The Right & Wrong Way to Use Templates
I’m a big fan of templates. They’re an essential part of any productive designer’s workflow and they can also be really helpful in boosting your brand’s identity through greater consistency and professionalism. Project management templates are one such example of templates that definitely belong in the workflow of a web designer. They free you from having to handle tedious project and time management tasks and, consequently, enable you to focus more on your work. I also really like design snippets, mockups, and themes (like the ones you might find in WDD’s Freebies). When you use the same kinds of design elements over and over, it makes sense to have a reliable base of templates to pull from. What I’m not particularly fond of — and you shouldn’t be either — are design templates that remove all creativity and strategy from your process. The reason I bring this up is because I believe there is a right way to use templates in web design, and a wrong way.
The Wrong Way to Use Templates in Web Design
I recently attended a WordCamp event to learn more about what’s happening in WordPress and, specifically, what sort of trends I should be on the lookout for in web design. There was one session I attended called, “Fast Track Your Design Process”. I was excited for it as I’m all about productivity hacks that help you work less while accomplishing more. However, I walked away from the session incredibly disappointed by what I heard; the speaker told the room of about 50 designers that they should be building client websites using templates. That suggestion I had no issue with. I believe that WordPress themes are a great time-saver for many web designers — especially if they’re looking to start with a strong, responsive base that they can customize. The problem, however, was in the rest of the advice given. It basically went like this:
1. Find a theme that fits your target niche nicely
For instance, if you design websites for real estate companies, purchase a license for a real estate theme. Make sure you’re very familiar with the theme you choose.
2. Identify the key pages that your typical client needs on their website
Home, About, and Contact pages are a given. Similar to how a theme developer might provide a few page layouts or design options to choose from, you would do the same. You could use the templates from your theme or design your own. Then, create no more than two or three template options for each page.
3. Save all your templates for future use
These are for no one to see but you.
4. Sign a new client to your web design services
Explain to the client that you are going to build the perfect website for their business. Have them sign the contract and provide you with any branding information or images you need to use. Then, use this limited set of templates to build every website you’re hired to create. You still have to choose which of the page template options make sense for each client and add personalized content to the pages. But that’s about it. The goal here is to make as much money as possible from each job.
5. Don’t engage with the client about the web design
Someone asked the speaker how he explained to clients that he was using templates to build their websites. (Which is a valid concern.) To this, he told them that the client didn’t need to be involved in the process. Web designers are the experts and they know best, so clients shouldn’t have any say in what goes into the website and don’t need to see it until the work is complete.
My Two Cents on the Matter
At that point in the lecture, I raised my hand and presented a number of objections:
- It’s a terrible practice to not involve the client in their website project. It can lead to costly rework and also has the potential to hurt your business through negative reviews; people love to talk about bad experiences.
- When you limit web design to a few templated options, you run the risk of creating lookalike websites — especially if you take a niche approach to your business. This could hurt your business if clients start to notice that you’re not putting any time or effort into the work. Also, how can you expect to build an impressive portfolio if every website looks the same?
- This could also hurt your clients’ businesses if their visitors realize there’s nothing unique to the site since it’s just a copycat of another.
My input was not well-received, but I’m hoping you can appreciate the logic here.
The Right Way to Use Templates in Web Design
I’m not opposed to using templates in web design. Heck, I think that if you don’t use templates in your business, you’re making a huge mistake. I understand the desire to want to cut corners so you can make a higher markup on your website projects. We all want to make more money. But I don’t believe that removing all strategy and creativity, and providing clients with a canned website is the solution. There are other ways to make use of templates and boost profits in the process.
Themes that skin your entire website are a great option. You still have to customize them and work on crafting search-optimized content (written and visual) for the website. But they’ll save you a lot of time.
Sectional templates are a good way to quickly replicate the same design elements across a website. Another way to use them to your advantage is by turning them into wireframes. Use the bare bones of a sectional template to quickly bootstrap the structure of a page on another website.
There is a multi-site management tool called ManageWP that comes with a WordPress Template Builder. If you build websites with WordPress, you can use this to save time with new installations. Simply create your template WordPress install and add the plugins (and themes) you use often on your client websites.
Project Management Checklists and Templates
Perhaps the best way to save yourself time is to simplify as much of your project management work as possible. (That’s the part of running a freelance design business that you dislike the most anyway, right?) Create checklists for all of your web design and business processes. Develop templates for communications you send to clients, contracts for new projects, and instructions you provide to freelancers or other team members. Even templatize your invoicing.
There is a difference between adopting templates for the purposes of optimizing your design workflow and adopting them so you can avoid doing any real work. I think this is what leads to the delivery of poor websites and gives clients a way to talk designers down in price. You are a web designer and you’re being paid to provide a creative service. While 100% of the elements you put on a website don’t need to be handcrafted by you, you can’t expect clients to pay you well if no thought or consideration was put into the development of their design.