Templates vs. Custom Design: Which is right for your website?

In: branding| design| entrepreneur

22 Jul 2009

A reader recently emailed me asking my thoughts regarding templates vs. custom design. Jonathan writes:

To template or not to template? At what budget/scale should you spring for the custom design? I hate templates but they do serve a purpose. I have a friend who’s running a consulting business on his credit card, so for him the template is an unfortunate necessity. Still I wonder if $1000 worth of custom branding/design wouldn’t pay for itself within a few months.

As a designer who also happens to be a big believer in keeping budgets small, my answer might be somewhat predictable:

It depends.

In general, I think templates serve a valuable purpose. Using templates anyone, regardless of skill level, can get their business or idea off the ground on a shoestring budget. Domain names for a few bucks, cheap hosting, and a good template make it easy to launch a website. The abundance of free and inexpensive templates available online eliminate any excuse for not having a professional looking online identity. It may not be terribly unique, but looking polished and professional is the bare minimum these days.

On the other hand, a custom design allows you to stand out from the crowd, and better communicate your brand values to your audience. A unique look will make your site more memorable and will allow you to structure the site exactly the way you want to. By working with a talented designer (or by being one), you can work to develop a brand and look that will differentiate your business and create value over the long run.

Since this is admittedly a wish-washy answer, I put together a few questions you can ask yourself to help decide which direction is best for you.

Can I afford custom design?
This is obviously the most important question. If budget alone is the reason you haven’t launched a website, then by all means go with a template. There are tons of great sites out there for free or inexpensive templates. One of my favorites is Open Source Web Design.

Is my business the actual website, or does my website promote my business?
This question attempts to determine how important a unique site will be at this stage of your business. If you need to launch a site to promote your consulting business, or your cookie delivery service, or landscaping company, starting out with a template is fine. If you want to launch a web startup and the business is the actual site itself, then having a unique look is more important. A well-designed site becomes part of your brand’s value and will play a bigger role in your success. However, if you can’t afford custom design, I would still suggest using a template vs. not launching the site at all.

Is there any reason I can’t switch to a custom design later?
In 99.9% of cases, the answer here will be no. Even if you use templates to build your site, you can always develop a custom design later on. Launching early will give you an idea as to how viable your business will be before you fork over the cash for a custom website. And it can provide some insight as to what people respond to, what areas of your site users visit, and what they click on. This can help you have a more informed design process when you do take the leap to custom design. Just don’t forget to add some analytics to your site when you’re starting out.

As for when to move to a custom design, I think your specific business will dictate what the right moment is. You will usually recognize when a templated design is holding a business back. If you launch an online business and experience a nice amount of traffic but a low amount of conversions, such as sign-ups, then a custom design may help you convert that traffic into paying customers. Ideally, the right moment will be once you have some money rolling in. The best situation would be for the business for fund its own design.

It’s easy to create barriers between having an idea and executing on it. For many businesses, the first step is launching the website. Using templates allows us to breathe life into an idea now, as opposed to waiting until we can afford custom design. In fact, even as a designer, I decided to use an existing WordPress template for this site and customize it, rather than find the time to create one from scratch.

Templates can provide a free and fast bridge between idea and reality. The most important step in launching any business is just jumping in, so use whatever means you can to just get in the water and start splashing around as soon as possible.

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Mark Webster

About Mark Webster

One of the Co-Founders of SideTour, former TechStar (NYC Summer 2011), ex-NBA'er, and past TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon Winner.