Why don’t you like builder themes?

I was recently asked by a WordPress 101 attendee to expand on why I don’t like “builder” or “drag-and-drop” themes. Since I get this question a lot, I figured I might as well publish my reply.

A quick note. Gutenberg is a game changer in this space. I’m on tenterhooks while I wait to see how the builder themes handle Gutenberg – and how Gutenberg will handle them. So everything in this post may become obsolete fairly soon.

I’ve never considered using a builder theme because I’m mostly a developer, not a designer. I write code to create a theme, instead of manipulating options in a builder. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method. A WordPress designer that is well-versed in Divi will be able to deliver a website of a certain style very quickly and cheaply. If I subcontract a designer, we can work together to create a unique, highly functional website. It’s usually a slower, more expensive, but higher quality process.

I have four issues with builder themes.

1. They make the user experience more complicated.

WordPress is already somewhat tricky to navigate. This can lead to a lot of frustration and lost time for someone that just wants to update the site. It can hard to get help, because WordPress documentation doesn’t always apply.

2. They often don’t play nice with the underlying WordPress software.

This can lead to poor performance or even more user frustration. I’ve had a lot of people with builder themes come to a meetup for help. I do my best, but usually there are at least two ways to come at every piece of the site – the WordPress way and the theme way. It’s roulette which one applies when.

Elegant Themes, the shop that makes Divi, is actually pretty good at their job. I used their themes for my non-custom clients before Divi got big and they stopped working on anything else. That plus the popularity suggests to me that Divi is probably less bad than a lot of other builder options.

3. Making sweeping changes can be tricky.

Website designs have a relatively short shelf life. Websites with trendy designs look old in a little as a year, where more conservative designs will show their age within three to five years. A savvy business owner will accept that they’re going to need to budget for a design change about every three years, depending on their area.

With vanilla WordPress, this process is fairly painless – just switch themes. But with a builder, you’re locked in. Changing themes means your content will need to be fixed, usually by hand. You’ll have to re-learn how to use the standard WordPress customizer and page editor.

If you stay within the builder theme, you’re probably still stuck making a lot of changes by hand, since the layout is customized on a per-page basis. This is a hunch, on my part. I hope I’m wrong, and that any builder worth its salt allows you to make sitewide changes. But I doubt it.

4. If you pick the wrong designer, you can end up in trouble.

This is always true, of course, but there’s a specific pitfall here. Designers usually use Divi to cut costs – by using a builder, they don’t have to hire a developer like me. And if all you need are words and pictures, that’s the right choice for a lot of folks – I can be overkill!

The problem is with designers that use Divi because they’re afraid of the underlying code and website technology. So if something goes wrong with a plugin, or your host, they can’t fix it.

It’s a good idea to find out from your designer what they would do if they ran into an issue like a plugin conflict or malware attack. I would also ask what they would do if they ran into an issue they didn’t know how to solve. The way they answer can tell you a lot about their skills outside of designing.

 

I also have a design philosophy issue with builder themes, but I won’t get into that here. Feel free to ask me – I’d love to write a post about it!