Using Pre Built Website Templates the Pros and Cons


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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:


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. Save Time

    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.

  5. 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.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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,

  4. Bad Techniques

    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.

  5. 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.

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  1. Looks like we’re both in the same boat here, Gary. I’d much rather use my own designs all the time, but sometimes time and budget constraints mean that this can not always happen.

    Living in Country Victory, many of my clients (often small, local businesses such as caravan parks, tradespeople, etc) do not see the value in a custom, unique design, and no amount of up-sell will convice them otherwise. They just want a website for the cheapest price. Normally I’m happy enough to let the hobbyist/high-school kids build these for $200, but sometimes there’s a genuine need to do these jobs (eg. friends and family, favors, non-profits, and referrals from other clients).

    In these cases, it’s much easier/cost effective to use a good template (from somewhere like as a starting point, but I’m always sure to try and customise it as much as I can within the budget. I just don’t like to put my “Made by…” credit at the bottom unless it’s sufficiently different.

  2. Gary,

    I’ve had conversations about this subject with some potential clients recently, and with several others over the last couple of years.

    From the some clients’ point of view, templated designs and/or non-proprietary CMS have a number of perceived benefits.

    Price is only one of them.

    Another is the perception that a website built with WordPress, Joomla, etc. will have a higher degree of portability. To put it another way, the perception is that the risk of being “locked in” to XYZ Web Development Company is minimised.

    Another reason is that on the surface, if we’re talking about small business websites for example, most people can’t tell the difference between “off the rack” and “made to measure”.

    Like every other product in the history of man, web technology is becoming commoditised. The challenge for all of us in the industry – designers, content writers or whatever – is to add genuine value and demonstrate to clients that that’s what we’re doing.

  3. There are many websites that offer to connect clients with a freelancer. These services often have many freelancers who bid on particular projects that clients post. Other services simply post projects and allow freelancers to submit a resume and samples of previous work. A freelancer often can find projects through word of mouth, from a former employer, or from classified ads in print as well as on the web.
    There is a large market from which a freelance writer can choose, and the sky is the limit as to what type of genre or how much work a freelance writer might have at any given time. A freelance writer whose specialty is fiction might dabble in poetry, short stories or e-books, or he might have an ongoing novel in the works. Many publishers will accept fiction but most freelance writers agree it is a much harder market to break into.

  4. I’ve had this discussion with people for years! It started back in the days when SEO’s started dishing out outsourced templates for $50 with their $300 SEO skills. Potential clients saw this as such a cool bargain.

    But what did they get? A 2 buck shop website. At the very most a Kmart website. Both do the trick, but like everything else you buy from there, there is no longevity. In the area of technology you have to have a reasonable amount of longevity, or you’re defeating the purpose.

    So then we have Valentino versus Kmart? With the ongoing use of mobile devices, how is the Kmart design going to hold up? Is it going to go into the wash & come out 4 sizes smaller & not fit? Most probably. So the client is spending just as much money on modifying the template as having a proper one built from the onset.

    The simple truth is the client gets what they pay for. I tell them this from the onset. Go to Kmart. You will be replacing it faster than your better quality website. No skin off my nose, because I get the job the second time around 🙂

  5. Are we talking like Monster Template here?

    There’s templates and then there’s designs. Templates look good, designs get results. There’s some overlap.

    A website should always have a goal, not for profits included, and all aspects of the site should work towards achieving those goals. Goals may include: increases in page views, leads generated, products purchased, etc.

    You’ll stand a much greater chance at achieving those goals with a custom design over a generic template.

  6. @Alex: We’re in agreement 100%. A specially tailored design is almost always going to perform better than an off-the-shelf template, but sometimes depending on the circumstances (and luckily I haven’t had to do it for years) time and budget constraints mean that the best way to get the job done within the budget and without working late into the night is to use something already made as a starting point.

    And sometimes you just find something ready-made that is almost EXACTLY what you have in mind. Why spend hours coding from scratch what you can get from for $10 and just replace the graphics with your own. Not ideal, but can help out in a pinch (and a lot of the code on those templates are actually written fairly well.)

    As for Monster Templates? God, no. Those things are horrendous to work with. Eww… 🙂

  7. @Mike – Yeah its a hard call between the clients budget and what you can do design wise.

    @James – I have always used systems that the client can get the maximum portability from. So in a way I have never considered the corporate lock in angle. Makes for a good selling point to a degree.

    @Alex – LOL not just the Monster, this applies to some templates from sites that have a reputation for good work. Just I really think I’m too fussy. But you are right a custom design will always be better.

    @Cindy – Its a cost factor some people like Kmart.

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