About WordPress Themes

Free, Paid, or Custom? What's Best?

About WordPress Themes

(or why I almost always build a custom theme)

Custom WordPress websites are pretty common needs with my branding clients, so I do a lot of website design. You’d think the easiest and lowest-cost way to handle them would be to start with a theme to have a template to start with. That’s usually not the case. When it comes to custom sites, I find that canned themes often cause more problems than they solve. 


WordPress is my platform of choice for building custom websites. Explaining all of the reasons why would be an entirely different blog post.  I won’t get into that here.


With WordPress, there are basically three options when it comes to themes. You can use a free theme, pay for a premium one, or create a custom theme specific to the site.   

let's start with free themes

The only real check in the pro column here is the price. The cons are that you get what you pay for. If you need an extremely simple site and are ok with not having much latitude on design, you might be ok with a free theme. Because the site’s framework is already built, you’re limited to plugging your content into that. There’s very little ability to customize them, and most don’t have the standard features that my clients need. They’re generally not updated as often as WordPress updates, so they tend to break.  


Be very careful with just googling for free WordPress themes. Many of them are not securely coded, which can cause poor site performance, slow loading, and open you up to security risks. 

Some also come with malicious code, encrypted spam links, and other malware that is almost impossible to find or remove.


They’re not all bad. When in doubt, look for the ones with the highest number of downloads and check to make sure that it’s updated. 

paid & premium themes

Costs on Premium WordPress themes run from a few bucks to hundreds of dollars. The more customizable they are, the more bells and whistles they come with, and the higher the price. Themes like Divi from Elegant Themes or comparable ones like Ultra, Ocean WP, Studio Press, etc., don’t come cheap, but they’re solid products. These themes are updated frequently, so they don’t tend to break like free or less expensive themes. Because the companies behind them are reputable, you don’t have to worry about malware, black hat crap, or security issues.

The main reason I typically don’t use them is that regardless of how many options they have, we need to custom-build or code something; most often, it’s a custom page layout. If you have experience with WordPress and want to DIY your site build, however, a premium theme is probably your best option.  They can also come in handy for large sites (30+ pages) where the layout is fairly simple.

custom themes

Nearly every site that I build has a custom theme. Most of my clients don’t want an out-of-the-box website and do want them to fit with their brand and content strategy. Whether it’s a simple site with a home page, a blog, a contact page, or an e-commerce site with dozens of layouts, we need to custom-design something in nearly every case. The time my team takes to create a custom theme isn’t much more than what it takes to custom code a page, and that time is usually saved as we build out the pages. Rather than take a canned theme and adapt it to the site we’re building, we can create a theme that has all of the functions we need without the extras we don’t. It keeps our sites light and load times fast. Custom coding a packaged theme can have a tendency to harm SEO, too. 

Final notes

The choice between free WordPress, premium, or custom themes depends on what you need. If you need a simple site, are going to DIY it, and aren’t too concerned with layout, a free theme might be ok if you choose a common one. If you’re webby and are comfortable customizing a premium theme but don’t want to code, go with one of the better premium themes. If you need a branded site customized to your business, a branded layout with a custom theme is probably best.   

need help with a custom wordpress site?

The best way to start is to set up some time to talk.  The first call is always free and it’s the best way for us both to decide if working together makes sense.