When it comes to choosing your website design approach, one could write a textbook on all the features you might want to consider having for your business and the various ways to implement these features. But, does it really need to be that complicated? The short answer is, no. Follow along as I break down the first and most important question to building your website without pushing the textbook-length answer on you. When hiring a designer to work with you to build your website, one of the first questions you want to ask yourself is whether to work with someone who skins existing themes, builds custom themes, or builds a custom website design on an existing theme framework.
Skin an Existing Theme
The absolute easiest path to building a website is to use a strong content management system like WordPress and then select a free or premium theme on which to build your website. There are plenty of free themes to choose from in the WordPress repository or across the web in other theme repositories. It’s also a common practice for theme designers to offer a free version of a theme that can be upgraded to add premium features. Often, aspiring website owners will find that they can get everything they need from a freemium theme and they get the benefit of a designer who is motivated to keep the code up to date. Free customers often later convert into paying customers and that is the unspoken relationship one enters into when one chose these themes. The benefit of selecting a theme like this is that you will already be familiar with the anatomy of the theme’s backend should you choose to add premium features at a later date and decide to upgrade your theme subscription.
The downside to these themes is that the code is often bloated with features you arent; using and it will dramatically impact whether your site viewers have the patience to wait for your site to load. Bloated code is about the worst thing you can do for your site and your business as every tenth of a second of slowdown can equal tens of thousands to even millions of dollars of lost revenue due to site abandonment. It is better to add features through plugins when you need them to buy a theme full of features that you decide to turn on but carry the slowness of the code either way. Another downside to skinning a theme can be a loss of flexibility for your content or even the uniqueness of your site’s overall look and feel. Custom sites allow you to stand out in a crowd.
Build a Fully Custom Theme From Scratch
As a photography instructor, I often come across students who signed up for my course because they want to learn to use their DSLRs in full manual mode. Isn’t that pinnacle of talent for photographers? Well, no. Not exactly. Yes, it is important to understand all that the camera can do and there’s no better way to ensure you understand it fully than to be able to manipulate all the settings in manual mode. But, do you really want to be using that mode when the once-in-a-lifetime wildlife photograph presents itself to you? Professional photographers shoot in Aperture mode 95% of the time. In much the same way, it is really good to understand the underlying code of a website theme to the point that you can make any little nuanced change that you want to make to your website and clearly understand the limitations of the code. But, do we really want to code in manual mode at all times?
Big organizations with huge programming budgets can go all in on manually coding a theme from scratch. And, they might actually end up with something totally unique to them from the perspective of functionality and design. These companies push the envelope and create things that have maybe never been done before. And then, good developers find ways to make those features replicable in the form of widgets or code blocks that the rest of us can use. In the world of WordPress, they turn shiny functions into plugins that anyone can add to their website in the backend of WordPress and enter a few pieces of information to employ.
Custom themes can be amazing. And, they can be an amazing headache, and turn into one of the biggest problems for your business. What happens if the person you hired to build the custom theme decides they no longer want to work on that project or simply retires to a life of being a wine producer in Napa Valley and no longer has an interest in maintaining your code? Can you just plug a new coder in to pick up where they left off? Maybe. Maybe not. But there are other ways to get a custom look to your website without the downsides of going full manual mode on your website.
Customize a Light-Weight Theme with a Visual Composer
The best way to have a customized website that is unique to your business is to start off with a very lightweight theme that has some of the very basic features built in and is prepared for the right integrations to launch the features you desire. So, let’s revisit what we mean by lightweight code. As you may recall, it is possible to buy premium themes that have all of the bells and whistles included and it is just up to you to turn them on or off in the back end. But, you get the code either way. And your site is impacted by the time it takes to load the code you are not using. The bigger the theme code base, the slower the website loads. A slow-loading website results in site abandonment and lost viewers. Or even worse than that, it results in lost customers. Half of all mobile website viewers will abandon a website that takes more than 3 seconds to load. Every fraction of a second beyond that has a major impact on the rate of site abandonment and your success in reaching your audience. That’s why it is important to find a lightweight theme to start your building process.
There are a lot of well-known visual composers to help website owners get started… WordPress has been working on its own version called Gutenberg Blocks, but it really leaves something to be desired. While Gutenberg is native to WordPress and built by its own internal coders, it is rather clunky and hard to use which leaves site owners frustrated all over again. There are popular alternatives to the visual composer like the very popular Elementor, Divi, or Beaver Builder plugins, but these also often leave the average person feeling confused and frustrated with building their own websites. There’s a rather large learning curve to using all of these tools and they often make it impossible to render certain aspects of the website as the owner intends. That’s why I use WPBakery to design sites for my clients and then hand them off in an interface that most people find rather intuitive to use.
Recently, I have been designing sites using the Unicon premium theme because it is built with a solid framework and dashboard for overall design elements. It is also ready for a Woocommerce (e-commerce) store, a traditional blog, and even has the addition of a sortable portfolio section that can be adapted for many purposes. The code is rather lightweight and the functionality meets almost all of the average site owner’s requirements. Best of all, it is designed to work with WPBakery and even includes a fully functional version of the visual design tool at no additional cost to the website owner. As one of the most popular WordPress themes in one of the largest theme stores, it is sure to have its code kept up to date for years to come. Best of all, it allows website owners to have the benefit of total design freedom with the features of grid design and responsive design functionality built in. This approach is your best option for total design freedom!