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When it comes time to decide the look and feel of your Shopify store, you basically have three options...

  • A full theme build, wherein every page on the site is made up of pre-styled templates

  • A full custom build, wherein every page is custom-designed to you and your brand

  • A “hybrid” approach, which bases the majority of the page on a theme and uses custom design for only a few

There are pros and cons to each approach, depending on your current needs: 

  • Theme-only websites are the least expensive option and the quickest to set up, but tend to be limited in the amount of customization you can do (read: branding). You also run the risk of having a website that looks just like everyone else’s built on that very same theme.

  • Fully custom websites offer the most branded experience and allow you complete control over every single aspect, but are more expensive to produce (you need design + development time) and can take longer.

The hybrid approach offers the best of both worlds: the affordable nature and quick setup of a theme, with the branding and unique opportunities provided by custom design.

If your budget for custom design is conservative, stick to the most high-impact pages: your homepage and your product page. If there’s a bit of money left in the till after those are done, a cart page should be next on the list.

All the other pages -- About, 404, FAQ, Collections, Blog, etc. -- and elements like the navigation menus and footer will be controlled by the theme. You (or the agency you’re working with, wink wink) can style those pages to match your brand within the limitations of the theme, but generally, that’s it. If you’re trying to keep things lean and mean, though, this should be fine to start with.

The hybrid approach has become incredibly popular with our clients, and as a result, we’ve interacted a lot with themes. Here’s what we’ve learned when helping clients choose the right theme for their Shopify store.

Choose Your Provider Wisely

Arguably, the most important decision you make is the very first one: from whom you’ll buy your theme. There are thousands of theme providers out there.

Chances are you’ll start browsing in Shopify’s own theme marketplace, which is stocked with both free and paid themes from a variety of vendors.

Unfortunately, Shopify’s marketplace doesn’t let you search for themes by vendor, which is a bit annoying because of what we're going to say next: avoid themes provided by Themeforest. (Bold, underline, italicize, !!!!, etc.)

We don’t know the folks over there and have no experience with them beyond working directly with their products, but TL;DR it has not gone well.

(The term “dumpster fire” is a popular term of endearment for Themeforest on our tech team, js.)

Our preferred vendor for Shopify themes is Out of the Sandbox. They’ve been producing high quality, well-respected themes since 2011, and Retina (one of theirs) is one of the most popular Shopify themes ever.

We like them because they’re laser focused on producing only a few themes of exceptional quality, instead of hundreds or even thousands of crappy cheap ones. Their code is clean, well-written, and organized. It’s easy to build on for the future, and easy for the merchant themselves to customize and maintain. Their customer support is also excellent.

Only Pay Attention to What You Need

If you’re pursuing a hybrid approach, it’s very easy to get distracted by pages in the theme you’re not ultimately going to use. For example, if you like the homepage of Theme X the best and all the other pages are just okay -- and you’re moving ahead with a custom designed homepage -- you’re going to have an AWESOME homepage and a “meh” everything else.

Pay detailed attention only to the areas and pages you need. (OOTS has a great guide here for specific elements you can compare side-by-side between themes to help make decisions.)

Your design and development team will find it extra helpful if you jot down what you like and don’t like about certain themes as you’re browsing, too.

Don’t Get Distracted By Branding

If you’re demoing the Turbo theme in Seoul, try not to get hung up on the colors and fonts of the example brand. Yeah, it’s REALLY easy, but try to stick to the fundamentals of the theme and remember that you can apply your branding elements sitewide.

Understand What You’re Buying

Most OOTS themes consist of two parts: the theme (Artisan) and the style (Phoenix, Barcelona, and Victoria). Styles are variations of the theme, and every theme purchase comes with all the styles listed in the dropdown menu.

You’ll be prompted to choose a default style when you install the theme on your store, but you can technically use any of the elements in any of the styles.

For example, if you’re working with a development team and you chose Phoenix as the default style, but prefer the blog layout of the Barcelona option, we can make that happen. (Gets a bit trickier trying to do this by yourself, if you don’t already have coding knowledge.) 

OOTS only offers 7 themes in total, but some have quite a few styles. Flex, which is their most robust theme, has a whopping 13 different options! 

(Flex is the favorite of our Technical Director, Mallory, because it offers the most “tools in the toolbox.” This means that we can look right in the theme for solutions to what you want, instead of having to build it from scratch.) 

While Out of the Sandbox is (obviously) our far-and-away favorite, there are plenty of other reputable theme vendors out there. Make sure to do your research and read user reviews. You can always ask our opinion, too! While we can’t actually see any of the code until you buy it (and thus what we can determine is limited), it doesn’t hurt to have an expert’s opinion.

Good luck!

Topics: Design, Shopify, Creativity