For much of recent history, a sizeable segment of professional web designers turned up their collective noses at DIY website builders. You know, those products that promise literally anyone can build a site with minimal effort.
This makes sense on a couple of fronts. First, the marketing hype rarely held up when viewing the results these tools produced. Second, they might also be seen as an existential threat to designers who work with smaller clients.
But a funny thing happened along the way: many of the tools we use to create custom websites are adding no-code features. For example, WordPress has joined the party with Full Site Editing (FSE). And page builder interfaces are becoming the default across the board.
The line between custom and DIY is becoming increasingly blurred. What does “custom” even mean these days? And how do web designers differentiate themselves from the tools we use?
Let’s explore this new landscape and try to find some answers.
Saving Time vs. Doing It “Right”
For designers and developers, one of the biggest questions about DIY website builders is quality. Yes, it may be easy to drag-and-drop your way to something that looks decent. But does that come at the cost of industry standards, accessibility, or future maintenance needs?
Those are still valid concerns. And it can also be a bit of a mental hurdle for those of us who like to have control over what we build. Going with a no-code solution means placing trust that the tool will adhere to best practices.
Still, the allure of saving precious time can be too much to pass up. Spending a few hours hand-crafting a custom CSS layout is one thing. Accomplishing essentially the same result with a few clicks is another. Convenience has value, too.
Plus, many content management systems (CMS) seem to have moved past custom code (or are trying to). You can still create a WordPress theme from scratch. But the introduction of block themes has significantly altered the workflow. It’s not the same experimental playground for code junkies that it used to be.
Some may even argue that writing code for design-related tasks has become a legacy practice. Yet it still has some tremendous benefits in terms of both quality and control. Thus, web designers are caught in-between worlds at the moment.
Redefining What a Custom Website Is
Web design is in a constant state of change. For instance, we moved from table-based layouts to CSS floats. And those were soon overtaken by Flexbox and CSS Grid. It’s just the nature of our job.
As such, the definition of a “custom” website is also changing – albeit slowly. This was always a subjective term. But now, it appears to be especially so.
At one point, custom might have been defined as being written entirely by hand. But that hasn’t been the case for years. Using a CMS, a third-party theme, or even a framework takes much of that heavy lifting out of our hands.
In the present, a custom website could be anything that strays from a stock install. Maybe it involves code you’ve written or a collection of plugins. Perhaps swapping out colors and rearranging a few page layouts is enough.
On the modern web, maybe the debate should no longer be whether something is custom. It’s more about the degree to which it has been customized.
Expertise Is Where Professional Designers Stand Out
Now that we’ve established that various forms of DIY website builders are taking over the world, what does it mean for web designers? The situation is far from dire.
That’s because, no matter how easy a tool is to use, there are still going to be different levels of proficiency. A small business owner who wants a website can likely get to a certain point on their own. But if they want to go further, web designers are well-positioned to take over.
Expertise and experience matter. The intricacies that go along with design, development, and content strategy aren’t skills that everyone possesses. Each area requires dedication to become knowledgeable.
This is where web designers will continue to stand out and demonstrate value. We can develop a process for building websites that take the best of both worlds into account. DIY tools can be used for the basics, while custom code can be added in as needed.
Even better is that this shouldn’t have any negative impact on pricing. There will always be people who don’t want to pay for expertise. However, most will happily spend for and appreciate quality service.
The Age of Less Code
As the process for building websites evolves, it stands to reason that there’s less of a need to build from scratch. That means fewer lines of code have to be written. But it’s hard to imagine it ever being completely out of the picture.
Much depends on the types of projects you work on. High-end and enterprise projects are likely to need some level of custom solutions.
But even projects that rely on off-the-shelf components (a CMS, theme, and plugins) require tweaking. Both design and functionality have to match project needs. It could be a matter of changing settings or adding a few code snippets. There’s no such thing as a website-in-a-box.
The transition to a custom/DIY hybrid approach is undoubtedly frustrating for some – and it’s easy to see why. It’s a different way of working and requires us to rethink how we do things.
At the same time, knowledgeable and talented web designers are just as vital as ever. Tools may change, but expertise is always in demand.
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