Templates and the Changing Role of the Designer

Michelle Kowalski

design-problem-solvingWhen creating or updating a website, one of the things people are often most interested in is the site design. Sure, backend functionality is important and, yes, a tight integration is crucial, but a modern and functional design is usually the first thing to signal that a site has been updated. So, when it comes time to design your site, should you hire a designer or rely solely on a template?

The Rise of the Template

The beauty of today’s technology is the sheer number of options available. For those looking to build or update a website, that means that there is a seemingly endless amount of frameworks, services, and templates that can be used to create your site. And while these templates make the process of designing and implementing a site easier, you run the risk of having a site that is not very unique or, worse, a site that isn’t designed to work with your content and business goals.

In his blog post, Sergio Nouvel makes the dramatic claim that web design is dying of irrelevance, and one thing to blame is the ubiquity of the template. While that may be a hasty conclusion to draw, he does make some good points.

“A whole world of free and paid templates lets you get started with a professional-looking design in minutes. Why hire a web designer if you can achieve a fairly acceptable design for a fraction of the cost using a template?” Nouvel wonders in his article.

So, where does that leave the role of the designer? Madeleine Morley recently pondered that question in an article for AIGA.

“At their worst, templates can undermine the importance of the role of the designer and make anyone with the ability to click a mouse feel like a designer themselves—as if choosing colors and selecting from a variety of patterns is the extent of the designer’s discipline,” Morley writes.

But what about at their best? While they may not promote individuality, templates offer the basics of proper design elements to a wider audience. In an environment when good design is viewed as a luxury, templates offer the fundamentals for those new or smaller businesses that can’t afford to hire a designer for a custom site design right off the bat.

Templates vs. Designers?

Designers have not been relegated to the role of template creator, however. Designers can help businesses get the most out of a templated site design by customizing and building upon the frameworks to create an experience that is tailored for your site and your users. For example, here at Briteskies, we take the best of WordPress templates and Magento frameworks and build upon them to create customized and tailored UX for our customers.

Designers are, and have always been, problem solvers. As site templates become more accessible and advanced, the problem that needs solving may not necessarily be designing a site (although we always recommend using a qualified designer for your implementation). Instead, the problem at hand is how the user will interact with your site.

User experience stretches beyond your customer being able to easily find what they are looking for; it extends from desktop to mobile experiences, social media, apps, and more. Creating a cohesive experience across all of those platforms takes more than just a base template. And for that, you need a qualified designer.

The Changing Role of the Designer

Designers, whether focused on web, print, or products, have traditionally been viewed as the creative force of a company, contained to the studio and with user experience, as opposed to business processes, in mind. However, today’s designers do much more than make things look pretty; designers contribute a viewpoint based on different priorities than, say, those of the CEO, which can positively impact the bottom line. In this way, the role of the designer is evolving and design should be valued in a company as a way of thinking rather than just an output.

With companies such as Apple, where usability and design drive nearly every business decision, seeing incredible success and market command, the concept of designer-as-business-partner is increasing in popularity. With the role of design in companies changing, it opens the door to more opportunities for designers in today’s business environment. A recent article by Fast Company featured 50 of the top “CEO and designer duos,” highlighting those companies that have brought designers into the boardroom to make decisions traditionally left to marketing teams or executives. 

John Maeda, the first design partner of KPCB, is quoted in the article as saying, “My role is to find strategic insights as to where design can have the most business impact. A designer can bring a viewpoint of not just aesthetics, but economics and usage.” 

Another Fast Company article, focused on the burgeoning relationship between venture capitalist firms and designers, looked at the role of designers in startups. In that article, Irene Au, former leader of design teams at both Google and Yahoo, talks about her view of design-oriented thinking as a way to identify problems within new companies. “If there’s poor design, that’s usually a reflection of a deeper underlying issue that has to be solved,” Irene said. “If a design is cluttered, it probably suggests that to the company, the value proposition isn’t clear to themselves. You can start to use a design as a tool to spot where the problems are in a company.”

At its core, a design project is centered on solving a problem. That problem can be anything from services to packaging to eCommerce sites, all of which have an issue that needs to be resolved. For example, if the problem is that customers are visiting your eCommerce site but they are not converting orders, or items are being abandoned in the shopping cart, a solution could be user experience-centered research that results in a design to help guide the user through the site and encourages more conversions. Well-considered product imagery that has been optimized for the web can not only improve site speed, but also increase conversions on an eCommerce site. Creating call-to-action buttons with information titles and prominent placement and structuring your product catalog/navigation in a logical and intuitive way can also greatly increase eCommerce sales. Check out these articles for more examples of how design best practices affect performance and design trends to follow in eCommerce

Designers offer a new way of thinking about a particular task, which is changing the meaning and function of designers in businesses. The cross-functional role of the designer has introduced a new perspective to running a company, and this successful trend seems to be here to stay.

Do you need an expert eye to take a look at your site design, online experience, or overall brand? Contact our team.

Have an eCommerce project you're working on, need help with, or want to update?  Contact Us!

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