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Is it okay to use templates and themes as a freelance designer?

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Have you ever used a theme or a template on one of your freelance web design projects?

I have.

And I’m (in my humble opinion) a good designer and coder.

I’ve built tons of websites both for myself and for my clients–and I built them from scratch. Designed; Coded; Tested; the works. I know HTML, CSS, Javascript and Jquery, PHP, and a few other languages.


But recently, Millo got a huge makeover. We were hacked pretty hard at the end of last year and so early this year, we rolled out a brand new look, hired a new writer (April Greer), and made a resolve to publish some epic and super-helpful content this year.

But in my blog post announcing all the changes that we’d be going through in 2012, I got an interesting comment that I didn’t expect. One reader named Andy asked:

“How come you bought a ready-made WordPress theme if you’re a designer?”

You can read my quick response to Andy’s question here, but today I wanted to first pose a question:

Is it okay to use templates and themes as a freelance designer?

I’m sure we all have a different opinion on this topic, so I’d like to hear your opinion on the whole issue. Before I continue, leave a comment on this post and let me know what you think.

If you’re a freelance designer, do you use templates and themes, or do you always build from scratch no matter what?

Why I chose to use a theme this time

For a long time, I have been a pretty strong advocate of the “if you’re a designer, design it yourself” mentality. But recently, when my site was hacked, I learned that sometimes other priorities take precedence.

For example, Millo had been down for almost a month, so:

  • I was anxious to get Millo back online (both for my audience – you guys – and for my revenue stream). Designing my own custom theme would have taken me another month or so.
  • I needed an updated look. So I searched around at (which I highly recommend, by the way) and found one that I really liked.
  • I wanted the cleanest, least hackable code I could find. I didn’t want to be hacked again, so I needed something that I knew would be as secure as possible.

So at that point, I decided it was a good decision to use a pre-designed WordPress theme.

Your design business HAS to be profitable

Another reason I went with a premade theme is that my design business HAS to stay profitable. And so does yours.

I had a choice to make: take time to design a theme for Millo, or spend time working on pending client projects.

While Millo helps bring in a little passive income each month, the bulk of my freelance income comes from clients-which I imagine is the same for you.

Using a template on certain projects can save you time and money, making your design business more profitable.

Not only does this pertain to web projects, but graphic design, too. Sites like Canva can help you create quick, easy, and customizable social media graphics to help you save time (and money).

The flip side

The other side of the coin, of course, includes a few very understandable arguments. Designers shouldn’t use themes because:

  • They are harder to customize.
  • They are less original.
  • They are less tailored to your client’s specific needs.
  • They can be hard to understand quickly.
  • They make you look like a less-capable designer to some people.

My compromise

I get it.

I understand why some designers like using templates and others hate it.

So I compromised.

I decided (before buying my theme) what kind of look I wanted for my site.

Then I went searching for it. I found something REALLY close and then I made a few minor adjustments (that I will keep changing over the life of the theme) to meet my needs.

Over to you

So what do you think? Is it okay to use templates and themes as a freelance designer? Why or why not? Leave a comment on this post and tell me what you think about the whole thing.


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Written by Preston Lee

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Preston Lee is the founder of Millo where he and his team have been helping freelancers thrive for over a decade. His advice has been featured by Entrepreneur, Inc, Forbes, Adobe, and many more.

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  1. Been working as a freelancer for more than 7 years now, I was always fixated to this question.
    As you said, it may make one feel less capable designer and that made me always design theme from ground zero (although an urge always swinged me to go for a pre made one, to which I never agreed at last)
    But recently I’ve got a revelation that NOBODY ACTUALLY CARES. My clients never navigate to the themes’ page, and I have not yet met a person who checks a website’s source code to look for the template (although I do that all the time lol)
    So maybe in my next project, I’m gonna use a ready made template if that suits well.
    Thanks for sharing your views.

  2. After going through the comments, the Genesis Framework seems to be a good option to build wordpress websites. Are there other options? I like wordpress and have built a few sites for fun, but am starting to think about something more than just for fun. I see the Pro Plus Pack for a $400 investment, which gets every theme. To be practical, not sure I understand yet the benefit of the Genesis Framework. Kind of sounds like a GUI that allow you to visually build your own wordpress themes? So I do need to get that straight.

  3. Christina Harris says:

    I think templates are a great way to keep costs for the client down. If you are a designer that charges by the hour or based on how time-consuming a project will be, then charging a client for a 30-hour project will make a difference against a 60-hour project.

    The benefit to the designer is it shouldn’t be too difficult to modify it to your client’s needs. The final product never looks exactly like the template. It’s so easy to integrate js plugins and take bits and pieces from other templates and mold them into how you want them to look and function.

    The fact of the matter is time is money and yeah you could build it from scratch but that’s more money out of your clients pocket less time for you to find more clients.

  4. It’s ok if you also make something original. If all you do but use other people’s templates, that’s indication you’re not creative and have no techinical skills.

    I only prefer to use templates as inspiration, to see what’s possible to do with software or to reverse engineer to learn new tricks.

    1. Worlan Bee says:

      just get the work done!

  5. jessay Jey says:

    In general I think as long as the designer is clear with their clients about what they are getting and why, the rest is up to what works for the situation.
    Such a great post to know different useful information.

  6. Chris Wieber says:

    Before reading any other comments, I’ll throw in my 2 bits: absolutely, it’s OK to use an off-the-shelf template. So long as you are up front and honest about it! If the client doesn’t have the budget for a custom job, tell him or her that you can save a ton of time by using an off-the-shelf theme and tweaking it, but obviously it won’t be 100% what they want. That can come when their budget expands. Then, charge them accordingly.

    Whatever you do, DON’T pass the work off as your own, and DON’T charge them as if it is. I just took on a client whose last designer charged an exorbitant amount of money for a Weebly site. They’re not a tech company, they didn’t know any better. But I guarantee you that firm that ripped them off isn’t going to survive much longer, because they aren’t honest in their practices.

    So yes, use a third party theme. Educate them on the advantages and disadvantages, and charge accordingly. You’ll get a lot of repeat business if you help your customers save money in the long run, and are up front and honest.

  7. I am 100% behind templates. I use HTML coded templates and integrate them with Couch CMS. This way I am able to customise every single aspect of the design to ensure that elements are kept consistent and neat, something that is harder when it comes to WordPress.

    Some themes out there are very advanced and would take up to a month to replicate. We brochure around 30 different themes and every single time a client will say “I want one like that!”. So what do you do… Spend $20 on a theme and sell it for a very good price to secure the business, or go around replicating it, spending 2+ weeks on billable hours will result in a website that won’t be as good as the original template for more money?!

    If a client comes and specifies they want a custom developed website then you make one, If they say (which the majority do) “I want a new website that is responsive, mobile friendly, and ascetically appealing” 99% of the time, a HTML template will do this.

    In all honesty, there are billions of websites out there, the chances of one being similar to 1000 others is almost guaranteed.

  8. J Lourens says:

    To me its about the amount of hours that I put into a project and whether or not a client can be billed for said hours. If I have a corporate client that wants me to deliver a unique project or functionality, I am able to take my time and build something “original” for them. However, I don’t think that Sues Cupcakes (a small bakery down the street) is willing to pay for hours of custom work or even cares about whether or not a theme is being used.

  9. Christine says:

    Thank you for this post!

    I’m hoping to get some advice. I have customized an existing theme and would not like to install the theme (and added plugins) onto a clients site however I need her content/blog posts to remain the same.

    I have managed to export the theme however none of my customizations transfer.

    Can you recommend a good plug in for this?

  10. Firstly, Thanks Preston for sharing your valuable thoughts.
    In my opinion It depends on the budget and time of the project and the value you add by designing content to fill the template and or theme.

  11. I’ve wondered the same thing. I use the Divi theme on WP and customize Divi for each client’s needs. How do people feel about using someone else’s pre-designed child theme and customizing it as needed?

  12. Nathaniel Byron says:

    I don’t know how old this post is, but I am a manager/programmer/designer at my company. When this company first started out we took the DIY approach for quite awhile, making themes from scratch and doing all the code by hand. The problem with doing it this way, is that more often than not, clients want websites that look great, but they want them fast, and they don’t want to spend a lot. We tried hard to continue doing it that way, however in the end, the cost of creation outweighs the profit. So now, our creation process involves using a variety of multipurpose themes (i.e. Avada, beTheme, jupter, divi). We still do the designs and mockups from scratch, and then we decide which one will best suite the needs of the design. We also use the pagebuilders that come with the themes. So now we only do custom coding when the builders or themes don’t provide the look or functionality that we need.

    The honest truth of web design in it’s current state(Especially responsive design), is that most websites really look similar or have the same type of objects and structure. These are the kind of websites most people are accustomed to looking at on a daily basis and are typically what most client’s will be expecting or wanting. A Large portion of ready made themes are more than enough to accomplish those kind of websites. All in all, if the client is happy and the designer is happy, who cares how the end goal was achieved? I would rather be a web designer with money who uses themes than a poor designer coding from scratch. Pride has no place in business… only profit… (sounds greedy, but it’s true…)

  13. So I did a resume for my friend for only $50, (And he doesn’t even have the money yet). So I was already doing it for a lower price and breaking my pay upfront rule, which really avoids problems. One of our friends told him I ripped him off because I used a resume template. Even though since I spent a couple hours looking through them, trying different ones, and not to mention doing a lot of writing since he is bad at it and it usually sounds like it is coming from a 10 year old when he writes.

    I think its completely fair to use a template, he says it like I ripped him off yet if I had created every single icon on the resume myself in photoshop, I definitely would be charging more than $50 as it would have added a lot to the time. What do you guys think?

  14. Hey Preston D Lee ! Great article on explaining the difference between a web designer, developer and implementor – that’s a new phrase to me!Thanks for the post.

  15. muhammmed hasssan says:

    i highly recommend that a web designer should indeed build his website from scratch especially when he/she is a beginner, sometimes what gives hard time is the looks, the design. feel free to copy it from a template but design yourself, you will be more comfortable and you will have full control over the website,

    but for those developers who are experts and don’t have much time to build from scratch, they should go for templates,

  16. brenna olsen says:

    Hi, I know this is an old post, but I wanted to get some feedback from you. With all of the super cheap templates and stock vectors out there now, do you think it is “cheating” so to speak to use those in your designs? If you do use a design template for a print project or part of a vector piece in a logo (for example) do you think that is ethical? Also, do you think you need to disclose this to the client? Would you use work customized from a template in your portfolio? I would love to hear a whole blog post about this from both an ethical and legal perspective…

  17. As a business – we wanted our web designer to create something that tailored to our clients needs, was simple to use and elegant.
    We found out she used a template after we kept asking for things to be changed and she couldn’t change them. It is VERY disappointing. Maybe it’s ok for certain things but we really needed a tailored website and that is not what we are getting.

  18. i can see both arguments, but i’ve seen some developers offer bespoke designs to their clients, charge them for that service and then go and buy a $25 theme and call it a day. i think its unethical and bad practice.

    its more profitable to use a theme and some businesses the reward for having something that is custom to off the shelf the rewards wont be too great, but for other companies it could be huge.

    themes are full of bloat, alot of them come with 30+ slider layouts, galleries, contact forms, color switchers etc. they slow down the site considerably and ofcourse this affects google rankings.

    imo you shouldn’t be using themes if your selling a service that offers bespoke design and development. if the client knows your using a theme, then i don’t see the harm in it aslong as they are made aware of the disadvantages that come with using one.

  19. Why reinvent the wheel – exactly. If you have enough skills to make the tweaks and it is what the client wants, why would you go for anything else?

  20. Great article, I’m interested in web design, mainly as a hobby/partime income. I spent lots of time learning HTML and building from scratch, but to be competitive in this market you need a time saving option and I think WordPress delivers that. You can achieve the exact same results in a fraction of the time.
    I think WordPress will grow massively in the coming years.

  21. Umar Arif says:

    Most people ask me to use a ready made theme and fill it with their details (they choose a theme they like). Whereas others are okay with me using a theme and make changes to it. It’s perfectly acceptable especially if your client isn’t paying you the money to build the website from scratch which can take up to 3 months (a hefty price, I assure you). Although I wouldn’t use a ready made theme without telling a client, I would explain the process to them beforehand ensuring they are 100% satisfied. Secondly I will show them the theme before and after my alterations so they can decide for themselves. End of. (I’M USING THIS METHOD AT THIS VERY MOMENT).

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  23. Faiz Sayed says:

    Hey guys its completely ok use templetes as long as you can customize it and give satisfaction to clients.
    Designing is not about creation or originality but design is about beauty and creativity. We all take inspiration from someone else.
    I think its hard to create website from scratch

  24. For client work, it often depends on their exact goals. Sometimes, cost is an issue so using templates are a cost effective way to deliver.

    At the end of the day, meeting client’s business goals is the most important thing. As designers and developers, we should guide them in making the correct decisions and sometimes using a template is the right decision.

  25. I do use templates when designing most of the time. I tell them this upfront. A template design will save you a lot of money and time. 9 out of 10 customers agree to use template.

    Now, I do change it up of course – it’s not out-of-box just thrown on their server and the prices are what I consider fairly cheap.

    Using template:
    Up to 5 pages: $499
    Up to 10 pages: $899
    Add matching WP blog: $200

    Totally custom sites are double that.


  26. WordPress is changing the way that many sites and designers are working.

    I think of myself as a skilled WordPress customizer, a decent web designer but not a web developer. The amazing designers and developers who built WordPress and build themes enable designers like myself to freelance. I feel that by buying themes and plugins it helps keep the whole WordPress community thriving financially.

    I totally agree that selling a pre-made theme as your own is unethical. In the case of child themes, and customized themes I’m still deciding what feels ethical in terms of giving proper credits and such.

    In general I think as long as the designer is clear with their clients about what they are getting and why, the rest is up to what works for the situation.

  27. Personally, I would never, ever use a template/theme for my own business (even if I was just a freelancer). That just seems like the ultimate cop-out to me.

    That’s your prerogative that you wanted to do so even though you still design/code other things from the ground up.

    I’ve seen plenty of people (including other companies, not just freelancers) use a pre-made template/theme for their agency site … for clients sites … and still charge regular full rate. That I don’t think is cool and I think it happens quite often.

    Also, now that templates and DIY stuff is so prevalent it’s trickled down to the client level where a lot of them are thinking, “hey I can do this, what do I need to pay a designer for?” It cheapens design as a profession. A whole cross section of clients don’t value the actual skill it takes to design and code and a whole cross section of up and coming new designers think they can just take the easy way out.

    I’ve been in this business a long time (basically since the beginning of websites and the need to design them) and I always saw pre-made designs and templates as a double edged sword. They do have their usefulness (students, small businesses with zero budget, personal sites, etc.) but there’s that dubious other side of it.

    If you want to sell people super cheap websites and use pre-made themes for it (and say you are), that’s one thing, but I’ve seen plenty of people claim they’re doing custom work and/or charge $10k+ for something picked off ThemeForest and that I think hurts the reputation of designers everywhere. Basically every time someone who calls themselves a designer cops out and uses a fully built template and charges full rate for it, a kitten dies.

    HTML5 Boilerplate is not even in the same class as pre-made templates/themes. You have to know what you’re doing to make a site off boilerplate, but it is a bit of a time saver and it’s a way a professional can streamline their process.

    And you should always be working towards streamlining your process and making your business (whether you’re a freelancer or what) more profitable, but don’t cop out. Go full in if you’re going to call yourself a professional and be legit about it.

    1. I agree with Sherry. I actually linked to this article, and my trackback is below. I think the line is starting to become more and more blurred. And I’m continually seeing segmentation in our profession between the “get hands dirty” designers vs. “quick, easy and painless’ designers.

      I don’t see anything wrong with using a template other than presenting it to a client as your own. It does save time and money and for those with a low budget, it seems like the only choice for them.

      I use HTML5 Boilerplate on almost every project, and you’re right. Using a skeleton template is not in the same category. There is no design attached to it, just base functionality, and it speeds up the phase of actually manifesting the functional code of your design.

      I pride myself on being a full spectrum designer/developer, from illustration right to marking up the front-end. The problem in my area is that there are way too many ‘themers’ undercutting ethical professionals, and for us, we almost have to follow suit just to compete.

      It does devalue our work, I don’t know, I mean if a client asked me to just select a theme and adapt if for their use, I’ll do it, but I’ll charge as such. They know what they are getting and I know what’s expected of me. And I think that’s the deciding factor, as to whether or not the person is being ethical, truthful, and forthright. Passing off a slightly modified theme is one’s own is particularly and inherently wrong, especially in the creative domain.

      I don’t know, maybe I’m jaded…

  28. Steve stanbury says:

    I think designers need to focus more of their attention to focusing more on the anitial design, in Photoshop, Gimp or what ever you weapon of choice is. I find that not only do you provide a more tailored solution for your client, but you save time in the long run when developing your website. HTML5 and Skeleton boiler plates free up a lot of my time when building a site. And if you don’t mind using the 960gs then it makes you preparation and design so much faster. I have used templates in the past but I can’t help but feel like I’ve cheated myself and my client, by the by using templates is an excellent starting point for new designers looking to learn what the some of the pros are doing. 🙂

  29. Well written article and the topic always is in the back of my head as a web designer. I live in Puerto Rico and to be honest, the money just isn’t here for custom built sites. I can code as well including js programming. However, for $500 (which is the average budget here) You are getting a customized template. AND don’t forget, the customers always want more then they paid for so I have to keep that in mind. However, I have a customer coming up who has the money for it, so yes, they are getting a custom website… So it really comes down to budget and time. Business is Business..

    Some pro’s
    -templates are time savers USUALLY
    -widgets, plug ins, extensions are all useful and easy to implement
    -Price and Effectiveness

    Some Con’s
    -Learning a new template can take just as long as building a small site sometimes.. Then, when I move on to the next template, I ALWAYS forget how the one I just used worked. I have to re-familiarize myself when I go back to make changes..

    -Nothing looks as nice as a custom made site (well, I do like Parallax lately with HTML5 Lately)

    Take Care

  30. Hi Cassidy, how did the site turn out? I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that templates are here to stay, and really rather unjustly maligned. One of the arguments is that they’re not entirely unique, but does that really matter? There are literally thousands upon thousands of templates out there, so the chance of running in to any given template-or recognizing it as such are pretty slim (absent a few of the “top sites on template sites).

    Just think about it in terms of ROY: you get a site that you know what it’s going to look like from the start, and further customize it to your needs. IE make it your own.. That’s pretty valuable, and a way to prevent a situation like you described happened previously. Fact is templates are just becoming a more and more practical way of doing webdesign. Client expectations these days are getting rather ridiculous (theme options, responsive, this and that) to the point where it would take someone half a year to design something which could get done in a month or two with a template.. So I got to say I think the benefits outweigh any ideal of “pure originality.”

    Also just so you know, if they’re applying wordpress, they may or may not be applying a template, wordpress is really just a code framework. The look and style can be done either via a theme, or a selfdesigned theme, in otherwords with or without a template.

    Templates are a cheap way to get good results fast (providing the person modifying the template is a good designer-otherwise they still can and probably will screw it up). If you have the budget and the team to go full custom, by all means go for it, but templates aren’t some evil bamboozle: infact they might be exactly what you need.

  31. I am a new freelance web designer, I have done a total of 5 websites. I have done 2 100% custom websites: being one of them, the theme, content and images were all done by me, and then a few others that I have done were used with CMS, so I used their templates. Some small business that I do designs for ask for CMS because they do not know html or anything and a CMS is just easyer, they like the clean look and the simplicity of it. this is one of the main reason i stick to pre made templates, it also makes it alot faster so I can get a template website finished in say 2hours apse to 5hours of custom (time frame 100% made up)

  32. I’m entering this conversation a little late but I’m glad to have found this site. I went to school for Graphic Design, graduated last year but, I am currently the Marketing Director of a restaurant in NC. This restaurant has been in business in the same town with the same owner for 40 years. They are local, organic, vegan and amazing. They want to re-do their website. The owner’s wife has had some bad experiences with website designers. She isn’t informed about the industry and didn’t really know what she was looking for or how the procedure should go. She ended up paying the designer everything upfront and was left with an undesirable product. She is in the process of hiring another freelance designer and making a similar mistake.
    She wants my help. My thinking is I could design her a website that fits her needs easily but I am not experienced enough with coding nor am I willing to spend the month or two coding it. What we are encountering now, is she is hiring a “designer” that is not communicating options or ideas. He is wanting her to pay him to start a WordPress for her. I think this is unprofessional. I understand that in today’s market you just need to get the job done but, we are a one of a kind restaurant and we need a look that is custom and authentic. In my mind, if one is to be considered a designer, one should have the ability to produce DESIGNS! Not show case templates. If it is not possible for one to code the design then hire someone to code it and include it in the price.
    I connect WordPress to Blogs. Connect your WordPress to your website, great! I think a business that has been around for 40 years and is willing to invest in a custom website shouldn’t be getting bamboozled into thinking a template is as authentic and professional as something built specifically for their company.
    I really don’t know if I’m in the wrong here. Maybe, templates are the thing. There is nothing wrong with them, I just believe that if this designer were really listening to the problems he would offer a valid solution which, is not a prefab website.
    I don’t know what advice to offer. I’m looking for input. I can’t code, should I just simmer down and let it happen. Trust that this guy can transform a wordpress to suit our needs? Or should I speak up and explain to the owner that it’s a waste of money to do this how this designer wants to and then have to pay someone else to fix it, again.
    (PS. a “Chef” that doesn’t make his own sauce is not a chef. He is a cook. There is a difference. And no, Michael Angelo didn’t make his own chisel and hammer or take the stone from a mountain but, he also didn’t take an already made statue and rework it as his “own”. )

    1. Hi Cassidy,
      I know i’m entering the conversation really late but how did the website design venture go in the end? Personally from a business perspective, i wouldn’t break the bank on a getting a complete custom, built from scratch, hand coded website etc etc…for a restaurant. It’s often a poor return of investment for a website that doesn’t sell anything directly on it. Money is better spend on marketing and social media. Customising templates on wordpress is more than adequate and nowadays there are some absolutely stunning templates that most freelance designers/coders will struggle to match themselves. In case you still think wordpress is for ‘blogs’, you do realise that some of the biggest brands are on their CMS including the New York Times, CNN and eBay.

  33. Here’s another ethical question.. Do most people feel you should really advertise upfront that what you’re offering is template customization? I can see why you’d want to be honest if the client asked, but I’m a little torn on weather to advertise it. Ultimately it;s the product the client is paying you for, not how you got there.. Curious what others think about that. I’d also argue that customizing a template is infact designing as well. It’s kind of like a cook who uses a sauce that’s been premade, is he no longer cooking just because he didn’t make the sauce? such are the questions I am pondering..

  34. Believe it or not, I actually had zero idea that designers used custom icons/wordpress themes for sites until I looked at a designer’s (who I admired) source code. I thought that the only people who used them were those that knew nothing of design/HTML/CSS/etc. I think it’s totally okay to use themes as long as they’re customized, but this guy didn’t change a thing except for the content. And to think I thought he was something special 😛

    I’ll now look into customizing themes and downloading icons since I’ve been coding/making icons from scratch, so thanks for this post! My time will be cut in half now.

  35. As a designer for print I have used/borrowed templates from other sources. I also then tweak the template or theme to meet my/clients needs. I never copy something in its entirity, that would be wrong, but taking the page flow or fonts used elsewhere and incorporating into my design makes sense.

  36. a web designer using WordPress templates is like a graphic designer using other peoples designs and changing it to fit there design. Not original and pretty much stealing.

  37. thinkkeno says:

    I read complete Blog…. It contains many information about Designing.

  38. I’m 21 and am trying to break into freelance at the moment and have always coded everything from scratch but found that I didn’t have the time to be learning new things unless I was implementing them into the clients site … which can waste a lot of the clients time when you’re trialing and erroring.

    I’m so glad I read this as recently themes have been something I’ve become really intrigued by to save time but felt like I would be cheating as a designer to use to .. instead I’ve been using them to get a better idea of the possibilities of how things can be structured.

    While coding my first wordpress theme the other day, I decided to use their default theme as a starting point. People who argue that premade themes are a no-no … surely things like wordpress themes all started from people altering the already existing wp template?

  39. Deborah Perugi says:

    I’ve made html sites for about ten years and designed some wordpress sites that I had a developer make according to my specs. The developer sites added a significant cost to the projects. So, to offer affordable sites, I used free themes about a year ago and then discovered Elegant Themes and Theme Forest. For a nominal fee you can get a gorgeous site.

    My own site lacked the functionality that the themed sites had. I wanted that. I found a simple minimalist theme that is a blank canvas for all the other sites in my portfolio. I don’t potential clients looking at my site and getting turned off by its personality.

  40. I believe it’s ol if you make it defrent emnof too make ur own.

  41. Glad you posted this. We’ve been struggling with the thought of using templates since were old school. My developer did not want to start supporting wordpress but that junk is everywhere and it’s what our clients want. So we’ve become flexible and decided to use our mad developer skills to customize everything we can within budget. It almost feels like a sell out but it isn’t…it’s more of an ego thing. We finally broke down a few weeks ago and bought headway plus a few other themes to use and it made our lives easier.

  42. Josh Johnson says:

    I have to agree with Andre on this point – as well as various other comments. It all comes down to the client’s budget in the end.

    I’m more than happy to do a “Quick WordPress Install” – setting up WP and Throwing Down a basic theme for a client with a smaller budget, but when it’s called for, I’ll also handle custom themes or customizing an existing theme.

    It all comes down to the budget.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      I agree. At the end of the day you and your client both need to be profitable.

  43. Morgan & Me Creative says:

    I agree with you Preston…no matter what the ‘crusaders’ say, templates do help a lot in many ways than one. Sometimes its the clients who initiate they don’t mind using a template as long as it works. Design principals aside, if it’s the service that matters in the end, who cares whether you use a template or not, as long as the client is happy and pays you.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      “who cares whether you use a template or not, as long as the client is happy and pays you”

      – I agree. AND as long as you’re still happy with the outcome of the project. If I ever use a template or theme, I always ALWAYS use a purchased one since they tend to be higher quality.

  44. Andre Morris says:

    It really depends entirely on the project and budget. The first question I always ask my client is what their budget is, then I go from that. If their budget can afford them a template website, I let them know and then show them the options. Otherwise, if they have a budget large enough for a custom site they are given that option.

    Sometimes people have a budget large enough for a custom website, but their needs are so simple that they don’t need to spend what’s required. So we always recommend what’s in the best interest of the client.

    Absolutely templates and frameworks should always be used wherever they fit best into the needs of a project.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      I’ve also heard of some designers taking time to make their own templates and then offering that to clients. Thanks for the comment, Andre!

  45. If someone was paying you to create something new for them, they should get an original design. Otherwise they should be TOLD about the design you selected for them, and tell them where to buy it, at the price you would pay for it.

    Selling someone else’s packaged design to them as your own is fraud.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      I completely agree. But billing a client for wordpress installation, theme purchase and customization is totally legit!

  46. I have to admit that I’m feeling relieved reading the comments! I found myself making sites from scratch all the time and while it gives a gratifying feeling, it was such a time killer…using a XHTML to WordPress or PSD to WordPress conversion site felt like a cop out to me (not to mention money wasting!) so the last few smaller, personal sites I’ve made I found themes that served my layout needs and removed any functionality that I didn’t need, added my own and created its own style so that it was no longer recognizable as a pre-made template.
    Larger projects I will create from scratch – because I feel those need more love and care than rearranging the PHP…nice to know I no longer have to wonder if I’m “cheating”! lol – great post! (=^_^=)

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      I totally agree. There’s always a place and time for custom, hand-crafted site design. But, sometimes a template gets you just what you need in time and money. Thanks for sharing.

  47. To me, it depends on the clients needs, time constraints and what I am capable of. There are times when I build from scratch and there are times when I have bought a template and customized it to my needs. For example a portfolio site I can build from scratch, no problem, an ecommerce site can be a little more complicated and time consuming so in that case I would buy a template for the heavy database lifting but customize the design. (Woothemes is great for that)

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      That’s a great point, Heather. I also take it case by case depending on my needs and the needs of the client. Thanks for sharing!

    2. Heather,

      I agree – a simple site with content pages and maybe a portfolio or pictures page isn’t hard to code from scratch…but an ecommerce site requires a lot more functionality and back-end work, especially when it comes to secure payments, order details, etc. I’d rather leave that to those who have marketed a solution.

  48. The bulk of my web design business involves customizing the Thesis theme for WordPress to meet my clients’ needs. But themes like Thesis and Genesis are designed more to be a framework than a finished theme to present to clients as is. Every Thesis site I’ve ever designed has been completed different. I simply use Thesis for the back end, and I am completely up front with my clients about this. I always tell them, “I am a designer first, and a developer only by necessity.” However, once they have seen what I can accomplish with Thesis, I don’t have to do much to convince them that I can make the theme work for them too.

    So to reiterate what everyone else has said, I think that as long as you’re honest with your clients, and they are happy with what is delivered, I don’t see a problem with using templates — as long as they are customized to fit your clients’ needs. Work smarter, not harder.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      I love that! “Work smarter, not harder.” I need to do that more often.

    2. Sarah Grant says:

      Jennae, I checked out your website and I’m curious as to how you learned to customize Thesis to that extent for each of your sites? Im also a “designer first, and developer only by necessity.” I develop static HTML & CSS sites but know nothing about WordPress. I think Thesis may be perfect for me if it’s as great of a framework as it sounds. Their website doesn’t offer many tutorials though, so if you have any resources to share it would be much appreciated!


  49. Heya!

    I’ve been reading your newsletter post and would like to ask something:
    You’re writing that you were looking for a theme/code which is least hackable so con can’t get hacked again.
    How can you say a code is hackable or not?
    Would be great if you could write something about that!


    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Thanks for the support! Glad to have you join us here at Millo!! I will have to look into your question a little bit and get back to you with a post here on the blog, ok?


      1. I would love to know more about this too. I’m about to start a website for the company I work for. All their websites so far have been designed from the scratch, I’m thinking about customizing a theme since we won’t have much time and budget to start from scratch. Letting them know that themes are less hackable would be one more great reason to persuade them into using a theme. I’m going to research this info too.

        Awesome post Preston! Thanks a lot.

  50. i’m a freelance web designer and i often ask myself this. nowadays when i get a website request, i tend to find a wordpress theme that offers much of the functionality i require and then i give it a makeover. i give it a new design, get rid of what i don’t want, move around elements, tweak the php and add any extra functionality i need. it never ends up looking like the original theme but i’m interested to hear how others feel about this.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      If you read through the comments, you’ll notice you’re not alone. It seems like a perfectly reasonable way to build a web site for most freelance designers.

  51. I echo much of the sentiment above: “Why reinvent the wheel?” Personally, the “fun” part isn’t in rewriting the fluid layout and the drop down menus yet a 100th time…I can do it but it’s exhausting and boring and tedious. I’d much rather find a theme to start with and customize the look and feel.

    Having said that, I built this site – – from scratch, and I love it. (They have since taken over the site maintenance.) I saw this and ran with it, and we were both thrilled with the outcome.

    I think you analyze the client’s needs (with them) and discuss their budget. A custom site is going to cost more, but if that’s what they want/need, go for it. A template site works well for a lower budget business or a non-profit, and sometimes it’s more effective for them so that they can update it easily – often they can’t afford someone who knows how to update their website.

    Ultimately, BE HONEST. If you’re going to use a template without minor or no modification, don’t pass it off as your own creation to your client or in your portfolio. If you highly customize a template or build from scratch, let the world know.

    As long as you have determined what the best solution is for the problem at hand, use your best judgment and be able to explain your reasoning!

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Great point! I never thought of it before, but even when I do “code it from scratch” I’m always taking elements I’ve coded before and putting it in the “new” design. So I even copy myself sometimes when building “from scratch.”

      I love your ultimatum: BE HONEST. That should solve most of the problem for you!

      1. Preston,

        In my bag of tricks (or in this millennium, on my NAS), I keep generalized bits of code so that I don’t have to rewrite over and over. A neat Javascript slideshow, a multi-column fluid layout, little PHP snippets that have proven useful.

        I have one of my CS professors at Willamette University, Jim Levenick, to thank for this practice. Whenever we coded anything, he’d make us generalize it so that we could change the major variables without changing the core engine. Brilliant!

        1. Preston D Lee says:

          A brilliant way to save time while still building “from scratch.” Does that make any sort of good content for a blog post?

        2. Michael Pingree says:

          Small world April. I took one CS class when I was at WU and it was Prof. Levenick. His passion for computers is what sparked my interest in it, albeit some 20 years later.

  52. Personally, I try to create all my client’s sites from scratch, but its really up to the client and their needs, and what they want. Some clients like using specific themes they are familiar with, and I come in and help them customize/change specific parts of the theme to match their business needs. I have clients who pick their own themes for sites, so it all comes down to doing what the client wants.


    I think as a freelancer, if you start with an off the shelf theme and sell that to someone else for the cost of doing their site as if you created it, then you are a fraud. Its not entirely unheard of to use premade themes, just don’t pass them off as your own original works as if you did something special for the client. Everyone reuses code, but saying you will build them a custom website but end up just installing someone else’s work is just poor ethics in general.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      I completely agree with you. If you do choose to use a premade theme or template as building blocks, don’t you DARE charge your client for a custom wordpress theme or custom-built web site.

      But, like you said, at the end of the day, it comes down to what the client wants – as long as you’re honest, you’re golden.

      Thanks for the great comment!

  53. Saffron S. says:

    It really depends on how you work with a pre-fab theme or template. Just slapping a template/theme up and going “There, done!” — that’s not being a designer. Same as throwing up WordPress with no alterations isn’t being a developer.

    I use a lot of themes as a base for the websites that I build for clients, and they have no problem with that. If you know what you’re doing (CMS design/dev since 2002, building websites since 1997) and you invest the time in modifying, enhancing, building upon, and testing your changes then it will look /nothing/ like the demo. That’s good work. I would never call it a ‘custom design”, rather a “customized design”, but it keeps the price point down for the client and still gives them a top notch final product.

    I also do custom design for clients that want a custom design, but those clients understand that Custom Design for a CMS-based website is going to mean five to ten times the cost simply because of all the extra work needed. If I can keep the price down and /not bankrupt/ some small business wanting a snazzy looking website then using a template as a launchpad to start from is great. You need to put the time and expertise into making it look one of a kind though. That’s the sign of a good designer/dev.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      I totally agree. I would never claim that I ‘designed’ this blog. But I did ‘customize’ the design. And sometimes that all the client really needs. I agree that there’s always a place for custom theme design and development as long as it makes sense financially for your business. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  54. Chuck Spidell says:

    We customize premium WordPress themes for clients on a limited budget or in a rush. Many of our clients are nonprofits and they sometimes don’t have large budgets compared to mid-sized businesses and agencies. For clients looking for more visual customization and functionality, we hire WordPress developers to build a custom backend for a site. It’s a decision relative to your client’s needs and goals but ultimately, your company’s ROI.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Couldn’t have said it any better myself! It’s all about ROI. Will the decision to build from scratch break the bank and put the project in the red? Then it’s not a good choice.

  55. Michael Pingree says:

    My mentor told me, “why reinvent the wheel with every site?” My business is to deliver to my customers a site that meets their needs at an affordable price. None of them care if I start with a template to achieve that.

    When you shop for a car, do you expect Ford to custom make the car for you, or just customize an existing model the way you want. We must not allow the “designer” side of our brains to get in the way of our “business” side.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      I love that analogy. Sounds like you have a smart mentor!

      Thanks for commenting.

  56. Time is money and therefore, I agree, using templates is okay when you know you have a deadline to meet. However, even if I am using a template, I am sure to find one that matches the criteria of the client as best as possible and always include my personal touches to make it unique. My thought is, why reinvent the wheel. Yes, I’m a designer, but I find it perfectly okay to use someone else’s foundation to build upon.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      I totally agree. I’d never want to use a template just for using template’s sake. I always choose a template or theme when it fulfills my needs or my client’s needs as best as possible. Thanks for the comment!

  57. RixDesignStudio says:

    You know. A long time ago, I received some very good advice from a professor at BYU.
    He told me that sometimes you just have to do what it takes to get the job done.
    If it fulfills the project stipulations and you are not doing anything illegal then do it.
    I don’t normally like some template designs myself but it is understandable in this economy and in this business. Sometimes you just have to do what it takes to get the job done!!!

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Hey RixDesignStudio,
      What’s your name. You’re speaking with a BYUI alumnus here. Good to know the blog has made it to good ol’ Provo too.

      I love the advice your professor gave you. GET THE JOB DONE!

      1. I’m a BYU and BYUI alumnus… almost. I’m finishing my degree in web design and development from BYUI while growing my web design and SEO company!

        I get both sides of the coin. While we long to be experts and be able to create the coolest websites from scratch, most clients have no clue whatsoever how to manage a website like that, and don’t have the funds to pay for it. Businesses need good websites in today’s world. If their website sucks, I’m not about to spend a chunk of change on their product or visit their location.

        Knowing that about my generation, I see no problem paying for a template that someone created and customizing it for my client to meet their business needs and give them a really awesome online presence. Many businesses try and fail to do it themselves or pay dirt cheap for cheap-looking work. I’m all about affordable and beautiful solutions

  58. Melissa Ott says:

    I use them for my portfolio and blog websites. I’m not a coder and am not really interested in becoming one. For client work, I do all of the web design and my fiance programs the sites (he’s the nerdier one!), but he hates PHP and doesn’t like WordPress. I *do* like WordPress and prefer using them on my own websites, so I purchase themes and then totally customize them to suit my needs.

  59. RJ Bucsko says:

    It’s all I know… WordPress and GoDaddy themes & templates are all I’ve ever used since I’ve never had any formal training or college. I’ve learned the basics by reading books, online seminars and cheat sheets to better my knowledge of writing/editing HTML and CSS. Over the last 2yrs I have published 36 websites in that time.

    Am I a designer… if you can say manipulating a template CSS code, editing photo collections and moving creative pieces around to look and function properly; then yes, I am.

    I have been harrassed beyond belief by other designers by my methods, using a $49 logo program, using free photo editing tools and never having used any Adobe products and I sub out anything that has to be vectorized. I love doing design so much I could really care less what anyone thinks of my techniques/shortcuts as some like to call em’… all but one client was not satisfied w/ the end result, and that was a promotional giveaway anywho, pretty good results so far if I say so myself for a wanna be 😉

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      I’m glad you’ve found a method that works for you and makes you feel satisfied as a freelancer. Keep up the good work and thanks for the comment!

  60. Ali J Taylor says:

    I used to feel the same way in regards to using templates or any sort of pre-created content in any of my design work, but when you get into the professional arena and you have clients/deadlines hanging over your head, you need to do everything that you can to make sure you deliver properly and on-time.

    Being a designer isn’t about creating everything from scratch. It’s about presenting a solution to a problem quickly, creatively, and effectively.

    Think of it this way, when Michaelangelo carved the statue of David, did he create his own hammer and chisel first? No he did not. But would you call him any less of a Renaissance Master for not doing so?

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      “Being a designer isn’t about creating everything from scratch. It’s about presenting a solution to a problem quickly, creatively, and effectively. ”

      I love that. I also love your analogy. Not only did he not create his hammer and chisel first, he also didn’t go carve the stone out of the mountain. He had a framework to start with (a giant slab of rock).

      Thanks for the comment!

      1. “Being a designer isn’t about creating everything from scratch. It’s about presenting a solution to a problem quickly, creatively, and effectively.”

        A definition I’ve found of “designer” on a dictionary website is :

        ” to plan and make (something) artistically or skilfully ”

        That’s what a Designer is. Presenting a solution to a problem is not being a designer.
        It’s being a business man. A projects manager.

        I seriously don’t understand why a real web designer with some serious skills would buy templates and sell it back to the client.

        To me, it’s like singing with auto-tune when you can sing super good without it…it’s like giving up and doing like the competition.

        1. Even the best singers now use autotune, you just don’t notice it (its only when its over the top or the singer sucks that you will hear it). Its like great design; the only time you notice its a template is when the template is used as is.
          Introduce the amazing design skills and you take it to a new level.

  61. The purpose of a website is to deliver what the client wants, bottom line is a working website that brings in business for the client. Time restriction, cost and other factors dictate what the client can afford to have. It is necessary to discuss all options with the client before designing a site and that means their budget. A custom made site is time consuming and might be the choice for a medium to large size companies, but most smaller size businesses will settle for a template. It is important to let them know that their website is not original in design. Communication is the key. I usually provide two prices, one for a custom made site and the other for a template base.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      I agree. I’ve been able to create much better sites for a few low budget clients all because I started with a framework. I agree:

      Communication is the key. Sometimes we designers forget that.

    2. There’s a difference between using a template as is, and using a template as a functionality base.

      Using a pre-built theme is great if it incorporates strong functionality and incorporates certain elements pre-built (don’t forget good short code integration and so on).

      You can still do a custom design on top of the base code, but you will use it as a base, that’s it.

  62. Jon Pianki says:

    I think as a freelancer, to be profitable, it is almost stupid not to utilize ready built themes as a starting point for a website design. Why reinvent the wheel so to speak. I usually design a website (graphics first) and map out the required functionality and user experience, then find a theme or template that closely matches the requirements (similar to what Jason said). Then I customize the graphics, css and the code as needed.

    Being a freelancer, I work alone. I have no coders/developers on staff. Its just me. So if I can knock hours of work off of my time per site and still produce a site that the client is happy with (some more custom then others) then I don’t see a problem with it. Using themes also helps me keep my costs down making me more attractive to clients than my design firm competition.

    In short, I see it as outsourcing the development portion of process. I focus on design and functionality while allowing someone else to lay the ground work (code) for a secure and reliable website.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Jon, Exactly.

      Freelancing isn’t just about designing anymore. It’s about profitability too. And a million other things.

      As long as you’re achieving your goals, I say use whatever resources you can!

    2. But hold on! Is it possible that a bad freelancer can hack the templates, put a trojan virus in WordPress templates then upload to client’s hosting server and that trojan virus later on get all hosting logins information from the client’s server?
      It’s possible isn’t it? So how do you trust a freelancer to do web design work?

      1. Preston D Lee says:

        Richard, nice try, but any web designer/programmer could do the same thing when they design their own wordpress theme or design a site from scratch. So it’s a moot point. Sorry, man.

      2. April Greer says:

        Wow – sounds like you’ve got some bad personal experiences.

        Any good freelancer will provide references upon request. Furthermore, these days most hosting services will shut down websites they believe have viruses or malware.

        Sure, there are bad apples in every bunch. The vast majority of freelancers are just looking to provide services at a fair rate and create happy clients.

        I suggest before working with any freelancer, you talk with them and make sure you feel comfortable before signing any contracts. Check out this post on finding a great one:

    3. Do you disclose that you outsource the web development aspect to your clients?

    4. Is it possible to import a WordPress theme into your html webpage?

  63. Dan Denney says:

    As professional designers and builders of websites, our job is to communicate ideas for businesses and organizations. As business owners or employees, our role is to do that as efficiently as possible. I wholeheartedly believe that using existing resources is “okay” and that it actually should be encouraged.

    There are some things that need custom work to deliver a message, but many of the nuances of websites have affordances and design patterns that should be followed. The good themes have these baked in, so you can begin with one and then customize to meet the message.

    Some people want to be sure that every piece of a design is custom and that’s fine for them if it is necessary and they are efficient at it.

    Anyone that says that using templates as a base is wrong needs to be sure that they don’t ever use any shared resources. So no social icon sets, ribbons, UI elements, etc. If you use those but say that templates are wrong, you’re drawing an arbitrary line in the sand.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Great avatar. And great comment. I totally agree with what you’ve said. I’ll never stop designing custom work, but I also will never completely rule out templates, themes or frameworks just to satisfy my own pride.

      Point well made about using pre-made icons and other elements. Why can you use those, but not templates. Taking it a step further, you probably ought to program your own retweet buttons, like buttons, and +1 buttons while your at it.

      Wouldn’t want to use something someone else built. 😉

      Thanks for the great comment. Hope to see you back around at Millo.

  64. Jason Longo says:

    I have been creating WordPress websites for the past year (websites for like 15 years). My first sites used free themes, for which I modified the CSS and graphics. They look completely different than the original and I was very pleased. The addition of plug-ins also make all of my sites look and operate very differently.

    A few months into working with WordPress, I bought Genesis theme and one of their child themes. It worked so well in terms of functionality that I bought all of their child themes. The Genesis engine is amazing. The child themes all look different already. I still change them to look even more different.

    What do I like about child themes? Well, they add design without breaking the functionality. Essentially Genesis could get an update and it shouldn’t effect my design. I’d love to learn more about making child themes as a designer, because I feel that would really give people a unique website, but for now I’m still content to update some of the CSS and graphics.

    I have tried two different tools that are supposed to work with Photoshop to slice and convert a design into a theme, but I find that either they don’t work, or are much too complicated.

    Bottom line, using templates is OK, especially if they are well tested and assist with security and functionality. You will have to charge less for a completely non-custom theme, but clients often want to spend less. I’d rather do two sites a month with themes than one site while suffering through learning how to do it.

    Can anyone offer advice on learning to develop my own child themes for Genesis?

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Some great advice here. I’ve never built a child theme for Genesis, but if end up researching it, I’d love to hear what you find – maybe you could even write a guest post here at Millo. I’ve heard only good things about the Genesis framework, so I think it’s worth looking into for sure!

    2. Go through the current child themes you really like (try and stick with the StudioPress ones) and work backwards;reverse engineer it in your own child theme.

      SP has a heap of function/hook information which can be used to build new page templates or entire child themes.