More trends in web design…
This is Part II of our commentary on Philip VanDusen’s insightful video on 12 trends that he saw as defining web design in 2016…
Some of these trends fizzled out, some held well and are still going strong today, in 2020. Trends that follow perennial design rules will stick a while. This explains we still love Helvetica as a typeface, for instance.
4. Choosing Wordpress mindfully
Philip introduces 3 criteria to be used when selecting a Wordpress theme to build a site.
- Pick Wordpress, preferably to other content management systems
- Use a responsive theme
- Prefer a modern, contemporary theme
Why Wordpress? It is the de facto standard among content management systems (CMS) today, and unless you decide to hard-code your site from the ground up (which is definitely a cleaner option than Wordpress, albeit much more costly), Wordpress is the best choice among all of them, for a number of reasons (not discussed here).
The first criteria retained by Philip for a Wordpress theme is “responsiveness“: the capacity of your client’s website to verticalize its content to be read easily on a mobile device.
But let’s backtrack one notch for the newbies and people not familiar with Wordpress: What is a theme? How does a theme relates to Wordpress?
Wordpress is a content management system: basically a database system with a library of code which enables coders to build websites on top of the database.
When you hard-code your Wordpress site, you use the Wordpress library of “raw code” as a basis to communicate with the database and build the “façade” (front-end) of your site. You have to know code, and it takes a while to build the site because every single operation describing how the website will work has to be hand-written.
Over the years, under the pressure of time and budget constraints, developers have created “themes” which are to a website what the superstructure is to a building. The superstructure is everything that is above ground. While Wordpress is the “substructure” (all the plumbing and the foundations of the site), the theme is the code that defines the visible part of the site (how it looks, what functions it offers users, how it behaves when you click on things) and that regulates the way information circulates from one point to another point of the website.
We could say that themes are ready-made building elements, like elements of a pre-fabbed house. They simplify the process of building and changing a site, and they enable coders, designers and clients to reduce significantly the time it takes to create a nice website.
Back to Philip’s criteria. He recommends selecting a “contemporary” or “modern” theme, vs. a more “formulaic” one. By that, he is saying: “Don’t build a 1950s Soviet-style suburban apartment building. Keep your options open with a good theme, be creative, and use the design concepts that are trending today.”
My 2 cents
Unlike in 2016 when Philip shot this video, most themes today offer the same types of design functionalities: galleries, accordions, full-screen hero shots and sliders, side-by-side text modules, text animation capabilities, pre-designed pages, etc.
Simpler themes may not feature all the gamut of pre-designed design elements, but within a given price category in the theme market, themes come pretty much equipped with similar elements.
The simplest themes tend to be less “modern”, more “formulaic” as Philip puts it. You know the typical formulaic Wordpress site when you meet it: it’s a “hamburger style” site, with rectangular layers of contrasting colors piled up on top of each other. Whereas simple can be very attractive, “formulaic” tends to be annoying or unnoticeable.
This said, formulaic is good sometimes: when the client is on a budget, and you have to design quickly using ready-made templates, a formulaic theme is a great option. Dedicated “sales pages” are another example of the beauty of formulaic themes: when you want to test your sales copy and make sure it converts viewers into buyers, why spend much money in pre-design? Just use templates, and test the copy. When you see it works, improve the design of the template.
The most feature-loaded themes, typically more expensive, afford you more design options. But are they always the best choice?
Yes, they offer a full library of pre-made design elements and templated pages, and yes, they allow your creative juices to flow. But they are typically “heavy” as all these design features require many lines of code. Heavy code slows down a site. As a rule of thumb, the more complicated the theme, the less speedy the site will be. Today, speed is essential, and a slow, overworked site will make your client lose money. There is a balance between formulaic and feature-heavy.
Tips for web designers:
- After trying out and using a large number of themes over the years, my clear favorite is Divi. Divi is well-coded, it renders reasonably fast, it is not too hard to speed-optimize, and there is a huge library of Divi templates and graphic elements available on the market. This theme has some idiosyncrasies and will require a bit of skillful coding in some areas, but in general, it is a very solid choice to build any type of website. Another site builder that has garnered kudos from the Wordpress community is Elementor. Our team doesn’t use it, but some designers only swear by it.
- Avoid code-heavy themes that push multiple “updates” each month. I won’t name these themes here, but if you look at a marketplace such as Envato/ThemeForest, look at the history of changes and code updates of the theme you are considering to buy. Ask the question to the Wordpress community. When code updates are too numerous (e.g. once a week, or several times per month), they require significant additional work to keep the theme current. Updates take time to install and may create compatibility issues with plugins. Also, if you are like us, you won’t bill your clients for 90% of these updates because the real value added by a series of quick updates is… almost always zero. On top of this, rapid updates may be a sign that the theme is vulnerable to hackers, and that’s a major deterrent. So, take a look at the history of the theme before you buy.
- Avoid brand-new or rarely downloaded themes. A theme with a low number of downloads means it is either new, or it is buggy and developers avoid it, or it offers too limited functionalities. New themes may rock design-wise, but they may also be so new that their bugs have not yet all been remedied. Why be the pioneer with all the arrows on your back? There are enough good themes out there to avoid taking risks. These risks will create risks for your clients’ business (site malfunction, downtime) and extra unpaid work for you. Always prefer a theme with a long history: it shows resilience on the marketplace, and you won’t end up stranded a year later, just because the authors of the theme have stopped supporting it.
- Avoid any theme that is not compatible with the most current version of Wordpress. That’s a sign its authors are not supporting their theme fast enough. This spells trouble for you and your client down the road.
- Keep your design relatively simple. Whatever your style and the style of your client, avoid packing your site with complex design elements that will (a) make it look like an overworked wedding cake, (b) slow it down, and (c) risk costing you much time in troubleshooting issues later on. An excellent example of the feature-heavy problem is full-screen “hero shots”. These started to gain popularity back in 2014-15. While they are great to show a product or service that is very visual, they are typically a poor option for more “utilitarian” businesses. A Realtor will use a full-screen hero shot to show a breath-taking property. A store may use a full-screen hero shot to show the scope of its inventory. A plumber will not use a full-screen hero shot to describe his work. Full-screen hero-shots may also slow down the display of your site, which isn’t a good design option today.
To be continued…