Custom Web Design vs Templated Web Design

Learn how custom and templated web design are different and which option is a better fit for you.

Think waiting a few minutes for a ride share is bad? Try waiting more than .05 seconds to judge a website. That’s how little time your website design has to make a good impression. No wonder you’re debating custom web design vs web design templates! 

All good, I’m here to help. My name is Joe, and I’m Expand’s lead developer. To help you make the best choice for your brand, I’m sharing when it’s best to choose a custom website design orvs a website template. 

First up, what is each approach and how are they different?

Meme girls strike again

What is a custom website design?

A custom website design is a unique creation built specifically for your brand. Imagine designing your own dream car, instead of buying something off the lot. Your own website is fully customized when it comes to layout, features, colors, fonts, and look n feel. 

You can also cater your custom web design to best meet your needs. For instance, any considerations related to your audience and industry. Plus, you can cater your design to hit your search engine optimization (SEO) goals and best funnel leads based on your sales goals and process. Keep in mind this built-from-scratch approach does take time to design and create. As a result, this can lead to longer development times compared to using a pre-existing template.

A custom website design is best when…

Flexibility matters more than convenience
While website templates (sometimes called themes) can be modified to a degree, they ultimately tend to look and work similarly. The inherent tradeoff for speed of implementation is limited customization. Keeping with our cars analogy, you can drive off the lot right now with a base model and maybe a few bells ‘n whistles. Of course, significant custom options will push back your delivery date. 

The more adaptable your site needs to be in general and over time, the more custom design suits your use case. During all my competitive research and web browsing over the past few decades, I’ve seen competitors with similar cookie-cutter sites. If some built-in rigidity and risk of brand confusion aren’t for you, that’s another check in the custom column.

Features matter more than development speed
With a custom website design, you can build the advanced features your brand needs. Website templates have some powerful functionality and useful options, but a one-size-fits-most approach can’t account for everything. 

One of Expand’s clients, a high-end homebuilding firm named Thoughtforms, needed a new portfolio design to showcase their stunning work. They also needed robust filtering functionality to enable potential customers to find the types of work most relevant to their dream home. The more niche your industry or the more sophisticated your goals, chances are you’ll lean towards custom over templated. And if your timelines are flexible or longer in nature, it’s a total no-brainer. 

Staying power matters more than budget
For some companies, longevity and predictability are of the utmost importance. The reliability of an entirely custom design can help build brand recognition and trust with customers. And by having complete control over the code and design, you mitigate some of the risk that comes with website templates.

For instance, one small business owner I know chose to go with a templated site design. At the time, it made total sense based on her budget, goals and needs, and level of time available to manage her site on an ongoing basis. Unfortunately, after a year or two, the developers who made the template stopped actively supporting it. As a result, it became difficult or even impossible to make critical updates required to keep her site functioning properly.It was like waking up to find her car’s engine remotely disabled forever, even though she’d already paid for the template.

Design, development, and SEO expertise is available
Maybe you have an in-house UX designer, front end developer, and SEO guru. Or maybe you have the budget to bring in third-party expertise by hiring a web agency. Either way, if you have the resources on hand, use them. Have some but not all of those internal experts available? Outsource just what you need to complement your team. It’s like grabbing a van from Zipcar for a few hours when your sedan won’t fit that desk you found while antique shopping.

What is a web design template?

A web design template is a ready-made option to create a website with light to moderate customization. Don’t want to design and develop a site from scratch? You can save upfront time and cost by tweaking something already built. These templates or themes are often relatively user-friendly. Users with a bit of familiarity and documentation can make adjustments and site updates with minimal developer help.

Think of a web design template like choosing your new car’s paint color or other common customization that still appeals to and is adopted by other shoppers. You can enjoy a degree of personalization, but don’t expect more selective modifications at base model price or turnaround time. 

A web design template is best when…

Fast setup matters more than functionality
Time can be of the essence, especially if your website is tied to a hard deadline like a product launch. Or maybe you just need something quick and relatively simple, like a microsite or a moment-in-time kind of project that just needs to do its thing for a few months. Whatever the underlying factor, if speed matters most, then a templated design for your website can be a real win.

Unlike a custom design, a templated website design doesn’t require complex design or development skills. With out-of-the-box templates created for many different companies to tweak, you get a limited degree of built-in flexibility and customization. If you want a more flexible template tailored to your needs, an alternative to that is a custom template. 

Instead of a one-to-many readymade template approach, you can work with Expand to create a custom template. It’s kind of like a hybrid between custom design and templates, with the end result being personalized for more robust and relevant functionality while still keeping your team out of needing to mess with code or stress about layout.

Budget matters more than full control
Cost savings can be a real value driver. In particular, for smaller businesses or organizations with limited cash on hand at the moment. Are your purse strings tight these days? A website design template can streamline expenses as well as level of effort. These templates come pre-made from third-party web design or development companies. So you can skip the need to hire external or dedicate internal resources.

Note that these savings do have a cost, including less control over and modification of pre-existing designs. Before browsing available website design templates, make a list of all the must-have features. For instance, pretty much all templates should be responsive (automatically adaptable to different screen sizes), while only some might allow for a critical function your marketing or sales folks need.

Simplicity matters more than customization
With limited customization available when using a templated design for your website, you need to be good with relatively simple options for look and feel, as well as functionality. I see a lot of similar-looking sites made using templates, and I bet you do too. Swapping colors, fonts, and photos is good to match your brand, but there will still be an element of “I’ve seen this before” you can’t avoid.

While individual templates are limited, you might be able to find a subset that offers features or designs catering to a particular industry or use case. There are lots of site design templates for restaurants vs portfolios vs tech startups. Each business type can tailor their own owner- and audience-specific options. Think of the busy parent juggling two kids, afterschool activities, and weekend camping trips. They won’t be able to get by with a little car, but a grandma who mainly drives to the supermarket and back? She can be happy with less is more, and you might too.

A caveat if you’re evaluating website design templates: not all features (including their limitations) are evident when test-driving the demo version. A selling point might be “customizable colors” for backgrounds and fonts. But you might not find out until after purchase that you need to know hexcodes to assign a color. If whoever will be updating the site needs a “what you see is what you get” method like a color picker, then that readymade template can still require some ongoing developer support.

Custom or templated site design: which is ideal for you?

Ultimately, this choice isn’t about good vs bad. It’s simply a matter of fit, based on your team’s goals, budget, and needs. It’s like how the fastest sports car won’t handle well in the New England snow, but fold the top down and it’s perfect for a summer day on the Cape.

We know this can still be a confusing choice with a lot to consider. Expand doesn’t work with out-of-the-box templates. But we do make customized templates for customers who want a hybrid approach with catered flexibility but minimal ongoing developer support needed. Reach out and we can help you get on the road quick. Maybe not from 0 to 60 in .05 seconds, but Expand does have a track record of helping our clients make a strong first impression with site visitors. 

Use the contact form below to tell us about your site project – we’re here to help!

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