Customising a premium theme vs starting from scratch?

On by Ron Piper.


One of the most critical decisions when planning a custom WordPress site is whether to start your theme from scratch or use a premium theme as a base and customise it.

In this article you will learn:

  • Why you should be starting with a clean slate, and creating your themes from scratch (most of the time).
  • When it’s okay to start with a pre-built premium theme and customise it (for example a themeforest theme).
  • Some tips and strategies for creating themes from scratch so it’s not a painful process.

If you’re doing a custom design, create your WordPress themes from scratch, it’s a no brainer.

Premium themes are created with a huge focus on catering for a wide range of people, businesses and purposes. In order to achieve this flexibility they:

  • Utilise a large list of plugins to cater for the different functionality required by different people using the theme.
  • Have several custom WordPress menus added within the admin panel to manage the modules that the theme provides.
  • Have many, many large theme files, to accommodate all the functionality you can choose from.
  • Usually have their own bulky theme options dashboard within the WordPress admin panel, providing all the flexible design options that come with the theme.

So, what’s wrong with all of this? The issue is that any one site will only use 10% of the functionality and flexibility provided by the theme, and so you end up with a very cluttered admin panel, and a slow front facing website due to all the unnecessary code and plugins.

If you’re creating your own design, make sure you start your theme from scratch. Besides choosing a dedicated wordpress host, it’s the best thing you can do for speed, security and admin user experience.

When is it a good idea to use a premium theme?

While you sacrifice speed and user friendliness when using a premium theme, there are some time and cost advantages in certain circumstances. If there’s a pre-made design that very closely matches what you want, go for it. The saving in design and development costs would likely be worth it.

Just be aware that premium themes are not as easy to customise beyond the options they provide, and it usually gets messy when you start making too many code customisations. So if you think you’l need to make a number of code customisations you need to carefully consider just starting from scratch.

Still being efficient and effective when you create a WordPress theme from scratch.

When I say start from scratch, I don’t mean a completely blank white canvas. There are a bunch of core bits and pieces you need for every theme. Here are some tips and strategies I use to create themes from scratch.

Start with the base set of required files and folders in your theme, with a default basic structure in each of the files. Having created hundreds of themes, I have my own starter theme I use that has all the basic code I use to start every site. Until you have this yourself, try Underscores.

Plugins that help you when starting a theme from scratch.

While I recommend using native WordPress functionality to achieve what you want and to avoid unnecessary plugins as much as possible, there are a few core plugins that are extremely valuable for saving time and producing better solutions. You should install these with almost any website creation.

  • Advanced Custom Fields – A lightweight, powerful and flexible plugin for all your custom post editing UI needs.
  • Yoast SEO – Adds in and manages all your on-page SEO needs throughout the site. For off-page check out my SEO tools article.
  • Gravity Forms – Build your forms with gravity firms. They are super powerful, easy to customise, allow you to view entries in the dashboard and offer a huge range of integrations that most businesses need these days (e.g. email campaign providers, payments, google and whatever else you want to do with your contacts!)

Look at your requirements and the decision will be easy.

If you value speed, security and a clean intuitive admin UI, and you have the budget to create a custom design, start your theme from scratch. If these things are of little importance to you, or your budget is low, and you find a premium theme that closely matches the design you’d be happy with (without too many customisations needed), consider just using a premium theme.

I hope you found this helpful! I’d love to hear what you think in the comments section below!

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