The design process vs. design-as-product

The trouble with the word “template” is that its meaning depends on one’s point of view.

To some, a template is a ticket to an instant website. Many content management systems allow owners to change plug-and-play themes as easily as they change clothes, and inexpensive skins are just a Google search away.

To others, templates are learning tools. Studying samples of real-world code and style is more practical for them than following examples in a book or reviewing lecture notes.

Templates can represent independence. Anyone, even someone without basic design or development skills, can choose from hundreds of templates without fear that a “design expert” will question their decision.

Templates can also mean efficiency. They are generic enough to fit most information, and they are reusable. Fill the space with a dash of content and you’re done.

Many people I’ve worked with-designers, managers and clients alike-equate templates with design. To create a design is to build a chair in which the content will sit. To choose a design is to select a vehicle to carry information.

The noun “design” differs from the verb “design”: one is a product, the other a process. This thought begs the question: is web design skin deep, or are designers more than purveyors of templates?

intentional design stands out


Chasing Keyboard Shortcuts

Thinking of the process of designing a website as “producing the best template” is the wrong approach. I know from experience.

Not long ago I was hired to design a law firm’s website. The business’ owners knew what they wanted, more or less, and provided JPG mock-ups. Aware of the tight deadline, the developer and I hammered out a database, a custom CMS and, of course, the HTML template.

Their three-column composition had pale boxes on a paler background. We measured space for ads on the right, worked to fit the search tool on the left, checked spacing in three versions of Explorer and tweaked the drop-shadows under the navigation bar. In short, we fretted over everything except the center column.

As deadline approached, we met to address last-minute problems. One person wasn’t satisfied with the arrangement of certain information. Someone suggested a solution and asked me to try it out. A few HTML changes later, we saw the new page. Everyone settled for this compromise, and the website went ahead.

After the launch, the client complimented my design skills and particularly my knowledge of keyboard shortcuts. At first, I didn’t recognize the unintended insult, but I’d been cast in the role of “button pusher,” and the field of design was button pushing. Worse, it was my fault: by acting on the committee’s whim, I put myself in this position. The job paid well, but the result was uninspired and the experience belittling.

The best way to design, and I mean the verb, is to keep on designing, to seek problems. To insist that “less is more” is the same as saying “Don’t do something unless the project suffers without it.”

template design vs. content design


How Does It Work?

1. Ask questions.

“What do we want to accomplish?” is just the beginning, and “To build a website” is not a sufficient answer.

  • “Who are we trying to help, inform or influence?”
  • “Why should people come to us instead of the competition?”
  • “Who is responsible for what?”
  • “What do we need in order to launch, and what can wait for later?”
  • “How will we maintain this website? Who will make changes, monitor traffic and troubleshoot problems?”
  • “Has this been done before? If so, how can we improve on it? What mistakes can we learn from?”

These don’t seem like design questions; however, a thorough understanding of the project will allow you to adopt the right graphic and technological techniques. For example, the choice of CMS will depend on how often the website will need to be updated-maybe a CMS isn’t even necessary.

2. Define the parameters.

People are surprised to learn that design thrives on boundaries; problem-solving is a good exercise. Here are some parameters to consider:

  • Attention: “We want to make a lasting impression on people. What is our message? How many different ways can we express that message? What might distract people?”
  • Medium: “We need this to work in desktop browsers and on handheld devices. How can we write the same HTML for both?”
  • Budget: “How much can we do with the money we have?”
  • Timeline: “The project has to launch in x number of days. How can we accomplish all of this by then?”
  • Success: “We need to sell x number of widgets, inform y number of people and acquire z number of new members in the first month. What will persuade people to act?”

Restrictions breed innovation. Writing a website to suit, say, both iPhones and Internet Explorer 6 might require designers to challenge their own understanding of what HTML can do. Restrictions create problems, and to design is to solve them.

3. Deal with the unexpected.

Rarely does reality reflect ideals, so practice problem-solving skills.

  • Technical: “This plug-in we downloaded doesn’t do everything we want. Will adapting the code or adapting the goals cause more grief?”
  • Visual: “It looked better in my head than it does on screen. Why am I underwhelmed? How can we better express the attitude we want? Will visitors be unimpressed?”
  • Political: “We wrote this code to accomplish a certain task, and now we’re being asked to make it do something else. Are we in a position to say -No’, or are the requests feasible?”
  • Time: “This is taking longer than we allowed for.”

When design is a process, then using layout, typography, color, line, form, contrast and technology solves the problems.


When Does a Designer Design?

Deciding what a blog should look like is a bad way to start. A blog is a microphone, not a voice; without words to fill its pages, the blog will languish.

No amount of WordPress/Drupal/Blogger/Joomla wizardry will fill an empty hole. Take fonts, for instance: choosing a typeface that looks good is not the same as choosing one with quirks that mimic or reinforce graphic elements of the website.

Downloading a design (the noun) is a shortcut to getting results but not necessarily to getting success. Pages become interchangeable vessels: easily reproducible but indifferent to content.

Design (the verb) is an intimate relationship between content and form. It’s more work, but isn’t that why people hire professional designers?

Written exclusively for Webdesigner Depot by Ben Gremillion. Ben is a freelance web designer who solves communication problems with better design.

How do you view ‘templates’ and ‘design’ after reading this article? Please share your comments below…

  • Hitesh Mehta

    Nice post!

  • Emiel

    hear hear :-)

  • Chris Cox

    Good read. I’ve worked at a firm that adapted websites from templates – I didn’t find this out until after I’d accepted the job, which was advertised as “web designer”. Obviously adapting templates isn’t design, and in the four or so months I worked there I managed to produce two original designs.

    I’m currently workiing on a commercial WordPress theme, and I’m finding the process very different from designing for a specific client. Having to create my own constraints by anticipating the uses to which the theme might be put is a real challenge.

  • piyansitll

    usefull post thanks a lot

    • Mufeed

      here i am not posting any design comment,,,

      just wanted to tell you… your pic is so cute.. wanna talk to you ..

      Please add maa ID …,

      reply me…i am waiting

      Thank you very much

      • tuckinteractiv

        How do you know that person is female?

  • Blain Smith

    Great post! This is exactly what we try to preach to our clients when they hire us for a design (noun). :-)

  • Luke

    haha great post guys!

  • Childmonster

    nice article :)

  • DesignMango

    Very nice post, you make some excellent points!

  • John

    I just wrote a comment on this subject lastnight :). This is an excellent explanation of what I was trying to convey. Ofcourse design scope dictates strategy but with the development of the opensource community and Web template Design community grows, the idea of design to spec and use of template design seem to be converging… Great post!

  • sjsw

    Man, you just hit upon my pet peeve. Bottom line? Templates are fast food whereas custom design is filet mignon. Like everything else in life, you get what you pay for! That IS why people hire professionals. The good thing is that it’s really very easy to show potential clients the difference between a custom design and a garish Drupal/Joomla anti-site. I don’t put WordPress in the same category because I do like it as a blogging platform (only). Also WordPress doesn’t require an ugly autopsy to do some customization. That can’t be said about the twisted crap filled intestine of a Drupal/Joomla template/theme. I actually believe the code was conceived in hell by Satan himself. Anyway, sorry for the rant but these “CMS’s” have hurt web design/development in a big way by opening up the business to people who have no business in it. I’ll never be convinced otherwise.

    • matt

      I’m a drupal developer and i can’t quite see how drupal “[has] hurt web design/development in a big way”…

      I could build a custom CMS but there are so many things that drupal does that I simply couldn’t replicate. So many experts have crafted it to work the way it does that no one person could build something better.

      Which leads me on to templates.

      I like the article, it’s a good read. But a lot of ‘web designers’ I know are much better off sticking to (modified) templates. Working with a 960 grid ‘template’ for example will probably result if a better website than starting from scratch. Better in the sense of cross browser compatibility and SEO … possibly user experience but that more comes down to the ‘designer’.


  • Stu Collett

    Great article, thanks.

  • Ben

    “solve problems” rather than “making it pretty” is probably the most challenging part when dealing with clients. Communicating and Educating seems to be the key for us.

  • Peggy LaBelle

    I enjoyed your post. Creating one size fits all templates is useful for quick turn around of the next project. But your post reminded me of the importance of gathering user requirements before implementing a project.

  • Beth Quirie

    I really enjoyed how you broke the 2 uses of the word “design” down, great job!

  • Jordan Wiedbusch

    That was a great post to read. I really enjoyed how you broke everything down.

    Thanks for putting in the time

  • Ryan Green

    To me a template is a guideline and a ruler in which I use to create a customized user experience and attempt to emphasize simplicity, trust and a sleek design