What the theme? A detailed look into custom versus out of the box solutions

I recently participated in a WordPress experts panel, which allowed members of the community to ask us technical questions as well as to get our opinions on common practices. A lot of the questions that came in revolved around themes and page builders. Here at illuminea, we have spent years curating our approach to development, and here are some of our thoughts on the matter:

  1. What’s the deal with out of the box themes versus custom?
    It’s very tempting to click to your handy theme store, plunk down your $60 and buy a theme specifically designed for your site’s industry. It’s certainly a low budget way to get a nice looking site up quick, but we found we ran into issues either with the implementation of the theme elements or extending it beyond to any custom design. Out of the box themes also tend to be bloated with elements and modules for every type of site under the sun, which heavily weigh down your site.We split our WordPress projects into 2 streams – custom and lightweight theme + Elementor.  Our custom projects include our own barebones theme that we built, plus Advanced Custom Fields to provide the page structure. This approach works for clients who have very specific design requirements as well as third party integrations that need to work seamlessly with elements of the site. These projects usually have a large budget for development to accommodate the extra time needed to build out the infrastructure to the client’s specific needs.

    Website projects that do not require such a high level of customization usually fall under our second stream – lightweight theme + Elementor.  For these projects, we use OceanWP as the base. By base we mean, controlling the typography, colors, and basic layout of the site. It has many addons that can be added to increase the functionality of the site but they are not required, which means they have stripped all the bloat and left you with just the functionality you need. For page design and layout we use Elementor, which we’ll discuss in greater detail below. The advantage of this stream is that we can provide the client a beautifully customized website that runs quick and scales nicely for a reasonable budget.

  2. Page Builder is not a swear word
    Over the years we have tried numerous builders – Visual Composer, Divi, Fusion Builder, Elementor…and have learned that while everyone swears by one or another, we have settled on Elementor.  We found Elementor to be an excellent blend of complex enough to implement custom designs but simple enough to teach clients to use post launch. In looking for a page builder, we found Elementor didn’t weigh down our page load times.  It also gave us front end access to our page so we could visually build the page rather than adding an element > saving > going to the front end and seeing how it looked, which was a much faster workflow.
  3. How to deal with page builders + Gutenberg
    There seems to be a misconception that WordPress’ newest version, named Gutenberg, is a page builder. I think it would be better suited to call it a block editor – an easier way to add content to your page.  A page builder acts as a layer on top of your WordPress editor that gives full control over page layout and design. If you have an older site that is using a page builder, you may be better off disabling the new Gutenberg editor using the ‘Classic Editor’ plugin available for download. If you are building a new site with a page builder, you’ll probably want to use your page builder to design and structure all your pages, but keep the Gutenberg editor for adding new post content. In my experience, until Gutenberg offers a more integrated workflow with page builders, this will give you the best of both worlds for now.

There are a lot of ways to build websites and for every expert you’ll get 7 different opinions. This methodology works well for us, because it allows us to take into account:

  • Client budget
  • Client involvement in the site post-launch
  • Design complexity
  • Website scalability.

Hope this helps and happy building!