Why most portfolio WordPress themes suck for really growing a freelance business

I have to start this post off with a quick disclaimer. Aside from running a design agency, I also run a PSD to HTML & WordPress company. So naturally – themes might seem like my enemy, right?

If someone buys a theme, they’re not designing a PSD for us to code. And if someone buys a theme – they’re not hiring us to design a website, either.

It seems like the natural enemy of both of my businesses!

Well… It actually hasn’t worked out that way. Themes are actually my friends.

A lot of people come to our design agency after realizing themes and the like aren’t typically very good for business. They realize the things you’ll read about in this article and finally decide to just go and hire some pros.

Also – themes tend to have insane code. Especially the WordPress ones. They’re packed with so many features that they’re like densely packed jungles of scripts and conditionals and etc., etc., etc.

When you start customizing them, they often break, and you need to hire an expert to fix it up for you. That’s where we come in 🙂

So from a business standpoint, themes are good for me. But form a business standpoint, as a designer looking to put a snazzy presence up on the web – I don’t think they’re good for you.

Now that we’ve got that covered – let’s get down to brass tax…

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They’re just so pretty.

Themeforest and the like are jam-packed with themes for freelance designers and creative agencies. When you click to see the “live preview” you’re wooed by parallax effects, images that slide in from up, down, left, and right, and text that fades in and out as you scroll.

There are always pretty columns of text – often 4 in a row – and each with a category that seems to make sense: Services, Who We Are, Our Approach, etc.

Then you get to a section called “Our Team” full of well-edited, smiling stock headshots.

Keep scrolling and there’s a big, full-width Google map with a contact form filled with all kinds of JavaScript effects.

“This site has everything… If only my website looked like this…” 

… you think, and before you know it you’re clicking the “Buy Now!” button. Hey, reading back over the description above, I almost want one myself.

But then you open up the WordPress or HTML theme and that’s when the sucky-ness begins. Here’s what I mean…

First: They’re like drinking Coca Cola when your body craves water.

Coca Cola is designed to grab your attention when you’re thirsty or hot and need a drink.

Thing is… nothing about it is hydrating.

In fact, 10 minutes later you’re thirsty again… so you reach for another. And another. But all along, if you just had a glass of good ole H2O, you’d feel better than ever.

You need a “water” website. These themes, like Coca Cola, are designed to catch you off-guard when you’re feeling unsure about what to do – when you’re “thirsty”. They look cool and shiny and new and hip.

Yes, they’re all of those things. But usually, they’re nothing more.

There’s no substance under the hood. It’s like a Hollywood film set where the buildings are just nicely-painted plywood held up by some 2x4s.

Second: The people who make them are really good at one thing… Selling themes.

They know you. They know what you like and what’ll get your attention. They’ve studied you and your peers meticulously and they know just the thing to make you feel like you need their theme, asap.

But know what they don’t know? What your market wants.

Instead, you need to do what they did: You need to study your market the way they studied you… learn their pain points… and figure out exactly how to resolve those pain points.

All your website needs to do is let your target customers know that you understand their pain, and you’re here to save the day. You don’t need bells and whistles to do that.

The content on your website will naturally shrink and grow as you understand your market more and more. Let your interactions with clients dictate what should go on your website.

Next: As soon as you start hacking them up, they fall to pieces.

Like I said before, these guys and gals put their themes together with one intent: to get you to buy them. They choose the perfect images, colors, fonts, animations, etc. that hook you in.

But as soon as you start to remove the elements that they’ve crafted so carefully… and insert your own… it starts to seriously fall to pieces.

Either things “break” in the code… or the theme just doesn’t look good without the original photos and colors the designer used.

Before you know it – either you just live with the fact that you have a crappy site, or you keep hacking away to the point where you’re basically re-designing it from scratch. Either way, hair gets pulled out.

Instead, just design your site from scratch in the first place.

Let it reflect your strengths, contain your flare, and resonate with your market.

If there are elements you think are really cool in a theme that you feel will help you sell… Then incorporate them in your own way! Make them work for you. There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by others’ designs, and making them your own.

That’s how design evolves.

And finally: You’re unique. No matter how many millions of designers there are in the world – none of them are you.

A theme will simply never cut it. It’s too generic.

Create something unique and beautiful that shows the world who you are. Create something that really captures what your market is looking for.

The best pieces of design are the ones that are seamless. The design is almost invisible. It just carries you away. A major problem with these themes is that they draw too much attention to themselves. 

They shout, “Look, I can do animations! I can do parallax!”

But they don’t say the only thing they should: “I know what you’re going through. And here’s how I can help.”

With that said, there’s only one exception to this…

If you’re already a seasoned pro who can get clients with ease – then you’ll know what to do with a theme. You’ll know how to make it sell for you.

But if you’re not at that point yet, spend this time to really think about your brand and what kind of message you want to send. Craft something that reflects your message.

Even if you think it’s awful or terrible, put it out there. Put your name on it. See what happens.

It’s the only way you’ll ever truly grow.

Also: Obviously I’m making some blanket statements here, and there are always exceptions to every rule. While I believe most themes suck for growing a business, I also know there must be some great ones hiding around out there. But because there are so few, my advice is to start from scratch. Maybe grab some cool ideas from them – but do it in your own way that really speaks to your market.

So, what do you think?

Let me know in the comments.

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About David Tendrich

David Tendrich is the co-head of creative agency Unexpected Ways, as well as the co-founder of Reliable PSD: the first-ever PSD to HTML & PSD to Wordpress service run by designers, for designers. He co-runs his companies from Portland, Oregon with his lovely wife and biz partner, Lou Levit.


More about David’s business: David is co-founder of Reliable PSD – what happened when a group of designers got fed up with PSD to Code companies… and created their own. Check them out, and see why freelancers & agencies are head over heels for this amazing new service.


  1. Thanks a bunch! I almost got sucked into that hair pulling frustration.

  2. I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. I feel themes have a time and a place. They’re never for just picking a theme and then you’re done though.

    I’ve been a designer/developer for about a decade now and can code from scratch, but I don’t always have time to just put together something from nothing. And then there’s budget to consider too.

    I think your statement about knowing what to do with a theme is key. You can utilize the framework and make it into something original and it doesn’t always require breaking the code to get the job done.

    However, that’s definitely a reason I haven’t dug deeper into customizing WordPress themes, because I just don’t want to worry about breaking that code, so I end up settling for what the theme already had.

    Great cautionary article about themes! Thanks for the read.

  3. Because most of my clients want to be able to edit the content of their sites themselves, I use WordPress as my CMS. HOWEVER….I custom build each one within that. I’ve never used a pre-packaged theme (other than the basic Twenty-Twelve, Twenty-Thirteen, etc.).

    I agree with the look of popping pics and text into a theme and leaving it at that—just not individual or creative or reflecting their personality.

    Great article! Thanks!

    • Cathy, I’m totally with you there – WordPress is da bomb diggity as a CMS. And I agree – much prefer to custom-design themes from scratch. When you have a good developer too, they can code it in a way that’s really streamlined and efficient so you don’t have this mountain of code you don’t even need that covers features you’re not even using.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

  4. You guys never fail to make me think! And this is article is so true!!! I just bought a theme today and am kicking myself for it – I knew it was the wrong thing to do…. I was going to go paralax and all but now I’m realising that simple is probably much better and easier for my clients.

  5. Apart from looking pretty, your site should also have 2 more purposes. It should have good on-page SEO (there’s lots of tutorials online) and it should be optimized for conversions.

    All most all of the creatives I know don’t focus on either of these and wonder why their 5 visitors a day aren’t converting into clients.

  6. Great topic David!
    I completely agree that designing and coding a custom website from scratch is going to be a far better solution for a professional business. Especially if they are serious about creating an online presence that considers user/customer needs.

  7. That’s one of the best entries yet from you. It puts into words what I have to teach my clients from times to times, when I have to justify my salary. Way to go!

  8. What amazes me is designers who use templates to showcase their work. Isn’t being a designer all about creativity and what one can do with their own website?

  9. So the title is “Why most portfolio WordPress themes suck for really growing a freelance business” but instead it goes off on a rant about all wordpress themes in general. Most small business need no real functionality for their sites. They just want it to look good and provide a message. I can spend $40 on a theme, edit it in a weekend, and then charge the client $500. Seems like easy money, plus the client gets a badass looking site.

    • Hey Adam, not even sure how to respond to this…

      Guess I’ll just address your main points:

      “Most small business need no real functionality for their sites. They just want it to look good and provide a message.”

      Well, they all need one key thing: for the site to bring them more business. People who make themes are not conversion experts. They’re just good at making themes that look cool and make you want to buy them.

      So I guess they’re kind of experts in that type of conversion…

      “I can spend $40 on a theme, edit it in a weekend, and then charge the client $500. Seems like easy money”

      If that’s how you want to run a business, I guess have at it. Doesn’t sound like it’s for me. But if that’s your thing, best of luck.

      “…plus the client gets a badass looking site.”

      Yeah, I even said in the article that themes can look pretty cool. Really cool, in fact.

      Unfortunately, that’s about where it ends.

      No substance under the hood. No finely-tuned copy and graphics to specifically target a market, or to take on the company’s voice. No unique elements that set them apart from the competition.

      If you see nothing wrong with that and you sleep fine handing them over to your clients, then that’s cool. I sort of envy that. I feel a lot of responsibility for my clients so I want to do everything in my power to make sure what I give them will actually help them grow.

      I go through a very long, thorough process to get to that point. A website usually takes 6-8 weeks between research, feedback, and the rest.

      I also get paid a lot more than $500 for it though.

      But to each his or her own.

      Anyways, best of luck to ya 😉

  10. Thank you for the article. Would this also apply to other web builders like Squarespace, etc? I am trying to figure out how to build my portfolio site and it’s driving me crazy on what would be the best approach because I am not code savvy.

  11. The caliber of clients that Adam is talking about is different than what agency or firms deal with. If I was to give a price of $500 to one of my corporate companies they would laugh at me, wondering why so cheap (it must be crap or the guy does not know what he is doing). Not saying what Adam does is bad, but trying to say that we all serve different audience.

  12. I’ve seen themes that are far more complicated that WordPress itself because they’re trying to pack in every feature and configuration option in the universe. I’ve seen themes that come with FIVE different sliders build in. I’ve seen themes that add a metabox to every post / page editor that is literally 10,000 pixels high. Endless settings right down to every single margin of an element. And don’t forget the six different logos you had to upload for sticky, scrolled, fixed, mobile, etc. And don’t get me started on the millions of shortcodes they all come with, most of which accept a dozen arcane parameters. Things get so complex and so far away from what WordPress was actually build to do (post content, page content and taxonomies) that even a programmer has a hard time figuring it out. I’ve seem pages that are nothing but a screenful of arcane shortcodes when you click “Edit Page”. Or they’re nothing at all, just an empty placeholder that points to a dozen other assets scattered throughout the dashboard pulled in via IDs, templates, shortcodes, custom settings or whatever else. Even a programmer may have to spend an afternoon just trying to figure out how to edit what’s showing up on the public side. We expect normal non-techies to be able to use these monstrosities?! And forget about ever switching themes once you’ve configured the short-coded the crap out of one of these franken-themes and all your content is stored everywhere BUT wp_posts and is dependent on thousands of lines of custom code locked up in your $70 theme.


  1. […] Why most portfolio WordPress themes suck for really growing a freelance business – Also – themes tend to have insane code. Especially the WordPress ones. They’re packed with so many features that they’re like densely packed jungles of scripts and conditionals and etc., etc., etc. […]

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