The battle that may redefine your job as a web designer

There is a battle going on to capture smaller website business. The winner may define the role of web design in the future.

This post is sponsored by Monstroid.

I spend a lot of time talking about the challenges faced by owners of large institutional websites. But what about smaller organisations. Local charities, small businesses, schools, religious groups, societies. The list goes on.

I know many of you work in this part of the market and you have some interesting times ahead. That is because there is a battle going on for the smaller website. A battle that could redefine your job. A battle that has price and ease of use on one side. On the other is flexibility and bespoke design.

It is a battle born from the raft of alternatives now available to smaller organisations. A battle for the commoditisation of web design.

The threats facing smaller web designers

The lower end of the web design market has always been competitive. Web designers have found themselves competing on price with enthusiastic amateurs and offshore suppliers.

Clients in this part of the market don’t particularly value the web or good design. They just want something up and running as fast as possible and at the lowest possible price.

The response of many professional web designers have been to push up the market. Focusing instead on clients who see their website as more important. Clients who place at least some value on aesthetics and usability.

Squarespace provide beautifully designed, usable sites at a fraction of the cost of hiring a designer.
Squarespace provide beautifully designed, usable sites at a fraction of the cost of hiring a designer.

But even this part of the market is now becoming price sensitive and more competitive. Services like Squarespace enabled clients to get a great looking, responsive website. All for a fraction of the cost of hiring a web designer. Even better it comes with intuitive tools that almost anybody can use.

Today services like the Grid threaten to take this to the next level. Effectively replacing the designer with an algorithm. A client sets the feel they want from their site (casual, professional etc) and the algorithm does the rest. It selects typography based on the selected feel, and colour based on branding or imagery.

It is impressive to watch in action. But there are still good reasons to hire a professional and not rely on a service such as the Grid.

The argument for the professional

Services like the Grid and Squarespace will give you a professional looking website without a doubt. It will also give you that for an amazing price. But what you lose in the process is flexibility and control.

You get only a handful of templates on Squarespace and only limited customisation options. With the Grid you set your criteria and then the algorithm does the rest. Impressive though this is there is little in the way of real customisation. It is like hiring a designer to build you a website and having almost no say over what they deliver beyond the initial brief.

The Grid threatens to replace the designer with an algorithm.
The Grid threatens to replace the designer with an algorithm.

You are not just limited in the visual appearance of your website. You are also limited in the functionality too. If you want your website to do something not offered on the platform, you are stuck. No plugins, no custom code. No way of adding what you need.

This lack of flexibility means that bespoke web design will not go away. That said, for a considerable number of clients the cost savings makes those tradeoffs worth taking. That is why the market is becoming ever more price sensitive.

But what if you could deliver the flexibility clients want while staying competitive on pricing? What if you could allow your clients to both have their cake and eat it?

A better way

I have been working with Template Monster for a while now. They have sponsored the podcast and I have also done video training courses for them.

Template Monster produce templates. They help web designers working in that competitive end of the market turn around websites quicker. This enables them to keep their prices low and remain competitive.

But I couldn’t help feeling that Template Monster was only helping hold back the inevitable. Squarespace and the Grid was commoditising web design. Templates could help in the short term, but they couldn’t save the day.

Monstroid combines the best of a professional web designer with the benefits of a service like Squarespace.
Monstroid combines the best of a professional web designer with the benefits of a service like Squarespace.

Then Template monster showed me Monstroid and I could see hope for those working with smaller businesses. Template Monster could have gone down the Squarespace route. Instead they have done something clever. Something that will allow web designers to compete with the trend of commoditisation.

Monstroid is a WordPress theme. But that does not do it justice. It allows a nearly endless combination of layouts. It has an ever expanding list of different visual styles and includes over 30 plugins.

But even that description does not explain the power of Monstroid. What Monstroid provides is the quick implementation you get from something like Squarespace. But with the flexibility and power of the WordPress platform. Clients now have a clear upgrade path if they want to introduce something beyond what Monstroid offers. That is not something Squarespace or the Grid can do.

It also includes an editor that allows clients to create their own layouts with the same simplicity as Squarespace.

The result of this is that professional web designers can give clients at the lower end of the market everything they want.

Web designers can:

  • Be more competitive on pricing because implementation is faster.
  • Provide a far wider range of functionality because Monstroid is built on WordPress.
  • Provide considerably more customisation of the visual appearance to meet clients needs.
  • Empower clients to update their own websites and even build complex layouts. All without writing a line of code or dealing with a clunky interface.
  • A clear upgrade path for the future.

I would encourage you to check it out for yourself. I believe it has a lot of potential.

The long term future is rosy

Long term I don’t believe this commoditisation of the web will continue. As digital becomes business critical to even the smallest business you will see a willingness to invest in sites.

But we are not there yet and with the pressure from the likes of Squarespace and the Grid things are going to be tough for a while. What Monstroid offers is a real alternative that provides significant value to clients.

  • This is something I think about a lot, too. But I also remind myself that there are things that any DIY platform cannot do. Can these platforms account for performance optimization? Technical and onsite SEO? Nope. So in the end, you may find yourself with a nice looking site you did yourself, but it may ultimately prove futile without knowledge of all those little things that good, well-rounded front-end developers bring to the table.

    • I am sorry to say I disagree. These platforms are putting a lot of work into performance and SEO. And because of their scale they can do it more effectively than a smaller single site.

      • Heinrich

        I must admit I agree with you Paul. They have larger teams working on all the performance/tech/seo aspects with greater efficiency than a single developer. I can’t help but feel that using something like the Genesis theme + Visual page builder etc…would give you the same results as Monstroid?

      • Then I guess a lot of us will be out of the job of someday.

      • Griffen H. Fargo

        I agree with Paul that SEO is now beyond easy to setup / maintain using the WordPress platform along with the Yoast plugin, however I disagree that an individual (without knowledge or experience with WordPress/Web Optimization) will gain anything in switching away from Squarespace to a glorified WordPress theme & Toolset.

        My reasoning for this goes off a few assumptions; average small business client you are referencing will go with a shared hosting service i.e. GoDaddy, Host Gator, or BlueHost and while it saves them money, performance is nowhere near what it could / should be for a companies website. You’ll either suffer from an amazingly slow WordPress backend, after you overload it with plugins, and offer little to no support for things like caching or concatenation on the Front-End.

        If the client is smart enough to go with a WordPress specific host like http://wpengine.com/ – they’re going to be paying $30+/month.

        My conclusion is this mythical client who wants both an ‘easy to use’ editor and possesses the desire & ability to preform custom modifications on a WordPress Install VERY RARELY actually exists.. and often if they do exist they are like a bull in a china shop – hacking away at things without any idea of the possible consequences. If you’re working with WordPress its in your best interest to hire a developer to, at the very least, do some kind of quality assurance.

        That’s why I feel like those who are looking for the solution with the lowest overhead; Squarespace, Tripod, The Grid, Weebly will always be a better option. WordPress, albeit the #1 CMS used currently, still has many pitfalls for individuals without a technical understanding and I don’t feel like simply adding more tools / WSYWIG editors on top of the existing core doesn’t do any good in the long haul. Most of the time theres simply too much extra ‘weight’ users are unknowingly adding creating a slow clunky site which is unenjoyable to use. At the end of the day Businesses need to realize that often their website is where people get their ‘first impression’ so why not put your best foot forward?

  • rapsli

    Hi Paul, that one link to monstroid does not work (https://boagworld.com/montroid/)

    • Thanks for spotting that. It is a typo. Fixed now :-)

    • Thanks for spotting this. All the links have now been fixed :)

  • Julian Coates

    What these services do is replace the bespoke attentions of an experienced human web designer/developer with a bunch of algorithms and a limited set of predefined options for the client to choose between (because clients are almost always crap at design). While that may work for some, I don’t see how we will ever be replaced completely unless all the things we do can be done by machines. Did you watch Humans? I loved it!

  • Everytime I do a small website job I always try to find a decent commercial template solution but never use them. The premium themes often provide lots of functionality you never use, thus adding bandwidth overheads (and endless updates!) Monstroid looks impressive though, so might give it a whirl next time. Invariably I end up either using a bare bones framework or hand rolling my own basic theme – which are quite quick to implement and run faster without server overheads. Also, more often than not a small biz client is never interested in managing the site’s design themselves.

  • Courtney Centner

    Another critical role small studios play is to provide guidance about content strategy and information design, which no templated system can ever replace. I think Squarespace and WordPress themes are great options for my small non-profit clients, who have the same communication and marketing needs that any large organization has but without the same budget. However without content and IA guidance — even at a basic level — to ensure the site is relevant to their audience as well as enjoyable and easy to use, the most beautiful templated option wouldn’t get them anywhere.

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