Customizing WordPress: A comparison of approaches

Repeating WordPress logo

One of the great things about WordPress is its customizability. Whether you use a purchased or fully custom theme, there’s very little your WordPress site can’t be built to do. Although we could spend all day talking about the myriad purchased theme options available (and we may still do that in the future!), we will use this blog post to discuss the content management approaches we use most frequently on our WordPress websites and why. 

A brief (hopefully not too pedantic) overview of WordPress

At its heart, WordPress (or WP or WordPress.org) is a web content management system (CMS). And CMSes are groups of tools that help users who aren’t developers create and manage their website content. When WP first launched way back in 2003, it was strictly a blog publishing tool. However, over the last two decades, it’s evolved to support other web content like forums, media galleries, membership sites, eCommerce, and, of course, traditional websites. 

As you have likely experienced, these different types of content usually have vastly different requirements compared to a simple blog entry from both data and display perspectives. There are many different ways to meet these needs during development (another topic we’d like to delve more into at a later date), but for our purposes today, we’ll focus on content management and the two custom design approaches we use most often to set our clients’ websites up for success.

Designing a custom WordPress theme, in lay terms

We’ve come a long way since the days when every web page was a wall of text with very little, if any, interactivity. Those of us who had early blogs on WordPress, Tumblr, and LiveJournal remember the text entry boxes and inserting lines of code to change the color, add italics, or even break up the text into paragraphs. But not everyone did this, and it’s by no means an expectation that everyone who enters content on a website today understands the evolution from that to what we work with now. 

With this in mind, we design and configure WordPress sites to meet our clients’ unique content management needs. No matter the approach, we can use Advanced Custom Fields (ACFs) to allow users to change heading levels, colors, padding/margins, or any other desired design details on each page. For example, the person entering content can choose from predefined colors labeled as “primary,” “secondary,” or another brand color rather than allowing them to choose from any color. This gives you more freedom and control than a prebuilt, interactive pagebuilder while still remaining consistent and adhering to your branding. 

We’ve worked with many clients across industries, and while each of them has different markets, data, and purposes for their websites, there are a couple of ways to manage content that we find ourselves revisiting over and over again: 

Simple web pages with one-dimensional, template-style fields

wordpress template graphic with acf fields

This is a more fixed approach when it comes to designing custom web pages. Using ACFs, we create a practical template for content entry on each page. Whoever inputs the content on the CMS dashboard can provide only the text that fits into the provided fields. They cannot change, move, or remove fields within that form or on the page. 

The main advantage of this is that it protects your design system and provides a consistent and predictable user experience throughout the page. Since the person inputting the content can only add or change text in those fields, these pages can also be efficiently coded with more complicated design elements that won’t change or glitch when the content is changed, making it a very stable option. 

On the other hand, the layout and page organization are relatively unchangeable, meaning that when you want to update something that falls outside the designated entry form, you must rely on a developer. This can become cumbersome and costly, depending on your resources.

We find that the one-dimensional approach is beneficial for pages with relatively immutable content that need to include eye-catching design, like homepages, contact or location pages, and “about us” pages, but there are plenty of websites out there that solely rely on this approach. As we said earlier, it all depends on what each business needs.

Component-based web design with multi-dimensional, building-block style fields

Illustration of component-based web design

Think of a component as a smaller piece of a web page or website: a block of text, an adjacent image or video, a list of related blog entries, a “Contact Us” call to action, etc. With a component-based website builder (we colloquially call this “building block style”), you can create and manage complex, dynamic pages by assembling various components on a page. 

Rather than a static set of fields to edit in your CMS, you can select any number of customizable components that you would like to use on the page and display them in any order you want, highlighting your content exactly the way you envision. Once you choose a component, you are offered a group of Advanced Custom Fields to populate with content, similar to the simpler system we discussed above. The main difference is that YOU are empowered to pick the groups of fields that work best for you and the order in which they appear on the page.

The primary advantage of components is the flexibility they provide for the appearance of the content. For example, you don’t have to call a developer if you want to move your call to action (CTA) higher on a landing page: with componentized design, you simply put the CTA block where you want it! When we design components, we provide your team with brand-adherent, beautiful building blocks that you can use to tell the unique story that you want to cover on the pages that use them. You can have as many or as few fields as you want for any page and decide how the components are used.

The disadvantage to components is the larger upfront effort to design blocks that are both flexible enough for the requirements of all content possibilities and cohesive with one another no matter how you use them. With great power comes great responsibility, after all. 

Since components are so flexible, they are particularly great for dynamic content, like landing pages, blogs, case studies, and complex inventory listings. 

Many WordPress websites need both

For many WordPress sites, we use a mix of one-dimensional content entry and multi-dimensional components for different pages and use cases. Some pages of most websites need to be simple; others should necessarily be more complex. Using a careful strategic approach, we can help you decide where best to allocate resources toward each content management approach in an impactful and financially responsible way.

Interested in a custom WordPress site?

We’ve been at this for a while and think we’re pretty good at what we do. Feel free to check out our work and reach out with any questions about your next WordPress project: we’d love to help.