Why template-built design will always look like
it was built with a template

I was walking through a vacation home area in the woods this winter and taking stock of the differences between the traditionally built homes and those that were clearly of the modular/manufactured variety. It’s not easy to explain why it was clear that the latter weren’t among the former, but it was. Something about them just didn’t feel “authentic.” I have nothing against manufactured homes (in fact, I designed and built the central website for the Manufactured Housing Institute many years ago), but I think that anyone who suggests that they are as attractive and livable as a traditionally-built home is kidding themselves.

It dawned on me that this tends to be the case whenever making the same comparision between a “template” and “custom” design of anything. Try as they may, template-based creators simply cannot equal the aesthetic and sometimes functional value of the custom solutions that they portend to replace. Believe me, I’ve tried. Years ago I was part of a project called StorePop that sought to offer a wide variety of automated/templatized web solutions, including e-commerce and even warehouse management. The effort actually worked well in the latter two areas, but creating visual templates that produced truly elegant, professional-looking websites was damn near impossible.

Any business that seeks to appear as a major contender in their industry cannot get away with using templates for their branding assets.

Don’t get me wrong, I would never suggest that template designs don’t have their place or that they should never be used. But ultimately, any business that seeks to appear as a major contender in their industry, to be perceived as being professional from beginning to end, cannot get away with using templates for their branding assets, be it website, business card, promotional pieces, etc. Not everyone in your target audience will notice the difference, but most of them will feel it even if they don’t consciously acknowledge it. On one level or another, your brand will feel cheap, amateur.

The problem lies in the difference of process…

Template Design

Awful? No, but it will never fool a discerning viewer.

Awful? No, but it will never fool a discerning viewer.

Let’s say I’m a template designer/builder looking to create a theme that will portray its users as being an elegant, highly professional business. In doing so, I will have to do the following:

1. Take generalized guesses about how “a company” would want to appear, what sorts of textures, colors and layouts they would use.

2. Design the content areas with plenty of space, just in case the company has a long name, oddly-shaped product photos, or needs to use lengthy titles.

3. Complete all of my design refinements without the luxury of direct feedback from any actual client or the ability to specifically tweak anything based on their actual content.

The end result will inherently be lackluster. It will work reasonably well for everyone but exceptionally well for no one.

Custom Design

Tailor-made from end to end, and end users will know it.

Tailor-made from end to end, and end users will know it.

In this scenario I’m working directly with a client in need, tailoring a solution to their specific goals and requirements.

1. Before the first inkling of design is performed, I can learn about who the company is and what sorts of values are important to them, as well as evaluating their target audience and competition.

2. I can then begin creating a site design using their actual logo and business name, and composing an aesthetic that reflects the aforementioned qualities.

3. The business can give me consistent, repeated feedback about what is and isn’t working for them, and we can refine the site design as much as we feel is necessary.

The end result in this case will fit the business like a glove. Every aspect of it will be specifically designed with their present and future needs in mind, and that difference will be evident to anyone viewing it.

The bottom line is that the likelihood of creating a website using a one-size-fits-all/many template that actually fools the majority of users into believing that it was designed specifically for them is exceedingly low. Until writing this editorial, I had never actually crystallized why this is the case, I had only known that it was, both from observation and my own failed attempts to circumvent it. Template-based design will always be cheaper, yes, but custom design will always be immeasurably better.

Whit GurleyWhit Gurley is the owner and chief design geek at Angled End.