‘Off-the-shelf’ v ‘Custom’ WordPress themes – pros & cons

Off-the-shelf v Custom/Bespoke WordPress theme - which one is right for me?

A ‘theme‘ in WordPress controls the design & layout of how your website looks. It governs the visual styling of the site, setting the tone for how your brand is perceived online. The theme also makes fundamental decisions as to how you then look after & update your content.

How we address your WordPress theme is one of the major decisions we take when it comes to designing a new WordPress site:

Do we use an ‘off-the-shelf’ theme? Or do we go the custom theme route?

Let’s explore what those two terms mean and what the differences are. Let’s start by looking at the pros & cons, and then drill into specific areas to give you clarity on the detail.



  • Cheaper than ‘custom
  • Quicker than ‘custom
  • Many themes out there


  • Theme quality varies greatly
  • Not all themes are free
  • Can be bloated & slow
  • Contains unneeded features
  • Design can be inflexible
  • Page builder can be unintuitive
  • May still need web professional input



  • Complete design flexibility
  • Complete functional flexibility
  • Fits your audience perfectly
  • Streamlined code base
  • Durable
  • Ease of content input


  • Requires specialist input
  • More expensive than off-the-shelf
  • Takes longer

What is an ‘off-the-shelf’ theme?

An off-the-shelf theme is a shrink-wrapped, pre-packaged WordPress design which has already been created for the mass market. It is pre-built and downloadable for use on your website.

You can go to websites such as ThemeForest, and browse through their vast catalogue of pre-existing themes. Better still, you can filter themes to ones which best fit your needs e.g. Corporate, Creative, Blog/Magazine, Ecommerce etc.

Some themes will be free, but many will be premium which you will need to pay for (e.g. $39, so we’re not talking huge money here).

In our experience there is a vast range in the underlaying quality and adaptability of themes; knowing what to look for in themes will be the subject of a future post but I will mention a key fundamental point….

What editor does it use?

The editor controls how you, as the person who looks after the website, adds and updates WordPress content.

It used to be the case that WordPress came with a basic standard editor (now referred to as ‘Classic editor‘) which looks a little like a small Microsoft Word window. Third parties then spotted an opportunity to create complex & powerful ‘visual builders‘ which allowed more rich visual designs – sometimes in s a more ‘drag and drop‘ editor. Many of these third-party, advanced theme editors came with their own set of issues.

The open-source team who develops and enhances the code of WordPress knew that they had to upgrade the flagging ‘Classic Editor’ and not so long ago they unveiled their brand new editor called Gutenberg.

The Gutenberg editor

Gutenberg allows for much more structured content than the old ‘mini Microsoft Word‘ approach; allowing us instead to create blocks of content which enables us to more easily construct visually rich pages of content.

When we are reviewing themes for clients, we wouldn’t normally recommend a theme that is not compatible with Gutenberg (click here to see compatible themes on Theme Forest) as we know that, with Gutenberg, the client will have an approachable system for creating visually rich pages (as opposed to some other, less desirable editors where the system is so fiddly it is wholly inappropriate for an end-user).

What is a custom theme?

A custom (or bespoke) theme takes a, entirely different approach.

In this situation we start with a blank slate and ask questions like:

  • What is your brand?
  • What are your products/services?
  • Who are your target audiences?
  • Why do people buy from you?
  • How do people buy from you?
  • What do people say about you?
  • What are your core values?
  • How do you deliver on those values?

And from those answers, we sketch out what we call a ‘wireframe‘ of the content & messaging that will form your homepage. A wireframe is a very rudimentary design, perhaps even only pencil lines or boxes on a page.

We’ll then work with you to shape that wireframe to ensure it has the right ingredients, the correct messaging, appropriate call to actions, and the right balance of content etc.

Next, we’ll flesh that out into full, visual design mock-up and iterate that further, based on your feedback.

After the homepage we tend to design a set of custom Gutenberg blocks which can then be used across a whole range of other pages on the site, giving us & the client a full palette to work from.

Build Quality

The craftsmanship that goes into a bespoke/custom WordPress theme is not only in the highly polished visual design aspect, the refined message, and resulting user experience, but it also permeates much deeper down.

It affects how the theme is built-in raw web technology (HTML/CSS/Javascript) ensuring that a lean, fit for purpose theme is delivered – eliminating the bloat issues of ‘off-the-shelf‘ themes mentioned earlier. The benefit to the client is a theme which is faster, better for SEO, creates a better user experience, and is more maintainable.

How do I chose which one is right for me?

I’m sure you can see from the above where our heart lays in terms of whether we’d rather a client goes a ‘custom‘ or ‘off the shelf‘ theme route. And this probably explains why 95% of our WordPress work is based on custom themes.

However, on occasion, an off the shelf theme is a more appropriate route for a client (especially if budget dictates). And in such cases we’ll use our experience to help the client chose a theme which avoids the common pitfalls as best as possible. Best of all, such clients can always upgrade to a custom theme further down the line.

Closing Thoughts

Hopefully that helps you decide which route is best for your business.

I appreciate it feels like I’m more gushing towards the ‘custom‘ route and I would be fibbing if I didn’t say that was the route I preferred you to take. However, when carefully chosen, the off-the-shelf route can be an acceptable compromise when the budget is limited – the key word there though is ‘compromise‘.

In a future article I’ll go into more depth as to what to look out for when choosing an off-the-shelf WordPress theme.



p.s. if you’d like to chat about this or other topics with myself, people from our team, and other businesses who use WordPress, feel free to join our free Facebook Group for businesses.

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