WOOF! Newsletter

February 03, 2015

Custom Web Design vs. Templates

"Should I use a template for our new site?" While website templates are easy to work with, they can make your business look like a thousand others. In this WOOF! we make the case for custom web design...how "what you see" (branding, content) makes a custom site better than a template.
By Mike Woodburn, PlanetMagpie's Web Branding & User Interface Designer

At PlanetMagpie we receive a lot of questions on web design. One frequent question concerns "templates." Templates are predesigned layouts with pre-selected fonts, colors, and feature elements. People ask us, why bother designing a website from scratch (look & feel, branding, identity), when you can just buy a cheap template for WordPress or SquareSpace and drop in your content and images?

Answer: Because that’s exactly how it will look.

Do You Want the Face of Your Business to Look Cheap?

For most businesses, their website is the very first point of contact a customer has with them. Within seconds, a successful website conveys:
  1. Who the company is
  2. What the company offers
  3. Why they’re better than their competitors
Plus, the site has to make visitors feel the company is professional and trustworthy. If the website doesn't "qualify" the company on all those counts within 15-30 seconds, it fails. And the company loses potential customers.

Before the Internet, a welcoming storefront or signage helped convey those attributes, along with brochures and marketing collateral. Now people go online. The website is now your storefront, your brochure and the anchor of your marketing.

This one reason is enough to avoid using website templates. A template locks you into one generic look. It's not "you."

In fairness, that is a template's purpose. Standardizing makes the job of building websites faster. It’s a trade-off, and for some businesses that’s okay, where brand strength and marketing isn’t a top priority.

But not using a template – building an entirely new custom site design – gives you a trio of powerful benefits within the "what you see" realm. Not to mention the "what you don't see" benefits (which we'll cover next month).

Benefit #1 – 100% Control over Every Impression a Visitor Receives

How many components factor into a visitor’s impression of your site/your business? Many more than you might think:
  • Identity design—logos and colors that establish recognizability, differentiation and the core business visual identification
  • Brand and product positioning statements—taglines or slogans that clarify messages in an easy to understand and memorable way
  • Copywriting—the authored content of a website, meant to persuade or influence the reader
  • Typography—strategic rendering of fonts choices including color, scale, line spacing, letter spacing to enhance the communication of the content
  • Page layout—establishes information hierarchy using positioning and spatial demarcation
  • Photography—stock or custom professional photography lends visual depth and enhances messaging
  • Illustrations—artist’s depiction of a subject for enhanced clarity or stylistic goals
  • Information design—portraying data in visual forms, like charts, graphs, or tables
  • User interface (UI) design—the visual components a user interacts with to accomplish tasks
  • User experience (UX) strategy—a user's responses that result from their perception of website elements affecting usability
  • Mobile rendering and layout—how a design adapts to various platforms and screen sizes
A high-quality website has to take ALL of these components into consideration. If you use a template, many of them are blunted or ignored.

In custom site designs, the components fit together like puzzle pieces.
  • Brand/product positioning statements + copywriting + information design = Your business’ voice and personality.
  • Photos + illustrations + identity design = The visual impression a visitor receives.
  • Page layout + user interface design + user experience strategy = Positioning and integrated styling of interactive components that reinforce your brand.
Which is why each one of the above components must be determined with a keen sense of the company’s business goals. That way they all convey the unique depiction of who you are & what you do.

Making a visitor eager to do business with you.

Benefit #2 – Guide Your Customer

Remember how the website is now the “face” of your company? It also acts as a tour guide. All visual design elements work in concert to influence how a user will interact with your website.

This is the primary goal of User Interface and Interaction Design, both aspects of an overall User Experience design. Defining this solution always starts with determining who your customers are and designing specifically for them.

Custom websites provide a route (or series of routes) that you want your particular visitors to take through your website, called user flow. Only custom design can provide an ideal user flow.

At the end of each user flow is a goal, usually an action that matches your site visitor’s needs and your site’s objectives. Actions you want that visitor to take, like these:
  1. Contacting you
  2. Requesting a quote
  3. Signing up for your mailing list
  4. Downloading an app
  5. Making a purchase
  6. Locating specific information
  7. Or whatever else you want!
With a custom design, you determine the routes & their goals and build for an intuitive and easy-to-use experience. The site is as unique as you.

(It is possible to set up visitor flows with template-based websites, but it involves far more work, as they are by default targeting a nonspecific user. And you may be limited in your choices by the template itself.)

Benefit #3 – Design Around Your Content, Anticipate Customer Needs

With a template, your design is already established. You have to drop your content into the existing layout. The template designer pre-determined where it all goes. Logo in Spot A, Headline in Spot B, Introductory Text in Spot C...

Which is the exact opposite of effective site design!

Designing specifically for your brand, content and site objectives is always ideal. Design facilitates effective presentation and enhances communication – “Here are the details you came to see!”

When we say “content”, we’re talking about all of these elements:
  • Branding/corporate identity
  • Positioning statements
  • The authored copy and body text
  • Links to documents, related content
  • Headlines, quotes, callouts
  • Product images and alt text
As with Benefit #1, web designers must take all of these content types into consideration and present them with the appropriate scale, color, & positioning contrast. All with an understanding of the psychological aspects of human perception.

Why is psychology important? Because the web designer is targeting your customers' needs.
  1. Strategically-placed words enhance your site’s personality. A visitor feels like they’re the only one the site is communicating with.

  2. Effective positioning statements alongside photos show those statements in action. The visitor feels reassured about your competence.

  3. Guide visitors directly to the content they want to read – they think, "Hey, these guys know what I’m after, and they aren’t wasting my time. I’m impressed."
By designing around their content, award-winning websites anticipate customer needs. What questions does a visitor need answered, before they can become a customer? Make it easy for them to find their answers.

Custom Design = Better Positioning for Unique Businesses

While modern web design does take into account industry-standard best practices, the design approach is not formulaic. There are many factors to consider…factors which grant you more control, and more capability, than sticking to a pre-determined template.

It does take work to accomplish. Interviews with executives & salespeople, industry research, modeling, testing...

But you're left with a website able to welcome customers with your unique personality, responding to their unique needs.