Basic Templates vs. Custom Web Design: A Designer's Perspective

Basic Templates vs. Custom Web Design: A Designer's Perspective

Greetings all! My name is John, and I am a web designer here at Speak. I've helped to create a variety of websites in my time here at Speak, but in general, I consider myself a bit of a jack-of-all-trades.

I was speaking with a friend of mine recently, who’s also a designer, and the topic of website templates came up. During the conversation, we both agreed that it is not uncommon for freelance designers and design firms to hear things like “Why should I spend several thousand dollars on a custom website design, when I can just buy a nice-looking Wordpress template for 50 bucks?”

On the surface, this logic seems perfectly sound. Why, indeed, would you spend thousands of dollars when you could get away with spending $50 or less on a pre-designed template? This becomes especially sound logic when you find a template that is visually appealing, responsive, and built around modern standards.

Despite this seemingly perfect situation, there are a couple of very good reasons why having a dedicated designer is still your best bet in having a website built for your business.

1- The template designer did not have your specific goals in mind when they designed the template.

If you’re doing it right, you should have specific goals for your business online. Whether those goals are to increase traffic to your website, build up your brand, or make your site more user-friendly - having a set of goals in mind is crucial to finding success with your website. However, every business’s goals are unique - which means that there is no one-size-fits-all solution out there. Specific goals require specific needs, which are rarely fulfilled with a template.

By contrast, a good designer will work with you to ensure that your goals are considered from the start. As they go through the web-design process, the designer will later make crucial design decisions based on those goals.

For example. Let’s say that your business wanted to highlight a specific part of your website. Could you make it stand out with a template design? Last year we worked with the Nashville Zoo, who wanted people to easily find their location and plan their visit.

Through good design, a custom area was created that highlighted this through a call to action button. Subsequently, a heat map of the website shows that visitors are not only finding the button but actively using it. Using a designer will allow you to experiment with placement and use common design principles to ensure that viewer attention is maximized.

With a template - there’s a good chance you are going to be locked into putting your important information into specific places that might not capture the attention you're hoping for.

2- Templates are designed to be sold in mass.

Another thing that many people don’t always bear in mind is that by definition, a template is something that can be reused many times. This is great news for the template designer - but not such great news for the businesses using it. The thing to remember is that template designers design templates to accommodate as wide an audience as possible, so that they can sell more of it. Unfortunately, the characteristics that make for a “good” template are actually characteristics that will be counterproductive in helping you reach your business goals.

The reality is, if you are using a pre-built template, there’s a good chance that there are also thousands of other businesses using the same modified template. This makes it significantly more difficult for your business to stand out amongst the competition, much less to industry leaders and search engines. What’s even worse, how do you feel about your business being aligned with a competitor or an opposition? If you use templates, you run the risk of being associated with businesses that don’t align with your goals, mission or values.

3- A visually appealing template is no guarantee of a successful website.

The example that I like to give is that of a dictionary. You might have the most beautifully crafted dictionary in the world. It could have a leather bound cover, hand-drawn illustrations, beautiful typography, etc. However, if the dictionary is not listed in alphabetical order, who is going to use it?

The same can be said for your website. While it might be beautiful to look at, if it is not crafted from goal-oriented strategies, it will never reach it’s full potential.

Beyond that, it is an unfortunate truth that “visually appealing” can often translate to slow load times, confusion for users, and unnecessary “fluff” that makes it harder for your users to accomplish their goals. Naturally, this is not always the case. It is possible to create a visually appealing site while still maintaining fast page-load times and strong user engagement. Typically though, these types of sites are a result of careful, well-planned design rather than reusable templates.

4- There’s no such thing as an out-of-the-box template.

Any template that you purchase is going to require customization. You will need to supply your own content, put in your own logo, change the color scheme to match your branding, make sure all of the links point to the correct areas, etc. I have found it to be generally true that the majority of people do not realize how much work actually goes into fully customizing a pre-built template.

In fact, by the time you get the template completely customized exactly the way you want it, you will most likely have more time, effort, and headache involved than if you had gone with a designer to begin with.

The problem with a lot of pre-built templates is that support for them can be difficult to come by. And in order to tweak something exactly the way you want it, you will most likely have to hire a specialist. This in itself can be costly and time consuming. While the costs will typically occur over time, once all is said and done the price will often come out to be more than if you had worked with a designer from the beginning.

5- Most website platforms are not as user friendly as they let on.

We have worked with countless clients who are using Wordpress, Joomla, Drupal, and other common content management systems. The single biggest frustration that I see with people using these systems is that, despite the fact that they can supposedly edit their website themselves - the vast majority of them actually can’t, because they don’t know how.

If you go to any bookstore, you will find volumes of books written on how to set up your website using any given website platform. The problem with this is - if people had the time to learn how to build a website, they would. They shouldn’t have to read a big, long book telling them how to do it. The whole point of a content management system should be to allow people to update their websites without having to know how to actually do it. Our company builds websites on our own system, Sitewrench, and provides complete training and support to make sure each client is able to manipulate and manage their website.

Unfortunately, many people believe that if they have their website set up using a popular platform service that they will be able to do anything with their site, and become their own web designer. I can attest to the fact that this almost never actually happens.

6- Working with a design firm may cost more up front - but will also yield significantly greater returns.

As previously mentioned, when you have a custom website built from the ground up, you are having a website built to achieve a set of specific goals. You are much more likely to reach this goal with a design that specifically addresses it, rather than modifying a design hoping that it works.

A good design firm will have access to many tools that will ensure any given strategy will be effective, and will also have tools available that allow them to measure the success of these strategies.


As a business owner, it is only natural to be budget conscious and to consider how to get the biggest bang for your buck. You may be tempted to go the inexpensive route - even going so far as to justify it by saying “this will work for now” and “we can always upgrade later”. Unfortunately, by starting off this way, you are most likely going to have lackluster results with your website, which in turn may damage your impression about how successful your website could really be for your business.

After all - if your initial efforts prove to be fruitless, why would you have the confidence to invest MORE money into it?

There are many talented template designers out there, and of course, not every website that utilizes a pre-built template is doomed to failure. The path your business takes when setting up your brand experience online is a big risk for your business as a whole. Do you believe in your business enough to invest a bit more up front for a solution that will yield a much higher return on investment?

Our team of web designers work with clients in a variety of industries, from churches to aquariums to shopping centers. Our commitment to custom and responsive web design can be seen through our work. To discuss your online business goals with our team, contact our web design sales team.

Posted by John Hubler at 09:24