Custom Website vs Theme - What's the Difference?

Custom themes make better Shopify websites
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It’s a question that we get asked on an almost daily basis: “Should I setup my website using a theme or pay an agency to design and build a bespoke website?”.

There’s no right or wrong answer here, it’s just about what’s best for your business and how integral your website is to your businesses success. So, we’ll attempt to weigh up the key pro’s and con’s of using a theme against building a bespoke website, which will hopefully be of some use to our readers. For the sake of this article, we’ll refer mainly to Shopify stores, but the same principles apply to most content management systems where a theme market exists, such as Wordpress, Joomla, Drupal, Magento and of course Shopify for example. This argument not only applies to transactional websites, some points are just as applicable to 'Brochure' websites.

Using a Theme

The theme market place has completely exploded in the last 5 years and there’s no doubt that a lot of talented designers have created some good looking themes and made them available for little monetary investment. It’s a great way of getting a cost effective website, but there’s a few things that you should understand before committing to a theme.

Positives of using Website Themes

  • Extremely Cheap - For very little financial investment, you can quickly a get a website online that serves it’s purpose of displaying content and in some cases they even look good. Some themes are free, but the better themes cost anywhere between £50 and £250. Not bad, right?!
  • Speed - No bespoke design process and almost all of the development work has already been done. If you want your new website to launch within a week or two then it's often your only realistic option.
  • Risk/Reward - It's never been a problem for us, but we've had a lot of clients that have approached us after going to cheaper agencies because they were not happy with any of the design concepts put forward to them. From a client's perspective, at least with a theme they know what the website (or at least framework) looks like before spending a penny!

Negatives of using Website Themes

  • Generic - A website needs to be the digital personification of your business. It must represent your business / products or services in their entirety and inline with your brands aesthetic sensibilities. When any designer begins to design a theme, they are constantly attempting to make the theme as versatile as possible so that it can be applied to any and all businesses and industries, thus being extremely generic in nature. The process for designing a theme is entirely different to designing a site for a specific business or organisation. The result of theme design is a website that often feels bland. It's crucial to remember that when viewing themes for consideration they are usually populated with 'best case scenario' content.
  • Assets - So you decide you want to use a theme and you find one that you love. You install it and upload your content... but for some reason, it looks terrible by comparison. That’s because the original theme designer utilised high quality image assets for the demo. If you want an image-driven design or to utilise fullscreen imagery you have to make sure that your assets are of at least equal quality. Poor content is going to devalue the impact of any website but even more so with a generic theme. The same can be said for product photography. If the theme utilises cut-out png’s for instance on a coloured or textured background, then your iPhone JPEG product images simply won’t look as good.
  • Redundant Code - What’s that? Well, by their very nature a theme is built to be versatile, making it as appealing as possible to as many potential small business owners as possible. It may include various styles and functionality that you may or may not utilise. For example, it may be that it comes with three navigation styles - you can obviously only use one, but this choice makes the theme more appealing to more potential purchasers of the theme. The problem is that all of the code for all three navigation styles is loaded by a user’s browser and not used to render anything. This code is now there unnecessarily meaning that the code itself is redundant. There’s some major knock-on effects of this. The first casualty is page load speed, because you’re asking the browser to read more code which naturally takes a longer time. The second issue is SEO. Search engines like a websites codebase to be as clean as possible, websites with lots of redundant code are penalised in search engine rankings.
  • SEO - As well as the reasons above, themes simply don’t perform as well as custom built websites. Search engines love high-quality, original content and a theme is anything but original. Aside from the theme itself, no one is paying attention to all of the little details for you, such as such sitemap submission, keyword density, the list just goes on.

Getting a Custom Designed & Built Website

Naturally, we’re going to favour this route because it’s what our business does. We love details, details in designs and the detail that goes into intuitive development. We have no interest in churning through volumes of cheap projects. We take pride in our work and all find a great deal of satisfaction in knowing that we've put our clients in poll position for success. The only negatives are the opposites to that of adopting a theme approach (more expensive and a slightly longer project timeline).

  • Bespoke Design - A website will always convert a sale or lead more successfully if a good design team has spent time considering every aspect of a business or service, as well as their offering, to tailor a website design that suits it properly. Websites certainly aren't a 'one size fits all' situation. So much of what convinces a user to make a purchase is subconscious, and about how they feel about the brand, service or product. Is it aspirational, professional or trustworthy? Do you feel safe that this company is legitimate and will handle transactions securely? Does it illustrate the quality or story of the product? Does it properly convey the USP’s of the service offered? Themes don't consider your likely user demographic and what works or doesn't - experienced agencies on the other hand absolutely do!
  • Website Performance - This is more related to a good development team than whether or not you’re using a theme (Apart from the issues we've already explained above). Shopify themes for example are all tested and validated by Shopify themselves to ensure that the code is semantic and without any major errors. Other platforms, such as Wordpress, don’t have the same validation process and are often extremely slow due to quality of development and the aforementioned redundant code. No site will perform as well as a properly developed custom website because every line of code is considered and serves a specific purpose. Much better for SEO, much better for the user and much better for the business in question.
  • Functionality - With a custom website, the only limitations are only ever based on the limits of the platform itself. A hosted solution, Shopify for example, has one or two limitations (We have an article here if you're interested - click here), when compared with say Magento. However the trade-off is increased project cost and lengthened timelines - an obvious result of advanced functionality possibilities.
  • Support & Guidance - Like most agencies, we offer post launch support should you need us for anything once your website is live. We have intricate knowledge of your codebase and a vested interest your success.
  • Expertise - When you hire an agency, you’re hiring them for their experience as well as the standard of work. Clients often think they have great ideas that will improve conversion rates or drive more traffic for instance, based on extensive experience we often know these 'great ideas' will only have a negative impact. It may be as simple as using a poorly considered colour, a bad font-stack, low quality imagery or adding a piece of functionality that won't enhance a users experience but will slow a site down. Use a theme and you’re out there on your own.

Enough talk, which is right for me?

There’s a few things that you’ll need to consider in order to determine whether you should download a theme or employ the professional services of a webdesign agency.


If you only have £1500 to spend on your website, the chances of you getting a custom design and build of any quality are almost zero. Be cautious of people that say they can work to this budget. They will either a) use a template, modify it not tell you or b) produce a website that is worse than a theme or c) add lots of additional charges as the project commences for things you hadn’t considered. The simple fact of the matter is, it takes a good amount of time to plan, design, review, revise and develop a bespoke website and as we all know - time is money. If you’re playing with this kind of money, our advice would be to find the right theme and set it up yourself. Get to grips with your business and how it performs, make sure your idea is valid and see if your product has any traction. Investing in your virtual shop window with a reputable agency will almost certainly drive your business forward at a faster pace however.


If you need your site live within days there’s no decision to make. Go straight to a theme store.


If you run a local fish and chip shop your website probably isn’t integral to your business, you just need somewhere that people can find your address, phone number and menu. If you’re trading online though, your businesses success is most likely completely dependant on how well your website converts users into paying customers. If this is you, give your digital presence the attention that it deserves. Allocate a sensible budget and get the project done right. In almost all cases, a good website pays for itself in increased sales or leads very quickly.

So Should I use a Theme then?

If you don’t have a realistic budget then yes, absolutely install a theme to get your business online and test the water. If your website isn’t important to your business then yes, a theme can be a cost effective solution.

But, if like a lot of businesses, you appreciate that your success online is intrinsically linked to the aesthetic sensibilities and performance of your website then consider your budget carefully and discuss having a custom website built by a good agency.