This is one that I hear all the time and in fact I used to be guilty of all the time. In the push to be unique, lots of people that run WordPress want to have a “custom” theme. For the purposes of this post, a custom theme can be a theme that they already have (either free or premium) that they want heavily modified or it can be a completely new theme created from scratch. First, I have to say that I completely understand why people like to have this done. Everyone wants their site to be ultra unique and to stand out in the crowd. The problem I have with this is that a lot of times it ends up being more headache for the customer than they bargained for. I am not against all customization, I am just against too much customization that ends up undermining the core benefits of the WordPress platform which are ease of management and use.
When I was more of a user of WordPress based website than a builder of them I thought the same way. Ultimately, I found that it was way more headache than it was worth, it was hard to maintain across updates and I often times found myself having to try to reach back out to the person that did the work for me which was hit or miss. It is with that personal experience that I now interact with customers who want to go the custom theme route. When it comes to customization or modification of an existing theme I concede there is some amount of customization that is unavoidable and not a big deal. This refers to adding things like a Twitter button or a Facebook Like button to post pages. There are other minor changes that can be done that really only become a headache when you have to update your theme and those you can compensate for especially if you use your custom.css file like I have talked about in the past. These are minor things that can have a big impact and I don’t discourage them.
On the other end of the spectrum you have some clients that will want to have tons of capability or functionality in a theme that really wasn’t designed to have it. The net result if you find someone to do it is that any time that a function or hook that it needs changes, it will break and you will have to call them back to fix it for you. When presented with a customer like this I usually have a two-pronged strategy, first I ask them to absolutely validate that there isn’t currently a plugin out there (either free or premium) that can give them the functionality that they want. Lots of people only rely on the basic WordPress plugin repository and never think of premium plugins. When it comes to the more complex stuff, you want to do some real searching for a premium plugin because a good one probably exists. You might have to pay for it, but if the feature is important then it should be worth paying for. The benefit of premium plugins and themes is that they tend to be (not always) written better and always have better support because you actually paid for it.
If a plugin does not exist, then I ask them have they looked into changing themes. Often times a client will want several features that are natively found in another theme. My recommendation to them in that situation is to consider looking for a theme that has 90-95% of the functionality you want built-in. This way you don’t have to do all sorts of heavy customization on it after which could end up destroying what was a well coded theme. The goal of anyone that is setting up a WordPress site for you should be to leave you with something that YOU can manage on your own, otherwise they are doing you a disservice. Their goal should not be to make you dependent on them for support. The beauty and power of WordPress is its one click upgrade functionality for not only the WordPress core itself, but for most of its themes and plugins as well. The concept is that anyone can keep it up to date and well-managed in addition to being able to add functionality through plugins without having to be overly technical.
On the issue of completely custom themes, as in someone is writing you a brand new theme from scratch I don’t necessarily disagree with this. One thing to keep in mind is how much you might want to add functionality to it in the future. You must also consider the quality of the person that you get to do it, there are some good theme designers out there that write great code but there are some that don’t. The trouble with this is that your theme might look great, but if it is written poorly then it won’t be optimized for SEO and that will ultimately affect your traffic and conversely your ability to generate income.
So if you take nothing from this post, remember that while some customization is ok, don’t go overboard with it. If there is a substantial amount of functionality that you need added to your theme, consider changing to a theme that has more of the features built-in. While I warn clients about the overuse of plugins, you also want to determine if there is a plugin that may do what you need, look into both the free and premium options. I can’t tell you how many times I have scoured the net looking for a plugin to do something and had all but given up hope. Then I searched through some premium theme and plugin repositories and found just what I was looking for at a decent price.