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by Michael P. Hill July 06, 2016

One of the great things about pre-built Shopify themes is that they are easy to get up and running in a short time — however, there are some cases when you may want to consider getting a custom Shopify theme.

Most commonly, stores that either have highly specialized functionality requirements or want a unique design will benefit the most from a custom Shopify theme.

For example, stores that sell items that need specialized product layout pages to best showcase the products or gather detailed variant options may find a pre-built Shopify theme too limiting. Other specialized functionality such as advanced navigation (such as mega menus with multiple images), complex filtering or informational pages with unique layouts are other good candidates for custom themes.

Likewise, a store that has strict branding requirements or needs to push the envelope with design may find it difficult to find and adapt an existing theme to meet these requirements.

All that said, it’s vital to consider if the custom functionality and design are absolutely essential for your store and business, especially if you’re just starting out.

Not only is there a substantial cost to commissioning a custom Shopify theme that represents a significant upfront investment, but stores that are just starting out likely aren’t going to have an adequate idea of what will resonate with users.

Because of this, you can also err on the side of investing $180 or less rather than thousands of dollars — and using the time to gather feedback and get new ideas for your eventual custom theme.

On the other hand, modifying a pre-built Shopify theme too much can cause issues down the road, especially when it comes to upgrading. Because of this, you should consider, based on your store’s unique needs and business plan, where the “tipping point” is that it makes more sense to go custom.

That said, stores that only sell a small quantity of products or only need base ecommerce functionality will more than likely find using a pre-built Shopify theme, even with some customizations, just fine for the entire life of the store.

How to get a custom Shopify theme

If you’re interested in having a custom Shopify theme created, there are several routes you can take:


The first option is to use a Web design, development or marketing agency that specializes in this type of project. This is typically the most expensive route, but also is most likely to yield the best results.

With this approach, you’ll likely have access to a team of designers, account managers and other experts who will all bring their expertise to your project. This means your project can also encompass marketing strategies, custom photography, POS, etc. as well as shop design and setup, but this will all be reflected in the total project cost as well.

You’ll also want to find out if the agency will write the HTML, CSS, JavaScript and Liquid code in house or outsource to a third party and, if so, who will manage that part of the project.

Estimated cost: $10,000 or more


You can also hire a freelancer or freelance team to work on your project. This is typically less expensive, but you’ll also need to be prepared to be more hands-on since you may be working with only one or two people.

You’ll also likely miss out on the opportunities to work with team members who have a wider range of experience in areas such as conversion optimization, marketing and content creation.

Also be sure to ask if any part of your project will be outsourced. It’s not uncommon for someone with design skills to sell you a package deal and then outsource part of the project. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s important to understand that it does add a layer of communication and management to the project that could have an effect on timelines, as well as boost the cost.

This approach also will require you to manage the project closely, including possibly serving as an intermediary between the designer and team that creates the code for the theme.

This option is a good choice if you’re more limited on budget but are still willing to get your hands dirty and work closely on your project.

Estimated cost: $5,000 or more

Markup only

If you have Web design skills, you could also try your hand at designing your store in Photoshop or Illustrator and then hiring what’s known as a markup service to convert your static design into HTML, CSS, JavaScript and Liquid code.

This approach will require you to be very hands on not only in the design, but in other areas as well. It will be essential that you consider the look and functionality of every type of Shopify page (plus all of the various responsive designs) and clearly communicate this to your markup team.

Markup teams are typically located overseas, so there’s often a bit of a language barrier, so be prepared to be patient and have multiple rounds of revisions and fixes.

This approach is not recommended if you’re only interested in designing the site, as extensive, detail-oriented project management skills are also essential.

Estimated cost: $2,500 or more (plus your design and project management time)

A combination

You can also use a combination of the approaches above, with a mixed price tag to go with it.

Do it yourself

If you’re a design guru and also can handle code, there’s also the possibility of creating the entire custom Shopify theme from scratch — which includes designing it and writing all of the necessary markup.

Obviously, this is the most hands-on and complicated way to get a custom Shopify theme, but if you have experience in developing websites it can be a good option and an opportunity to learn some great new skills. If it turns out really well, you might even consider selling the theme in the Shopify Theme store or other theme marketplaces.

Estimated cost: Nothing other than your time

Due diligence

No matter which way you chose to go, you’ll want to make sure that the team you’re working with have completed multiple successful custom Shopify theme projects in the past — and can provide you with examples of that work including live shops.

It’s important to understand that Shopify customization work is much different than creating a custom theme from scratch. There are numerous details and moving parts that come with creating a custom Shopify theme that only experienced teams will be familiar with.

Budget and timelines

As with any custom design and development project, budgets and timelines can easily go out the window. It’s vital that you pay close attention to feature creep (link) as well as get back to your team with any necessary approvals or communication as soon as possible.

If you do start a custom Shopify theme design project, it’s important to understand that this type of project typically takes at least a few months to do right — and can even stretch to a year or more.

In other words, it’s unrealistic to expect that you can go live with a custom theme in just a few weeks.

In general, a rule of thumb is to take any timeline estimates you’re given and double it. While this may seem extreme, this strategy also helps ensure you’re being realistic about the scope of your project and will launch with a site you’re happy with and not one you had to launch just because the deadline hit.

Finally, it’s a good idea to avoid mentioning a launch date for the new store design until everything has been approved and is nearly complete. There are always bugs and changes that come up at the last minute that can push launch dates, and you may want to do a ‘soft launch’ first anyway (where you’re live but can test quietly before driving any traffic to your site).


Since the Web is a dynamic medium that can change at any time, it’s also important to weigh the pros and cons of when it’s time to go live. There will likely always be little things that you wish you could fix or change, but it’s not worth delaying your launch just for those.

Instead, consider going live with your site and gather feedback from users, friends and your staff. You might find that something you thought was a big issue isn’t — or needs an entirely different approach.

While Out of the Sandbox doesn't do custom theme design or development, we have a list of great folks who do! Look under the "Shopify Projects" section of that page for our picks.

Michael P. Hill
Michael P. Hill

Michael P. Hill is a Shopify, Shopify theme, content marketing, digital marketing and product management expert based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelphill or connect on LinkedIn.

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