Nick Clegg's off-the-shelf redesign May09 500
There’s a new look to, ‘the official Leader’s site for the Liberal Democrats’, powered – as noted previously – by WordPress. And it isn’t yellow, not in the slightest. In fact, it took me quite a while even to spot the party’s bird logo, concealed in each instance behind signatures or other graphic elements.
This isn’t like any Liberal Democrats web design you’ve seen before… because basically, it isn’t a LibDems web design. It’s an ‘out of the box’ installation of the (free) Revolution Office theme for WordPress… seen here in its raw form.
Of course, on one level, this is another reminder of the power of WordPress. Redesigning your entire website is as simple as finding a theme you like, downloading it, and pressing the ‘activate’ button. A few minutes tweaking the settings, and you’re done. So quick, so easy, so cheap. Plus, depending on the theme author, a guarantee (of sorts) that your site will keep working, no matter what changes happen in forthcoming WordPress upgrades.
But I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with ‘off the shelf’ design like this. As soon as I understood how, I stopped using third-party themes, and started coding my own. Several reasons for doing so, I think:

  • A need to understand what’s happening under the hood… in case something goes wrong, and you’re called on to fix it. I don’t think you can get that from ‘plug and play’ theming.
  • Something instinctive about branding. Your brand identity is meant to be a representation of you, what you do, and why you do it. Deep down, I don’t really believe it can be ‘you’ if you’re just pouring yourself into someone else’s mould. It can’t have soul unless it started from scratch.
  • Total customisability. No matter how good an off-the-shelf theme might be, I can’t believe it’ll cover every possible requirement a client might throw at you. So you’re going to end up getting your hands dirty with code anyway; and if it’s your own code in the first place, it should be much easier. (See point one.)
  • Fraud risk. Yes, you use off-the-shelf because it makes it much easier for you. But equally, it makes it easy – far too easy – for someone else to grab a ‘lookalike’ domain, download the same theme, and build (in effect) a ‘phishing’ site.

(The only exception is the production of sites based on Steph’s Commentariat theme: as I’ve described before, I personally think it’s important – for now at least – that these sites look deliberately similar, to make a point about code re-use in HMG.)
Maybe I’m being too precious about this. On low-budget, low-ambition projects, an off-the-shelf theme will probably be more, much more than adequate. You can have a website with top-notch functionality up and running in, let’s say, an hour. Client is happy, designer is off to the pub.
Ultimately, I think it comes down to how you see your business. Companies make money by selling lots of something cheap, or a few of something expensive. You can churn out lots of identikit sites for lots of people: that’s a perfectly valid business model, albeit pretty intensive on the sales side. Alternatively, you can try to make each one special. Puffbox opted for the latter. And so far, we’re doing OK out of it.

2 thoughts on “Nick Clegg's off-the-shelf redesign”

  1. One advantage of off the shelf stuff is it keeps the costs down so more people can make better use of social web tools and methods. That helps accelerate the change we are all encouraging.
    On the whole it doesn’t trouble me too much.

  2. There are so many good quality designs out there that unless you pick the really common ones, no-one outside the wordpress fan club will ever know that it’s a template rather than hand crafted.
    I agree the issue of brand identity should not be abandoned lightly, but as always its a consideration of the return on investment, and for many small scale sites its just not worth going the custom route.

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