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Custom Themes vs Pre-Built Themes

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When implementing Drupal or any CMS for that matter, you can jump-start development and save time with pre-built themes. However, these themes can also hamstring your efforts to deliver content in the way you envisioned. 

An advantage of a pre-built theme is that they are usually already tested and will work as designed right out of the gate. On the other side, building a custom theme ties your web presence tightly with your brand identity and feels more like a singular experience. In this post we will try to determine if you should build a theme to match a custom design, or use a pre-built theme and try to fit your needs into the pre-packaged solution.

What is a CMS theme?

First, let's talk about what a theme even is and what its role in the website is. Themes exist for the most part in the presentation layer of your site. A theme will generally consist of templates for markup, CSS, and JavaScript. A theme is the rendered interpretation of the content data being returned by the backend CMS system. The theme determines the HTML structure through its templates and the look and feel of the HTML through its CSS and javascript files.


A pre-built Drupal theme may also include small pieces of custom code or custom views depending on what is needed. Often times they will also come with some predefined content types and usage examples. Similarly, pre-built Wordpress themes can also have some custom code or dependencies on additional plugins. A pre-built theme can’t accommodate a lot of custom needs or integrations and in many cases need to be hacked, ( significantly altering the code in a way that will likely eliminate any hope of support ), to get them to do anything beyond their design.

In the world of themes there are free themes and premium themes. Premium themes have a cost, usually a one-time fee or subscription, and a license and terms of use. There is a cottage industry around the creation of premium themes, individuals build attractive looking layouts and load them up with the entire kitchen sink of design patterns from sliders to parallax video backgrounds, then provide varying levels of support for them. The marketing behind these themes make them out to be the one-size fits all web solution. In reality, they often fall short of what you actually need and cause unnecessary bloat from the included features that you don’t need or use. That’s not to say that they are a bad solution, sometimes it is exactly what is needed for a project with very loose requirements.

About Drupal Themes

For Drupal, themes are broken up into a few different categories. There are base themes that don’t provide any visual design but do provide structure for HTML markup and some basic functionality. Base themes require a custom child theme that extends them to finish out the look and feel of the site. Related to custom themes in Drupal are distributions, these include a theme but also a pre-configured suite of contributed and custom modules. Distributions are generally built around specific project types like CRMs, e-commerce, education, or government to name a few. 

If you are considering using a pre-built theme, whether it’s a premium or free theme with Drupal, you should consider if you even need to use Drupal at all. Pre-built themes bypass a lot of the flexibility that Drupal can provide, and you may be able to achieve your goals with a more streamlined SaaS website builder solution. Pre-built themes make a little more sense for a CMS like Wordpress that is designed for a specific task like blogging. If you are looking to do more than a basic brochure style site or blog with Wordpress, you should think about a custom theme. 

Pre-built themes can save time up front during your initial build phase. They can also end up consuming more time than a custom theme would if anything needs to be modified or added to in any way. If you have plans to add an integration or custom feature in a future phase of your site, the pre-built theme could add more time in development and end up costing more in the long run. In short, if your project is a square peg that fits in the pre-built theme’s square hole, then the pre-built theme is the way to go, but this scenario is rare. In most cases you want your site to be tailored to your business and have a user experience that feels intentional and purpose-built. This is something that can only be achieved with a lot of planning and a custom theme.

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