$35 WordPress Themes – Too Good to Be True?

April 3, 2015
Greg Henry

As the president of a design studio, I feel like I rarely get to design anything these days. I spend the majority of my time managing clients and projects, working on strategy, art directing, etc. Sometimes I find myself missing my true passion – graphic design.

Years ago, I created a site for my fledgling freelance graphic and web design practice, gregoryhenry.com. As time past, the site became sorely outdated. It was too small, wasn’t built on a CMS, had a few Flash elements and was not mobile friendly. It was becoming an embarrassment. I had two choices. Pull it down, or re-design it.

As I’ve been missing a creative outlet for design, I opted to re-design the site. At Push10, we create custom design solutions for all our clients, then develop the sites on the WordPress platform. We would never dream of using a “canned theme” as a starting point. But for my personal freelance site, I wanted to treat it as an experimental playground. I decided to do the unthinkable – purchase a $35 canned theme to use as a starting point. After all the theme’s screenshots and demo site were very tempting and had hundreds of hours of development packed in. Responsive, SEO, mobile, you name it, it had it. The design was a beautiful starting point as well. For years, I’ve railed against these themes. Now I was finally going to give one a shot.

It was 10:00 at night when I got the itch to do this. Creativity strikes at strange times, I guess. I purchased my theme and downloaded the files. At this point, if it weren’t for my “somewhat decent” developer skill set, I would’ve been totally lost. DIY my ass. Luckily, as I’ve personally built a few WP sites from scratch, I knew how to download the core files for the CMS, create a database, and get everything installed and running on the web server. Now the moment of truth. I activate my theme, previewed the site and… Not much to look at.

Where were all the beautiful graphics? Where were all the sample pages and content the demo featured? Nowhere to be found, that’s where. Then it dawned on me. When you purchase a theme, you get just that, the theme. You don’t get the database, content (images/text) or plugins that the theme’s demo site used to make the theme come to life. It was now midnight, but I pressed on. I began creating pages, adding images and writing copy. The documentation that came with the theme was sparse at best. But I had just enough knowledge of WordPress to get it working. There was a lot of trial and error – I can’t count the number of times I hit the refresh button to see my changes.

As long as I didn’t try to alter the theme’s overall design, things went relatively smoothly. But whenever I wanted to change anything, it required me to find their code in the theme’s CSS file, then overwrite it with my own CSS. Lucky for me, I know how to write CSS. If not, I would’ve been out of luck, or on the phone with a qualified web developer.

Fast forward several days and I eventually ended up with an attractive, functional responsive web design at gregoryhenry.com. However, if it was not for my background in web design and development, I NEVER would’ve been able to pull this off. I would’ve needed to hire a web developer, who likely would’ve been frustrated, needing to weed through thousands of lines of code to make the site look and function the way I wanted. And in the end, I still wouldn’t have a custom-designed website. I’d have a modified template, hacked to try to accomplish my goals.

The advertising behind the theme made it look so easy, like anybody with basic computer skills could pull it off. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. From a personal standpoint, I did have fun working with my theme but never in a million years would I want to use a theme as a starting point for a client project. I can’t imagine telling a client, “sorry, we can’t make that design revision because your theme won’t accommodate it.”