Web Templates: The Good, The Bad, The (Sometimes Very) Ugly

February 25, 2010 | Branding, Design Basics, Web Design

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Templates. It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot in the web development process, and it is often misunderstood.

At Visible Logic, we develop custom-designed, custom-branded web sites. That means that every web site has a unique look and feel that is designed specifically for the client. In contrast, many do-it-yourself web site tools offer web site templates that you can use. You may be able to insert your logo, and choose a dominant color scheme, but the overall design—graphics, layout, typography, etc. is not branded for your business.

This is something I counsel business owners to avoid. Choosing a stock template to build an online presence does not allow you to build your brand identity. You’re building one of your most valuable branding elements with a look that may not be unique to you and you may not even own the rights to.

However, the word template can also mean framework or structure. This is something we definitely use to build web sites. When you navigate through a web site there needs to be a repetition and pattern to the placement of content. What if the navigational elements were placed in a different position on every page? Or, what if the design was graphically different throughout the site? This would be confusing to your readers. A template in this case creates a framework for the elements.

Template for design = bad

Let’s use the example of e-newsletters as they are easy to analyze. Many of the newsletter tools out there boast hundreds of templates! A template for every industry! These are the worst kinds of templates. Frequently, they are unable to accommodate the branding elements you’re already working with; and they are forcing you to use a design that others, maybe even your competitors, could be using. Therefore, you’re not building a cohesive brand image and you’re not building a unique identity either.

In contrast, when we build an e-newsletter system for our clients, they are completely custom designed and custom branded. B2B e-newsletters are primarily a brand-driven marketing tool. They keep your company top-of-mind with clients, so to use a stock design template does not make sense.

This is also true if you decide to purchase a WordPress theme, or a web site template. The term refers to a pre-fabricated design for the site. Again, you may be able to make some changes, like placing your own logo, but you are ultimately building an online presence that sums you up as: cookie-cutter; unoriginal; cheap; undifferentiated, etc.

Template for structure = good

However, when we design a custom-branded e-newsletters for our clients, we do in fact build a template for our clients. But what makes it a template is the fact that certain types of content gets placed in specific areas. The template pulls in key graphic elements so that the e-newsletter is following the same brand standards as other materials (web site, marketing materials, etc.). The template is a structure, not a predetermined look.

When building a complex web site that uses a Content Management System, you will certainly be working with templates. But again, the word template here means a framework. It will help keep navigational elements organized and separate from changing content. It will provide a space on the page for all key elements.

Do you own your template?

Another major reason why you need to be careful of choosing a pre-fab template for your web site or newsletter design is that you may not own the copyright to that design. I’ve had this happen with several clients. Before working with Visible Logic, they used a free starter type of web site and used the hosting company’s templates and graphics to build their initial online presence. For many companies these days, their web site presence is their primary brand identity piece. So, by starting with a stock template, they’ve defaulted into a brand identity that was designed by their web host (probably not the best designer!). Then, as they outgrew the limitations of the site they could not transfer the graphic look because they do not own the rights to it.

So there are two major concerns with pre-designed web templates: 1) the fact that the design is not customized to your brand identity and 2) you may not have the legal rights to use the graphics outside of its initial usage.

But don’t confuse all usages of the word “template” because templates as frameworks to house information is an important part of making highly-functional web sites or newsletters.

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