We've created websites for companies big and small. One of the first fundamental questions of design on any new project is whether to customize an existing theme or to build the site from scratch. What's that mean, and what's the difference?
Building from scratch
Building a site from scratch means that it is custom designed and developed from the ground up, using a team of professional designers and developers, giving you essentially full control over how the site looks, feels, and functions. Building a site from scratch means that we can make design decisions like layouts, fonts, and animations. Even more than that, it means we have full control over how the back end of the website is managed and organized. If you sell a shirt in 130 sizes, we can set up a back end platform that manages all those variants without any issue at all. That level of detail may not be possible to adjust in an existing theme.
Customizing an existing theme
Platforms such as Shopify, BigCommerce, and WordPress support using pre-made existing themes with customizations for your specific website. With a pre-made theme, many considerations such as layout and back end organization are already determined and taken care of for you. We are able to make customizations to the theme that it make unique--no one would ever know it's pre-made--but many functional changes that the theme creators didn't add when they built the theme would need to be coded separately on top of the theme's existing code.
Which should you choose?
Now that you understand the difference, which type of theme is the best option for your next website? Well, it depends. Here's a few situations in which we would recommend using a customized existing theme:
- Your website is not your primary channel of doing business.
If your website is auxiliary to your business, then it may be more cost-effective to use a pre-built theme. Hotels and high-end restaurants that want to wow to encourage reservations may prefer a custom-built site; but, for example, a B2B company that focuses on in-person sales may benefit less from the expense of a built-from-scratch website.
- Your website will be your first foray into online.
A pre-made customized theme is often a good choice if it will be your first online site. If you're upgrading or replatforming, there are likely existing business processes that you want to hold onto, and that may be difficult with a pre-built theme that wasn't explicitly designed for your processes. On the other hand, if this is your first site, you don't have to worry about those legacy workflows.
- Your site's organization is simple.
If you have just a few pages or products you'll probably fit within the organizational structure of a platform like Shopify just fine. On the other hand, if you have a more complicated catalog (such as our earlier example of an item with 130 sizes--Shopify natively only allows for 99) it may be a better option to go with a from-scratch site so that your unique organization can be architected around from the very beginning.
- You're on a tight timeline.
Every pre-made theme has simple options built-in that help us get your site running the way you want very quickly. These options include features like mobile-ready view customization, pre-built navigation menus, and more. This significantly reduces the time required to design and build your site.
- You're working with limited budget.
Pre-made customized themes are a great way to get a beautiful and awesome site up and running as quickly as possible, with minimal upfront costs and overhead. Less time to build equals less cost. Even if you have enough budget to afford a higher-end website, it could make sense to use the pre-built template anyway and divert the extra funds into other areas, such as video or marketing.
- You are ok with constraints.
Although pre-built sites have many benefits, they undoubtedly have constraints as well. While there are often several or many customization options in a pre-built theme, some things you'd like to do may not be possible using those pre-built theme options. In those cases, a developer would need to rewrite the code to accomplish your goals. If there are too many places where a developer needs to override the options in a pre-built theme, it could end up being more efficient to just build from scratch from the beginning. Keep in mind that some themes provide many more options than others.
While they may not work for every situation, pre-built customized themes can be a great option for any of the reasons we've discussed. Pre-built customized themes can still be beautiful and on-brand while also being simpler, faster, and cheaper to launch.