Why Web Designers Should Learn Multiple Content Management Systems


We live in an era where web designers have become ultra-specialized. Many tend to have a narrow focus regarding the tools they use and types of projects they accept.

It didn’t used to be this way. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the industry was a bit scattered. I certainly fit that mold. I tried a little bit of everything: building with static HTML, flat-file systems and a few assorted content management systems (CMS).

Eventually, I happily settled into a comfort zone with WordPress. In fact, things have gone well enough to where I generally don’t like to venture outside of this self-imposed bubble. Why? For me, that familiarity means I can work more efficiently. Plus, there really aren’t any limits as to what I can build with my favorite CMS.

That’s not to say that I don’t break free on occasion. For example, I might use HTML for a single-page or quickie project that doesn’t require much functionality. There have also been times when agency clients have asked me to work with a proprietary CMS: Miva (for eCommerce) and Wild Apricot (for membership sites) are two examples.

And, despite my own reservations, I believe branching out a little has been a positive experience. The following are a few reasons why I think learning multiple CMS can be a good thing for every web designer.

Compare and Contrast Methods for Building a Website

Probably the most obvious benefit to working with more than one CMS is observing their differences. That holds true for both open-source and proprietary systems. And the methods used to build a website can vary quite a bit.

Some systems, particularly proprietary apps like Squarespace or Wix, will be a more front-end focused experience. You pick a theme, then start adding content and bits of desired functionality. There may be some opportunities to dig into back-end development, but that’s not the primary aim of the system.

An open-source CMS, such as WordPress or Drupal, is going to provide a lot more options. You can go the readymade theme route, or opt for something completely custom. There’s less hand-holding, which can mean a more holistic approach is in order.

How is this beneficial? Well, working with the same system over and over can lead to a more rigid way of thinking. Utilizing different systems teaches us that there is more than one way to accomplish a particular task. That in itself encourages us to think about building sites in a more flexible manner.

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Lessons in User Experience

Experimenting with multiple CMS is also a great way to learn about user experience. Whether it’s a drag-and-drop page builder or a dashboard interface, you’ll quickly gain an understanding of what does (and doesn’t) work.

For example, an unintuitive dashboard can make it difficult to create content or tweak settings. You may find that it takes more effort to train clients. And in some systems, important items could be buried and require several clicks to get where you want to go.

These kinds of experiences have the potential to positively influence your own design work. Knowing the difference between good and bad UX is invaluable when working with clients. It enables you to better guide them during the design process.

It also results in a bit of self-reflection. You may discover that you’re utilizing some of the very same techniques that drove you up a wall when navigating a particular CMS. Seeing this can help you realize what’s missing and provide you a path for fixing any shortcomings.

Sometimes, nothing sparks a change in your own work like seeing living examples of the good, bad and ugly of UX.

A woman viewing a mobile screen.

Develop a Better Understanding of Your Niche

Being stuck in a single-CMS bubble can mean losing perspective of where you are in your career. It’s harder to perform a self-evaluation when there’s not a lot of variety in what you do. Quite often, it’s easier to just keep forging ahead on the same path.

Unfortunately, that can lead to stagnation. That’s why it’s important to keep on challenging yourself and your knowledge. Doing so means asking questions, such as:

  • Are you serving clients in the best possible way?
  • What additional types of functionality would benefit your projects?
  • How can you learn and grow?

Going on an adventure or two with different systems can be a big help in answering these questions. They run the gamut in terms of what they’re capable of. Each has their own distinct strengths and weaknesses as well.

Add it up and you may find some areas where you can expand and improve. That could mean moving more projects to a different CMS. Or it might be a matter of taking what you’ve learned elsewhere and applying it to your preferred system.

Regardless, it’s an effective way to see where you stand and look ahead to the future.

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Stepping Into the Unknown

The longer you’re a part of the web design industry, the more likely it is that you’ll develop a list of favorite tools. A CMS is often part of that collection.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with preferring a particular CMS and specializing in it. Having intricate knowledge of a system means you’ll likely accomplish more with less effort. That keeps costs down and enables you to take on more projects.

But there is also something to be said for gaining experience elsewhere. Leaving your comfort zone is an opportunity to expand your horizons. You’ll see how other systems work and gain some perspective when it comes your own methods for doing things.

The best part is that you don’t need to make a large commitment. It could be as simple as installing another CMS in a local environment and poking around. That alone will give you a taste of what else is out there.

So, no, you don’t have to replace your favorite CMS. But there are some real benefits to busting out of that bubble.

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