Agencies Should Stop Designing Websites
Long before I was a web programmer and even longer before I was an agency owner, I entered this industry as a graphic designer. Art is in my blood. In elementary school, my classmates would gather around my desk and watch me draw pictures instead of creating their own. In high school, I didn't even have to complete my assignments -- teachers would ace my work because they assumed I'd made something good. But even after a lifetime of art appreciation, I think the time has come for agencies to stop designing websites from scratch. Let me tell you why.
It's the natural progression of our industry.
The only virgin territory left was creative design. And it may have remained so indefinitely if it weren't for a disruptive invention called the "blog." Because blogging platforms were aimed at non-programmers, the look-and-feel of the blog sites had to be as easy to personalize as the content. Enter the Theme. Now site publishers could create a great-looking site, choosing from thousands of available layout templates. Some of them were wonderfully-designed. Some sucked. But, their use wasn't going to be limited to aspring media moguls -- even major news outlets were running their sites on these 3rd-party themes. With the demonstrated optimization of their code, it was hard to justify starting from scratch.
With custom backgrounds, icons, typefaces and logo, a template website can look professional and be unrecognizable as a 3rd-party theme.
With so many major sites within the blog category running on great-looking 3rd-party templates, can we really expect this practice to not expand into other mainstream categories, such as corporate sites, microsites, landing pages and beyond? Not when you consider these benefits:
Third-Party templates are coded better
No matter how much time and care you put into coding a custom design, you won't know how buggy it is until it's been released to the world. It's simply impossible to adequately test for every possible browser/version/platform combination.
Third-party themes, on the other hand, frequently have hundreds of websites already running on them, and you can see support forums with numerous issue threads, where obscure bugs have been uncovered and resolved. Not on your dime, but on theirs.
Further, knowing that their code will be subject to feedback from an enormous developer community, theme developers tend to use best practices for resets, libraries, optimization and conventions.
Lastly, many of today's themes come with responsive layouts, automatically serving up a device-optimized version of your site to PCs, tablets and smartphones.
The modular architecture of most good themes allows for more flexible layouts
Another great thing about most good themes is that they try to accommodate the many different needs that developers will have when implementing them. Page templates typically include options for anywhere from 1 to 5 columns, various sidebar call-outs, alternate home page layouts, tabbed content, data table formats and beyond. If your client needs to launch with 3 featured services on their home page, but then adds a fourth in the following month, all it takes is a simple swap of the CSS class -- no Photoshop work or messing with the stylesheets.
Third-Party templates save you time and money
If all other factors were equal, it would still seem beneficial to design websites from scratch. But, considering the fact that a 5-star theme from ThemeForest.com looks and works better than 99% of the sites on the Internet, costs $15-20 for all mark-up, a dozen or more page templates, Photoshop source files and free support, and can be downloaded in less than 60 seconds, the value is clear. Whether you've selected a specific theme that you want to implement or just want to pay less than $100 to have 5 great options to present to a client, 3rd-party templates are a fantastic resource.
Creativity can be expressed in the strategy
All of this isn't to say that our designers should be fired and everything should turn cookie cutter. There's still plenty of room -- and need -- for creativity in every project. Unique styles, including branding, colors, background images, photography, icons and fonts must be customized. Even more importantly, the overall strategy for the site and its associated marketing must be established. This means social media marketing, search strategies, email marketing, messaging and so on. At the end of the day, it's these decisions that really matter, not the layout of a website. Leading ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky makes no secret of the fact that they've outsourced much of their award-winning web development over the years. Why? Because their clients know that it's not the execution of the deliverables that require real talent -- it's coming up with the concept.
When customized correctly, themes can be just as unique as most custom designs
Some people are reluctant to use 3rd-party themes because they believe their sites won't be unique enough. What they don't realize is that good themes don't like themes -- they just look like websites. And with over a quarter of a billion sites on the web today, even a popular theme (1,000 implementations) is statistically unlikely to ever be seen by the same person twice. Factor in the ability to easily customize these templates and the chances of ever picking a theme out of a lineup is extremely unlikely, except to the very trained eye.
In other words
Once you learn how to separate the great themes from the rest, you can save yourself (and/or your clients) thousands of dollars in custom design time and shave weeks (sometimes months) off the project lifecycle.
At the end of the day, the client ends up with a beautiful design and clean, tested, proven code, written to the latest standards. And if you think happy clients and great results stifle your creative spirit, you might need to adjust your perception of art.
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