Why Premium WordPress Themes are a Blessing for Developers

Before premium WordPress themes were a thing, we used to code everything from scratch. When I first started my career in web development and web design, every piece of HTML, every line of CSS, every piece of JavaScript, was all done by hand.

Yeah, we had some tools to help us out, but they just automated a few things here and there. (No, I’m not that old, only 36!)

Designing a website meant you had to dream it, design it and then code it from scratch.

But things have changed. There are now plenty of premium WordPress themes that you can edit without having to touch a single line of code. You don’t even have to know that there is code behind whatever you are doing.

Does that make premium WordPress themes a curse for web developers? Or are they a blessing in disguise?

I believe it’s a good thing. And here’s why.

No Code (Insight)

The thing with the latest premium WordPress themes is that configuration is the name of the game. Their configurability, and the bundled visual page builders with every theme, means that literally you don’t have to care about coding anything if you don’t want to (or if you don’t know how to).

It’s all done through configuration setups, drag and drop builders, templates for pages and posts… Everything is done, you just have to connect the dots.

Tweak the configuration and you’re done. You’ve got a site up and running in next to no time.

But if you’re a coder at heart, this may not be such a great thing for you. You want to touch the code. You want to develop. You want to dig into the bottom of things.

Is there some way to be able to get the best of both worlds?

Designing a site with upfront page builder
Designing a site with the Upfront page builder.

What Do Web Designers Think about Drag and Drop Page Builders?

Last week, I asked the subscribers of CollectiveRay this very question.

“Is there still a ‘web designer’ skill or have we all become just extensions of drag and drop pagebuilders?”

Is it true that, if you can use a mouse, you can “create a website?”

Is web design still a skill?

Readers, rightly so, were not amused.

Here are a few of the comments I got:

“…the role that the web designer or developer has these days is not just putting together a few web pages, but rather understanding the whole project scope of the client. Asking the right questions and planning the website for future company growth is critically important to make sure the site  serves the client as a business commerce vehicle in the years to come and is flexible enough to sustain business growth.

Spot on.

…The productivity gain is a huge boon, allowing people to quickly put together prototype designs in order to create one that suits their needs. Of course, that’s no excuse for one to pretend that their dime-a-dozen website is unique when they used a default template, but for those people there exists a base platform to give to a professional web designer in order to realize the product they want.

Couldn’t agree with you more.

I would today think of a web ‘designer’ in the same way as an ad agency, engineering firm, or an architectural firm thinks of a designer. Someone who knows how all this stuff comes together…and makes it happen.

This is the essence of today’s web design. You are a marketing consultant, not just a web designer.

…I’ve seen panels and content blocks placed without any logic. Bad choice of combinations of colors. And of course, the source was full of shortcodes here and there…
 
I think this is one of the main point against page builders: they give the illusion to customers and average users to be some kind of “designers”. But actually, I never seen a decent site designed by “non-web designer” people using these instruments.
 
I think page builders could be a good instrument, in particular circumstances, but more for people who is already able to code and/or design. A skilled web designer can always do pretty things using a page builder.”
And there you have it. A visual page builder does not a web designer make. Yet, a premium WordPress theme bundled with a page builder can make you a better web designer.

Web Design Skills Are Still Required for a Good “Web Design”

Premium WordPress themes are instruments in the hands of a web designer.

Only a skilled web designer is able to understand the nuances of responsive grids, color psychology, what typography should be used under which circumstances, designing for a great user experience, SEO implications, and so much more.

You’ve surely seen plenty of examples of horrible web design. Putting blocks together is not web design – it’s the stuff kids do.

You simply cannot create a good web design if you haven’t been trained for it.

Horrible web design
Aaaahhhhh… My eyes!

You Can Turn Around WordPress Website in Record Time

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I can get a website up and running in a matter of hours. Premium WordPress themes just make it so much faster to create a great looking website if you’re happy to go for the tried and tested web designs.

Can you customize as much as you want?

Of course you can. For example, awesome imagery is one of the things that make a website great. By applying great imagery, you can stay create a website which looks awesome but is still based on a premium WordPress theme. Branding, tone of voice, CTAs, integration with social media, they all are stuff where you can leave your mark.

What does this mean for you?

One of two things. You can either get more websites out faster, earning you more money in the process. Or you can actually charge a premium for delivering a website in “urgent” mode.

You Can Help Close the Sale by Promising the End Result

Time spent in pre-sales typically feels like it’s a very non-productive usage of your precious time. It’s of course not time-wasted when you land the project. However, it’s unlikely that you’ll win every project. At that point, of course, it has become mostly a waste of time.

One thing I’ve learned from pre-sales is that people want to see what they’re going to get. Even if you can go on and on about how great a website will look when it’s done and all of the features which will be in place, nothing says it better than a real live demo.

Again, premium WordPress themes to the rescue! Premium theme providers will typically setup a demo which you can use as a selling point of what the site will look like.

Of course, once you’ve promised something, you have to make good on that. So always underpromise and overdeliver. Much better than the other way round.

Issue premium wordpress theme live demo
The WPMU DEV Issue theme live demo can set a good idea of what the end result could look like

Provide Additional Value besides Web Design

As one of commenters above said, a web designer is not just about designing a website. Today, web designs are not just a showcase. With more and more commerce shifting online, a website is a vehicle for business growth.

Your role is no longer just the role of a web designer. You need to put on all of these additional hats:

  1. You should know your WordPress plugins: you must be able to recommend what will work in which circumstances.
  2. You need to make sure the website is fast: if it were up to most clients, you’d be installing plugins left, right and center, run the site on a cheap host and forget completely about optimizing for speed. You need to put a stop to that and make sure the site is lightning fast.
  3. You need to be the security expert: most people are not able to make heads or tails of security, you need to be the goto person for helping out with that.
  4. You need to prepare a site for SEO: search engine traffic can be one of the best sources of traffic you can get. You should know enough of that to make sure you’re setting the site up for SEO growth.
  5. You need to suggest strategies for email list building: with email still remaining one of the best channels for conversion (because it’s what helps you build a relationship with your customer) you need to make sure your website design is implementing email list building as a core goal rather than an afterthought.

There’s plenty more you can do to give your customer additional value. You know your customer. You need to feel what they need and make it happen through their website. You’ll earn more money through additional services in the process.

But I Want to Keep Coding!

At the beginning of this article, I suggested ways of getting the best of both worlds. In all likelihood, when you start developing more and more complexity into websites, chances are core WordPress, plugins or WordPress themes will not be able to do exactly what you need.

And that’s where your code comes into play.

Using such stuff as the WordPress API, WordPress hooks, customizations and extensions of plugins, or full plugin development, that’s where you should focus in terms of development.

Why Not Code Your Own Plugin / Theme?

This might sound funny coming from the blog of a company that supplies both premium WordPress themes and plenty of WordPress plugins. But hey, we want you to succeed with WordPress, not just sell you stuff. We want you to bring out the superhero in you!

Whilst working on client’s websites, you are bound to notice something which could be done better, even if you are using existing plugins. Or you might find that you can’t do things in a specific way you need. Or simply put, you think you are able to do a much better job with a plugin or a theme.

At that point, you should start developing your own theme or plugin. It’s a smart way of earning great passive income, and the potential for growth is great. Weglot (founded by two guys in a small apartment in September 2015) went from an idea t0 €10,000/month in a year.

Who’s to say that can’t be you, too?

Don’t be afraid of competition. It means there’s demand for the solution. Just make sure you’ve got unique selling points and are doing things differently (and better).

Develop WordPress Plugins
Start getting your own WordPress plugins developed

Plenty of (Short)Codes

The discussion about premium WordPress themes and page builders would not be complete if I did not mention shortcodes. Much of the functionality which comes with page builders is enabled through shortcodes.

There has been some talk and discussions about this making it next to impossible to shift away from a specific template.

This is because the shortcodes become part and parcel of the structure of your website. If you try to move away from the template, the old shortcodes are not going to work. That means you will have to redesign many of the pages from scratch.

The other option would be to actually remove the shortcodes from the pages. But again, that’s a bit of a double-edged sword. If the shortcode is being used to display let’s say a price box, removing the shortcode means you’ve lost your price box.

Yet, this is not a problem which is intrinsic to premium WordPress theme or page builders. This “feature,” (let’s not call it a problem) exists wherever you are using a shortcode in WordPress. If you decide to stop using a particular shortcode, you’re going to have replace it with something. You’re going to have to find all of the places where that shortcode was used and update the content accordingly.

This is not a problem. This is simply how shortcodes work.

Page builders and premium themes simply make extensive use of this.

THEMES Stunning drag ’n’ drop themes with Upfront Drag, scale, position, customize and see every edit you make to your website – in real-time – with our Upfront theme framework for WordPress. Choose from our collection of starter themes and get started customizing your site right away. You know that design you’ve got in your head? You can build it with Upfront. TRY WPMU DEV FREE LEARN MORE

What’s All That Other Stuff I See in Themes…?

There’s another thing you need to keep in mind about premium WordPress themes: some of these themes have been around for years and have generated literally millions in revenue for their authors.

Case in point: Avada and X. Avada has been around since August of 2012 whilst X has been around since November of 2013. They’ve each amassed (both individually and separately) hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales.

They are marketed as “multipurpose WordPress themes.” A one size fits all if you may.

The idea is that you can use these themes for any industry or any niche. The way that these themes become so popular (and multipurpose) is that they are able to provide a large number of popular features out-of-the-box.

Sliders, contact forms, social media sharing, Facebook integrations, WooCommerce support, bbPress support, WPML support, events – you’re bound to find a plethora of plugins which come bundled with the theme.

Welcome to Avada plugins section
The Welcome to Avada plugins section

This is because for a theme to be popular it needs to cover a very wide range of functionality. However, it does come at a price. All of these plugins have negative side effects too:

  1. They make your site heavy and slower to load
  2. They introduce other components which need to be kept updated to ensure your site is secured
  3. Some plugins are bundled but need to be licensed separately. That is, of course, a hidden additional cost. Keeping these components unlicensed runs the risks associated with plugins not being updated.
avada plugins
Wow – that’s a lot of heavy plugins

Does this mean you shouldn’t use these themes? No, not really.

If they’re so popular, they must be doing something right probably many things right). But you need to be aware of the repercussions. One of the first things I do when I install a multipurpose theme is go right into the plugins and start deactivating as many plugins as I possibly can. I’m sure a lot of you reading this do to (or you just don’t use multipurpose themes at all).

Upfront, on the other hand, does things differently. Rather than being a bundle of plugins, Upwork is light (actually devoid) of third party plugins and dependencies.

Not only that, it actually provides you with the ability to build custom themes for your own clients.

Myself, I’ve always been averse to installing too many plugins on my sites – they bring much too much hassle. So Upfront has been a refreshing change. I can build sites really, really quickly, yet I don’t have to deal with all of the bundled plugins.

Adapt – or Be Left Behind

This debate has been arising time and time again across different places on the interwebs.

If you’re not adopting the latest web design trends and technologies, you will get left behind. You simply have to move with the pace of technology, whether you like it or not. Otherwise, your skills will get rusty, you will get out-priced. Tragically, you’ll probably be out of work in no time.

There is a demand for premium WordPress themes and visual page builders, so as a web designer, you have to get on board.

As WordPress blogger Chris Lema said in a recent post, you either keep up with the pace of technology, or you get left behind.

Using Premium WordPress Themes to Your Advantage

A good web designer should never feel threatened by premium WordPress themes. On the other hand, you should feel empowered. You’ve got a great set of tools, which will help you create better websites, faster. Go and use that to your advantage.

And when you feel like coding, go help out the WordPress core team or write your own plugins and themes!

David Attard
Premium WordPress themes and their bundled page builders: love them or hate them? What do you think? I'm going to ask you guys the same thing, have we just become extensions of WordPress page builders? Can anybody design a website? Do you know anybody who is not a web designer but has started to "design websites"?

25 Responses

  • WPMU DEV Initiate

    So far my experience with drag n drop is not readable HTML, use of shortcodes and just blatently a lot of bloat that should not be needed. As a designer I want my website to output nice clean well commented code as hey, that´s what they teach you in school.

    Given how some frameworks just use xl-12 sm-3 as to describe how much width/place a column gets? I do wonder how school would think of that.

    Shortcodes are nice and all. But if you do anything or decide hey I want to check out this other theme then your royally screwed. I noticed this when I went from one premium theme to another.

    Options page should in my mind be minimal. Doing everything from the backend to make customisations that usually just end up being a color change in your style.css file seems weird to have a 10-page options that need configuring when you boot up the theme.

    So for me? Premium means easy to use and well designed/coded. For me page builders do not make that happen. But alas. To each his/her own. As long as you as a designer/developer is fine with it and your client is happy all is good in the world.

    • The Exporter

      “Premium means easy to use and well designed/coded”
      It is the easiest way to setup a WordPress Website but well “coded” I totally don’t agree! Most of those themes on Envato check them out with Theme Checker. A whole of lot of them are not conform to common WordPress coding guidelines. They use @imports instead of equeing scripts which not seldom makes them terribly slow. Design is always good with Themes of Envato as this is what the customer will se so they focus probably 95% (Images/Texts which look nice/Font Types which impress/colors which are stunning) on that. 1% is copy pasting GNU GPL code in and out those themes, 1% is copy pasting existing short-codes and packing them i.e. in extra plugins to sell them separately, 2% is adjusting an existing CSS and another 1% is for anything else.

      With most Themes “well coded” has actually no place. But there are exceptions. i.e. wp-realestate is not only very well designed but also very well and very slight coded and Annapx is even trying to avoid using additional plugins and depending on them. she is including a whole lot of features and short code which simply come out of the box even for a newbie and which work like they were build for each other.

      Just the opposite is the case i.e. with a recent example – javo-directory. It was once a number one Theme but had problems when loading on Mobile as they did not code clean and the Theme Checker complaint about a whole lot of stuff. Instead of improving the Theme they now simply went over and released under the same name their javo-spot theme with some css adjustments and outsourced all kind of shortcodes into separate plugins customers now would need to purchase to retain the functionality of Version 2 Javo Directory. A headache of a Elite Theme Author Theme.

      Upfront is actually a nice approach if – it would be much easier and better documented how to include those short-codes and how to create custom signup pages, listing pages, signup forms, in short when it would be easily possible to rebuild the functionality in Upfront of any other theme, but than using the css, js coming along with Upfront. It could reduce the bloat more or less completely as.

      Premium Themes are often nice looking at first place but become not seldom a real headache when thinks happen like that. Unfortunately it is very difficult to find out in advance which developer group will be the best one working for you. This is i.e. one reason I am here at WPMUDEV. WPMUDEV is actually expensive – very expensive even compared to a premium Theme and the included 6 month support, but don’t stop calculating after 6 months as usually problems don’t stop coming up. This would mean you need extended support – wow now it’s getting expensive. When those Envato Elite Developers than start building up new companies under same domain ownership and announce their cooperations with those – outsourcing all the shortcode in separate plugins and you now would need to pay support for each single plugin you are using or you won’t get third Party support, well than you will be simply lost.

      The only security you might still have is WPMUDEV. Fortunately all code in WordPress has to be GNU GPL v.2 and also some GNU GPL v.3 code is meanwhile accepted – which means the only way to make sure YOU run the show and not those Envato Elite Theme Editors would be to publish the theme publicly and develop it further with other people using the same theme. WPMUDEV can be a great help here due to their wide range of knowledge.

      Upfront could already be a great base for much much more if the WPMUDEV plugins – which are really nice – would work with it – marketpress, jobs & experts, classifieds etc p.p. – and if their would be a place where the shortcodes, widgets, and small tiny “shortcode/widget plugins – could be seen, tested and imported to an upfront site.

      Elementor which always needs a base theme has all this already!

      Kind regards

      Andi

      • Wow Andi – that’s a nice elaborate reply right there, thanks for taking the time to do that.

        I can’t comment about all the ins and outs of Upfront, the plan and what have you, I’m commenting here as a regular web designer. I’ve actually found it refreshing for me. What I know about how WPMUDEV works is not improvements are bound to keep on coming based on customer feedback, so I’m sure your comments will be noted.

        Regarding updates getting expensive with other themes, that’s something which Karol from CodeinWP has brought up very recently, keeping a theme updated can get costly.

        Now in my opinion, you have to keep your support open – I keep building pages on my sites all the time, so I tend to keep running into new issues as I work a few months down the line. And yes, at that point, support is critical – I really don’t want to spend my day struggling with a theme trying to get it to work, frankly, I have better things to do.

        Which brings me to your point, of WPMUDEV. You cannot (my opinion of course) calculate the cost of subscription by itself. You have to calculate the value it brings you over time and I’m happy to just resort to support at whatever time I need rather than have to struggle and frustrate myself at the theme I’ve bought and whose support has run out.

        David

      • WPMU DEV Initiate

        I can agree on much in what your saying. For me as a developer it´s still important that my code is clean and working right. I don´t care how others do it and I have my own work system. Sure I have used Genesis for the last couple years and growing to love it more and more with how easy it is to make stuff with.

        Upfront is one theme I have yet to try. As a base point I am against anything that comes with “drag n drop builder” or any kind of builder since yeah, the reasons I mentioned above usually stay true to that.

        I have always been a bit against subscription costs for themes and support. If I buy something then hey, it should be a one time cost since if I pay a lot of money for something it better work, if it doesn´t work then I should have access to help since the amount of money I paid is well worth also giving support for. But today it´s subscriptions everywhere. Instead they clump so much together with support, multiple software or themes/plugins and what not.

        WPMUDEV has so far been a great subscription service. I´m giving it a year of useage to find out of it is worth it to continue afterwards.

    • Support nomad

      Hello trsenna,

      That’s true – if premium theme uses shortcodes for building content – then authors should move shortcode functions to separate plugin that will work when theme is changed. But truth is that premium theme developers have often problem with distinction what is looks and what is functionality, that should be delivered in plugin. That is not only about shortcodes – once I developed site with theme (client picked theme himself) that had build it whole Jobs board. We can imagine how it will look when they will try change theme in future…

      But shortcode itself is not problem – its how author of theme is using it.

      kind regards,
      Kasia

    • The Exporter

      “If they develop “Premium” themes, it’s time for them to learn that shortcodes are about functionality, so they live into plugins.”

      Well said – so we would need a tutorial about exactly how to move existing shortcode into plugins and we would need also to discuss if it would be better to have one plugin for all kind of shortcodes or one plugin for each shortcode which might be not so good for performance ;-)/

      • WordPress Enthusiast

        Hello Andi,

        Moving shortcodes to their own plugin is actually a pretty simple matter. For example, I like to create a mu-plugin for a collection of different shortcodes I might use. A single example is creating a shortcode for listing the total member count on a multisite network. To accomplish this, I just created a file named usercount.php and uploaded it to wp-content/mu-plugins/usercount.php with the following code in it:

        http://pastebin.com/Q42QHRKX

        You could just as easily place this in the plugins folder with a little modification to make it to where you can activate it and deactivate it, like so:

        http://pastebin.com/rEHy0KiL

        You could then continue to extend this simple drop-in plugin with whatever shortcode definitions you find in your themes, thus, making the shortcodes theme-independant.

        This, of course, is an extremely simplified example. But, if all you’re wanting to do is move shortcodes to a plugin, this method works. ;)

        Best regards,

        James Morris

        • Hey James,

          thanks for jumping right in to the conversation with your comments and suggestions. I’m sure there are solid reasons for not converting to plugins, one of which I feel might be that there is a lot of theme tie-in.

          I suspect that the audience of these themes is not primarily hardcore web developers, they are much more focused on people who want to get things up and running quickly and don’t care (or don’t know about) bloat and all the complications which come with these themes.

          David

  • Site Builder, Child of Zeus

    The problem with Premium themes (and plugins) is that as a developer of plugins when people have problems with your plugin using a premium theme that you can’t re-produce using the default themes you are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

    Those people expect your plugin to work with the premium theme but as a hobbyist developer you can’t afford to go out and buy each theme. So you end up letting that person down.

    The same applies to premium plugins (or those non premium plugins that use obfuscated code …luckily that idea seems to be on its way out now).

    Its not a problem if you can work directly on their site and debug and fix the code there but that’s not something that happens very often

    • Support Star

      Hey there Steve,

      the workaround that you should follow in situations like these, should be to ask your client to share with you the conflicted theme/plugin so you could further test it. You can ensure them that you aren’t going to share publicly or use in another project if there’s a license prohibiting this.

      This is actually what I ask from members when having issues with themes/plugins that we don’t have access.

      Another workaround, but would require more time probably, is to contact the theme/plugin author(s) in order to provide you a copy for testing.

      Take care,
      Dimitris

    • Hey Steve,

      I can really really understand what you are saying – just like yourself, I’ve experimented with WordPress plugins (and others) and can really feel your pain about support.

      If you are providing a free version of the plugin, the situation is even worse, because you are losing “time” without getting anything in return.

      My opinion, based on my experience – if you try your best to help people out, those people will stick around and you can build a relationship with those people with mutual benefit.

      When you are not able to, you have to be frank with them, hopefully they will understand the situation. Your other option is to find a developer who can help you out, but of course to do that, you’re going to have to start making some money … so build the functionality of your plugin and start charging for it.

      Things will get easier when you start making money …

      David

  • WPMU DEV Initiate

    I’m curious about the statement that “you simply cannot create a good web design if you haven’t been trained for it.” Leaving aside the fact that beauty is in the eye of the beholder – what is considered “suitable” training? Understanding basics about color theory, how to lay out a page for optimal conversion (which is as much marketing as design), keeping up with trends (to a point – why are sliders still a thing?) – but I’m not sure about required “training” for design of websites.

    • WordPress Enthusiast

      Hello SierraMyk,

      The factors you brought up are all very good skills to have and are a fantastic foundation for building on. However, the devil is in the details…

      “Good” Web design takes into account numerous factors, usually including:

      * Usability (UX – User Experience)
      * Accessibility (Screen Readers)
      * Cross-browser/Cross-Platform Compatibility
      * Mobile Optimization
      * Search Engine Optimization (at the code level)

      In particular, with WordPress themes, there’s also compatibility with the core and plugins (which can be very difficult sometimes).

      The benefit of premium themes is you have very talented developers who are investing a significant amount of time to address all of these issues. Sure, many people can design a site that looks good, but there’s a lot more under the hood that makes a theme a good theme.

      I hope that clarifies a bit.

      Best regards,

      James Morris

      • WPMU DEV Initiate

        Thanks for the reply, and that does clarify the statement. I was thinking “design” in the artistic sense…I’ve run across what I consider “design snobs” who say “well, you may be able to code a site, but you don’t know how to ‘do the design’.” I certainly agree that there’s more to a good theme than what it looks like – beauty is only skin deep!

        I’m not a fan of many of the themes on Envato, but I much prefer to use a premium theme (and plugins) from a reputable company than mess about with it myself. If I can use a well-coded framework and make it passably “pretty” (and converting), then it saves me time and gets clients what they need.

  • New Recruit

    Just right now I’m finding myself troubleshooting a website done with Avada, and it’s a holy mess.

    Simply put, Avada and Enfold like themes help to make former print and logo designers think that they can convert into web designers in no time without having to learn coding, UX, interaction design basics, and so on.

    It’s a separate profession we’re in, and there’s a learning curve to it. It can be shorter, it can be longer (webdesign is a trade where you may continue to learn even after having 15 years experience behind, and I love it for this). Certainly there’re clients who are satisfied with a front page weighing 3.6MB without any videos (my case right now), being responsive but utterly inconvenient and with half of functionality broken or hidden on mobiles. That’s a sad picture for almost any site built (can you even use that verb?) by a designer who’s a user of such a theme. But any external expert who at least knows how to code webpages will inevitably tell such a client the sore truth and guess what — will suggest to do a redesign. So this will anyway end up in any client who cares about the digital part of their business having to pay twice.

    The low maintainability is also a hidden cost, where clients end up having a lot of money wasted on dev spending hours trying to revert someone’s changes in a theme’s bloated interface, find the source of one of a million of inline CSS snippets and trying to deal with !important sprinkled all over the place.

    So let’s put it this way: this type of themes encourages web design that is bad in almost ALL ways, because it forces you not to learn but to just think in terms of building blocks and not of one of tens of dimensions good web design consists of — SEO optimization (oh I’ve heard that word! There’s a plugin for that!), page load time, accessibility, etc. And that’s probably an even bigger problem than an honest web developer cutting project costs by trying to saddle a page builder.

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