Theme Customization vs. Custom Themes

Anyone that’ll tell you there isn’t a big difference between a custom WordPress theme and theme customization is lying to you. There are plenty of people who think and would lead you to believe that the two are the same.

Even worse, there’s a good chance they’re trying to rip you off.

Buyer beware and know what you’re getting when you hire a web design/developer. Let’s dive into what the two are:

Theme Customization

When you hire someone to customize a theme for you, this means either you or they have picked out a theme that will suit your needs and customize and adapt it to fit your style. By customizing and adapting, I mean stuff like changing the colors to fit your brand and adding a logo, maybe moving where a certain type of content is placed. Simple stuff.

Theme Customization
You can customize your theme to make it what you want! So beautiful…
Relate it to finding the car of your dreams, only it’s in the wrong color, such as hot pink. You buy it, take it to a paint shop and have them paint it in your favorite color, neon green. Perfect!

This is the cheaper of the options you’ll have when hiring someone. Much cheaper than building the car of your dreams, right?

But what if you find the car of your dreams, except it doesn’t have leather seats. That’s going to add some cost. Wish it was a convertible instead? Things are starting to get pricey. “Gosh, I really wish it could float so I could go fishing in it!” You’re embarking on some truly expensive territory now and it doesn’t sound like you had found the car of your dreams after all.

Custom WordPress Themes

That’s where custom themes come in. They’re designed by someone to fit your style. Yours and no one else’s! You want a neon green, convertible car/boat with leather seats? It can be built. Depending on what it is you want, it might end up being cheaper than if you had started with something and done all of those customizations to it. It’ll definitely work better as it was specifically built to do what you wanted.

The only limit to what is able to be done is your budget, really.

OK. So you understand what the two are and see the differences. So what’s the problem?

People Getting Taken Advantage Of

My problem is that there are designers/developers that charge custom theme prices for theme customizations. What’s more? The client thinks they’re getting a custom designed theme specifically for them. They weren’t told what was going on, they just got the bill.

Some people charge way too much
Oh no! Surprised kitty.
The worst offense I’ve seen of this happened to a local business owner I met and they paid $8k for what amounted to a paint job on a theme. Literally logo placed and some colors changed. If the person who worked on it spent more than 5 or 6 hours on it, I’d be surprised.

Go ahead, take a minute and pick your jaw up off of the floor.

How sad is it when you hear of someone paying thousands of dollars for a web site only to find out their developer purchased a theme somewhere, changed some colors and added a logo then called it custom. I hear this happening a lot and quite frankly, it pisses me off. Taking advantage of someone’s naΓ―vety is cruel and rude. What’s worse? Breaking the news to my new client.

Here’s the awesome part! Now you know a little more about what you should be getting. If you already knew, share the post with some friends who don’t.

Seriously, no more surprised kitties.

Questions? Comments? Have a bigger number than I’ve heard? I’d love to hear them. You know how to do it. Down there .

Photo Credits: Highway Patrol Images, Michell Tribe.


  1. Graphically Designing

    Great article, Ozzy! I do theme customizations, and I charge accordingly. It saddens me when I hear about people getting ripped off in thinking they have a “custom” site, when I can see that they didn’t get anything more than what I would charge them for a few hours work.

    1. Ozzy Rodriguez

      Thanks, Susan!

      I hate it. People like this are just looking for a quick buck. They’re ruining these person’s trust in everyone and hurting a ton of people. It’s sad, but as many sad things, it happens. πŸ™

  2. Thiago Senna

    Good article… but I’m not sure if I completely agree.

    When the customer comes with a theme that need some changes, I agree with you. But happens that sometimes customer do not know WordPress… so you understand his needs, install WordPress, choose the theme for him and do the changes.

    So, your experience on installing and finding the right theme for the customer is something that will make your job more expensive that just a simple customization. Also in cases like this you must teach the basics about WordPress to your customer.

    Also, I assume that the programmer was expert enough to follow some good practices like doing customizations from within the child-theme beside just changing the parent-theme. Your know how about doing things right costs money, at leas it should.

    1. Ozzy Rodriguez

      Thanks for leaving a comment, Thiago.

      If you develop a custom theme for someone and they don’t know WordPress, you don’t need to teach them about it? Does WordPress not need to be installed when you develop a custom theme? I think the points you made apply to custom theme development as well.

      I understand that skills and the ability to know right from wrong costs money, it’s how I make a living. I’m saying I’m transparent with my clients. If someone wants to do theme customizations for $8,000 and their clients KNOW they’re buying a theme somewhere for $40, adding a logo and changing some colors and they’re OK with it? Then so be it but I can’t subscribe to that. I’d have a hard time living with myself if I was charging someone a few thousand dollars because I knew how to install WordPress and they didn’t.

      What’s happening is, more often than not, these people are selling something the client won’t be getting and won’t know it until the smoke clears.

      We may have to agree to disagree on this subject.

      1. Thiago Senna

        Hi Ozzy, thanks for your response πŸ™‚

        I think I understood your points, but for now, I can’t have a final opinion about it. If the point is being clear (and not necessarily expensive or cheap), I definitely agree with you.

        When you decide for developing a child theme (a theme customization) and know exactly the perfect parent theme for the job, you are giving value for your client. First ’cause he can keeps his parent theme secure and updated.

        Imagine that the same job is applied for two different developers. The first create a custom parent theme, the other know exactly what parent theme to buy and create a child theme. In a case like this, I agree about being clear with your client, but the second developer being cheaper is something that he musts decide by himself. Just he knows how much time he needed to keep himself updated about good parent themes to avoid headaches with bad ones.

        1. Ozzy Rodriguez

          Definitely not a cheap or expensive thing, just a clarity and transparency thing. If a client is thinking that they’re paying for a custom theme, they should get that and not a slightly customized one.

  3. Jason Mathes

    I have a friend/client who asked me to tweak his existing theme for him. When he first started he paid almost $1,000.00 for the same type of work I did for a lot less.

    Huge difference between changing an existing theme (customization) vs. creating a custom theme for a potential client.

    Buyer beware is what I always say. If its too good to be true? Then it is. If the price is exorbitant? I would do my research on other clients and their experiences before charging for that!

    Thanks for the interesting read. Can’t believe people will rip people off like that… Although $15 mil? No, I couldn’t do it!

  4. Erica Franz

    I’ve taken over a client from another “designer” which was very similar to this – he was charged around $4k to have his logo and color scheme applied to a theme. Needless to say I have to do a lot of hand-holding with this client because he’s been burned in the past.

    I get really pi**ed thinking about it still because it isn’t just that individual client that was damaged by this bad designer, but really the whole field. A client has a bad experience and they pass that information along, but often it goes from “Bob had a bad experience with Frank” to “you can’t trust designers because look at what a terrible experience Bob had with Frank.”

    But it’s good that there are others who are just as defensive of being honest and up-front with clients. Thanks for the great post, very relevant. πŸ™‚

  5. Jennifer Bourn

    This is a huge pet peeve of mine. As someone who primarily does custom one-off themes, seeing someone who is just customizing an existing theme call it a custom theme and sell it as a custom theme drives me crazy!

    It causes confusion for consumers, misleads them, and forces us to do more education with prospects on the difference between a custom theme and tweaking an existing theme.

  6. MaryH

    As someone who customizes themes for my clients, I completely agree with your post. I always include the cost of the theme in my quote and the cost of customizing their theme. I NEVER tell them I’m creating a custom made theme. In fact, I tell them the opposite up front. I hate it when I come across clients who were charged custom theme prices, only to login and find a theme that was customized. One client was charged $10,000 and they didn’t get any content optimization, had a poor home page layout, no child theme, no back up….I could go on and on. There was minimal css coding done to the site for the h1-h5, and that’s all. Anyway, I hear ya. When I run across clients who really want a custom site, I refer them to other designers who do custom sites. It’s ok, there’s enough work for everyone!

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