Custom Web Site Design or Website Templates – The Big Debate

    April 24, 2006

A lot of custom web site designers are really critical of commercial website templates. I have seen snide comments on Forums and Blogs along the lines of ‘This site has template written all over it’.

There are two main reasons not to like templates, and then some ways to mitigate these problems.

Lets explore these.

Templates are not original

There is something to be said for creating your own, all original work. But there is a difference between being somewhat artistic and being an artist with the capability of bringing together all the elements of a website headers, judicious use of graphics, menus and layout into a cohesive and pleasing whole. Not to talk about creating a website with a definite wow factor and one that loads fast to boot.

I discovered soon in my website design career that I am just not quite artistic enough to really create the effect that I was looking for. My first websites were all created from scratch by hand and I spent hours and hours on choosing the right colours, selecting the graphics, optimizing the graphics and designing the menus with the right rollover effects.

The most frustrating thing was that after my masterpiece was designed, it still fell far short of some of the other websites that I regularly came across in my travels on the Internet.

Now, professionally designed website templates are, as the name implies, designed by professional graphic designers. They might not be professional website designers as such since these templates often have certain intrinsic flaws, however, most of the time the look and feel created by the template, especially its graphical elements, work together in a way that is difficult to achieve for someone without either years of practice or formal training (not to talk of intrinsic artistic capabilities and talent!)

But lets look at the second reason why people don’t like templates:

Templates are often badly designed from a website design perspective

Website templates might look nice on the outside, but any experienced website designer will tell you that under the hood they suffer from the following problems:

1. In most cases they do not make use of Cascading Style Sheets to control layout, fonts or colours. Some of them nominally make use of an external css file but most of the times style commands abound inside the html code, often negating the benefit of the external style sheet.

2. Probably the biggest problem and biggest bugbear of web design purists is that most of these templates are heavily tables based. While tables undeniably make it easy to quickly position text and graphics it does go against the grain of good website design. Tables are supposed to contain content, not website design elements.

3. The last big problem is that they are rigid. Often a content block is a specific size and if your content does not fit into that, it is your problem! Because the content and the presentation are not separated it is very easy to break the template if you want to make extensive changes to your website content.

So how can these persuasive negatives related to the use of templates be overcome?

Firstly, the fact that there might be another site out there somewhere that might have the same look should not really be a deterrent. There are over 8 billion pages on the Internet, according to Google. Admittedly there are fewer websites than pages but even at 16 pages on average per website, we might have close on 500 Million possible websites. What are the chances? But there are things that can be done to minimise the screaming template effect:

1. The stock photos and graphics used on the template can often be replaced by photos of the company or person that the website is being designed for. Even just using other stock photos or graphics can make a big difference.

2. Company logos can be incorporated into relevant places

3. Sometimes the whole colour scheme can be changed by making use of tools such as Photoshop or Fireworks.

Secondly, the bad design elements of the template can be addressed in the following way:

After all the effort that I put into designing my websites from scratch I soon ran into the problem of maintenance. Successful websites need content. They need lots of content and they need content to be added in a constant stream. The only tool that can help you do this is some form of Content Management System.

There are several of these available commercially or under the GPL license; people have their own favourites. The point is that most Content Management Systems work on the principle of separating the content from the presentation, and therefore work on some sort of template system themselves.

The best solution therefore is to convert the commercial website template into the CMS template format. I often convert commercial website templates, after suitable modifications to the graphics to personalise it, into my favourite CMS Joomla’s, template format. During the process I retain the graphics but move all the styling into an external style sheet; I get rid of the tables and make use of CSS positioning. And because you are using a CMS you can easily add menus, new pages and all the other bits and pieces of content that you want without breaking the layout.

As far as I am concerned, the best of both worlds….

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Christine Anderssen is the owner of Tailormade4you. After 20 years in the corporate world of IT management she decided to brave the new frontiers of Internet Entrepreneurship. Tailormade4you helps small and medium businesses with Web Services in the form of Web Hosting and Web Development