You may be asking yourself why I am dedicating a post to such a basic question. After all, custom web design and custom web development are our primary offerings at our agency, and we do mention them often in our blog. The evolution of the digital services space has muddied the waters somewhat, making it hard for customers even to know what the difference is between a website that is specifically designed for them and one that is licensed and modified, having been initially designed for more general usage.
I feel that it’s essential to dedicate a post to defining the differences between the two approaches because the details matter and the offerings are completely different. First, let’s start with a simple definition of what custom web design is, and what it isn’t. Then, we’ll dig into an explanation of how a project progresses differently with the custom design process and how it affects a project’s overall timeline and budget.
Finally, we’ll mention some of the benefits of a custom approach as opposed to the reusable template option.
Defining Custom Web Design
To begin – let’s define what custom web design is. Custom web design can best be described as a thorough process that produces a custom user interface and experience in response to client inputs. What are client inputs? There are a few that are contributed throughout the process. We’ll detail that in the next section, but to preview, inputs from the client are information which custom web designers can in turn use to produce outputs. Those outputs are usually design renditions or working prototypes.
The alternative approach that the industry has adopted over the years is the idea of agile “theming.” This means a website themer will install a pre-designed and developed theme into a content management system and then modify it according to client requirements. Two things differ from this approach. First, client inputs aren’t design-driven. They are much more functional and content-driven. Secondly, the outputs are not renditions; they are frequently functionally working deliverables.
I want to make a point in regards to what a “themer” is because it’s important to note how we view those professionals in the industry. A themer is not a web designer. Nor are they a web developer. A themer is just what it sounds like; they download, install, and configure themes. Frequently, the modification of these themes is possible without knowing much about the way code works. I’m not saying that being a themer is a negative – it’s a role that the industry created and adds value for many client projects. But the idea of custom outputs from at themer is laughable at best because there is nothing custom about the product they produce. It almost always contains off-the-shelf materials such as themes, plug-ins, and how those are configured together. This is also one of the significant components of pricing divergence, which we have detailed in this blog previously. Website operators and clients need to understand the two approaches and how they differ because there are consequences of each method which will affect your business.
I had mentioned before that the process for each method varies greatly. It’s worth digging into this a bit more. Rather than detail the methodology of each technique, I’ll focus on a custom web design process and comment on the differences after.
1) Discovery: Designers and their clients will spend time together to define what the project is all about. Why are you designing this site? Who are your visitors? What do you want them to do? What is the sales process? How do your visitors find you? What defines the success of this initiative? And, finally, what are your aesthetic preferences and what design assets do you have readily available? All of these questions lead to a project brief or specification which guides the design process.
- Conceptual Renditions: Designers will spend time crafting custom renditions based on their findings from the above discovery process. Some designers will produce a single rendition. Others may give options. There isn’t any right way to do this, but having choices does present some advantages to the client versus looking at a single option.
- Revision & Approval: This is the part where collaboration is vital. Clients should always provide feedback and prepare for the idea that they will need to undergo some rounds of revision. The revision process is the mechanism wherein clients can massage designs by influencing the designer to work around the requirements of the business and their personal preferences. This shouldn’t be seen as an arduous task, but rather an effort between two teams to accomplish the goals as defined in the discovery.
- Front-end Coding: When all designs are completed, the best website agencies are now integrating front-end coding with the design process to produce coded, functional templates. This is important because it provides another checkpoint for clients to review their design before back-end integration. Front-end coding should be viewed, in my opinion, as a design task because today’s experiences include animations, transitions, and responsiveness that can’t be articulated in a static design file, and are often over the creative heads of many back-end developers.
- Delivery for integration: Only when approved, all front-end files can then be sent to the back-end developers, who can integrate these templates into the systems that will make them work. This step allows the client to take a breath and focus on the next stages of the project.
How does the process change for themers? Well, to start, the idea of “discovery” doesn’t include much form a design perspective other than providing the client with a list of possible themes to choose from. Since nothing is being “designed” per se, there is no need to discuss aesthetic preferences with the customer. And, as such, there are no conceptual renditions. The client chooses a theme, the themer installs it to a platform, and it is then presented for any revisions. Also, there is no need for front-end coding, as that was already completed as part of the theme. So, the main difference is that the process of theming is more of a series of configurations, but not design. This is a significant difference between a real designer and a themer. Themers don’t necessarily have design abilities or skills; they are simply those that can install and configure software without massive customizations.
Cost and Timeline Considerations
Obviously, there is a difference in time required when you design something from scratch versus take an existing theme off the shelf. This means that custom web design takes more time to complete, and in turn, will require a higher budget than a theming project. How much time? Well, that can be difficult to predict, because custom web design projects require a high level of collaboration, including presentations, feedback, revisions, and more feedback. These loops of communication all take time, and based on the structure of the teams in place, it can take some time to complete. Time, as we all know, directly correlates to money, which means projects designed from scratch cost more versus the alternative.
What determines how long a project will take? First, you have the obvious: the specification, or amount of work to be completed. This is typically defined in a discovery. Secondly, you have the structure of the teams in place, and what the revision loop looks like. A larger client team that has many stakeholders will undertake a more extended design process than a smaller, more agile organization. A team that requires many revisions will always spend more time during design than one that approves concepts quickly.
Because of this, clients must understand that custom web design initiatives will take longer, and will cost significantly more than the alternative route of licensing a layout or interface. This is one reason why web design proposals can vary in cost. Some designers will design a layout, while many others will theme. The confusion sets in for clients when they can’t tell who is going to do what.
It’s worth noting here that the classic debate of custom-built versus taken off-the-shelf exists not only within the software world but in the arena of design, as well. Some of this is because of the nature of design, and others is because of the nature of how themes are assembled and put together.
Simply put, a custom design will live a longer lifespan for two reasons. First, custom designs are typically so tightly connected to your corporate branding and aesthetic that you will be less likely to perform a wholesale redesign, instead opting for the occasional refresh or cleanup. Corporate branding doesn’t change often, and when it does, it’s usually in connection with a significant imitative. These don’t come too often, and as such, custom corporate website designs tend to last quite some time.
Secondly, custom designs are typically themed into an installation of a Content Management System (CMS) in a clean, lightweight way. Off-the-shelf themes have a notorious reputation for being heavy – having obnoxious amounts of code, building upon the base installations of the core software, adding software libraries to aid in their functionality. These themes are often bloatware before they are even deployed to the public. Because of the scale of the solution, after a period of time, the themes will start to break with updates. In fact, we’ve seen themes that are broken before deployment and more or less not repairable. Theming is confusing, relies on the connection of many pieces of software, and wholly unreliable. For this reason, it isn’t unusual for themed websites to face redesign on an almost yearly basis.
There is one exception to this rule, and that is hosted providers such as Wix or Squarespace. However, the functionality of these platforms is typically so limited that they rarely make it to the final rounds of consideration for most clients with standard requirements.
Is custom web design dead?
There is an article that shows up relatively highly ranked when searching the term “custom web design”, which kinda drives me crazy. Look, I know it’s just some clickbait content. But, I feel I must respond. To make a blanket claim that custom web design is dead is as silly as saying that custom home builders are going to disappear, or for an extreme example, all artists are going to stop crafting their products. There will always be a need for custom interface design. The rumors of custom web design’s demise have been greatly exaggerated!
Truth is, the only type of person that writes a post like this is the type that can't actually design or build a website. Basically, a themer. And of course, from their perspective, everything can be themed. They could probably solve perpetual motion, with just the right theme......!
Is Custom Web Design Right For Your Company?
It may seem like this is a difficult question, but actually, it is relatively easy to determine which approach is right for you based on some simple questions. First, you have to determine if the timeframe and budget requirements of this type of project are in line with your company and what it is willing to invest from both manpower and money perspectives. If you can’t afford it, don’t do it, unless you can prove ROI as a direct result of the effort.
Secondly, you have to determine how valuable a custom-crafted design is to your end-user. This may be directly related to the type of business you have. If you are a manufacturer of thermostats, it’s unlikely your user will care much about the design aesthetics of your site. However, if you are a custom home builder, it may matter much. This is something you can discuss with a web design professional during an introductory call.
Thirdly, you should determine how complex your project is. If you have requirements that call for custom functionality, you may be out of the realm of what a themer can do for you anyway. In this case, you’re looking not just at custom design, but at a custom development project as well.
Finally, some clients may want to undergo the more concierge-style approach of a design project, as opposed to the idea of a prebuilt theme or off-the-shelf modification. It isn’t unusual for clients to want the luxury treatment for their business and their employees, and are ready to invest in not only a design project but an experience that the best design agencies provide.
These considerations are just the tip of the iceberg but luckily apply to almost all clients and projects. Of course, there are deeper considerations to each client and each initiative, but frequently they aren’t uncovered until more time is spent between the client and agency or designer. Those factors, of course, can drive your decision as well.
The web design industry has made things as difficult as possible for clients. There are tons of technology options, many design options, and tens of thousands of unlicensed “experts” roaming around as if they know what they are doing. I feel the biggest misconception we see is the idea that a themer and a designer are the same – as noted above – they are different, approach projects different and have totally different skillsets. Understanding how a designer differs from a themer makes the procurement process easier and gives you a better idea of how to compare proposals from one firm to the next.