The Truth About the Template lie

One of my ‘themes’ as Creative Director at Suited is defining terms and debunking myths. It can be hard to get much done if we’re all talking in circles with no common understanding of basic terms and methods. I’ve noticed in my years as a designer, that many agencies and freelancers have made their business about ‘not using templates’ claiming ‘we only build from scratch/design original artwork’. Of all the myths out there, this one seems to confuse startups, DIY-ers, and solopreneurs in particular. It tends to be at least partial information in blogs and articles at the least, and downright dishonest at worst.

Templates: The Definition

When you look up ‘template’ in Webster’s dictionary, you get what the term is supposed to mean: “a gauge, pattern, or mold (such as a thin plate or board) used as a guide to the form of a piece being made” and “something that establishes or serves as a pattern”. A template is based on a good design that works and works so well it’s worth NOT repeating. Like the basic design of a hamburger, a shoe, or a guitar. The core structure and components are templates; no shame in it! These templates are worth keeping as part of your regular tool-set and yes; even worth others going into the business of making and selling these templates or recipes. This is where I understand how the word ‘template’ in the world of art and design (particularly the odd & opinionated world of web design) has gotten to be a bad word or marketed as such.

A New Way To Think About Templates

Typically I’d wait until later in the article to deliver the punchline but Nah, here it is. If your web agency or design group is not using templates to some degree, fire them. If you are paying these people to re-invent and re-design the concept of a header, navigation menu, buttons, left-to-right text page layouts, mobile layouts, and so on, then they are using part of your budget un-necessarily to build that which does not need to be reinvented. We are all using ‘templates’ to some degree, and it’s a good thing. ‘Template’ says ‘efficiency’ and says ‘optimized’. Honda does not say, “gee.. what do you think we should do with 2023 civic for a motor?” No, they pull the engine (‘template’) from 2022 and augment it slightly (if at all) and make some accommodations in the electrical components for upgrades to the dashboard accessories and so on. They refer to a ‘template’ as they progress.

Templates: Organizing What Works

Websites are not cars, but the analogy is perfect. You’ve got 2 designs that serve a function, and you are looking to refine and evolve a concept, and retain all of what is good and works from not only your data but from the data and findings of literally millions of other designers’ products. The truth about the template ‘lie’ is that those templates are not a bad thing. A template is a term that is thrown around, and what people mean to say, and these dishonest designer blogs & articles are really aiming their cross-hairs is this: When an agency or designer takes and buys a template from a template marketplace and simply replaces some text & a client’s branding (or colors) and leaves all layout, formatting, stock images, and stock graphics, and sells it.

The only dishonest portion in this transaction is if the firm or individual claims this is all unique original artwork when it is not. However, the layout and ‘template’ of the padding, borders, header/footer, menus… this is simply a non-sequitur. That’s structure and order based on user experience.. how websites work! The client ordered a ‘website that works’ and the firm did that. Another point before we get all crazy critical is this: that website also likely represents one of many price points and service levels. I don’t play guitar but I know I can get one that is based on a template and I don’t throw a fit or write reviews saying, “these suckers at Guitar Center sold this model that’s just a template.. can you believe them?” -what? No, of course, I can believe it. It’s the $500 model. I can also go spend $5000 I’m told and have a custom guitar built. But you know what? That ‘designer’ really just has me choose the wood type, pickups, and hardware.. maybe get my name engraved, and built from a template. Either way, if I said, “ya know.. don’t give me ANYTHING from before, I want original! Start from a blank board, no templates, no previous anything..” he or she would tell me to take a hike. That’s the blunt honest truth.

Ignore The Noise

One thing I love doing that’s outside of art & design is educating busy folks that sit prey to the BS out there about things like templates. Do sites tend to look the same today? Of course, they do, but that’s not the ‘templates’ that’s lazy designers and you (yes you) the client not paying for and developing real content. A good website is only as good as the text, images, and video that populates it.. and you know a sitemap and story to tell, etc. Bad sites that look like templates come from bad business plans and the notion that a logo and some bullet points can build a website, and THAT is the lie. That is the setup.

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