Are WordPress Themes Killing Web Design?

By David Attard
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Every so often, somebody writes a post claiming something is dead. Email is dead. SEO is dead. Facebook is dead. Web Design has not been spared, and we’ve seen bold claims of the imminent death of web design on Mashable. They claim that ready-made themes are killing the industry:

“Most of the content that you see on the web today is run by some framework or service — WordPress, Blogger, Drupal, you name it. Frameworks provide you a foundation and shortcuts so you spend less time struggling with the creation of a web site, and more time creating content. As a consequence of the ubiquity of these frameworks, a whole world of free and paid templates lets you get started with a professional-looking design in minutes.”

They feel threatened by the sheer number of themes available. Since it is “easy” to setup a website and a ready-made theme – anybody can do it.

I beg to differ.


If you’re threatened by platforms like WordPress and ready-made themes, I hate to break it to you – but you’re doing web design wrong. You’re missing a fundamental piece of providing any service. You’re not providing enough value to the client.

WordPress Theme Companies and Marketplaces

While there will always be a need for custom design and development, it’s clear from the 2015 WordPress Business Revenue Statistics by Scott Bolinger, you’ll see that theme focused companies are thriving.

WordPress Marketplaces - Envato Elite Logo

Companies such as iThemes are making more than a million dollars a year. WooThemes (recently acquired by Automattic) used to make more than than $10 million per year. Envato does not release revenue figures, but some statistics are available. Up to 2014 they’ve paid more than $224 million to authors since 2006. They have more than 50 Elite authors making more than a $75K per year. 30 of those make more than a million dollars a year.

It’s safe to say that the premium themes market is alive and kicking.

Embrace Premium WordPress Themes

Old school web designers and developers pride themselves on the work they do. They strongly feel that a job well done is a job which is started from scratch and developed as necessary for a client.

The ideal solution in an ideal world would be developing a custom theme for the exact needs of a client. This route though, costs lots of time and money and will price you out of most website design budgets. We live in a fast paced world, and whilst money may not be an issue for some clients, you’ll find that time is an issue. Most of my clients need things to be ready yesterday – so going with a custom solution can be shooting yourself in the foot.

1. Give Your Client Added Value from the Start

One of the biggest challenges we meet whilst working on web projects is getting the client to understand or imagine the final product’s visuals.

You might be thinking one thing, but you can never fully understand what your client is imagining from what you are describing.

A ready-made theme can work wonders for the final result. Once you have discussed some ideas with the client, go and search for some possible templates you could use. Then go to the client with a choice of templates which would fit their requirements best. These themes are all working demos, so you can already give the client an excellent sense of what they will be getting.

Let’s take Avada as an example – if you take your client through one of the live demos, you’re more likely to win the project.

Avada Layouts

Both you and your client will know what the end product will look like. You’re already setting yourself up for success and excellent client satisfaction.

Participating in the choice of the end-result, gives the client that feel-good factor. Of course it is your job as a web designer to nudge them in the right direction.

2. Turn Sites Around Faster (and Hence Become More Profitable)

Whilst it may be more fun and feel like a better achievement when you create a site from scratch, using a premium WordPress theme is more profitable. The foundation and most of the work has already been done using a theme so you are going to spend much less time overall. This allows you to do two things:

  • Reduce your rates
  • Make more profit on each project

Let’s take a concrete example. Let’s say you charge at a flat rate of $60/hour.

Task Premium theme Custom theme
Project Management 10 hours 10+ hours
Design time 4 hours 16+ hours
Development time 16 hours 40+ hours
Content / copy 20 hours 20 hours
Total 50 hours 86+ hours

There are other parts to the website which we won’t mention, but we all know that the design and development time of a custom theme will spike significantly.

There’s a difference of 36 hours which charged at the rate of $60 would be a difference of more than $2000.

If you don’t charge for those extra hours, you’ve got a leeway of $2000 to work with when giving the final price.

If you can get away with charging $1500 out of those $2000, good luck to you – you’ve made a very handsome profit. Even if you charge just $500 of the $2000, you’re already better off.

You’re spending less time working and earning more.

3. Charge a Premium for Fast Service Rates

Using stock photography and a familiar WordPress theme – you should be able to turnaround an excellent site in 1 to 2 days.

That allows you to charge excellent fast service rates which will allow you in turn to give yourself a bit of a bonus.

Can Anybody Do Your Job?

Using a ready-made premium theme may make it seem easy to create a great looking web design. Once again, I beg to differ.

If your result is only as good as that of somebody who is not an experienced web designer – you’re not doing a good enough of a job with your web design.

It is possible to create a good looking site with a premium theme. But you – an experienced web designer should not settle for a “good” site. The end result of a web design project from you, should leave no stone unturned, and the end result should be excellent, not just good.

You should know that there are many behind the scenes things which you need to do.

  • You need to match colors and tones.
  • You need to find the adequate typography and fonts.
  • You should have followed all optimal user experience suggestions.
  • You should have optimized the site for search engines out of the box.
  • You know how to create a responsive site which looks good whatever device you see it on, not just on the desktop and browser where it is being designed.

Would somebody who has not worked in web design figure out the concept of a responsive grid?

Really and truly, a good web design project requires an experienced web designer who is able to understand the nuances of web design.

What Is the Value You Should Be Offering as an Experienced Web Designer?

  1. Understand responsive web design and setup a site with that in mind
  2. Know where and how to find appropriate fonts, typography, imagery, iconography for the appropriate design project.
  3. Know how to combine everything in a way which creates a perfect visual result
  4. Setup a web design project with security in mind and prevent the site from getting hacked
  5. Ensure a site is backed up for just those times when things go belly up
  6. Setup a site, content and plugins as necessary for search engines and local SEO
  7. Install Google Analytics and monitoring services, connect the site to Google Search Console, and other webmaster activities
  8. Ensure you’ve followed appropriate User Experience concepts, and optimized the site such that it loads fast
  9. Tested the site on various devices and browsers and ensured it works well across the board
  10. Mess with the code where necessary to tweak as necessary to achieve an optimal result
  11. Be able to understand and figure out any problems or bugs which arise whilst developing the project
  12. And so many more…

There are of course many other things which an experienced web designer is able to cater for. If you’re having trouble justifying your fees, making your client aware that you are able to offer the above will go a long way in winning you the project.

As an experienced web designer, you should be able to walk the fine line of not developing a theme from scratch to save time. At the same time use your experience to generate much more value for your client than anybody else could and would.

Give Your Clients Ongoing and More Value

The end of the web design project should not signal the end of the relationship with your client – infact I dare say, it should be the start! There is plenty of value you can give your client using your experience in the industry, after the completion of their website.

  1. Hosting, updates, and general maintenance – a non-techy client will be very glad to have you handling all their hosting. They want to know that the domain and hosting are renewed on time. CMS updates are implemented as soon as they come out. Any problems with the hosting are dealt by you. In fact, they just want to know that their site works. They don’t really care about the rest.
  2. Implement a maintenance and updates retainer – continuing on point 1, you should explain that there is going to be ongoing work and updates, and you’ll be able to provide support as necessary. You can discuss and estimate with the client how much work they expect – 5 to 10 hours a month would be what I would recommend at the very least.
  3. Manage social streams or blogging content – Small shops and small family businesses might not have the time to maintain their social media streams and blog. Again, discuss with your client and agree specific work amounts per month you will provide them with. Many small clients will be happy to use your guidance.
  4. Optimize for search engines – another area which needs ongoing work would be optimizing the site for search engines. There’s plenty of work to be done if you plan to implement white-hat SEO techniques. This is somewhat difficult to explain to customers who are not too familiar – but done right, could reap immense benefits both to you and the client.
  5. Other online guidance – you know the client better than anybody else, there’s going to be something they will need your expertise with. Keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to help your client (and of course help increase your revenue stream).

Increase Your Passive Income Stream

There’s one final way which we haven’t mentioned so far. You’ve got the experience to develop a theme from scratch – why not develop your next custom theme with the intent of selling it? You can then make it available on your own online shop or sell it on one of the many marketplaces available.

Done right – you’ve got potential for great passive income. This is a good idea for side projects, or a project which you can work on between jobs or during other down time.

Start slowly, and iterate with small improvements on your own theme. Once you’ve got a theme which you would be willing to pay money for, start selling it. You should be able to make a nice supplementary passive income stream.

Now that I’ve given my reasons for why I feel web design is not being killed by premium themes, why don’t you let me know your own reasons as to why you agree or disagree below.

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  • Rajiv Sathian

    Hi David,
    Kudos for your article you have raised the right points and second your view that work of web designers won’t be killed by Premium themes.
    We do get people who ask for some more tweaks even if they have bought a paid theme since in today’s world everyone wants to make their site competitive.
    So certainly an expert in this field will not just survive but succeed too.

    Rajiv Sathian

    • Hey Rajiv,


      It’s the fact that as a web designer you should provide expertise about the industry, not just knowledge. Then your clients will know that they can rely on you when they need to.


  • Premium themes provide a platform to build on. What we build for our clients is the best possible site and we use whatever tools are necessary. I used to see premuim themes as a threat but now I see them as a starting point for a beter site – where it’s appropriate. The widespread use of bootstrap as a base makes themes much more solid and extendable. It’s a base theme, with a base template – and then our own custom adaptions over the top.

    • Spot on Jon.

      The tools are there to help you achieve the best possible result.

      Yes Bootstrap has certainly helped create a very good base and standard throughout. It’s yet another tool.


  • Игорь Грицишин

    WordPress killing web design

  • Malachi

    I don’t think WP kills web design.. it’s more like an add-on to it. As far as the article goes.. good article, but beware of the themes. A lot of them come with scripts installed that are NOT good for your website. Links to other websites, etc. You would have to dig for them to take them out.. and that can be a hassle. Always go for the well-known market places if you are looking for a theme. Other than that, yes, Bootstrap makes for a good base, but make sure to keep it as a base and overlay it with your own design, otherwise it’s just a website that looks like everything else on the web…

    • Hi Malachi,

      Yes one always needs to be careful of buying from reputable theme providers and markets.

      Certainly, NEVER EVER try to pirate themes or get them for free. They will be riddled with backdoors and come back to bite you.

      It’s not worth it. We’ve seen sites full of malware and spam, all coming from pirated sources.

      I wouldn’t trust any of my possession’s to a known thief. I won’t trust my website either.


  • Aaron

    I agree with a lot of your points. I certainly use the work of others to gain economies and be more profitable. However, I’m always careful to define which CMS I use based on a thorough assessment of the content. Many projects I work on don’t need WordPress – it’d be overkill and would end up being more work to maintain than a more basic CMS/static site. So site templates on themeforest or wherever become invaluable. There’s still an awful lot of code and extraneous files to clean out of the final product, but it’s a good start. I position my services from an SEO standpoint (mostly local) and I find the technical aspect easier if I keep WP out of it. Just not a fan of WP, although I use it when called for.

    • Hey Aaron,

      I have this discussion so many times with my colleagues. You don’t just choose WordPress because it’s WordPress. Afterall, it’s only a tool. You always have to choose the right tool for the job. If I may use a very cliched expression, you don’t use a jackhammer to crack open a walnut.

      Making the right choice of technology for the right project boils down to experience. Making the wrong choice will haunt you for years, or will lose you business.

      Having said that, I do find WordPress had a very broad use … I’ve used it in barebones mode for simple blogs, and I’ve pumped it up with plenty of plugins for other complex websites. There’s a fine line you have to walk though, because plugins have their disadvantages too.

      I would say use what is best for you, your client and your projects :)


  • David, you’ve raised some great points which many people undervalue, so thanks for putting them on the radar. One of the things that people don’t realise is the architecture behind WordPress. One of its strengths is the presentation layer (Theme) is seperate to the content layer (resource). And that’s where the design architecture beauty lies. You can change your presentation (theme) without changing any of the content. It gets back to our creativity in using the theme as the vehicle in presenting the content in a meaningful way.

    • Hey Chris,

      definitely agreed – I love that about WordPress and honestly speaking most CMSes work that way too. I know on most of my sites, I can easily give them an excellent design facelift whilst keeping all the content intact. Of course, there are technologies where this is not something which is built-in, so it’s surely a huge advantage when choosing WordPress.

      Just like you said, the task of an experienced web designer is to make the right choice of theme in order to make sure the message of the site comes across as strongly as possible.


  • I would definitely not say “anybody” can set up a nice WordPress site even with a pre-built theme. I just installed a theme on a new site this past week and it is not so much a theme but an incredible versatile toolbox with all sorts of customization. Seems to me that WordPress (et al) and themes won’t really displace web design, but just become an area of specialization. House framers haven’t displaced interior designers.

    • Agreed Clif. It’s like we have been saying with the rest of the commentors. WordPress and WP themes are tools. The tools may be more advanced and different to what we used to have in the past, but that makes it “easier” to achieve better results.

      For sure, the larger themes have become flexible (and advanced) to the point of actually having a learning curve to actually use them to their potential. Which is a good thing IMO.


  • Hey Bruhaha,

    I think you have hit the nail on the head regarding a lot of things.

    Prices have unfortunately been significantly driven down due to a variety of reasons, but that’s the world in which we are competing in. You either learn how to get your money’s worth or you move to different things. I still believe there’s good income to be made, if you do it right.

    Regarding creativity and talent, once I agree I do agree with your reasoning. You cannot be creative with a theme most times, but that means that it’s diversity and creativity which is taking the hit, not web design per se, which I know is the point you are making.

    Yes, there those who are willing to be creative. Our job is to find more of those clients :)


  • I totally get this problem and see it all the time in corporate web development. However, WordPress isn’t killing web design any more than any other content management system. The question is how WP is affecting time spent in development. Arguably there are better CMS platforms that don’t require as much time spent cleaning up crappy code and patching for the next security breach. In a nutshell, the tools you use are related to how well you educate your clients on the value of quality platforms. If you constantly work for clients who buy into the “Wix hype”, then yeah you’re going to have to roll out super cheap websites and compromise things like custom design. But if you choose to work with educated clients, then you have the opportunity to develop on better platforms, allowing you to roll out custom code and design, for roughly the same amount of time spent customizing and stabilizing a WP theme.

    • Hey Sean,

      I would say that it’s more of a generic “Are premium themes killing web design” – the arguments, just like you said can apply to all CMSes out there who have plenty of premium themes.

      If you are able to educate clients, or have the luxury of choosing clients, that’s all very well of course. And yes, if you manage to educate them enough and sway them to their real needs, then you’re doing an excellent job :)

  • kmd

    Both articles bring up important points, but in my opinion saying “web design is dead” or “wordpress themes are killing web design” is nothing more than click bait. Decisions on what tool to execute your marketing/business strategy should always be based on what best serves your customers while best meeting your business goals.

    • It’s a question we know that people are asking rather than a clickbait article. We’ve seen it asked or insinuated in various fora. Hope you’ve found something useful in the article.

  • The Informer

    same reasons I like bootstrap. I have used bootstrap to create a basic site, and I’ve also used a premium bootstrap design to jumpstart an even cooler design. the work is in the customisation. these premium designs often give you a huge number of different pages and templates to play with. you select one and then tweak it. saves a lot of time and the end result is stunning.