Web Designers, Quit Reinventing the Wheel… Today!

I have been telling designers not to reinvent the wheel for years now.

Now I think it’s time to go all-out and say,

“You really can be a pro designer without creating original graphics”

I say this for three very good reasons.

  1. Graphics are not that important.
  2. Original is risky.
  3. Overwhelming economic argument

1. Graphics Are Not That Important

I’ve been designing websites since 1994, and as time has gone by, I have spent less time on graphic design.

In the early days, it was common for me to spend a day on just one part of a web page design. That is unthinkable now.

There are a few reasons for this. Maybe I’ve got quicker, but mainly my decision-making abilities have improved. I take more responsibility now to ensure that I deliver the maximum value for the effort spent.

In the first half of my career, someone else paid my wages. In the second half, I owned my own agency. That really wakes you up to your productivity! When you are being paid a flat rate for a project, not a daily wage, you soon realise that the quicker you delight your client, the more profit you make, and the more projects you can deliver.

I also think the bar has risen consistently over the years. In 1995, all you had to do was make buttons with rollover effects, and people’s mouths would drop open with admiration. Today, we’ve all seen thousands of websites, so we’re used to being impressed by the bells and whistles. In fact, we’re probably over it.

We now want websites to deliver! If we’re using them, we want them to be fast and easy to use, and to feel familiar. If we own or buy websites, we want them to deliver results: sign-ups, sales, stats.

Frankly, sexy graphics don’t often sell. Sure, sites need to look appropriate. Today, it’s easier and quicker than ever to make a site that looks great and works great, and you don’t have to be a graphics whiz to do it.

If you have been in this sector for a while, you may remember a time when the latest big thing was to make websites client-editable. In essence, that meant creating a custom CMS for every site we made.

Most of those custom CMS systems didn’t have a fraction of the power of something like WordPress. How could they? WordPress has probably had decades of time invested in its creation and testing.

If you tried to sell a website with a custom CMS today to an educated client, they’d laugh you out of the building. And for good reason.

So why do we think it’s OK with the graphic design? Why don’t clients laugh at us when we spend two weeks in Photoshop in order to present hand-made mock-ups? They should, you know. And pretty soon, I think they will.

You could hire a designer and a carpenter to build you a set of IKEA shelves. But you wouldn’t, would you? That would be stupid.

2. Original Is Risky

Uniqueness is not valuable. Sure, when it comes to art, there’s only one Van Gogh Sunflowers, which makes it more valuable. But web design isn’t art.

As marketing collateral, websites are more of a commodity, in a similar way to direct mail letters, radio ads, or washing powder carton designs.

All these formats follow a set of conventions. These are not arbitrary rules, but lessons learned from experience about what works. There is always some room for creativity, but usually within the common-sense constraints provided by the existing conventions.

To tell the truth, creating original graphic design is not advisable, except in special circumstances, which are:

  • There is no existing solution that will do the job (with less work), and
  • You have the skill to pull it off

In my 2007 article “Pursuit of the Original” I explained why originality is risky. In that article I quoted Seth Godin who wrote in his blog:

“I’m going to go out on a limb and beg you not to create an original design. There are more than a billion pages on the web. Surely there’s one that you can start with?”
Seth Godin’s blog

This is even more true today than five years ago, as I’ll explain.

Think of it this way:

  • When you visit the dentist, do you want them to try new techniques, or stick to what they know works?
  • When you buy a car, don’t you want to know that every feature has been tested thoroughly?
  • When you go to see a movie, don’t you expect the final, most polished cut, not a random edit?
  • If you needed a particular look for your text, you would browse existing font libraries, not create your own font, right?

The common theme is, we should all be using what already works. As a consumer, you just expect stuff to work. You get annoyed when something you expect to “just work” doesn’t, because someone has got jiggy with it. That’s what we should be giving our clients too.

That’s why so many car components are shared between brands these days. You’ll find everything from chassis and engines down to switchgear being reused across multiple makers’ ranges.

Why? Simply because this stuff has to work, which means it has to be tested and proven, and that’s expensive. But not as expensive as failure. Learn from this.

And there’s no excuse for web designers to throw out experimental stuff that may or may not work. We have been doing this now for nearly twenty years. We know what makes a good website.

Of course there’s room for experimentation – in some areas. That’s where CRO tools like Convert Experiments come in, which let you test elements of your design against others, to discover what really works. You can keep what works, and ditch what doesn’t. But to throw up some experimental design and pray it works is just ignorant.

I think we’re at the point now where every designer fits into one of two categories:

  • Resource Creator – You build themes, skins, templates, graphics, stock resources, or libraries.
  • Resource Consumer – You buy all that stuff to help you create great websites quickly.

The time of the custom web page craftsperson is over (for the majority of websites).

Consider IKEA again. If you’re need to furnish your home, you can do so using IKEA furnishings, which makes you a resource consumer. The stuff is made by IKEA’s team of designers – the resource creators. They research, design, and produce a range of stuff that consumers can use to create a huge range of living experiences. Of course, you could commission true bespoke furniture, but you’ll need lots of disposable cash!

Or if you buy a new car, you choose the specification from a finite number of options that have been designed for you by the creators. You can create a wide range of end products with your choice of engine, options, and trim. The majority of people simply do not need a true custom build – only the ridiculously wealthy.

3. Overwhelming Economic Argument

There is an incredible amount of free and premium resources available to web designers today, making the argument for original, creative design almost redundant.

I would say it typically costs a three figure sum to have a web designer work for one day on any project. In my experience,  most designers are about 50% efficient. We rarely get the right design first time, and often need many days of iteration to get an original design signed off.

Compare that to a design based on a theme. The group I work with can create great-looking sites like this, including full SEO keyword research, content strategy, and WordPress build, for under $4000. If each site needed original design, signed off by the client, that cost would probably double. That would not be in the client’s interests, and our offering would not be competitive.

I’m a fan of the Genesis framework for WordPress. I bought all their themes, which normally cost $80 each (still less than one day of design time), for under $300. That gives me unlimited use of stylish and functional default themes for most occasions, which I may choose to customise if I need.

If I employ these themes just ten times, it would save me weeks of design time, for just $300! To repeat the principle, “reduce, re-use, recycle” (see my old article on the topic): If you can re-use any assets that have been created before (by you or others), you should.

Or why would I spend time crafting callouts, product preview images, callouts, or headers, when for just $9.95 per month I can subscribe to a massive library of top-quality design elements like the Marketing Graphics Toolkit. The value for money really is astonishing!


Just a selection of the resources available for under $10 a month with the Marketing Graphics Toolkit

Or how about this collection of pre-made landing page templates (including microsites, squeeze pages, and review site templates), at $47 per month?

Reusing pre-made design elements lets you reserve your time and creative energy for the stuff that really matters – those elements of a project that are truly unique:

  • Getting under the skin of your client’s business goals
  • Understanding their target market and what they want
  • Coming up with powerful propositions
  • Keyword research
  • Creative copywriting

All that stuff is more important than graphic design. I’m not saying that you should settle for crappy design. It must be appropriate for the target market.

What To Do Next

If you’re serious about:

  • doing the best design you can in the time available
  • … for the budget available
  • and making as much money as possible

… then I’m here to say it’s your responsibility to:

  1. Get tooled up with the best resources out there (themes, graphic elements, fonts, script libraries etc.)
  2. And practice using (re-using) the prior art of the great resource creators out there – specialising in being a designer who is also a master resource consumer!

Isn’t that cheating? NO! Cheating is wasting your client’s budget, your own time, or your employer’s time reinventing the wheel.

If that’s you, stop it! Become a smarter designer. It’s time.

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