Builder Themes for WordPress: Why I’m unconvinced that they’re a better option than standard themes

Builder themes seem to be ubiquitous in the world of WordPress nowadays; browsing through the various theme markets and sellers it’s clear that they’re a popular theme type, and often take center-stage in the marketing. But I’m still unconvinced by their benefits; sure, they might seem flexible and powerful, but how much benefit do they truly offer an average, inexperienced user such as myself? I’d argue that a single, predesigned theme is a much better solution, and in this article I’ll do my best to articulate why!

Putting theme design to work

What is a builder theme?

If you’re new to WordPress then you might be wondering what exactly a builder theme is, and what it does. A builder theme is a WordPress theme (duh!) that includes tools for creating your own layout without the need for coding, so you don’t need to know HTML, CSS, PHP or JavaScript, instead using drag & drop to place, resize and configure sections and assign widgets or modules to create various elements, such as slideshows or post previews. Often, packages will include preset layouts, which you can use as-is or modify further.

Less is more, so the saying goes, but more often consumers adopt the opposite; the more features there are per dollar, the better. This is why you’ll see cars manufacturers including things like cup-holders in their list of included accessories; no-one’s going to buy a car purely based on the inclusion of cup-holders or not, but when two cars are similar performance-wise then it’s not unusual for the buyer to go with the car that offers more overall features. If you’re fairly new to WordPress and want to build a site then it might seem like buying a builder theme is the right way to go given the number of features compared to other themes, but this is an area where more features does not necessarily mean a better product for your needs.

How many features do you need?

It’s a question we don’t often stop to ask ourselves when purchasing a product; our minds just see “more features = better”, and that’s that. What we should be focusing on more is whether the included features have any real-world relevance to our needs. This is an uncomfortable question to answer, because we have a natural inclination to want to have fall-back options for everything. Sure, we might just want a plain blog theme today, but what if I want to make things more complex later? I don’t know HTML or CSS, I better buy the builder theme so I’m prepared for the future!

The need to be safe is entirely understandable of course, but the issue here is that, as a beginner, we are trying to protect ourselves from issues we don’t yet truly comprehend; in the future when we decide to make some changes to our blog site, how do we know that the features included with the builder theme will actually be relevant to our needs when we don’t know exactly what changes we might want to make in the future, what kind of challenges will actually arise, or what we might have learned along the way? Better instead to focus on what satisfies your requirements now.

Are builder themes worth it?

Given the tone of the preceding paragraphs it may seem that I am entirely against builder themes on principle, but that’s not the case; I just feel that people shouldn’t buy into one without first considering if they will see any real-world benefit to doing so. A designer or developer who’s day-to-day work is focused on creating websites for clients might see such a theme as a great tool to speed-up what would usually be a long-winded task; they can load a preset into the theme that broadly matches the client’s needs, then apply their knowledge to fine-tune it accordingly. For others, there’s some good reasons to go with another solution:

Support is often time-restricted

This practice is common among theme developers, so it’s not particularly unusual to see that many builder themes have limited-time support after purchase for 6-12 months, with additional support available at an additional cost. However, this practice is more of an issue than it usually would be. Consider this; if I purchase a single theme from a developer then it’s likely that I’m ready to get started with my new website. Chances are as a beginner I will make quite a few mistakes and hit a few roadblocks along the way, but that’s not an issue because I can contact the developer for support. Eventually, my site will be ready to go and since I won’t be making any more changes I don’t really need access to the developer’s support; I mean, it’s nice as a safety net, but with the main issues overcome it’s unlikely I’ll need to contact them, and if I change my site focus down the line I can pick up a new specialized theme.

In our earlier example, we looked at the builder theme as a preparation for the future; right now I might only need a simple site, but later down the line I might want something more complex or to expand. Now a lack of longer-term support becomes an issue; since I won’t be using the full features of the theme until much later after purchase I’m at risk of running into issues that I then can’t get help with without an additional cost. It’s a model that kind of defeats the purpose of buying into a builder theme, unless the sites I build provide my revenue stream.

The problem of web-design experience

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people who know very little about a subject believe that they are more knowledgeable than they actually are. It’s particularly relevant in terms of web-development, since before entering the industry my experience of site-building amounted to "I am aware that WordPress.com exists". At that point, I imagined that designing a website was a trivial task; after all, you just stick down a header, add some text and links, throw in a background image and Bob’s your uncle, right?

Turns out it’s quite a bit more complex than that; it’s just that great web-design is most often meant to be intuitive, immediately understandable. So good, in fact, that a visitor automatically knows where to find things without hesitation. It’s one of those things that’s hard to appreciate until you don’t have it, or until you get involved in some capacity.

I mean, pretty much every web-designer will know that slideshows rarely get a large number of clicks; they’re better used to create a site image than to provide critical information. I didn’t know that though; if you’d given me a builder theme my first thought would be to add a lot of slideshows because slideshows look cool! I wouldn’t know about what elements get higher engagement numbers, the effectiveness of call-to-action buttons, the synergy between certain colors and page elements, or just the problem of overloading a page with weighty images and modules.

So if I’m not a designer, what good is giving me the ability to design? To me, it makes far more sense to rely on either a free or, if necessary, a professional paid-for theme that not only can meet my needs in terms of features, but has also been designed and optimized by somebody that actually knows what they’re doing!

The need to grow and develop

There are many aspects of web-design and development that are hard to get to grips with; the relationship between HTML, CSS and PHP, how they interact, how CSS sorts and applies its rules, how the CMS builds pages and manages information etc…it’s so large and dynamic a subject that even industry veterans are continually learning and adapting to it. Despite this, I’ve found the relatively short amount of time spent working with themes and making minor changes to be invaluable; I’m not capable of creating my own theme, but often I can figure out the code in an existing theme and figure out enough to make my own custom changes. None of them will be particularly impressive to anyone with a decent amount of knowledge, but it represents a growth from my initial know-nothing origins.

The growth of skills and knowledge is important, and one of the key aspects of learning is challenge. We set ourselves a goal, and work to reach it. Builder themes unintentionally limit the potential for users to learn more about these deeper aspects of web-development; if you work for a few months on a new website but everything could be dragged and dropped and updated using simple options, you may well have had an easier time of it, but the skills that you’ve discovered during this time for the most part only apply to that particular builder that you used; if you try to apply those same skills to another website, you’ll need to use the same setup once again. If, however, you work to understand the basics of HTML, CSS et al, then you’re learning a skillset that can be applied far beyond your own site; even just a little CSS know-how can go a long way.

For a beginner, this kind of basic knowledge is invaluable and should not be passed up; of course, for the experienced user they might feel quite a lot of relief from not having to create every aspect from scratch, but even those with experience can benefit from flexing their coding muscles from time to time.

The pricing and designs can be prohibitive

Especially if you’re starting fresh. The thing about CMSs like Joomla! and WordPress is that they have a lot of theme options available for every kind of website, often far lower-priced than builder themes or even free. Builder themes often sit at the more expensive end of the theme pricing scale, while many theme developers also offer lifetime or complete theme packages that will give you access to a wide range of themes for a price equivalent of a builder theme; GavickPro’s All WordPress Themes package currently costs €79 with unlimited forum support, and many of the other theme markets on the web offer similar packages. Not to mention that theme developers often apply more original, out-of-the-box thinking than those that rely on a builder framework as well as include support for theme-specific plugins or functionalities. The complex frontpage layout and BuddyPress support included in the University theme , for example, is not easily replicated in a builder theme, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the tools and development in general.

Summing Up

I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who find that builder themes are just perfect for their needs, but from my perspective as a beginner/intermediate user the number of benefits, from simply saving money to getting professionally-designed layouts for a focused, market-specific site, of sticking with a non-builder theme solution are too great. It may well be that those with more experience hold a different opinion, and I’d be very interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments!

Builder Themes for WordPress: Why I’m unconvinced that they’re a better option than standard themes 4.795 (95.71%) 14 votes
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This article was first published August 31st, 2016
  • blueshift

    Nicely said.

    One of the curveballs thrown at us now is the ‘design a website without code’ promos I hear on air, which no doubt lures ever more small businesses and solo operators into the Dunning-Kruger trap. Only there might one learn that ‘having a website’ isn’t the miracle cure for a flat sales curve. (And how about all the ‘teach kids to code in fifth grade’ pitches, as if even coding were ‘the’ solution.)

    The biggest challenge, it seems to me, is one that might come under the heading of Project Management, in that there opportunities, problems, and objectives to be considered in developing a plan – then looking for the right methods to successfully implement that plan online, which includes a commitment to actually deploy the website strategically.

    You can’t drag and drop your way through that. And even if you can code, you are only shaping the top of the iceberg.

    More than once, when a client has come to us to ‘design [or redesign] a website,’ they show us a theme they like. And our first question never fails to stump them: ‘what do you want the website to do for you?’

  • Surcouf

    I am agree