June 20, 2015 | | by

It’s more than just getting an original design. But that’s important too.

I know it’s not just me. So many websites today seem to look the same. Long scrolling home pages. Big image sliders. Just enough parallax to look kind of cool. My guess is that a lot of this uniformity is driven by the ubiquitous adoption of WordPress themes. And in the big picture, I guess it’s an improvement over outdated, mobile-unfriendly, and generally ugly web design. But the web is feeling more and more like walking into a gated community where every house is the same, all the mailboxes match, and everyone has the perfect lawn. It’s all starting to lack a distinct character. And isn’t that distinctiveness what sets brands apart from the competition?

As someone who is fortunate enough to only work on custom design projects – and these days, most frequently on WordPress developed websites – perhaps I am a bit jaded. Admittedly, I am also a professor of web design which could add to that jadedness. While I get the convenience, allure and popularity of using WordPress themes, I do believe that there are some fundamental contradictions to core principles of user-centered design at play here.

What happened to the idea of strategy and content first?

The thing about WordPress themes is that you often get comfortable using one and inadvertently begin to incorporate it throughout all of your work. But what about determining what the overall website and business goals of the project are? Or who the site users are and what their needs will be? Determining this should always come first.

It feels antithetical to even pick a theme without understanding the content and interaction that is expected to happen on the site. In general, good design principals recommend never designing anything for any medium unless you have content. How can you know what colors, visuals, fonts, etc. to use if you don’t know what you are designing is supposed to convey or actually say?

Themes can look great, but not all will work with your client’s content.

There are a plethora of themes available today from sites like Studiopress, Woo Themes and Themeforest. Sometimes a client picks a theme they like and wants it to be used on the project. It looks good, it’s clean, responsive, modern, etc. Everything they were looking for. But then you plug their content in, and it just doesn’t quite fit with the theme widgets or components. Big problem and it’s sort of too late now.

Staying with that out of the box theme might mean not presenting your client’s content the way it was intended or having to customize or modify the theme to make it fit. Either way, it’s not a good situation.

Why does stock photography get a bad rap but not the use of themes?

Think about it, stock photography gets maligned because it’s cheesy, overused, not genuine, and frequently super cliché. While a box office bomb, the recent Vince Vaughn comedy Unfinished Business had a brilliant promotional campaign mocking the use of stock photography. Nothing is worse than seeing that hero image from your own website or your client’s website being used somewhere else. This is even worse when you see that it’s been used by a competitor.

So then, why is using an “out of the box” theme for WordPress really any different? I hope for the sake of the craft that I call my profession that we’re really not at the point of “if you’ve seen one website, you’ve seen them all” and so who cares if they all use the same theme? I’d feel awful if a project that I developed for a customer looked just like the one I delivered to the customer before that, or like other websites that I come across.

Looking to customize a theme “a little bit” for your site’s needs?

Let’s face it – using WordPress themes can definitely save time and money. And that seems like a very valid point of view for using WordPress themes in the first place. But as we previously mentioned, sometimes the content doesn’t always fit or there’s the risk of looking like every other website. Inevitably,  customizing that theme you chose becomes a necessary option and this can result in a couple of scenarios:

  1. The designer comes in eager to please – but learns quickly how limited the scope is of what they can actually change in the template without investing tons of time recoding. So the change ends up being minimal and and not very impactful.
  2. The developer gets in way too deep – coding all of those change to the theme can make a project take longer and cost way more than expected. Additionally, it may invalidate the way the template is supposed to work from an editorial perspective meaning the website becomes harder to update. And now that time efficient WordPress theme is no longer so efficient or effective.

Both these situations put the designer and developer in an awkward position, forcing them to potentially push back on the client and telling them that this “can’t be done using this template without a lot of custom development”.

In summary.

To be clear, using a WordPress theme isn’t always a bad idea. Sometimes it’s the best and only option for the needs of a particular customer. And while it shouldn’t only be the option of last resort, it also shouldn’t always be the go to. Customers requesting a distinct brand presence that focuses on their needs and the needs of their customers deserve better. And sometimes it’s a better option for the design and development team too. Choose carefully and when you do use a theme, make sure it fits their content, user needs, and business objectives.


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Image: Death to the Stock Photo