How sophisticated should my website be?

A great website is a union between form and function—an equal emphasis on visual design and user experience.

So it’s helpful to define sophistication as a combination of form and function.

It can be easy to slide into favoring the form. People say, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” While that is true, clients do seek a meaningful experience throughout the business relationship. Initially, it depends on how your website looks, but it also matters how well it works.

The sophistication of your website mostly depends on the budget you set.


If you have a small business or you’re planning your first website, your budget might be $1,000 or less. A mid-sized budget would be $1,500+ and could use a website template that is heavily customized so it looks original when complete. Or you can commission a custom project that usually starts at $5,000.

When you have a small to mid-sized budget, your website visitors should find accurate information and be able to get to know you better. Even if the entire customer experience isn’t provided through the website itself, the website should be simple to navigate on any device and inspire trust while connecting visitors to the next milestone of a planned customer journey.

If your budget is larger, you can accomplish more, but those enhancements still fall into the two main categories of user experience or visual design.

User Experience

Your website’s user experience—how visitors interact with your website—will be influenced by your choice of a platform.


There are three types of website platforms. You should choose one based on the kind of experience you want for your website visitors, but your budget may automatically decide this for you.

  1. a website builder $
  2. a content management system $$
  3. a custom development $$$
1. Website Builders

Website builders are made for do-it-yourself types. Examples include Squarespace, Weebly, and Wix. Professional web designers won’t use a website builder unless you specifically request it. Why? Builders can limit the sophistication of your website. However, if a client asked me to tutor them on how to use a website builder so they could manage their own website, I would consider it. I worked in adult education for 10 years and tutored adults in technology skills. If you want to have the satisfaction of creating and maintaining your own website, you probably won’t outgrow a website builder. Website builders cater to the do-it-yourself experience more than the user experience of your website visitors.

2. Content Management Systems

Content management systems are the most versatile option. They are the best choice for small to medium-sized websites that showcase collections. They’re used by artists and freelancers with blogs, galleries, playlists, or podcasts; nonprofits who share community resources or member information; and retail stores with seasonal products and a sizable inventory. The most popular content management system is WordPress, followed by Joomla! and Drupal.

Content management systems deliver a great user experience because they are rooted in the idea of an organized and logical presentation of content that is designed specifically for the ease of your visitors. A long-term benefit to using a content management system is the ability to retain your content and change the visual design every 3-5 years to keep up with trends. They are also packed with monetization features that make your endeavor profitable. Depending on your tech abilities, you may be able to learn how to update basic information, but it comes with a high learning curve.

3. Custom Development

While any kind of endeavor may use a custom development, it really makes the most sense for brands with a national or global identity. Who else uses them? Corporations, government, and educational institutions can afford custom developments and they often unite them with a content management system so they can grant lower levels of access to employees who update content. If a custom website is not connected to a content management system, the only way to update your site is through your developer.

What can custom developments do? They are created in response to a specific list of your own must-have elements. One common reason would be to facilitate the display of a collection of content existing outside of your website that you want to bring in through an integration with an established database. Examples include properties from real estate listings or books from an online catalog.

Visual Design

Your website’s visual design—what your visitors see—will be influenced by your choice of a theme.


Just like platforms, there are three types of website themes. You should choose one based on the kind of experience you want for your visitors, but your budget may automatically decide this for you.

  1. a free theme
  2. a premium theme $/$$
  3. a custom theme $$$

Here are some representative choices of what you will see with

Free themes start on the left, providing the traditional website layout. As you move to the right, you can see how they get more complex, re-prioritizing the placement and prominence of menus, contact information, and dynamic content. This is just a sampling that illustrates an overall approach to theme design. Click on each of the images to enlarge.

1. Free Themes

Website builders and content management systems offer a reasonable number of free themes. It would be natural to figure that free themes are less effective than premium or custom themes, but that’s not exactly true. A simple free theme is easier on the eyes and has more potential to inspire visitors to move forward with a call to action. When too much information is presented on the front page of a website, it increases the chance that visitors will be distracted before they do what you hope. A free theme is great for first websites with limited content, but if your project depends on regular content generation, you may outgrow it quickly.

2. Premium Themes

When you want the visual design of your website to make more impact, you can purchase a premium theme that your web designer will optimize. At, premium themes range from $39 to $125. Beyond that, there is an overwhelming number of independent themes at a variety of price points. When you choose the right premium theme, it can add a perception of authority, but you’ll need to spend extra time creating content with your web designer to fill the theme with interesting photos, writing, and information that sound every bit as credible as your visual design looks. A premium theme is great for refreshing an existing website, but it’s important to choose one that can last 3-5 years without feeling dated.

3. Custom Themes

Custom themes impress visitors with strong graphics and movement. They place emphasis on the aesthetic presentation and inspire credibility. They might be purely visual and pertain to the surface layout, but they can also go a level deeper. For example, your theme could be designed to pull content from other areas of your website so it can be showcased attractively on your front page or within side columns. It’s worth noting that custom designs are not necessary for most projects. If a custom design is being pitched to you but it’s not based on a requirement you have set, it would be wise to shop around.


Focus first on what you want your visitors to be able to do. That’s choosing your platform. Then focus on your visual design. That’s choosing your theme. Websites don’t have to be incredibly expensive to be effective. They just need to rely on sound design principles with thoughtful content that naturally inspires your visitors to take the next step in your customer journey.

Interested in a high-level overview of visual design principles applied to websites? Read more.