I had a disagreement the other day with another designer friend of mine who took issue with my use of themes & templates and didn’t understand why I always start out with a theme or template.
He argued that my work wasn’t really unique and that the web was being diluted with carbon copy sites all using the same template.
While I can agree that sometimes I see sites that just installed the template and didn’t change one thing (but hey these templates are meant to be used as is, too), I don’t agree that it’s always bad to use a theme and I certainly don’t agree with building each site from scratch for each project.
If you look, WordPress even has a whole section on it’s site where you can find themes. They can’t be all bad.
Below is a list of 5 reasons I came up with for why you and pretty much all designers/developers should start with a template.
1. Quick Client Mock-ups
Sometimes you don’t need the whole site done and completely polished or customized for the client. Many times all you need is a quick working site up so you can give a client a quick idea of how a site is going to look, or you might just need an intranet for your company or even a temporary site for a specific event.
For these situations there’s just no point in starting from scratch, there are so many free templates not only for our favorite CMS’s (Joomla, WordPress, Drupal), but also for Dreamweaver and static sites as well.
Using those templates you can usually plug in whatever info you need to place on the site, and have a site up and going in just a small amount of time.
A few places to get some great themes:
http://themeforest.net -even though the themes here are commercial, ThemeForest features a monthly free download. You might just get lucky and snag that premium theme you had your eye on.
http://www.joomlashack.com – don’t let the name fool you. Along with the Joomla themes, JoomlaShack has WordPress and Drupal themes, too. There’s a large selection of free Joomla themes (I’ve used many of these for mock-up Joomla sites), while it looks like they are now converting their archive over to work with WordPress and Drupal.
http://sixrevisions.com – a great web design/development site. Six Revisions regularly features round-ups of free & commercial themes and templates for WordPress & some for the bother big three CMS’s.
http://www.smashingmagazine.com – Smashing Magazine is another big web design/development site that posts round-ups of free & commercial themes and templates for the big three CMS’s. There’s a ton of posts with free WordPress themes here. This very site is using the Smashing Magazine ‘Magazeen’ theme.
http://www.bestofjoomla.com – Best of Joomla is a really good place to start when searching for a Joomla theme. You can choose your criteria and only view free templates or ones with specific licenses and such. Many times there are comments on the template as to its quality. A very nice resource to have.
2. Great learning tool
If you really want to design your own themes, checking out professional, already crafted themes is a great way to get your feet wet. I personally love examining the code and inspecting exactly how the designer accomplished certain aspects of the template.
Sometime I don’t agree with the choice (that’s what template overrides are for, lol), but it never hurts to dive into a theme and learn from someone who’s already done it.
Once you get comfortable picking apart the nuts and bolts of a few pro themes, you’ll be more than ready to start building your own.
3. Specific template/theme options
Sometimes you want a site pre-built with certain options. The Thesis theme for WordPress boasts many SEO advantages right out of the box.
Many times you might want a site that’s built for News, or Video or Gaming. Looking for a theme for a specific genre can put you in the game much faster and at the very least give you an idea of how your content *should* be structured.
A lot of the bigger theme/template sites will give you a search option. I like to type in something like “news”and just see what it comes back with. Even if you don’t find exactly what you’re looking for sometimes with a decent knowledge of html/css you can “mix and match” a couple of template features together and come up with something new.
4. Support for paid themes/unpaid support -misery loves company
The great thing about using a theme is that someone else has most likely used it, too. While this counts as a detriment to some, the great thing is that if you need help, someone has probably solved the problem for you already.
Obviously with a decent paid theme from a reputable source you’ll receive some sort of tech support with the theme. That right there is worth the money when you have a client breathing down your neck.
Even if you’re using a free theme, though, if it’s fairly popular you can bet someone has run into your problem before. A little judicious Google/Bing searching and you’ll probably come right up with the answer.
The point is you’re hardly alone in it, and if the theme itself doesn’t have a forum, posing your question in design forums will probably land you a few suggestions and lead you to the fix.
5. Save a boat load of time
Finally, there’s just no beating the amount of time saved by customizing a template rather than going it alone and starting from scratch.
The truth is that most clients simply could not afford the cost that would be incurred by having a designer start from square one with that first line of html code. Or if you undertook the project underestimating the amount of work it takes to do this then you might end up losing your shirt on it.
If I had a client that was really willing to pay what I would charge for my time to develop from scratch a completely unique website then that would be great. Somehow I don’t see that happening.
Many times on sites like Template Monster (I honestly don’t care for this site, which is why I didn’t list it above) you’ll see that not only is there a “Regular Price” for the template, but there’s also a “Unique Price”, and it’s pretty damn expensive.
That’s because you have to pay for uniqueness. It costs time and money, and it’s just not cost-efficient (usually) to make that happen.
So anyway, think about this: would you rather be holed up in the office or at home working out the CSS inconsistencies between browsers, dealing with IE6 issues or trying to find that one JQuery video slider, or would you rather be out there on the links playing golf or spending time with your family or just wasting time reading comics -all things you can do if you pick the right template and just customize that sucker.
And for those who decry templates because “they all look the same”. Well, yeah, they all start out that way, but the real design pros will step in at this point and start customizing, dressing up the template and modifying it for their client’s or their own needs.
I used to start from scratch back in the day. Man was I always frustrated trying to wrangle that CSS. On the one hand, I’m really good with CSS now :), but on the other hand I certainly wasted a lot of unnecessarily wasted time that I can’t get back now that I could have used for something else.
Now I always start from a pro template, knowing that the CSS kinks and other crap are for the most part worked out already. I can just spend my energy doing design and customization, the stuff I really enjoy, then I can get busy putting in the content I want.
Anyway, so that’s my take on it. If you feel the same (or differently) just let me know in the comments, or share any other template tips/stories you might have.