It’s one of those wet August days in Perth when the sunny and rain just can’t make up their mind who really wants to be the dominate partner. In a similar way a web design business can wrestle with a similar issue. Do you use someone else’s pre-built templates or do you roll your own designs.
Between User Experience and Information Architecture gigs I usually squeeze in a little standard front end web site development. Over the years I have rolled my own, designing each website from scratch to the final interactive site. I have prided myself in this production of a higher quality result that my clients where looking for. Something unique that they knew was a once off.
However in the last year or so I have been thinking, is that really what people want. After all it’s just web design, its not like we are producing a fine arts masterpiece or the like. It’s commercial throwaway pixels. To this end I have been experimenting with using pre-built templates for some of my clients. Yes I admit it, I have strayed. Now the interesting thing is there are a number of benefits and pitfalls with using these templates:
It’s About Profit.
From a pure business view you really are there to maximise profit. It’s a cold hard fact that no one in the industry will talk about. As a creative you are too often concerned with the technical aspect of the design, from the user experience to the beauty of the final product. From a project management view, it’s about minimum hours for maximum profit. If you can turn around a design for a client in a few hours and charge out for 5 times that amount, then that is a good thing. Using pre-built templates allows you to do this very easily.
Platform is not at Issue
These days the professional pre-built templates often come in a variety of different platforms from WordPress, Joolma, Drupal, various e commerce systems and even basic HTML layouts. So there really is no excuse to be restricted by the template and the platform.
A Refreshing Change
Having someone else outside of your usual creatives design a site allows for a fresh approach to a design view point, this can often win a client over with an alternative design outside your usual stable of concepts.
Just like you are saving money on using a professional template, you are also saving time to a degree (see below for clarification), as you at least have a prepackaged starting point. You can also often present to the client a range of design concept proofs very quickly.
New View, New techniques
You are not just getting a new design, you are being exposed to other people’s techniques in terms of CSS and HTML. Good or bad, it’s a different view point. Sometime we just need that as we can all get very stale with our own code or that of the other freelancers we tend to work with.
Don’t Assume it’s Good
The templates may look very stylish from the outside, design wise. However I have found that they are often either the bare minimum of code to express the design or a mish-mash of tag soup. There seems at best to be a distinct lack of professional code. Maybe I’m just being to hard on my fellow web professionals, but the terms like web standards, the best practice seem to a very loose and fast application in the world of professional template production.
Completeness is a Dirty Word
A well designed template will have been tested against a suite of data types and scenarios that will allow for a large degree of flexibility while still maintaining the interface look and feel. That’s what you would expect. Be prepared to get something that is a more of half arsed attempt at this. Again it’s going to mean that you have to drop into the code and fix the lack of the completeness.
Burning Time for Perfection
I am a perfectionist, I’ll give no quarter on that front, small details in a design tend to drive me crazy. I have a habit of correcting bad code or imperfect designs. In a good way using a template does force you to stop fussing over minor points of the design. However in some cases you really need to change the methods used in the code so that it fits into your workflow and makes it easier to maintain in the future. This is going to cost, sometimes beyond the savings that can be made using templates. In reality it comes down to the longevity of the client and what future modifications they may require,
Don’t expect all the techniques in use to be good or well thought out before they where implemented. This is especially true for CSS. I have often found that the hacks to implement the intended design (especially for Internet Explorer) can be an little dubious at best. Overall the techniques just seem to lack the experience of a good web designer. I guess in a way I’m projecting my own skills. Still it’s just little things like a good CSS layout structures, correct use if inheritance, and naming techniques that really do show how much experience author has.
Cost Effective, Maybe
It’s just amazing how you are working on a very strict budget with a template design and suddenly the client wants something simple like a colour change that suddenly means a template rework. This is where if it was your design it would be more cost effective to make the change in design direction. However with a template, that is not the case, you are often working with photoshop files that have had masking and effects layers rendered, so simple things like a slight colour change can suddenly go from a few minutes work to an hour or so of working the design.
After all this what’s the main things I’ve take away from all this are – In an industry where the business dollar talks, and with the latest software you can turn around a photoshop design into an interactive web site in about 20-30 minutes by using table layouts. Is there still a place for unique designs that are hand coded. I frankly would sadly say for the average client, no. The ways of the craftsman are disappearing just as hand made furniture and cars have done in the past.
Maybe it’s time to go design some templates.