by Sacha Greif
Alongside my primary income stream, which is my web design freelance business, I’ve also been selling themes and templates for content management systems and publishing platforms like WordPress for close to two years now.
Although theme design can seem like the promised land for web designers and web developers — with some theme authors making tens of thousands of dollars from a single theme alone — it’s actually more like a gold rush: a chosen few hit it big, but only after putting in a lot of hard work.
Here is a short guide to help you decide if getting into professional theme designing is for you.
No Clients? No Problem!
One of the main reasons why designers start designing themes is simply because they might not have anything else to do.
Whether you’re fresh out of design school, have recently begun freelancing, or are simply experiencing a dry spell, finding clients can sometimes be hard.
Designing a theme lets you get to work right away without having to wait for a project to fall in your lap.
Of course, contrary to a “real” client, there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever make any money off your theme.
But if the alternative is doing nothing while your design skills erode, you might as well get to work on that theme.
Plus, theme design is a great way to build a portfolio and get valuable experience, which in turn will help you get new clients.
Build It and They Will Come
Building on my previous point, theme design can be a very effective way of getting your name out there and attracting clients. When you build a website, your work is seen by every user. Now multiply that by the number of people using your theme for their own site, and you’ll understand that you can reach a very large audience. And add to this all the people who come across your work while looking for a theme, even if they don’t end up using yours.
Having a real tangible product that people use every day makes a big difference, and will help you build strong relationships with customers and potential clients.
Another big part of the appeal of theme design is that it’s egalitarian: No matter where you went to school, where you live, who you know, or how old you are, the only thing that counts is the quality of your work.
Even though the world is a lot flatter thanks to the Internet, a company in New York would probably not entrust its $5,000 site redesign to a 16 year old from Mumbai that they found through Google. On the other hand, that company would have no problem buying a $50 theme from that same 16 year old.
Passive Income (or “How to Retire While You’re Still Young”)
I’m surprised to see how many people don’t know the difference between active and passive income.
To put it simply, active income is the money you earn while actually working, while passive income is not linked to the time you put in, and usually comes from things like product sales or investments.
There’s a simple test to know if your income is active or passive: Do you earn money while you sleep? If the answer is “no”, then this means your income is of the active kind; your revenue is attached to the time you put in, and the only way to earn more is to work more. A traditional web design business is active income.
The problem with this is that there are a limited number of hours in a day, which in turns limits your income. So unless you become a design superstar and get paid hundreds/thousands of dollars by the hour (and raise your prices every year on top of that), your revenue streams will eventually reach its limit.
This might not be a problem right now, but what if you get sick and are unable to work for a month? What if you want to take a vacation? And what if you need to provide for your family, or plan for retirement?
Theme design is one of the few sources of passive income available to web designers, and probably the only one that lets you actually design. For example, writing a blog or an e-book can also be good sources of passive income, but not every designer enjoys writing, so designing/coding premium themes can be an alternative.
The $50 Theme versus the $5,000 Website
You’d be tempted to assume that, provided a client has the budget, a custom-made $5,000 website will always serve them better than a cheap $50 WordPress theme.
But this is far from certain: if your clients are like mine, at the end of that $5,000, they get a brand new website, but have ran out of money to pay for things like copy writing, video production, or additional marketing.
Wouldn’t the result be much better if the client had used a $50 theme, and the remaining $4,950 had gone into content creation instead of design?
I know it sounds suicidal coming from a web designer, but I’m pretty sure most clients will figure it out by themselves eventually anyway.
The truth is that not everybody needs a custom-made site. Only a few people buy custom-made cars or even custom-made houses, there will come a point where a website becomes the same way.
As more and more people realize this, I believe the theme market will only get bigger. So this is another good argument to enter the field now while the iron is hot.
Dan H. Pink’s Drive is a great book about motivation. It shows that the old “carrot and stick” way of motivating people is outdated and doesn’t work for complex tasks. Instead, he puts forward three key principles that make work motivating: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
Theme design gives you a lot of autonomy. You’re usually working alone or in small groups, and you’re responsible for every choice you make. The fact that you’re selling a product to consumers instead of working for clients means that you feel less pressure from any single buyer and are less likely to get bossed around (unless you really take customer support to extremes).
It also gives you a real feeling of mastery. To be able to say you’ve mastered a craft, you need to be able to track some kind of metric to know your progress — sales is the perfect metric for this. If you see that every theme you publish is generating more sales than the previous one, you’ll know you’re making good progress and getting better at what you do.
And finally, you’ll get a real sense of purpose once you see how people are using your themes. It can be very gratifying to know that your work helped someone launch their personal site or their startup.
But It’s Not All Gravy…
If I stopped writing here, you’d probably wonder why everybody isn’t out there designing their own WordPress themes or site templates. Everything sounds so peachy!
But the truth is that there are also serious downsides to professional theme designing, and you should be aware of them before entering the field.
Nobody Likes Working for Free
Nobody likes working for free, but if you decide to enter the theme design market, I can almost guarantee that you’ll end up doing just that.
Even the top theme authors can produce themes that don’t sell. And when that happens, you’ll have spent hundreds of hours to earn a meager few hundred dollars.
You will then be faced with the hard decision of whether to invest even more time in the theme to try and make it more attractive to buyers or scrap it and move on to the next project.
I Hope You Like Long Hours
Theme design takes a ton of time. First, you have to come up with a design, slice it up, and code it into HTML/CSS.
Then comes the fun part: developing the WordPress /Drupal/Blogger theme.
Oh, and don’t forget cross-browser testing, adding multiple color schemes, custom options, and writing the documentation.
And that’s only before the theme is launched. After the launch, you’ll have to take care of promotion, customers support, and bug fixes. You can safely assume that about 30% of the work happens after a theme is published. So if you’re trying to see if theme design is going to be profitable for you, be sure to factor this in your calculations.
Don’t Ignore Competition
While 37Signals famously advises ignoring and underdoing the competition, you might not want to heed that advice when you enter the theme design arena.
The market is very crowded, competition is extremely stiff, and the quality level is through the roof. Most themes offer design on the same level as any custom-made site — with far more features.
If you want to be successful, you’ll have to compete on all fronts: Customers are receptive to good design, but also compare every theme’s features, so you can’t afford to be found lacking in that area.
And of course, if a competitor undercuts you in price, you will probably have very bad consequences on your sales, too. And then you’re also competing with free themes…
It’s Really Hard
Finally, theme designing in the professional level is hard. In fact, it’s harder than traditional web design: Imagine having to design a site without any content or guidelines.
Oh, and instead of pleasing just one client, it has to appeal to thousands of potential buyers. But it should still be different from all the themes already on the market and must bring something new to the table if you want to gain an advantage.
From a technical point of view, you’ll have to make sure your theme works in all browsers, and across all possible server configurations (Apache, IIS, nginx).
And you have to do all of this before even earning a cent. Your theme could be a total flop and all that time you invested would have gone to waste.
If you’re considering entering the theme design market, this should give you a few elements to help you make a decision.
Personally, I don’t regret selling themes at all, but on the other hand, I also wouldn’t do it full time. I’ve reached a good balance between themes and regular web design gigs, and I hope you’ll be able to find your own path as well.
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About the Author
Sacha Greif is a web designer from Paris, France who specializes in user interfaces and theme design. Visit his personal site at sachagreif.com. He blogs about design at AttackOfDesign.com and his latest WordPress portfolio theme is Silverio. Follow him on Twitter: @SachaGreif