Is Using WordPress Themes Frameworks Cheating at Web Design?

I read a very interesting article over the weekend titled “Are WordPress Themes Cheating in Web Design?” by James Dalman. That article itself was inspired by an older one titled “Confessions of a Template Whore” by Sabrina Dent which is equally interesting.

The point of this post is not to rehash the same ideas as these two articles. I agree with both authors that, using pre-designed themes is quite OK in many cases, especially for non-designers who want to get blogs and even simple sites up quickly and cheaply and still get at least a professional “look”, even if we all know that design goes a lot deeper than mere decoration and surface skinning.

A good looking and functional free theme like the one I used when I moved this site to WordPress won’t win anyone any originality awards, but it will get the job done for a lot of people and won’t turn away visitors because the site looks like crap or is completely unusable.

But beyond pre-made themes that you just plug into a site and tweak a little, there is whole other category of themes called “Premium Themes” or theme frameworks. This site’s evolving design is now based on one called Thesis and I’ll be redoing my company blog as well as Isabelle’s entire Web site using another called Headway. I talked about Thesis and theme frameworks in this recent post.

Basically, what theme frameworks do is enable you to easily (or relatively easily)  “skin” your blog or site using your own design with little or no coding… and that is what I wanted to touch on here.

A major Shift

For me, starting to use WordPress has been a mind shift in itself, for a few reasons. But I always figured I would at least eventually build my own theme for it… from scratch… and I figured I would build blogs with it and little else. But that’s until I discovered the true power of the platform. The mind shift was complete once I discovered Thesis and Headway and the world of theme frameworks… and my imagination started racing!

As many of you know, I have been designing and building Web sites for a long time now, so I know how to code and do so in an efficient manner. I’ve never used code exported from Fireworks (the application I design all of my sites with) because it never was good enough for me. Without calling myself a purist, I’ve always taken pride in the quality of my HTML and CSS and I’ve worked hard at keeping up with current techniques. So you can imagine my reluctance to let go of most of my control using Wordpress and a theme framework to build not only a blog, but entire Web sites!

But I plan to do just that for not only Isabelle’s site, but my biggest Web site project to date if I get it (I’m sending my bid in on Friday) as well as any suitable future projects.

What changed my mind? Quite frankly, I’m tired of the tedium and repetition. Using Wordpress and a good theme framework means that a lot of a site’s infrastructure is already done for me, and done solidly too. Like James Dalman said in his article:

  • It takes a lot of energy and time to create something from nothing,
  • freelancers are limited by time,
  • and a business’ primary goal (freelance or otherwise) is to be profitable

These are just as applicable to coding a site as they are to designing it. If I can get more projects done faster it will mean a better cash flow for me and significant savings for my clients. Plus it will mean I will concentrate more on the parts I enjoy (strategy, design, UX) and less on the tedium of coding the same kind of functionality again and again.

This is not for every project but when it is applicable, it will be a win-win for everyone IMO.

What do you think?

Update – November 16th, 2012:
Just a short not to say that, since I published this post, I’ve changed my mind and stopped recommending Thesis. I would actually recommend staying away from it for several reasons I may touch upon in a future post. I also have big reservations about Headway now based on several incidents I had with it like minor updates breaking sites in the 3.x version and 2.x sites breaking completely for no reason I could find. I personally have lost my trust in Headway but still think the product is good for many people as it’s a very flexible framework and my experience is probably not typical. But these days I stick with either iThemes Builder mostly or WooThemes Canvas for some projects (including this site) because I believe they are better engineered and stick to WordPress standards better and I outlined some of the reasons I think this is very important here. I have more sites on Builder than Headway now and no updates have ever broken a layout and none of my Builder sites have ever lost their formatting for no reason overnight like what happened on my business site which was on Headway 2.0.13 until recently when I put it on Canvas.

Update – November 11th, 2013:
Just an additional note that, as of yesterday, this site now runs on the Genesis Framework which is becoming my primary WordPress theme framework. Some of the reasons are outlined in the post for the launch of v5.0 of this site but I will publish a complete review in the near future. I will also continue to use iThemes Builder and WooThemes Canvas on existing and probably future client projects as I still believe in both the products and the companies behind theme but, at this time, I feel that Genesis meets my needs better as it outputs the cleanest, most efficient HTML and CSS code of any WordPress theme framework I’ve used so far.

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20 thoughts on “Is Using WordPress Themes Frameworks Cheating at Web Design?”

  1. I totally agree, why reinvent the wheel. I come from a design background and anything that helps me stay in business and turn out a good client website get my vote.
    Good post!

  2. I agree with you. There’s no need to invent everything or do it from scratch, when there’s a stable foundation to build on.

    WordPress provides a stable foundation for the back-end and CMS-like management of the content. I suppose, a stable WP theme framework may help with the front-end development as well.

    In the past, I have only modified WP themes that I like, to suit specific needs of mine. This worked pretty well up to now. I suppose, building on a top of a good framework is even better!

    I’d be interested to read more from you on this topic, one day — why a WP theme framework? why Thesis? how? :)

  3. I totally agree but I am still coming to terms with how I think (as a web designer) and how Wordpress works – I don’t understand the terminology and I would really like to find a good tutorial written for web designers and how to understand wordpress and how to customise it
    Any suggestions?

  4. @Vix

    Thanks for your comment! I’ve been designing and building Web sites for years but I am pretty new to the Wordpress platform myself so I don’t have any tutorials suggestions for now. What I have found is that, the Worpress community is large and enthusiastic and it’s easy to find information on any topics related to using Wordpress through Google or other search engines. The official documentation is also excellent.

    The other thing I can tell you is that, if you choose to go with a premium theme like Thesis or Headway, they also have thriving communities, user forums and many tutorials freely available from users. Same with any plugins you choose to install. If you have specific questions about anything I have done or will do here, don’t hesitate to contact me!


    What I can say right now about why a framework? Flexibility and speed. I can code and have done so for a long time but what Wordpress and theme frameworks enable me to do is to concentrate on the user experience, the end result without most of the tedious work. I never code a site completely from scratch in my regular projects as I reuse basic CSS and jQuery bits but with a theme framework and Wordpress, most of the infrastructure is already there and I can get to what I want much faster. I’m still learning the new toolset but, to me, the potential is staggering and I think I’ll be able to push projects out the door faster and save my clients money as well as concentrate on the part I like most: the actual strategy and design work.

    Wordpress and theme frameworks are not for every project but for many of them, they are the ideal solution, especially since Wordpress is becoming a true CMS. Can’t wait for 3.0 to be released!

    And why Thesis? It’s a solid theme but I’m currently redoing this site again with the Headway theme as it’s even easier to implement your designs with it and its SEO features seem even stronger than Thesis. I discovered Headway later than Thesis but I have been concentrating on it since. I will write about all this again for sure.

  5. I agree 100%. I have been a web designer for many years and hand coded all my own/client sites from nothing. I recently discovered the power and functionality of WordPress and now im sold! I just built my new companies site with it. I love love love not having to do the tedious coding! I’m a WordPress convert! =)

  6. i am a great fan of wordpress but my biggest bug bear is that it has cheapned the value of web design and forced me to lower my prices. In the past our skill set was defined by our ability to craft solid websites with strong flexible architecture and a reliable base. However with wordpress some clients can even install it themselves, giving them the coire of their site straight out of the box, therefore I have to make my living developing the theme files themselves. That’s very hard when clients can see themes advertised online for £40-£90!

    • An excellent article about an amazing platform that as Michael pointed out has presented us web designers with a pricing conundrum which I can see coming on the horizon personally. To remedy the effect that wordpress has on back-end development, what do you guys think about just charging more for design? Designers still have an intangible skill that not everyone can learn and even fewer can excel at. I think with the advent of premium WordPress platforms the demand to stand out should drive design price up and hopefully stabilize prices. What are your thoughts on this?

  7. I’m thankful for Wordpress since it gives a chance for ordinary people to make their own website. The templates are really cool and you can play with it to make your own web design. Like most people without knowledge in advance html, these user friendly sites and blogs are a refreshing change. People who are planning to launch their businesses online can make use of Word press to create their websites.

  8. I am a web design student and understand that more and more people are requesting wordpress so they can easily manage their site. Wordpress is great for people who do not know HTML and CSS.

  9. My problem as a freelance wordpress website builder is my time. If I design from scratch it would take weeks to build since I am still a newbie in psd design and css design. So I always settle with frameworks.

    This is a great article for people who are confuse. If you have time try to practice more on scratch, This is better if clients are demanding with the looks of their website.

  10. I have been working in graphic design for over 20 years and doing web design for 11. I am thinking about using Wordpress to speed up the building process for web design, help with CMS and am investigating the whole genre. However, it is depressing to see how many people are describing themselves as “designers” with little or no training or qualification and use Wordpress as a quick fix to “create” websites. I am sure that once I get into it, I will form a strategy of when and where to use Wordpress, as it won’t be right for every job.
    To me, Wordpress is like Tesco’s or Walmart – it’s everywhere and this is not always what clients want, personally I find something more sophisticated will do a better job.
    A good designer will work out what is best for their client and work accordingly. I have clients who have turned to me to either un-pick a Wordpress site and re-design it, or have rejected themed website designs produced by others for something that will correctly answer their brief.
    I teach web design, animation and photoshop skills at National Diploma level, I teach students how to use Dreamweaver and Flash properly, how to design layouts in photoshop and to work on concepts and come up with their own ideas. Using themes is just piggy-backing on someone else’s hard work.
    If you just dive straight in, pick a random theme and produce an ad-hoc website – is that really, really design?

    • @bloohair

      Hi! Thanks for your comment!

      Don’t confuse the process of using Wordpress with a theme framework which is what I’m talking about here with using Wordpress with a pre-made theme or template where the “design” is already done. My question in this post is about the first option.

      Headway, the theme “framework” that I use is not made to be installed and used as is. Upon activation, it is extremely plain looking. It is meant as a base to “implement” your own design created any way you want. You can use Photoshop, I prefer Fireworks but I create the design myself in a graphics application first.

      Using a theme framework like Headway, Thesis and others is not piggy-backing on someone else’s hard work. You still have to create the design first. When that is done, I slice the images I need from my mockup, and use Headway’s Visual Editor configure the look of the site as far as it will permit me (which is much farther than most theme frameworks). Then I use Dreamweaver to finish it off with custom CSS and custom PHP fuctions using Wordpress or Headway hooks to achieve different behaviors and the end result is as unique looking as If I had coded it from scratch like I used to. That is the “cheating” part I was mostly talking about. Using Wordpress was a major mindshift for me as I’ve coded Web sites from scratch in HomeSite then Dreamweaver for over 14 years.

      At the beginning of the post, I do mention other people who were exactly speaking of using pre-made templates. Although I would never do that for a client myself, I still think it’s perfectly fine in some cases where people won’t hire a professional designer (for whatever reason). I do think they are better off using a good looking pre-made theme than try to “design” a site themselves with no expertise at all. The site won’t look unique and the design may not even be exactly appropriate for the site or the type of business, but at least it won’t look like a Geocities site… ;). And for a personal site where the person has no budget to hire a designer, they are better off using a decent existing theme than trying to do it themselves.

      But I do agree, for a professional site, the design needs to be tailored to the clients’ needs and Wordpress and theme frameworks still enable me to do just that… only much faster than before :)

      • Stephane,
        This is good to hear, if more people would use Wordpress as a tool to speed up the web coding process, rather than rely on themes to do the design for them, then that is all good. It is depressing to see so many websites with the same “look” and this is what I would do once I get into Wordpress. So thanks for clarifying that point.

        Downloading Wordpress and MAMP is on my list of things to do soon, and I hope it is as easy to use as many people say.
        Thanks for your input.

  11. I don’t come from any solid html or css coding background so having access to something as easy to use as this is a breath of fresh air.

    We recently outsourced for the building of a new website. I have been able to create something equal if not better to the site that was made by someone else.

    Wordpress is definitely my go to.

  12. I am very late to the party but came here because I spent hours wrestling a “blank” theme to make my website.

    I have coded static sites by hand and loved doing it, though since then as the (main)site has grown having to change every page to add a new menu item or whatever is a nightmare.

    Wordpress is great and as much as I would like to code each pixel, the day job means I haven’t the time. I feel a bit of a fraud using pre made wordpress themes but have noticed of late that web design companies are using them for clients.

    As much as I feel dirty using a pre made template I am going to have to as my time is better spent on doing what I know rather than spending hours wrangling a div into place.

    And for the “average” user that visits, they do not care whether it is a theme or pre made, they likely don’t even know. All they care about is whether the information is right for them.

    So, as it pains me to admit, because i WANT to learn web and wordpress development, I am forced to go down the premade and tinker route.

    Thanks for making it ok!


    • Hi Tim! Thanks for your comment!

      Whether this is OK or not is not for me to decide but, for myself, completely premade was a temporary measure when I first started learning WordPress and rebuilt this site on it. Now I use theme frameworks like iThemes Builder or WooThemes Canvas as they are a blank slate you start from visually without having to actually start from scratch. Good frameworks have a lot of features and functionality built-in and what you have left to do is style them and, depending on the framework, the manual labor like the need to write CSS and editing templates can vary greatly from framework to framework.

      But starting from a known base every time saves me a lot of time.

  13. I must admit to being a bit, er tipsy, when I arrived here the other night. I now realise you were not talking about pre made themes – oops!

    The handful of sites I have done on wordpress have been from taking a blank theme, eg. Starkers and adding my css and html. I looked at a pre made theme earlier in the week but quickly went back to my home made approach.

    My main problems come from the classes and div’s that the php spits out, so I seem to manage to write code that clashes in some way so it can take a very long time to fix a small problem. My organisation is also pretty poor, so I often try and add elements to sites as I go along, or even hack around with site that I had done before.

    Planning might help as might these frameworks, which I really must look into because at the moment I liken my web design and coding to going around a golf course with a putter. I get there in the end but life could have been so much easier!


  14. Thanks, an interesting discussion. I have a terrible confession to make… I am a customer.

    Now we have that out in the open, I should explain. I’m starting a small business and I have a limited budget and no web or design expertise. I want to get it right but not pay through the nose for it, and when you have no knowledge you can get a bit scared and paranoid! So, I got myself a domain and host, downloaded wordpress and started tinkering with a couple of themes. The free ones seemed fairly limited so I forked out $50 for udesign – one of the most popular premium themes on themeforest.

    Having tinkered with it for a couple of days, I believe I could create a passable website by using the theme’s inbuilt layout and intuitive design, scavenging parts of html from tutorials etc and a lot of trial and error. I discovered that I’d really like to learn html and css, and love the thought of my website being all my own work. However, I’m not going to do this.

    There’s no way I’m going to risk my business website this way. The risks and effort greatly outweigh the possible savings in my opinion – apart from anything else I need the time to focus on the rest of my business. I am not a designer so even if I get the functionality right, it is unlikely that it’ll look good too. I have concluded that it is sensible to get a professional to make my website.

    One more however, though! My needs are fairly standard in terms of functionality, and these themes amply provide for them. They are also flexible enough to allow designers a lot of freedom. Happily, they will also save me several thousand dollars – crucial in the delicate start-up phase of a business. I now feel confident in going to a web designer and asking for a website based on a theme at a lower price. I also know that this is fair, as the designer will not have to spend hours coding from scratch. It seems like a win-win.

    So that’s one perspective from the other side, I’d be interested to know what you think!


    • Hi Alex,

      Seems I let your comment slip through the cracks and never replied to it. I’m sorry about that! I actually love your thinking because it’s based in sound buisness principles. You are an expert at whatever it is you do which I understand is not at all related to graphic design. You are indeed right that you can hurt your business badly online by having a web site that sends the wrong message or does not look professional. Most people can tell the difference. They won’t know why specifically a site layout is not working but it will feel wrong to them and the site will not convert… whatever conversion means to you (getting clients to pick up the phone, sign up to a mailing list, buy your product online, etc).

      So kudos to you for doing the smart thing. Yes the services of a professional can seem expensive at first glance, but as someone posted on my Twitter timeline recently: “If you think it’s expensive to deal with a professional, wait untill you deal with an amateur…”. Doing something right the first time will always be cheaper than having to do it twice.

      Thank you for your comment!


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