In the early days of the World Wide Web, most websites were handcrafted affairs. A few applications came out which promised to make web design fast and easy for non-technical folks, but many of them were immediately recognizable as template-based – mostly because there were only a few templates out there, so the style was immediately recognizable.
Many businesses, either trying to prevent the extra expense of a designer or simply being naive, tried to create their corporate sites with these templates, but were usually frustrated to discover that one size did not fit all.
In the past few years, we’ve seen an explosion of companies selling website templates for all kinds of industries. The templates you can pick up these days are far beyond what these old programs could do, often building upon freely available content management systems (CMS) like WordPress to provide a solid basis without requiring any extra software to customize them. Nowadays, a business or individual can shop from a huge selection of “off the rack” designs, get them set up in an evening, drag-and-drop components in a simple WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) interface, choose a few colors and typefaces, drop in one of a hundred free or cheap e-commerce applications, purchase a domain name plus a security certificate if needed, and they’re up, running, and doing business.
The proliferation of a number of relatively new technologies like web font repositories, in-browser video and audio, and some of the newer features of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) help hide the cookie-cutter nature of templates. If the templates themselves don’t include all the necessary features, there’s an entire ecosystem of WordPress plugins to help fill in the gaps. The site cost them nothing but a few dollars and a few hours of time.
At least at first.
It doesn’t take long for problems to show up with this method. For one, the nature of templates is conformity. If the owner has a specific design in mind, all a template can do is approximate his vision. Also, many business owners will toss up a template site on the cheap and then completely ignore it, since they have no “skin in the game,” so to speak. Marketing-wise, an abandoned site is almost worse than not having a site at all, since it shows a lack of both focus and enthusiasm for the business you do.
Each choice of a template or plugin makes the site owner beholden to every component’s developer to keep things working. As new technologies come out, pieces of the website may become outdated. And the longer a company comes to rely on a particular piece of software, the worse it may be if they want or need to change it out for something new. Compounding this is the fact that WordPress and other CMS’s intended for small sites don’t necessarily scale well, so if a site becomes very popular, the business may find themselves dealing with slowdowns, lost connections, and irate customers.
Templates also have a “breaking point,” beyond which the template designer simply did not expect the user to want to go. These breaking points tend to crop up at the oddest and least convenient times, as well. Want to name a page something longer than about 40 characters? Whoops, the site navigation just broke. Need a picture to be just a little taller? Whoops, now part of your text is hidden. If you’re lucky, the template developer will come out with a new version to fix these flaws; hopefully this update won’t break something else you customized a long time ago.
This becomes more painful if some piece of the site has to be altered to fit existing business practices. Pre-packaged components tend to have their own way of working. If you need to import or export data for an existing program like QuickBooks, and there are no official components available from the program’s manufacturer, there’s the additional complication of having to find a component built by a programmer with a good reputation for staying current.
As business grows and the flaws become apparent, it behooves businesses to hire a designer or developer. Besides knowing the ins and outs of web development, most designers can help create a truly engaging experience by being able to think outside the template. Website development is a field unto itself, with its own methods, history, and advancements. Yesterday’s trendy template may no longer be an effective business tool, if it ever was in the first place; sometimes a popular, flashy trend really is just a flash in the pan.
In the long run, it’s a good idea for successful businesses to move away from the template and consider a fully customized site by a professional designer firm. Just like how a tailored suit will always look better than something off the rack, so will a tailored website perfectly complement your business. It’s the difference between looking good, and working great.