any work done by a designer can be quickly undone by a client.
  • Some premium themes add extra features which may be incompatible with other popular WordPress plugins.
  • It may take longer for your developer to make changes to the website than if they were working on something they’ve built themselves.  If you intend to make major changes to the design it may actually take less time to start from scratch. 

Custom WordPress theme design and development

When building a custom-designed website, the process typically starts with a meeting with your designer to determine your goals.  They may build a wireframe to show where the content will be placed on the page before designing the website using Photoshop, Sketch, or a similar tool.  Once you approve the design, they will convert it into HTML and CSS code and then into a working WordPress theme.


  • A unique design can help make your website more effective and user friendly.
  • Design is based on your website’s content.
  • Faster page load speeds – Only code that is being used on your site will be loaded.
  • Back-end of each page can be customized so it is easy for clients to edit (for example, using the: Advanced Custom Fields plugin).
  • Code used to build your website will be current.
  • Website will be easier for the developer to maintain in the long term, and also for other developers to maintain (provided your developer knows what they are doing).  I’ve found that editing custom built websites built by other designers is still much easier than editing a website build on a free or premium theme.
  • Any features that are available in premium themes can also be added to a custom theme (it’s usually better to add features using plugins instead of adding them to the theme).


  • Higher price tag & longer development time – Designing a custom WordPress theme is a longer process that involves both the client and the developer’s input.   A developer who can build custom websites will likely charge more than one who can only provide modifications to existing themes.


Starting with a pre-built theme might be best for small websites and new businesses.  It allows you to have a web presence faster so you can start attracting new clients, and more time and money could be spent on content development which is key to a successful website.

Starting with a theme may work best for you if you:

  • Need a website quickly
  • Have a limited budget
  • Don’t need to make many functionality changes to the theme
  • You can find a theme that you like without having to make too many changes to it
  • Don’t need a unique design

A custom-designed website would be the best way to go if you:

  • Want to stand out from your competitors
  • Have a budget that would accommodate custom design
  • Want a user friendly administration dashboard
  • Want a fast loading website that will be able to compete in search rankings
  • Need a larger, more complex website
  • You can’t find a theme that fits your needs without extensive changes

Createscape Design Studio offers both custom design and websites based on themes.