Purchasing Themes for Client Work

When I first decided to venture down the road of doing contract/side work for clients, I was faced with a bit of a conundrum. My expertise was decidedly more on the back end; databases, Linux administration, API design, cloud services, etc. Yet I knew that most of the work that would come in would be more front end oriented. Most small businesses don’t need Lambda services, cloud networking, or multiple Dockerized services. They need well-designed websites that look great, break down properly on mobile, and cater to their target demographic.

While I, of course, understand the basics of CSS, HTML layouts (flexbox and the like), and basic design principles, I would not go so far as to call myself an expert in these things. Yes, I can create a website from scratch but from a design perspective, the look feel would most certainly be lacking. So what was I to do?

When I first ventured into contract web work man years ago (nearly a decade?) there were a few sites offering pre-built themes that you could purchase and of course extend as you saw fit. At the time, the selection was very limited and most were pretty expensive. Fast forward a decade or so and now you have services like Envato Elements that offer reasonable subscriptions to a buffet-style warehouse where you can pay one monthly fee to access as many images, graphics, audio recordings, plugins, website themes, WordPress themes, and print media templates as you can possibly download.

Globalization of digital production has lead to lower barriers of entry for designers from all over the world. You have solo designers building quality themes in their spare time to sell over and over in a marketplace and you have design farms (mostly overseas) that pump out theme after theme. As a business model, it can be fairly lucrative. All of this cheap yet relatively high quality design has lead to what I would argue is the extreme commoditization of design. Is it unfortunate? Possibly. Inevitable? Probably.

With such easy access to plentiful and varied pre-built design resources, what value is there in building something from scratch? Now, of course, there is value in custom design; a lot of it. Yet these days, such value is likely only found at the upper echelons of web applications and services. The cost/benefit is just not there for commodity websites for small businesses.

So then what is a technically-oriented developer to do? Well, I can certainly tell you that it does indeed feel awkward to send over links to Envato for pre-built themes and tell the client to pick one that most closely resembles their vision. However, is that really so bad? I’m saving time designing something from scratch that I possibly don’t have the expertise to do in the first place. The client is saving time and money by getting a massive headstart towards the site or application of their dreams.

Philosophically, is it such a bad thing to do? When a car manufacturer decides to build a new model, they don’t typically start with reinventing the chassis, brake systems, drive train, or seats. They start with what has already been established and learned and build off of that to improve upon and fit the vision of the new model. Sometimes, yes, it involves reinventing the wheel (literally) but most of the time it doesn’t.

So then what is stopping a client from simply purchasing a theme on their own and uploading it to a shared host and doing it all themselves? Nothing at all and if they are feeling adventurous I would highly recommend it! Without a subscription, themes can be as cheap as $10 with shared hosting about the same if not less.

Where the value in what myself and others offer is in the customization of those themes and the decades-long experience running servers, programming, and hosting. I may not be the best at designing a site with styles and graphic from scratch but I’m pretty good at taking established work and modifying it to most closely match what my client’s want. In most cases, I can take a theme that moderately matches my client’s desires and modify and deploy said theme in a matter of days or even hours (I do have a day job afterall ;).

WordPress themes are super easy to install and customize but if a client wants even a minor change outside of the theme’s established settings, things can quickly get very complicated. These value-added services are what lend credence to what I offer through FindingFlair. Using pre-built themes is not cheating or shortcutting anything. It’s a smart move that saves my clients time and money while still letting them customize their sites and make them their own.

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