For many years, we have been using WordPress as our preferred platform for websites. It's a popular choice with a lot of web designers, as it is easy to use, very secure and it is an open source content management system, so there is a lot of support available.
However, WordPress is just the foundation; the content management system that stores your information. Once you've installed WordPress, you need a theme to actually build the pages. There are a few different approaches you can take at this point:
There are a multitude of websites that offer pre-built themes with all the design work done for you. All you have to do is add your content and customise it to match your branding. Some of them are free, but the better ones usually come with a cost – anywhere from a few pounds to a few thousand pounds.
However, the main issue that we have with these themes is that they can be very limiting. There are both free and paid themes available. The more expensive ones will usually offer more flexibility, but even then, you don’t have complete control.
The style settings will usually let you change basic things like colours and fonts, but changing the layout can be more difficult. The different sections can usually be moved around to change the layout, but don’t allow you to do much with the design.
The functionality is also limited, meaning you will have to use additional plugins to add features to your website. While this isn’t much of an issue, it adds another level of complexity to the website and increases the likeliness of security issues.
There is also a learning curve, because each theme is built differently, so when you install a new theme, it can take time to figure out where the options are to change certain things.
Themes are good when starting out or if you’re building a basic website and not too fussed over the design, but we try to avoid them.
Some design agencies will build bespoke themes that contain the specific features that the client requested. The website will be set up to make it very easy to update the content of these features. However, while this sounds ideal, this direction usually leads to further challenges down the line.
While the features may be just what the client wanted at the time, they may decide later that they want to change or add to them. Some designers will not make this easy to do, using code to build the feature and not allowing any options for changing it. Again, this means you will need to have an in-depth knowledge of code to work out how that part of the website was built and how to edit it.
Designers do this deliberately, making the website limited and hard to use in the hope that you’ll keep coming back to them to do additional work on the website. It’s quite a cheeky practice, but one that, sadly, is all too common.
Page builders are a kind of middle ground. They have the benefits of having things already designed for you, along with the customisability that allows you to make the website your own.
With a page builder, there are pre-built modules that offer a wide range of functions. These can range from basic things like text, images and video, to more complex features like pricing tables, maps and contact forms.
The modules usually give you some options for customising both the style and functionality. So if you wanted to show your latest blog posts, for instance, you could just select the module, drag it to where you want it on the page, change the content settings (such as how many posts it shows) and change the style settings to make it look how you want. Again, some page builders will offer more flexibility than others, but they will give you much more control than themes.
What do we use?
Having designed websites for over 7 years, I have had experience with all these methods. I started out using themes, but quickly realised that you couldn’t offer bespoke websites by using them.
This is because clients would often ask to change elements of the site and the theme wouldn’t allow it, so I’d either have to spend hours working out how to do it using CSS or offer a compromise.
Even themes designed specifically for a certain industry aren’t always helpful. I was once asked to build a property website, so I bought a property theme that had all the functionality to list properties, search and filter. However, the client asked for a specific feature that the theme didn’t have and after days of trying to figure out if I could tweak the theme to do it, I ended up having to pay a programmer to do it for me.
We’ve had several instances where we’ve taken on a new client, they’ve asked us to manage their website and we’ve discovered that it was near impossible to change anything.
Our solution has been to rebuild the website using a page builder. Although it can take a few days to recreate the website, it’s worth it. Clients have been amazed at how quickly and easily we can change things on their new website and the new features offered.
Some clients who were too frustrated or scared to touch anything on their old websites have tried using the page builder and found it very easy to use, meaning they can update content themselves and have the freedom to design new pages or tweak existing ones. While we’re happy to update our clients’ websites, it’s always nice for them to have the option to do it if they feel comfortable.
For me, page builders win, hands down. I’ve used several over the years, including Beaver Builder, Divi, WP Bakery and Elementor. At the moment, my favourite – and the one that we use for most of our websites – is Beaver Builder, as it is very easy to use, has a wide range of modules, allows control over most aspects of the design and the support is always quick and helpful. And I'm not even getting paid to say that!
So, if you are going to a design agency for a new WordPress website, be sure to ask them whether they use themes, custom-built themes or page builders. If nothing else, it might make them think you know more than you do!