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Feb 10, 2017

Website design template vs custom build

Article brought to you by Nilead, a website builder platform with fully-managed design, development, and management services.

Website design template vs custom build


Table of contents

Before having your first website designed, get yourself familiar with the term "template" or "theme", consider its pros and cons to save yourself some headache down the road.

TL;DR: use a template if you need a low-budget, quick turnaround solution for a simple website. Use a more custom (bespoke) website design solution if you need brand focus design, complex features and can afford a higher budget and longer deadline.

Before we get started, let's define the term "template" or "theme": in the design word, a template is a pre-designed, pre-coded website. By using a template, in theory, you can save your time (and cost) from the design and development process which is the major cost factor of a website design project. Because they are pre-designed and pre-coded (and hopefully pre-tested).

I. Website template is a cheap and fast way to get started

Budget website design agencies generally opt for using templates for several reasons:

  •  Cheap - The template authors make profits by selling to the mass, instead of selling to 1 single client they can sell the same template to a thousand or more clients. A normal template goes around 50 USD; even the premium goes around 200 USD or less. A great template can be sold to 1000 clients or more, giving the authors at least 50000 USD in return.

  • Fast - Since it's already developed, if you use the template as is and only change the content then it takes just a few hours/days to launch. (compared to a few weeks or months for custom-built solutions)

Most businesses don't know if the agencies use a template or a custom design for their websites, and most of the time they do not care. However, you should know the drawbacks of using a template for your website before you make the decision to use this approach or not:

  • Generic - A template is not designed for any specific business, it's designed to be used for as many businesses as possible. There is nothing unique, brand focus, or "wow" factor in a template.

  • Bloated features - Since the authors of templates need to cover most requirements, they usually try to add as many features as possible. In real-world usage, most of these features are not used and in turn, weigh down the website performance instead.

  • Hidden cost & time: Templates usually look really pretty and awesome, because they use 1 hidden trick: they always use the ideal content, ideal graphics, ideal amount of items, etc... It's like buying clothes that look good on models, you will soon realize you don't have a model's body. Once you start making the template your own, you will realize you still need the help of designers and developers to make the changes and customize the template for you.

  • Maintenance nightmare: If your website is complex and constantly needs new features, you will run into problems down the road because the website was not designed and developed with that in mind. In addition, in most cases you buy the template from one author and get the additional development from another 3rd party source, this will soon turn into a nightmare due to the conflicts in coding style and logical thinking. If you plan to buy a template then do a major re-design of the layout or features on it, don't, you will soon find out it may cost the same with building things from scratch.

  • Low conversion rate: Conversion rate is the percentage of visitors coming to your website and perform the desired action (such as contacting you). This last point is NOT always true, but since the web template approach goes against the core concept of High Conversion website design in the Content First Web Design Approach, it tends to yield a low conversion rate.

If you really have to use templates, you should check my article above regarding the Content First Approach, then use our Website Questionnaire to plan out what you need on your website. Once you have the website content, user flow, and site map ready, you can pick and choose the template that fits your goals instead of simply choosing based on the design.

To make it clear, we do not stand against using pre-made templates/themes, they have their purposes and in many cases, it is the best choice. Before discussing custom build websites, let's check several false blame on template websites:

  • Low quality - Many people point out that templates usually have low-quality code which hinders performance, but the custom build can also have low-quality code. It depends on the authors (developers), a template website can have a very good codebase.

  • Non-responsive - Some believe that a template website does not display well on multiple devices, again this is false. It all depends on how the template was designed and coded.

  • Framework = template - Some online resources claim that websites built on frameworks such as WordPress, Joomla are template websites. Again, this is false. The framework can be customized to build any type of custom website.

II. Custom design website provides tailor-fit design and features

In contrast to template websites, custom build website service offers tailor-fit service that makes a website from scratch. A custom build website usually consists of a lengthy process of design, revisions, development, testing, and revisions again.

Several advantages of custom build website:

  • Tailor-fit - A custom build website requires the creative team to take the client's requirements, do thorough research, then brainstorm and come up with several proposals. These proposals will go through a lengthy process of revisions before reaching an acceptable state where the final design can be approved and sent to the development team. The development team will then have to code everything from scratch using the approved design and features, ensuring the website runs smoothly cross browsers, cross devices.

  • Extendable - If planned carefully, a custom build project can be extended easily in the future with new designs and features.

  • No hidden cost - Once you sign a contract with the agency regarding the exact design and features you want, you don't have to pay any additional fee unless there are new features or requirements that you want to add afterward.

Beware of the cheaters. Many website/digital marketing agencies claim that they provide custom design solutions while they actually use a template. It's unfair for both the businesses that pay for the work and the other website agencies that actually do a proper job. As a business owner, you may want to learn a few tips to confirm if your agency actually takes the template approach or not:

  1. Taking the Custom/Bespoke approach requires the agency to actually understand your business. You should notice if they start asking lots of detailed questions and show interest in your business operation.

  2. Designs made by the Custom approach should be specific for your business. You can question each design element and the agency should be able to tell you the reasons behind the elements and the purposes they serve.

It's obvious that custom-built websites will be a lot more expensive than template-built websites in terms of time and cost. Is there another option? Yes, there is. In recent years, there have been a number of website builders that help anyone to build a website. These tools usually offer drag-and-drop features to allow users to create a new website from base elements. A few tools to check:

  1. Squarespace

  2. Wix

  3. Weebly

All these tools give users the possibility to have a good website at a very low cost, perhaps even lower than the template option at first. However, there are several problems that cannot be easily solved:

  • Even with all the best tools, one cannot become a good designer without years of training and some talent. Despite the beautiful demo websites that are shown, in reality, most of the sites built by end-users have much lower quality.

  • Many end-users, after much frustration, end up using the generic pre-built templates available on these builders with some minor customization.

  • No matter how easy these builders claim to be, end-users must take time (usually weeks) to learn the in and out of the tools to build a website. In the end, the hidden cost can be much greater than what it appears to be at first.

  • By making these tools extremely to use for end-users, these builders usually have to trade for flexibly and. Most of the website builders are limited in terms of features and can never offer the same customization level a custom build website has.

I have written another article, dedicated to website builders' pros and cons, if you are interested in this topic please check it out. Using website builders can save your money especially if you are a start-up, just make sure you understand all the advantages and disadvantages.

III. Hybrid design website provides the best of both worlds

Sometimes you want something uniquely designed for you to promote your brand and offers but cannot afford the time and cost of the custom website design approach. The hybrid approach allows you to pick and choose the readily designed and developed elements from a library then arrange and customize them to create something unique. Think of it as playing Lego, you take the blocks and build the objects you desire. This approach is sometimes called the Atomic Website Design Approach as described by Brad Frost in his article dated back from 2013. This design approach is more difficult than it sounds because the designers and developers have to work together to build a system with all the elements that can be re-used in different scenarios while still allowing a high level of customization for each project.

Nilead is one of the very few service providers that offer a real atomic website design approach, we spent months and years creating a widget platform that can actually be re-used. For every project, our developers will analyze your requirements and preferences, handpick the best elements, arrange and customize them before sending them to you for approval. Utilizing this approach, we could offer more than 50% cost saving for clients who have a limited budget but still do not want to settle with using the boring and generic templates available on the market.

One added bonus of utilizing the Nilead platform and our hybrid web design approach is that we are extremely careful when we design and develop each element because we may use the same elements on multiple websites. Our system also allows us to mass update the widgets on every website when we discover a bug or add an improvement on the widget. This kind of improvement is impossible if you utilize the template approach and then customize it for your needs because subsequent updates of that same template may require lots of time from a skilled developer to compare the codebases of the old and new versions.

Depending on your requirements, budget, deadline, technical level, you can decide which option best fits you. For a hybrid option that can offer high-end, low-cost, fast turn-around website projects, check our web design packages.


About the author


Vu Nguyen

Vu Nguyen is an entrepreneur, developer, and founder of Nilead. He loves backend website development and has experience in eCommerce (owning an online store as well as being a developer), Search Engine Optimization, UX Design, and Content Strategy.

Since 2005, Vu has headed and overseen UX design teams for projects in corporations, start-ups, individuals, etc., regardless of their size. He has been involved in both the creative and technical aspects of each project - from ideation to concept and vision, prototype building to detailed design, and build-up to deployment.

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