Should You Use a Theme? Invest In a Structure, Not a Look

Ben Groulx
Aug 27, 2014
Should You Use a Theme? Invest In a Structure, Not a Look

Themes. Templates. These out-of-the-box layouts have become an entire industry on their own and are extremely popular. And for someone looking to get a new site up and going, they can seem like an excellent idea at the time. But the reality is themes are a shortsighted solution to a problem that requires thought, consideration, and care.

Round pegs and square holes

The first problem with themes arises from their very nature: they are intended to fit everyone. Just like how pop music is about being as generic as possible to reach to the largest audience, themes also cast as wide a net in hopes of bringing in as much revenue as they can.

Themes force you to fit your objectives and values into a preexisting set of conditions, instead of having those conditions meet your needs.

Themes are based are based off one regard, and one regard only: how they look. As we know, design is much more than how something looks. It's a classic case of fitting the round peg into a square hole: sure, the square hole might look amazing with all its cool animations and fancy doodads, but if your business objectives don't align with what the theme sets out to do, you are not going to be benefit in the long run.

Watch out for bloated code

Since themes are intended to serve the largest audience they will bundle in as many options and features as possible. Want a carousel? Here are 12 of them. Want a grid system? Try my awesome 127-column layout. Animations? Got you covered with my growingspinningflyingmoving super awesome plugin.

Even if you aren't using every bell and whistle that comes packaged with the theme, you might still be loading up unnecessary bloat. Often times dependencies and libraries, such as jQuery, will be loaded up even if you aren't needing them. All this extra fluff leads to a much slower website and poorer experience.

Building trust is the best SEO

Yes, we're going to talk briefly about SEO for a moment, too, because the former will directly affect the latter. 

Bounce rate refers to where someone comes to your site, takes a look, and immediately leaves without clicking on anything or staying too long. Bounce rate is one of the (many) factors Google will take into consideration when ranking your website, meaning a high bounce rate can decrease your ranking. Bounces can generally be accounted for by either of these two questions:

  1. Are people finding the content they came for?
  2. Does your content look credible and trustworthy?

If the answer to either of those is "no," it means someone is in the wrong spot, or they don't trust you. Point 1 isn't really affected by the use of a template: it ultimately depends on the theme on an individual level, and how you have presented information. But Point 2, trust, can absolutely. You might have the most incredible, factual information about hotels and lodging in the area, but if it is presented in any way that might diminish that, you risk losing that reader. Proper design inherently builds trust.

This is the same reason stock photography often fails: it is not personable, looks fake, and doesn't say anything. Themes follow much the same suite: they aren't personable. They look like they could belong to anyone, because, get this… they can! By swapping out a logo and a colour, you can "make it your own." But a logo and a colour aren't enough to instil faith and trust in a product. It takes more than that.

If you hire a designer, use the designer

When purchasing a theme, you aren't hiring a designer, you are hiring an installer. Anybody can go into WordPress, choose a theme and load it up. And maybe you chose a theme that looks good and even makes sense. But have you really made the best possible product?

Designers do more than pick colours and images; a proper designer will focus on merging existing content, visual elements, interface modules, and layouts to create a design that hits business objectives and provides an optimal user experience. Why not use the power of design to its full potential? Which brings us back to our title…

Invest in a structure, not a look

Good design involves considered approach and examined refinement to achieve success. Your site's future requires investment; the design designers do, and the work involved in it, provides tremendous insight. Your product will be better, and that in itself is a matter containing immense value and worth. To quote the elegant Mr. Monteiro…

"Design is an investment in infrastructure and keeps the wheels of business running smoothly. Good design equals a more effective product or service. Design equals profit!" (Design Is a Job, 2012.)

When purchasing a theme you are stating the value of design is only $50, and only worth as much time as the theme-maker spent on making this theme -- a theme that wasn't even made with you in mind. If you are a small business, proper design doesn't have to mean spending $100,000 on a full-on 42-weeklong user study and brand redesign. You should, however, be prepared to make a sizeable investment: remember, the money you put into a design should be coming right back to you.

When is an appropriate time to use a theme?

In this article I've been a bit harsh on templates, but I would like to point out that themes and templates aren't inherently bad: it's the way many of them have been implemented that brings forth so many problems.

In some cases, themes can be very beneficial. Junior designers who are just learning the ropes of web design and development, for example, may want to start by dissecting templates. By taking things apart then putting them back together, and looking around to see how things work, one can learn a great deal about function and operation. So themes are excellent resources for learning.

Some clients need something fast and inexpensive, and that is perfectly okay. When that is the case, we suggest themes that have been researched and tested. And if a theme is implemented, we never deliver something right from the box; we do whatever we can to reduce the amount of inefficient code, and always clean up spaces however we can. Themes can be a great resource. Using templates means providing a service and helping keep revenue coming in.

In any case, managing expectations is of the utmost importance. Clients must know they are getting a pre-made theme and must fully understand to consequences -- both good and bad. Get everyone on the same page, and don't hide anything.

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