Using stock art is a reality that we designers have learned to live with. Photo of a middle-age bearded man? Done. Illustration of robot working at PreCrime? Yes, please. Stock art is fast, accessible, and cheap. The downside? Limited creative control over things like composition, style, quality, and even subject matter. Ever found exactly the right photo from a stock search? I haven’t. Seriously. Not once.
In Web design, this stock mindset (SM™) has crept into another area … design itself. I’ve known about sites like Template Monster for a while. But in recent years, more user-friendly services like Squarespace have arrived. With Squarespace, you can customize a legitimately well-designed template with your own content right in the browser. You don’t even have to know how to spell “div”!
Then there’s Wordpress, a blog publishing platform that can be used as a framework to build websites. An advantage of Wordpress is that it’s open source, with a large community of developers contributing plugins and themes (design templates) for copious use. The catch is, unlike Squarespace, you have to know what you’re doing. Hint: If you don’t know what “server-side include” means, you don’t know what you’re doing.*
Our team recently used Wordpress themes (from ThemeForest) to build a handful of sites for clients on tight budgets. It seemed like a good idea: We could minimize design and development time, and deliver a fully content-managed, responsive website for a fraction of what it would cost to build one from the ground up. Win! Unfortunately, that didn’t prove to be reality.
When looking for themes, we narrowed our search to include only responsive layouts. We weren’t surprised to find a huge range of quality and features. What did surprise us were some of the design limitations that were only apparent after we purchased and installed the theme. Here’s an actual (super accurate) conversation:
Eric: Nick, you can’t add a column to the footer like that.
Me: [blank stare]
Eric: Let me rephrase. We can add the extra column, but with this theme it would be relatively time-consuming. I think it would be more efficient to change your design to conform to the theme.
Me: [blank stare]
Eric: ... I’m just gonna go ahead and NOT build in the extra column.
Me: [blank stare]
We ran into stuff like that throughout the process. And it became clear that themes, while flexible in some ways, are meant to be used as is. If you customize too much, you pile on extra development costs. For us, that was unacceptable. After all, we were using a stock design to save money.
Strangely, on a completely different project with a different theme, we were able to customize the footer fairly easily. It was glorious. Then this happened:
Eric: The flyout menus you designed will take a while to build.
Me: But I thought this theme was easier to customize.
Eric: The footer is. Not the main nav. The template layout doesn’t allow for any more elements because of the fixed width of the container div. We’d have to recode the entire template.
Me: [flip conference room table]
Themes are cheap for a reason. Designers who make and sell them are banking on volume, hopefully selling enough copies to offset the cost of development. Which means every theme is a one-size-fits-all solution. SM™ strikes again.
Fine for some
GS is a strategic agency. We deliver thoughtful, bespoke, from-the-ground-up solutions built on strategic foundations. Working with a stock design template required a lot of creative compromises, and sometimes we weren’t willing to have those trade-offs. That led to time-sucking modifications to a code base intended for out-of-the-box usage.
That said, themes (or services like Squarespace) might be appropriate in certain instances: with clients who lack the budget for an agency partner or projects where an out-of-the-box design solution does, in fact, pay off the strategy. But if a client tells an agency to use a Wordpress theme because they want agency-level smarts at a discount price, beware! You can’t just uncouple strategy from design like that.
We designers have learned to live with stock art. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push to create original content whenever possible. And for agencies built to create original and strategic solutions, there really is a business case to avoid stock design.
*Wordpress does offer a fully hosted website creation service similar to Squarespace. But for purposes of this post, I’m focusing on the self-hosted DIY version. Here’s a comparison between the two: http://en.support.wordpress.com/com-vs-org/