I have to start this post off with a quick disclaimer. Aside from running a design agency, I also run a PSD to HTML & WordPress company. So naturally – themes might seem like my enemy, right?
If someone buys a theme, they’re not designing a PSD for us to code. And if someone buys a theme – they’re not hiring us to design a website, either.
It seems like the natural enemy of both of my businesses!
Well… It actually hasn’t worked out that way. Themes are actually my friends.
A lot of people come to our design agency after realizing themes and the like aren’t typically very good for business. They realize the things you’ll read about in this article and finally decide to just go and hire some pros.
Also – themes tend to have insane code. Especially the WordPress ones. They’re packed with so many features that they’re like densely packed jungles of scripts and conditionals and etc., etc., etc.
When you start customizing them, they often break, and you need to hire an expert to fix it up for you. That’s where we come in :-)
So from a business standpoint, themes are good for me. But form a business standpoint, as a designer looking to put a snazzy presence up on the web – I don’t think they’re good for you.
Now that we’ve got that covered – let’s get down to brass tax…
They’re just so pretty.
Themeforest and the like are jam-packed with themes for freelance designers and creative agencies. When you click to see the “live preview” you’re wooed by parallax effects, images that slide in from up, down, left, and right, and text that fades in and out as you scroll.
There are always pretty columns of text – often 4 in a row – and each with a category that seems to make sense: Services, Who We Are, Our Approach, etc.
Then you get to a section called “Our Team” full of well-edited, smiling stock headshots.
“This site has everything… If only my website looked like this…”
… you think, and before you know it you’re clicking the “Buy Now!” button. Hey, reading back over the description above, I almost want one myself.
But then you open up the WordPress or HTML theme and that’s when the sucky-ness begins. Here’s what I mean…
First: They’re like drinking Coca Cola when your body craves water.
Coca Cola is designed to grab your attention when you’re thirsty or hot and need a drink.
Thing is… nothing about it is hydrating.
In fact, 10 minutes later you’re thirsty again… so you reach for another. And another. But all along, if you just had a glass of good ole H2O, you’d feel better than ever.
You need a “water” website. These themes, like Coca Cola, are designed to catch you off-guard when you’re feeling unsure about what to do – when you’re “thirsty”. They look cool and shiny and new and hip.
Yes, they’re all of those things. But usually, they’re nothing more.
There’s no substance under the hood. It’s like a Hollywood film set where the buildings are just nicely-painted plywood held up by some 2x4s.
Second: The people who make them are really good at one thing… Selling themes.
They know you. They know what you like and what’ll get your attention. They’ve studied you and your peers meticulously and they know just the thing to make you feel like you need their theme, asap.
But know what they don’t know? What your market wants.
Instead, you need to do what they did: You need to study your market the way they studied you… learn their pain points… and figure out exactly how to resolve those pain points.
All your website needs to do is let your target customers know that you understand their pain, and you’re here to save the day. You don’t need bells and whistles to do that.
The content on your website will naturally shrink and grow as you understand your market more and more. Let your interactions with clients dictate what should go on your website.
Next: As soon as you start hacking them up, they fall to pieces.
Like I said before, these guys and gals put their themes together with one intent: to get you to buy them. They choose the perfect images, colors, fonts, animations, etc. that hook you in.
But as soon as you start to remove the elements that they’ve crafted so carefully… and insert your own… it starts to seriously fall to pieces.
Either things “break” in the code… or the theme just doesn’t look good without the original photos and colors the designer used.
Before you know it – either you just live with the fact that you have a crappy site, or you keep hacking away to the point where you’re basically re-designing it from scratch. Either way, hair gets pulled out.
Instead, just design your site from scratch in the first place.
Let it reflect your strengths, contain your flare, and resonate with your market.
If there are elements you think are really cool in a theme that you feel will help you sell… Then incorporate them in your own way! Make them work for you. There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by others’ designs, and making them your own.
That’s how design evolves.
And finally: You’re unique. No matter how many millions of designers there are in the world – none of them are you.
A theme will simply never cut it. It’s too generic.
Create something unique and beautiful that shows the world who you are. Create something that really captures what your market is looking for.
The best pieces of design are the ones that are seamless. The design is almost invisible. It just carries you away. A major problem with these themes is that they draw too much attention to themselves.
They shout, “Look, I can do animations! I can do parallax!”
But they don’t say the only thing they should: “I know what you’re going through. And here’s how I can help.”
With that said, there’s only one exception to this…
If you’re already a seasoned pro who can get clients with ease – then you’ll know what to do with a theme. You’ll know how to make it sell for you.
But if you’re not at that point yet, spend this time to really think about your brand and what kind of message you want to send. Craft something that reflects your message.
Even if you think it’s awful or terrible, put it out there. Put your name on it. See what happens.
It’s the only way you’ll ever truly grow.
Also: Obviously I’m making some blanket statements here, and there are always exceptions to every rule. While I believe most themes suck for growing a business, I also know there must be some great ones hiding around out there. But because there are so few, my advice is to start from scratch. Maybe grab some cool ideas from them – but do it in your own way that really speaks to your market.