Drupal Framework: Custom vs. Pre-built Theme

Drupal Framework: Custom vs. Pre-built Theme

If you’re looking to have a new Drupal (or other framework) website built, you may have come across the plethora of pre-built themes out there and thought to yourself – “Why would I pay for a custom theme when a pre-built theme is so cheap?”

This is a very good question. Depending on your situation a pre-built theme may be for you, but maybe not. Let’s dig into this a little deeper.

A quick note about my experience

I’ve been a professional in the web design and development industry now since 2005. I got my start as a graphic/website designer, but now work primarily as a front end developer.

Over the years, I’ve seen pre-built themes flood the market as a cheap alternative to custom design and development. I’ve explored using these themes for personal projects and as a way of cutting costs for clients. It’s this experience which I’m drawing from for this post, and hopefully I can help to shed some light on this topic.

What is your use case?

The first thing you will need to understand when presented with the option of pre-built vs. custom theme is your use case.

As an individual, or as a team, do you have a strong technical ability? Do you know, and are you familiar with using, the platform you want to work with? Have you set up a website before? Can you work with HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP, or have someone on staff that can?

From a time and budget perspective, do you have the time to develop a website on your own, or as a team? Do you have budget to work with, both to build and then maintain your website?

What are your requirements for your website? Do you want to blog? Do you intend to sell products? Do you need to allow certain users, or staff members, to add or manage content?

Depending on your answers to these questions, and more, will help determine what path to follow.

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When to use a pre-built theme

Although the initial cost of purchasing a pre-built theme (Drupal or otherwise) seems much more affordable, from my experience the only time a pre-built theme can really save a significant amount of money is when ALL of the following criteria is met:

  • You have little to no budget to work with.
  • You, or someone on your team, has a significant amount of time to invest.
  • You, or someone on your team, has web development knowledge and expertise.
  • Your requirements are very basic and conducive to an “out-of-the-box” approach.

However, if any of this criteria isn’t met it might not be worth your time. Let me explain.

The first point, having no budget, is kind of a standalone point. In this situation you have no choice and therefore must cut costs wherever you can. If this is the case, get something up quick and dirty, and focus your time and energy on building your business instead. This leads into the next point.

If you are working on your website, whose focussing on your business? The majority of business owners out there are far too busy building and maintaining their business to have the time needed to undertake a large project they're not familiar with, such as creating a website. You have to remember, if you manage to set up your domain, hosting, and website, you still need to add content and customize in whatever way is needed. If you need anything changed that isn’t already there, can you change it? If not, will the theme meet your needs or will you then have to hire a developer to change it for you?

In a similar fashion, if you have staff members building the site, do they have time and expertise? Many times I’ve run into a situation where the business throws the development and management of a website on a secretary or administrative worker. There seems to be a common thought that building a website is like creating a Word document or something like that. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. What ends up happening is the staff member(s) get overwhelmed and the little bit of extra time they might have is quickly used up. The progress of creating a new website stalls and is left for large stretches of time. The end result is never good and the website may never actually get built. On top of this, you’re still paying the employee(s) to build the website and chances are the process is going to be very slow.

The last point, and possibly the most important, is your website requirements. If the pre-built theme doesn’t meet your requirements exactly (as in EXACTLY), who will be making those changes? Again, this is where time and expertise come in. If you are not able to do it in-house your only option is to hire a developer. Time is then spent discussing and managing the project updates. A designer may be pulled in to mockup visual changes and provide graphical elements. One or more developers must become familiar with the platform and the code base, and then make the updates. Before this even happens, hopefully the original theme creator did a good job building it and making it easy for new developers to take over.

In the end, the amount of time (which equates to money) that a pre-built theme saves is usually very little, if anything at all.

When to hire a custom theme developer

In all honesty, if you don’t meet ALL of the criteria outlined above you’re best bet is to go custom. It may cost a little more than going with a pre-built Drupal (or another framework) theme, but the benefits to doing so are many. You’re not just getting a custom theme, you're developing a relationship with a web development company. This is a good thing because it opens up the following:

Time & resources
A web development company has the time and resources to dedicate to your website. We can work with you to develop a project timeline and then make it happen.

Expertise
This vast group of experts has the combined knowledge and expertise needed, it’s what they do. A quality web development team gives you access to project managers, designers, developers, marketers, support staff, and more. You’re paying for this expertise to advise and work for you, to give you an edge.

Custom is all about what YOU need
Before any designer or developer even gets involved, the requirements and scope of your website needs to be understood. Project managers help you see the larger picture and know the questions to ask in order to truly understand what you really need your website to do.

Once this is understood, these requirements are passed on to designers who understand much more about websites than making them look pretty. Designers these days think about usability best practices, how to entice users to perform specific actions, where to place call to actions, etc. There’s much more to design than pure looks.

After the design is nailed down and agreed upon development then takes place. Developers build out the design and make your website a living, functional thing. It’s built and customized with your requirements in mind. Websites these days are built so that you, and anyone else who needs to, can add, edit, and remove content as needed. There is a lot that goes into the setup of a website, especially if we’re talking ecommerce. Developers know the tools and settings required to build and configure your unique website.

Ongoing support
Your site is built and online, you’re happy and your business is looking top-notch. The services of a web development company don’t end there. Usually you’re trained on the usage of your website. In most cases there is warranty period to help smooth out any unforeseen bugs that may pop up. Maybe now is a good time to start an online marketing campaign. In any case, and as time goes on and your company evolves, you have a team of people behind you to help whenever, and however, you need it.

In conclusion

I hope I’ve helped to explain when you should consider a custom vs. a pre-built theme. There is a time and place for pre-built themes, but through my years of experience I’m confident in saying that if you have the budget to do so, go custom. The benefits extend outside of just the website itself and you’re sure to have better results. You just can’t beat the knowledge and expertise of a team of people focused on a specific task. Websites are our task and even a consultation session can be a big eye-opener.

There is a poster in our office that sums up what we do well. It states, “What we do: Save people from wasting money on shitty solutions.” Yes, that is what we do.

If you’d like to discuss your project, please feel free to contact us. We’d would love to chat, no obligations.

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Mike Hubbard
Contributed by

Mike Hubbard

, Frontend Developer
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