WYSIWYGs and the end of web design as we know it

With Squarespace (and similar platforms) out in the market, Do-It-Yourself website design just got more powerful.

Here’s what it means for website developers in terms of leveraging Squarespace as a development tool and in terms of adding value to what Squarespace cannot do.


The web development pie, did it just get smaller?

Back in the days when organizations used to spend oodles of dollars just for a CMS system and licensing alone (and this was on top of the cost of CMS set-up or customization) the breakdown of time invested on different parts of the “web development effort” looked something like this:

  • ~1/3 development – consisting of theming, commoditized development (i.e. anything you can get a plug-in or 3rd party library to just “do”), and custom development.
  • ~1/4 project management and communication (depending on size of project).
  • ~5/12 was vision & visuals (e.g. brand strategy, visual design, usability, content).

In this era, open source platforms like Drupal and WordPress were in their infancy. They existed, but they didn’t have the market penetration they do today.

As time passed, the Drupals, the WordPresses, and the like, did become mainstream. In fact, they dropped the bottom out of what developers could charge for a CMS. In fairness, they also dropped the bottom out of the work involved to set up a site with a CMS.

So we see a chunk of the development pie, goes away:


Today, platforms like Squarespace have “widgeted” the theming part of development. So now the development portion of the pie (sometimes) looks like this:


And five years from now? A reasonable prediction is that the custom coding needs (in the general sense) will drop out of the picture.

Is the web development pie getting smaller?

The answer is a resounding, “Sometimes!”. Basically, modern CMS’s and Squarespace have diminished the need for programmers having to do things that they had to do in the past.

Depending on the project this can mean:

  1. The programmer’s role is very small or almost nil
  2. The programmer can now be tasked with bigger, better, and greater custom things that are business relevant
  3. The project is such that a Squarespace type solution won’t suffice anyway, so nothing much has changed.


What does Squarespace do really well?

Squarespace, essentially, removes the need for a programmer to be very involved in the main stream production of a website (of a certain scale and complexity).

Squarespace provides

  • A powerful and easy-to-use CMS
  • Very flexible page layout control
  • It’s responsive and mobile friendly out-of-the-box
  • It has some current trendy features such as parallax scrolling
  • A wide feature set including menus, blogs, commerce, etc.

The learning curve isn’t too bad. In terms of Squarespace’s controls for styling, layout, and page controls, a web designer / developer of some reasonble ability level can become a “power user” within an hour or two.

Squarespace makes it easy to iterate and rapid prototype ideas

I’m a designer with a knack for content, branding and strategy. So when I’m working a site whose eventual destination is Drupal or WordPress (or similar), I start designing in Photoshop. Then a programmer takes my work into the CMS of choice.

However, on a Squarespace project, I do my design, development, architecting, content development and experimentation with photos right on the site. I will admit, that at first, I was daunted by this approach. But pretty quickly, I got comfortable with it. Being able to (without going to a programmer) iterate through branding, messaging, content & copywriting, navigation & architecture, design, colors, layout, photos, etc. to develop a complete website is a heady feeling.


What people & roles do you need to rock a Squarespace project?

Branding & messaging experts

Your clients will still need help identifying, articulating and presenting key ideas to their audience. No technology out there can do this kind of thinking, strategizing, asking of pointed questions, gathering of insights and aha’s, and drawing of key conclusions. Web development houses need to make sure their people have got good chops for this key piece.

I love this quote from one of my favorite clients, who’s the Director of Communications & Marketing at a reputable private school in New England:

Branding isn’t about re-inventing who you are. It’s about REVEALING who you are.

– Cheri Cross, Director of Communications & Marketing, Northfield Mount Hermon

Designers (with the right attitude)

I’ve observed cases when a designer feels discouraged that they’re put on a Squarespace project, because they feel like too many design choices are beyond their reach. However, the designers who get creative with how to master those tools, and still create unique feeling designs, will have the most success. And the most fun!


For example, one of our clients is a unique studio gym, tucked away in a small-town of Western Massachusetts. Unlike their big-box competitors (that often have less experienced or “clock punching” trainers), Fitness Fusion offers creative and intense group training and 1-1 personal training delivered by committed experts who know their stuff. They differentiate from the crossfits out there by serving all fitness levels through a customized approach (unlike Crossfit’s nationwide “workout of the day”) and through emphasis on fundamentals in form (for better results and injury avoidance).

The key messages garnered from branding and strategy conversations were:

  1. This is a gym for all levels who want to give 100%
  2. You’ll get creative and interesting workouts
  3. It’s a supportive, judgement-free atmosphere

We customized Squarespace’s “Marquee” theme to create the site. But instead of a full-screen image on the home page (which is an option in this theme), we wanted it to do a little more. Squarespace doesn’t yet support full-screen video as an interface design element. But that’s what we wanted, so here’s how we worked around it.

We hired a kick-ass videographer, Kirby Productions, to shoot video of “all levels” of people doing sprints. Then we took the raw video, compressed it, made it grayscale, and converted into an animated .gif. (Black & White is better for loading, even in today’s high bandwidth environments). And it has an intentionally gritty feel that works for the gym’s brand while feeling “cool” and conveying all levels. As an added bonus, we used parallax scrolling on the home page too (another feature of the Marquee theme).

Good copywriters

I’m assuming that it’s a given that good web copywriting will incorporate best practices in terms of:

  • Making content digestible and scannable with multiple entry points
  • Use of headings and sub-headings
  • Use of negative space
  • Pictures, icons, video, diagrams
  • Minimizing “happy talk” (The term “happy talk” was coined by Steve Krug, author of Don’t Make Me Think.)

But, designers and copywriters would also do well to remember that figuring out what to say and how to deliver the message is about being an actor and playing a few roles simultaneously:

Role #1: Outside consultant: with industry expertise, perspective, savvy

Role #2: Client stakeholder(s) perspective: Be it the owner, CEO, Director of Marketing, etc. or some combination of these roles.

Role #3: The end customer

Also, web content professionals who understand the convergence design and content being developed in concert with one another, will have an edge.

Some developer support

To make little customizations and help with any items that are more technical, it’s helpful to have access to a programmer for a Squarespace project. But in general, the programmer’s role would be minimal.


When is Squarespace not enough?

The “Squarespace’s” out there do gobble up the theming component from the pie, but is Squarespace the answer all the time?

Absolutely not.

When is something more like Drupal or WordPress the right choice?

  • When you have more than a couple of editors.
  • When you have custom workflow (e.g. Squarespace plain and simply does not have versioning of a page, and does not support an approval process).
  • When you have specialized permissions in terms of who can edit what.
  • When your layout needs are more specific or specialized than can be covered by the controls that Square Space has to offer.
  • When you start to need to custom funtions. If this is the case you want the developer to the hooks and the control at their fingertips (e.g. searchable, sortable staff directory, course catalog, integration with certain payment gateway, special security needs, password protected areas, LDAP integration, sub-sites, etc.)

We recently worked with Smith College to redesign the website for their libraries. The tool of choice for this project was, hands down, Drupal. Why?


First, organization-wide, Smith College was already making a conversion to Drupal. From the college’s point of view, having all of their major sites using the same platform just makes sense.

Second, a “Squarespace” type platform would not be able to gracefully handle the level of custom content, display, and integrated features that this project required.


To offer another example, we collaborated with the team at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to create the museum’s blog rollup (a site that was nominated for a Webby Award). The Museum identified WordPress as their blogging platform, as internal and external requirements clearly pointed to a need for a platform more robust than a Squarespace type CMS.


Words of wisdom for the web professional

Letting some projects pass you by isn’t always a bad thing.

For web development firms that really focus on “heavy lifting” in terms of development and programming, then there may be new projects that come under their noses that they pass on. That said, the Guggenheim’s and the Nike’s of the world will always need more custom solutions with more horsepower and developer control.

Be ready for your development teams to take a different shape.

We’re a small design shop working on projects of varying size from low to mid 5-figures on up into the 6-figures, typically everyone on our team is contributing to multiple projects simultaneously.

As we assemble teams, allocate resources, and manage “traffic” (e.g. who’s working on what projects) we are seeing projects that are more developer heavy (not Squarespace) and those that are less so (yes Squarespace).

Do you work with Squarespace, or a similar tool? Do you think Squarespace threatens the design industry? Let us know in the comments. 

  • Daniel Smith

    If you are talking about business who don’t mind sharing a theme or two, then yes…the development will shrink further. However, there will always be a need for custom themes and, god forbid, not using any of the mainstream products. These products are only good if you want something out of the box, they struggle massively with anything custom.

  • Michael Gunner

    Did we not have this debate when Weebly and Wix came along? :)

  • Kevin

    WYSIWYG editors won’t ever stop the development of complex websites with back end features and such. These editors are useful for creating simple user interfaces to display information. True web development will ALWAYS be around because someone has to make/break the rules of the web…..duh.

  • Ivanov Karmazov

    In my opinion, platforms like SquareSpace are going to create more jobs for designer/developers. You know, the guys that understand the design principals and can manipulate code enough to make respond the way it should. Hardcore developers will take a hit from these types of platforms because I doubt companies will want to pay the higher premium for something their in-house designer can accomplish.

    This idea is not finite however. There are, and will probably always be situations in which custom work will be needed and hiring a team of designers and developers will be crucial. Especially if a company wants to stand out from the crowd.

    While I think that platforms like SquareSpace are changing the scene, I don’t think they will destroy it. They are just another tool that makes designer’s lives easier.


    • http://www.turtlemedia.ca/ Turtle Media

      I agree with this because your average business owner or client will probably not want to get to know how to use the modules and interface. I suppose a “web designer” could start using these tools at some point, much like WordPress is being used. Building plugins, custom themes and such will increase the demand for programmers, and graphic or web design will still be on the rise because clients need elements designed of course. Becoming a master at such WYSIWYG applications may turn out to be just like becoming a master using the Adobe Creative Suite. On the other hand, I am not a huge fan of these services in many ways, but what can you do in and industry that is ever-changing and demands one to evolve and adapt continuously.

  • bgbs

    Not sure, all I know is that now most developers are busy producing custom functions, widgets, plugins, and modules for CMS’s the like. The need for developer jobs is increasing, not shrinking.

  • http://shaundillon.info Shaun Dillon

    I agree with a lot of people in that, the kind of people that are going to use these services, aren’t ever going to be your client anyway.

    • http://jasonbarone.com/ Jason Barone

      In regards to Squarespace, this is far from the truth. Squarespace is doing a really great job marketing the platform on a national scale to the point where businesses get very interested in the platform, go explore the platform, and seek out designer a& developers for help.

      • DanC

        …and then the businesses expand, hire some developers/designers, who fight with the platform for a few months until they can’t take it any longer, and then dump it as fast as possible. SS is cool for [very] small scale things and things that are non-important (blogs/transient marketing sites that don’t need to integrate deeply with company data/very small businesses/etc). But it simply isn’t that useful for anything really serious.

        It’s a nice-looking platform, but its suffers the same flaw as every single other similar platform that exists (or will ever exist in the near future) in that it cannot cover the multitude of specific scenarios unique to each business. It cannot be all things to all people, but it does try to market itself as such, to a degree. Like WP, like Drupal (prepare yourself a wild ride through crappy ecosystems if you need to do anything serious with them!).
        I’m sure businesses were interested, but if any large ones were, then I assume that the interest didn’t come from from the people who actually have to engineer ways to use the company data.

      • http://jasonbarone.com/ Jason Barone

        There are tons of businesses that don’t need to do things like deep integration with company data. A quick look at Shopify’s 2013 year in review will tell you all you need to know: http://www.shopify.com/2013

        There are businesses all across the world that are growing perfectly fine using platforms and tools like Squarespace and Shopify.

      • DanC

        A one-size-fits-all approach for small businesses, fine. If you’re making a lot of money that is dependent, at least in a large part, upon how your data is rendered & interacted with, not fine.

        But I don’t disagree that the platform can be very useful, it’s more to do with reading an article written very, very much like an advert (I realise this is refuted further down the comments section), with a linkbait title, that either grossly simplifies or completely ignores the reality of much front-end work, both design and development.

  • Sane

    I find myself worrying that someday, there will be a tool that can do anything a developer can do today — intricate back-end programming and custom front-end templates. And we’ll be phased out completely. Whether or not this is plausible is left up for debate, but the thought will always be in the back of my mind…

    • Tim

      I used to think that about being a designer, but then I always come across sites like this http://www.pombredens.com and I realize my job is pretty secure… so far.

    • Daniel Smith

      Sane, this would never be possible. Just think of all the complications you encounter during one project, now times that by an infinite number and you’ll realise how intuitive the system would have to be.

      • Sane

        But can those complications be attributed to human error? Would a machine have an inherently better understanding of the languages it interprets than the human who had to learn how to write that language?

        A good point, though.

  • http://squarespaceguru.com Squarespace Guru

    Great article Christine! I just flipped it into my Squarespace Guru flipboard magazine!

  • jorge

    sponsored posts suck, they lose all focus and just praise a single service.

    • http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/ Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

      This isn’t a sponsored post.

      We do occasionally run sponsored posts provided we think they’ll be interesting to our readers, but they are always marked as such.

      • Mike

        It would make sense to include other product then in this article. By mentioning just Squarespace several times it sure feels like a plug for them.

      • http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/ Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

        Christine wrote this for us based on the work that her agency has done; they used Squarespace so Christine wrote about that experience; where it worked, and where it didn’t.

        There are obviously alternatives and we’re always keen to hear from writers (aspiring or established) who have different points of view (there’s a link at the bottom of the page).

      • Christine Mark

        Ooh. Did not want this article to come across that way. My goal was to share what I/we learned about SquareSpace. I will admit that I haven’t dug into comparing and contrasting all of the other SquareSpace like platforms out there. Why? For my project purposes, I was intrigued by SS and on a tight budget and timeline. SS looked like it could do the job, so I went with it. That, of course, set up SS as the tool of choice for a couple other projects of similar scope. I like that it’s rapid and that it freed up our dev cycles to do “more important work”.

  • http://jasonbarone.com/ Jason Barone

    Great writeup Christine! I think one major component of Squarespace that’s a bit under the radar is their Developer toggle switch (http://developers.squarespace.com), which let’s you dig into a template, or build a template from scratch (http://base-template.squarespace.com). This much different than using the Custom CSS editor.

    Squarespace is virtually wide open on the front end to do whatever you want. Full screen video can be done in minutes using very little customization. You can even tie it into the back end Squarespace admin using the drag & drop interface you’re already used to. Aside from being able to code completely custom templates, you can also create custom content types in the back end which offers an even great level of usability for your clients.

    Example of custom course module: http://take.ms/LJPSs
    I’m using several of these course modules nested into a custom Squarespace “Index” page, which allows me to create a structured knowledge base. That’s essentially 3 levels deep. It’s all powered by a drag and drop back end.

    Example of a podcast content type: http://take.ms/78s6L
    In this content type, I’m manipulating “Audio Blocks” in a unique way that gives you more control over the presentation of the audio player.

    Example of a directory style content type: http://take.ms/bJN7w

    In this content type, I’m building a directory of integrations that cross references another custom content type.

    The reason I mention these examples is to show just a few things you can do with Squarespace. Many of the points regarding limitations are certainly valid, and Squarespace certainly doesn’t work for some projects. But I strongly suggest developers take a look at Squarespace’s developer platform as a massive opportunity for business, and we didn’t even touch on what they’re doing with ecommerce. Squarespace is already my platform of choice and I hope to demonstrate that to developers with helpful screencast videos and how-to.

    • Daniel Smith

      I sure it would be worth a try. The problem is, I like to know what I am coding, not letting a tool do it for me. It’s good for people who don’t want to get involved with too much code. However, genuine developers (particularly back-end) want to know what they are programming.

      • http://jasonbarone.com/ Jason Barone

        But you’re probably using some sort of framework or platform, right?. Squarespace is a platform with a great back-end user-interface for the non-technical user. My opinion is that they have the best back-end user interface of any popular framework or platform out on the web. Their platform lets me build sites on par with most of the platforms you’ve probably worked with, but I’m able to pair this with drag and drop creative tools that my clients use to edit content. For me, I’m not concerned with being a genuine back-end developer, I’m concerned with providing easy to manage websites for the client. Squarespace helps do that.

    • Christine Mark

      Thanks for sharing these. Good stuff.

  • Mark Madison

    Christine, thanks for this article. I have not seen too many on the subject so for me it has been long overdue.
    Squarespace advertises on pretty much every tech podcast I listen to. I have looked at it and at Wix. I was initially a bit scared that it might affect my business negatively. I have to chuckle when you say you are a small agency. I’m almost a mom and pop; mostly pop. I develop exclusively in Joomla! for small businesses and non-profits. Joomla!, not because I’m religious, but it’s way in my comfort zone. I teach a class in WP to help small businesses develop a site out of that box but with little or no template customization. Just widgets and such.
    I think it is probably true that every time something like SquareSpace comes along we all fear for our professional lives but I think your idea of embracing it as a possible solution for certain clients on certain budgets might make sense. I consider myself lucky to have 3 or 4 billable hours every day, call it semi-retirement and be happy. And I like variety.
    However, one thing you didn’t mention in the post was ownership. Let’s not forget that you don’t own your SquareSpace site, you lease it. When you stop making the lease payments the site goes away. Sure, you’ll still have your proprietary assets, images and copy and such. But the site itself ain’t yours.
    Otherwise, I think SquareSpace is OK for what it does.

    Thanks again for the post.

    • Christine Mark

      Great point about the leasing. (Which I think is a smart business move by SquareSpace BTW). But it’s one more factor in the cost vs. benefit analysis of “Is SquareSpace the right solution for this particular project?”

  • Bianca Board

    I think the web development part of the pie is definitely getting smaller. It’s something we’ve been building over at our ProPartner program for the last; user friendly web designer built for designers. Ultimately you’ll never truly get rid of developers, but in a world of sophisticated automation and more technologically savvy clients, it’s inevitable that it’s getting smaller.

  • http://raymondduke.com/ Ray

    Nice article. Big fan of SS here. Totally disliked the unnecessary complexity of WordPress. I’m a copywriter and marketer. I plan to use SS to build website for small businesses in the future.

  • Michael Meininger

    I remember when computers were going to “ruin art & design” or when power steering “ruined cars”

  • jagadishsr

    “Squarespace(SS) is EVIL. It plucks the job of web designers and make them stranded in the streets. SS also educates the average Joe about websites and makes us web designers try hard for our bread” – Funny folks keep blabbering this type of comical dialogues. But, I believe there are always change in this beautiful industry. We will survive all that and go on still the next Big Bang(uh.. oh.. too long..?)

  • Drew

    What are the pros/cons of Squarespace over Webydo, or Muse?