With the rise in popularity of various page builder plugins and especially since WordPress introduced page builder-like capabilities within its block and site editors, there have been discussions about whether premium WordPress themes are becoming irrelevant.
WordPress users now have access to more layout-building tools than ever before and they are becoming easier to use. So, if anyone can build almost any layout from scratch using any free theme and a page builder or WordPress block editor, what’s the point of buying a theme!?
At first glance this question seems to have merit, however, it also shows a lack of understanding of what you pay for when you buy a premium WordPress theme. Let’s discuss this in more detail.
Evolution of Themes in the Last Ten Years
To understand how things changed for themes and how we came from themes being the driver of WordPress growth to discussing if they are relevant I’ll do a quick recap of the evolution of themes in the last ten years.
In the online world, ten years seems like an eternity. There have been major changes in the WordPress ecosystem in the last decade and especially in the last 5 years. If you used themes 5 to 10 years ago then you can probably remember what a wild west it was back then. Almost every theme had a different options panel and had its own logic, and changing themes required learning new ways of doing things. However, having a good theme was more or less the only way to be able to create anything other than a simple one-column layout.
Then came the first page builders and soon themes came out that depended on a page builder plugin and you were required to install it for the theme to properly work. In a way, many themes stopped being standalone units as without the plugin, they were not able to do much.
The reason page builder plugins became so popular was that they were solving a real problem and the problem was that at that point WordPress offered almost no layout-building options. So, if your theme didn’t offer a certain layout option the only option you had was to hire a developer to create it for you.
Then the WordPress customizer came out and everybody hated it at first. However, soon many theme developers chose to use the customizer to offer theme options instead of custom-made option panels. I found that to be a good thing cause customers started getting a more unified experience when using a WordPress theme. However, to create page layouts they still needed a page builder plugin or built-in theme layout features.
Then came the block editor ( started as the Gutenberg project ) and it was hated even more than the customizer. In the beginning for a good reason, it was way too clunky to be production ready, but it improved greatly since its introduction. Lastly, the site editor got introduced with WordPress 5.9, and among other things, it enabled complete control over the header and footer of a supporting theme.
So, with the latest version of WordPress, it is now possible to create page and post layouts as well as footers and headers from scratch with any theme that supports full site editing.
Legacy VS Modern Block Themes?
As you can see in the last chapter, the themes, in a way, went from being the only tools that enabled you to create more complex layouts to be first and foremost a design tool that helps you create professional-looking websites. For me, this is where themes need to be.
Especially now with WordPress block and site editors, theme authors can take advantage of WordPress’ built-in page-building tools and focus on creating beautiful designs in form of block patterns and putting them together in a way to create a natural flow of a website. Modern block themes with full site editing capabilities, like the award-winning Basti, Yuna, or Avalon are great examples of what can be done without the use of a 3rd party page builder.
Block WordPress themes bring two major advantages over legacy themes.
- a unified experience for a person using block themes. When switching from one block theme to another the interface stays the same, only the design and options change.
- block themes no longer rely on 3rd party page builder plugins and one big plugin less often means faster loading times and fewer worries over the security of your website.
Does it mean that page builders will no longer be used? No.
Page builders are great tools and sometimes can bring functionality that your site needs and is not available in the block editor or your theme. However, in many cases, built-in WordPress tools designed by your theme are more than enough, and installing an additional page-building engine simply wouldn’t make much sense.
What is the Value of a Premium Theme?
Let’s first check the current prices of premium WordPress themes. Most themes nowadays cost between $59 and $99 for a yearly subscription or between $149 and $299 as a one-time purchase. This includes access to premium support and updates. If this is expensive or cheap is relative. To one person this might look expensive while to another the same price will be fine or even seem cheap.
If we put things into a different perspective, a single hour of work by an experienced designer or developer will cost more than an average yearly price of a theme that took hundreds of hours to create, then the price looks more than reasonable. If we divide yearly into monthly prices then the price of a premium theme is equal to the price of 1-2 coffees or 1 beer, or 4 liters of gas a month.
However, this is probably not the right way to look at the value of a theme.
To me, the value of premium WordPress themes boils down to a person who wants to build a website. Value is a personal matter and a couple of factors play a role in it. The value of one’s time, web design skill level, and budget.
Tools Cannot Replace a Skilled Web Designer
Not too long ago, before themes came along, the only way to build a website was to hire a web designer. This was not cheap fun and for a simple website, it would easily cost you 4-5 thousand dollars/euros/pounds. That was in times when that kind of money was worth way more than today. If money is not an object this is still an option and with a good web designer it’ll probably get you good results.
Since WordPress themes came along you have got a choice. You can get a well-designed premium theme and then hire a web designer to set up your site using that theme or you could roll up your sleeves and set it all up yourself. In both cases, by simply investing in a premium theme you are saving quite a bit of cash.
Hiring a web designer to set up your theme would still come at a cost, but already way lower in comparison with hiring a designer to build the site from scratch. The option to do it yourself is, of course, even more, budget-friendly, however, it requires a larger time investment and some WordPress skills.
The last option that arose with the availability of so many free tools is to design a website from scratch using only these free tools. While surely the most budget-friendly option it is not for everyone as it requires to design and WordPress skills to get things right as well as a lot of free time to do the work. The lack of premium support is also a downside that can cost quite a lot of time and nerves along the way.
For me, premium WordPress themes were always about saving time, money, and nerves by leveraging someone else’s design talent and time put into creating them and relying on their help if something goes wrong. This hasn’t changed and I don’t think it will soon. Investing in a well-designed premium theme with reliable support is still well worth the price. It produces great results at a reasonably low price point while saving tons of time. Access to premium support also provides peace of mind and this alone, for many people, is worth the investment.