Are website templates bad for web design?

Generally speaking a template is a starting point for a design.

While many web designers may say they do not use templates, they most certainly do not write every line of code from scratch. They all use a “starting point” based on previous work. Anyone who says they don’t is, frankly, misleading you.

It might be called a framework,  a library, or a process. But in that context all good web designers use a starting point (or template) of one form or another.

The question is how much of that starting point ends up as the final “design”, and is it actually a good web design. 

What is the best starting point?

When looking purely at the layout of a site, which is in essence what a website template sets out, remember:

Visitors generally expect:

  • menus to be at the top
  • a logo and tag line to be near the top
  • a contact number at the top right
  • information laid out in easy to read columns
  • buttons for taking action (eg purchasing)
  • and so on

While there is flexibility in many of these “norms”, there is only so much variation you can apply for your average website.

The point is having a good foundation for a layout upon which a web designer can build:

  • ensures good coding practices (if a good professional website template is chosen)
  • saves the web designer time
  • saves the client money
  • takes care of commonly used ideas, standards, or tools
  • makes it easy to update based on the work of others
  • is tried and proven

There is no point in reinventing the wheel – only in making it suit your particular needs.

This does not mean every website should look identical. Just that a solid starting point has only advantages to offer.

Given the right starting point, it does not take many custom changes to create an individual look (colour scheme, layout, content positioning, banner, menu style etc).

Modern website templates offer a sophisticated starting point for a skilled web developer.

The advantages of website templates

In years gone by, any sort of website was prohibitively expensive. Although starting points were used, modifying the code for a particular client was a time consuming task.

You’d be looking at tens of thousands of dollars.

Today, there are a relatively small number of well designed templates that make modification by a web designer much easier. They are more than a simple framework of code.

A good template offers a host of functions on which to build.

Many good templates offer a drag and drop interface, and drop down menus to change colour, layout and so on. For the non-technical user this avoids the need to code, providing you don’t want to step outside what the template designer allows.

But for a skilled web designer, these templates offer a great starting point that is easily enhanced to suit particular requirements. You can have a customised look with only a few hours additional work.

Much of the hard work has been done. Development time is better spent on a small number of effective customisations.

In essence, using a template as a solid starting point makes sense and saves both time and money. The cost of making  custom changes to a good template makes up only a small part of the overall investment in a well designed website.

The disadvantages of website templates

If you have read the previous paragraph, you will know a template can be a great starting point for a good web design.

Templates loose their appeal when used as the end design. That is, without any of the other essential elements of good web design.

This is typically, if not exclusively, the case with both budget and DIY website designs. The low cost is achieved by avoiding any customisation, and almost always omitting the other essential elements of good web design.

Many web templates are very poor marketing designs. Many are poor from a technical perspective. Some contain advertising or unwanted links.

Unless you know all the elements of good web design,  the choice of website templates is overwhelming. There are far more bad templates than good. You are therefore highly likely to end up with a poorly designed template.

A budget web designer may not be able or willing to do any website template customisation. The incremental cost in a budget design would be prohibitive. The client needs to keep thinking they have a bargain/budget website.

Likewise a DIY designer is unlikley to have the experience to choose a good design, and certainly not to modify it. It is common to see a website not working properly, or with layout issues, because the DIY designer isn’t able to modify the code.

Again the thought is a budget investment can achieve outstanding results.

Templates, used like this, offer the perception of a quick and easy way to put up a webpage or two. Almost universally the end result is poor overall design. And that represents a bad investment.

In fact , in a good web design, the incremental cost of customising a well designed template is minor in the context of everything else that goes into a it.

So in fact, despite what you read, templates in themselves are not bad. But  the use of stock and unmodified templates almost universally accompanies an overall poor website design (and often a poorly designed template) that does little to market your business.

A good web designer will typically use only a small number of carefully chosen templates, customising them alongside all the other essential elements of good web design.

The poor web design brought through the budget and entry-level websites using templates is a what gives templates a bad name.

Bad-mouthing website templates

You will see any use of website templates badmouthed by people who say they don’t use them.

Many “digital design agencies” feel threatened by the rise of templates. And for good reason. A lot of graphical tricks and effects, and a clean and professional look, can now be quickly and cheaply achieved by modifying the right templates. All at a fraction of the cost of a custom “graphically designed” website.

There are many “graphically designed” websites that, while looking pretty, do little to sell their product. They rely instead on fancy images and brightly coloured graphics. A high end graphically designed website can be just as poor a design as a poor template site.  It just costs a lot more.

But these groups do sometimes have cause for bad-mouthing templates.

Many templates out there are very poorly designed from a marketing perspective. They make graphic designers and web designers, alike, cringe.  A poor user interface, unprofessional feel, badly designed layout or buggy website will do nothing to help your business.

What is really being criticised is the owner/designers ability to create a good web design – how they coded it up is irrelevant.

Don’t be put off by people bad-mouthing the use of templates.

Do be put off by poor web design, layouts without the essentials of marketing, or a low return on investment from an expensive website. It’s totally irrelevant how it was arrived at.

Conclusion – are templates bad web design?

The advent of templates has put the ability to create a website into the hands of the tech savvy public, and budget web designers alike.

Unfortunately this does not equate to a good website that is a good return on investment. It frequently leaves a website needing changes, but the owner unable to do so without great expense.

While sometimes the use of unmodified stock templates in itself can be acceptable, it is nearly always indicative of a poor overall design and/or a budget or DIY web design.

The correct use of well designed templates in itself is not bad whatsoever. To ignore the starting point they provide, and the fact they can be turned into a quality well designed site that would have cost tens of thousands only a few years ago, is to bury your head in the sand.