Designing for Drupal


In a perfect world, it wouldn’t matter to a designer what content management system a site uses. But for most of us, projects are actually a combination of design and site building. It’s with this last bit that things get tricky.

Each content management system that we work with requires a significant investment of time to gain the expertise required to make our projects successful. The preferred CMS among designers has long been WordPress. There are some good reasons for this, but I’d like to discuss why designing for Drupal is something you might also consider.

Designing for Drupal cms Logo

Now before we get too far, I want to say this isn’t a Drupal vs. WordPress thing. I have personally used WordPress on projects and I think it’s a great content management system. Another large Drupal firm, Phase2 Technology used WordPress on the latest redesign of their main site. So although the two systems often compete, they can peacefully coexist.

So why would you consider designing for Drupal? Let’s start with one of the best reasons.

You’ll Make More Money

A while back Mashable had a piece on average CMS project costs based on data from DoNanza, the freelance site. On average, Drupal projects earned twice that of those using WordPress. Think about that…double your income on a per project basis.

That article is a few years old, but I can tell you from conversations I’ve had with my Drupal friends who work with both systems that this still holds up. Drupal projects are just better earners, usually because the projects have more advanced requirements that Drupal is better suited to meet. Now this last point may have you thinking, advanced requirements = project from hell.

Not necessarily.

Drupal Has Changed – a Lot

Let’s just come out and say it, Drupal used to be a big pain in the ass with regard to usability. I say used to be because with Drupal 7, things dramatically improved thanks to the work of Mark Boulton who was hired to design a new admin interface for Drupal. The result is a learning curve that is now very much the same as WordPress. 

I say this quite confidently because I have personally trained clients on both systems and I haven’t been able to tell that either is more difficult to learn for someone coming at it with a fresh pair of eyes.

With Drupal 6, this wasn’t the case. Clients would inevitably become frustrated with the maze-like administrative backend. In truth, it made a lot of people hate Drupal.

So although it was admittedly bad, it’s actually quite good now and slated to get even better with the release later this year of Drupal 8. The usability problems of early versions of Drupal have provided lessons to the community that have been taken to heart. It’s become a major and ongoing focus for improvement.

Installation Profiles

A comparison of WordPress and Drupal isn’t really apples to apples. When you download Drupal, it’s not actually a completed CMS and this is by design. Drupal is amazingly flexible and the intentional blanks that have been left are so site builders can customize things to their liking.

Sure, both WordPress and Drupal almost always require additional plugins or modules, but there is more left undone with Drupal. The parts that are missing – a rich text editor for example – are not included so that a designer or developer building a new site doesn’t have to undo something they don’t want included in their work. This is why when you download Drupal it’s said you’re downloading “core”.

Sounds like a big headache if you’re trying to get up to speed with Drupal on a deadline, huh? You bet it is, and the solution is using an installation profile

Installation profiles are something that I’m not sure has an equivalent in WordPress. It’s a version of Drupal that you install – same process as generic Drupal – but the end result is a completely configured site, often including sample content. The best way to describe them is “websites in a box”.

Oftentimes installation profiles have a specific purpose. For example, the first profile on the previous link is for Commerce Kickstart. It’s an e-commerce profile (aka distribution) that comes with almost all of the site building completed. No wonder it’s the top download, right?

So another great reason to design for Drupal is the huge time savings that installation profiles can provide. Remember when we were talking before about more money per project because of more complex requirements? Installation profiles are a great shortcut that can reduce time spent on site building and make those projects even more profitable.

Drupal Is Growing

While overall use of content management systems continues to grow, Drupal is outpacing the pack. The table below shows the market share of the “Big Three” systems over the past year. Take note of the column on the far right.

Designing for Drupal GUI layout cms

You’ll see that Drupal grew its market share by 21% – not too shabby! The data is from W3Techs, but the numbers from Builtwith show a similar trend.

My own feeling is that the improvement is due to the changes with Drupal 7. It’s been a game changer. It’s also quite likely that in the future if you want projects in some industries, you’ll have to be open to working with Drupal. One example is higher education, which has been seeing a major shift toward Drupal over the past several years.

The Right Tool for the Job

You now have four good reasons to design for Drupal, but like I said at the top, both systems can coexist. It’s really about picking the right system for a given project.

Let me tell you a story about a redesign project at the university where I used to work. The project was put out to bid because the particular unit was small and didn’t have their own IT or design staff. One firm submitted a very competitive bid and they had great design skills. But when the time came for a review of their bid, they pushed back hard on Drupal. “Wouldn’t WordPress be better?” they insisted.

Sometimes WordPress is a better choice, but in this case, it was clear they were simply uncomfortable with Drupal and were selling a solution that wasn’t best for the client. In the process, they lost a chance at a five-figure contract on a project that wasn’t particularly complicated.

By expanding your toolkit, you can avoid situations where you lose potentially lucrative projects – I guess that makes five great reasons to design for Drupal!

What Does it Matter?

Now you may be asking why I care if more people design for Drupal. What does it matter?

Drupal actually needs more designers. We need the enormously valuable perspectives designers bring, perspectives that are different from those of the developers that make up the majority of the Drupal community. More people designing for Drupal means a richer, more diverse group of contributors and ultimately, a better product. I hope you’ll consider giving it a try.

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