An option to consider when you want to quickly design a new Umbraco website is to use a premade HTML theme from a website like ThemeForest.  Over the years, I have built huge websites from scratch with a big team of frontend developers.  I've also built other websites single-handedly using pre-made themes.  In this tutorial, I will discuss the pros and cons of using a pre-made theme and whether you should consider using one on your website.

Should You Use A Custom Theme?

If you herded up a bunch of developers into a room and asked them about their thoughts of using a custom HTML theme, ThemeForest, you will likely get a contrast of very polarizing views.  Developers tend to be a bunch of opinionated people and the answer tends to lie somewhere in the middle.  The real answer is less absolute, using a ThemeForest theme will make sense for some websites.  My aim of this tutorial is to give you some of the options to help you decide using a third-party theme is something you should consider.

Pro's/Con's

First, I'll quickly go over the pros and cons of third-party themes in general:

  • Timeframe.  Development time is massively reduced
  • Cost. A theme can cost as little as $25.  Building the equivalent theme from scratch can cost thousands
  • Tested Code That's Proven.  If you buy a popular theme which has been around for a few years, it will have been well tested.  Most themes will be on version 4 or 5 so you know it works. 
  • Rapid prototyping.

Con's

  • Bloat.  Most themes provide a huge library of features out the box.  Most projects I've worked on have used maybe 20% of those features.  This has meant that most of the CSS and JS on the site isn't used,
  • Everyone has their own personal preference of what's good code.  If you use a third-party theme, you will probably end up with code that you are not 100% happy with.  I'm not a fan of atomic CSS and the last theme I used was built entirely using atomic selectors.
  • Learning Curve.  If you need to make changes, there can be a steep learning curve to understanding the theme fully

How Well Known Is The Brand?

One of the big benefits of using a theme is cost. Just because a company is bigger doesn't necessarily mean that you should make something more expensive.  When I've worked with clients who advertise on TV, they spend a fortune on the brand design guideline.  This is probably the first obvious yes/no question you can ask.  

If a company needs to have exact pixel-perfect margins/padding and spacing and they have the budget to employ one or more designers for weeks/months/years, build from scratch.  In these situations, you could buy a theme and then try and customize it.  I've tried this approach once and the amount of time the team had to spend understanding the theme, changing it to meet the needs, re-testing it, etc for an end result that no one was really happy with, is not worth it.

Do You Have Any Time Constraints?

Next thing you should consider, is when does the website need to go live AND do you have the time and resources to get there on time.  An obvious benefit of web design is that things can be changed. A builder building a house is screwed if he wants to change the room layout after it's been built, websites aren't limited to this.

If a client needs to release a site for legal/financial/technical/whatever by a certain date, then a theme can be a good option to consider.  I've worked on a project with a tight deadline with a lot of backend integration required.  A theme was purchased using the bootstrap grid.  The bulk of the work before the deadline was migrating their old legacy website into Umbraco.  After the deadline was met, designers were brought in, the theme was ditched and the frontend was re-done. 

In this approach, you halve the amount of complexity of a new build.  By agreeing with some temporary compromise of looks, the business needs were met.  Eventually, the business then got what they wanted in a great looking website.

What's your Budget?

A theme can be purchased for $25 I've worked on projects where the design and CSS build was been over $150,000.  If you're working on a hobby website, or you're working with a client who thinks the cost of building everything is high, then a theme is a good alternative.  A lot of business I've spoken to get put off by Umbraco due to the custom nature of it.  

Using a theme is a good approach for certain situations and clients.  For smaller clients, I personally prefer to try and save them money and spend time working on the things that will give them business benefits.  Just because something is built from scratch does not mean it will be higher quality.  I've seen designers write terrible HTML and CSS over the years.

If you have a client who wants a Ferrari and can afford one with very specific goals and design guidelines, I'd never consider using a third-party theme because in the long run, changing and bastardising it will probably end up taking longer and no one will be happy with the end result.