WordPress: The De-Evolution and Rebirth of Web Design

The common practice of using predesigned WordPress Themes and other website templates has turned the web design industry on its head in just a few short years. Websites are easier to build and more affordable than ever. But it’s not all good news for clients. Here’s why.

WordPress: The De-Evolution and Rebirth of Web Design

Don’t Make Me Think (Strategically)

Ten years ago, if you wanted a professionally-designed website for your small business, you really had to think hard about what you were doing and why you were going to do it– otherwise, you could easily burn through $10,000 to $20,000 worth of design and development fees before you had your first visitor.

If you wanted a website with a content management system similar to WordPress, you could expect to pay another $10,000 to $20,000 in additional development fees.

Yes, WordPress changed all of this, and that’s a good thing for small businesses. Sort of.

As a rule, I used to carefully walk each of my clients through Discovery, Ideation, and Design Phases (prior to the final Production Phase), to:

  1. Help them clarify their business objectives and marketing strategy;
  2. Identify the strengths and weaknesses of their competitors’ websites;
  3. Empathize with the target audience (i.e., “walk a mile in their shoes”) via use-case scenarios; and
  4. Present several design concepts to consider the best way to communicate what the brand stood for…

… all before I created a wireframe, mockup, or wrote a single line of code.

Then, all of this knowledge was incorporated into multiple iterations of interaction flow charts and eventually worked its way into multiple iterations of the design… to help visitors accomplish their tasks with far less resistance, and to help my clients accomplish their business objectives.

However, I could no longer do this profitably.

Redesigning My Design Process

About 5 years ago, I realized that more and more web developers (and some designers?) were slightly modifying $50 WordPress Themes and reselling them for a few thousand dollars. At that point, I knew I had to streamline my design process for all but my most sophisticated clients if I were to remain competitive. And so I did, reluctantly.

I whittled down my process to a simple questionnaire; cut way back on wireframes and mockups; and merged my design and development processes.

While I still insist on creating custom WordPress Themes and websites, I start with what web developers call a “framework” or “skeleton” theme— one that I created to suit my method of working and to give me a head start on each new website project.

Why Not Start With a Predesigned Theme?

The biggest problem with predesigned Themes is what happens before the Theme is purchased (generically designed), and after the Theme is purchased (poorly implemented and maintained).

Keep in mind that the WordPress community is dominated by web developers (coders). Consequently, you rarely hear from web designers who can help you communicate more effectively.

For example, I began my career many years ago as a print designer and illustrator. Through my art education I learned about the finer points of visual communication, and through my employment by some of the best graphic design firms in the industry, I learned why an obsession with “little things” associated with: developing a creative concept; laying out a page; creating a color palette; selecting and using a typeface; creating illustration; art directing photographers (and illustrators); and hiring the right copywriters are so important.

In other words, professionally speaking, that gorgeous predesigned Theme you just paid $50 (or thousands of dollars) for, will, more than likely, turn into a visitor’s nightmare and possibly a failure (depending on how you initially defined success).

A Rebirth… Thanks to Google?!

Low cost content management systems like WordPress, and social networks, have made us all potential publishers of information. Forget about the printing press. Who needs good designers, developers, writers, photographers, or illustrators, with such an abundance of (nearly) free and powerful tools at our disposal? Right? Wrong!

Google’s algorithm is constantly getting better at recognizing the difference between a good and bad website (and black hat SEO techniques).

Most online marketers and SEO experts will advise you to produce “great content” on a regular basis. Magazine publishers have been publishing great content for years, and there is something to be learned from them— even though they no longer have a monopoly on the printing press and distribution channels. That is, the most successful publications have consistently hired the best editors, creative directors, art directors, designers, writers, illustrators, and photographers money could buy. And why? To produce great content. To increase circulation. To sell more ads. And yes, to increase profits.

But if pleasing Google isn’t your cup of tea, what do you intend to do in a world with millions of publishers and countless messages pouring out of hundreds of channels per second?

Produce “better content”!

Is your WordPress website not converting like it should? Stop the madness and let me help. From new custom websites, to complete makeovers, to monthly maintenance. Learn more here.


  1. Will Sherwood

    Recently I noticed a theme on Themeforest.com where the design firm allocated 4 people for 9 months working on and refining the theme. The final project was smart, beautifully designed and fully responsive.

    When a theme like this sells for $55, it would seem that the beginning of the end is near for web designers doing custom work for individual clients. At least this would seem true for all but the very largest corporate clients.

  2. Brian H.

    Thanks for the article, Tommy. It’s an interesting question.

    One of the issues with the full custom approach is that most small businesses need something only a little more than a brochure site. They don’t have time, knowledge, inclination, or money to pay for upkeep on a large complex site. Nor does that suit their business needs. A months-long design process seems like overkill for many businesses I work with. I design over weeks, not months.

    Another trend is user behavior itself. Users are browsing on mobile. They’re coming to sites from social. They are looking for ways to connect with people, not information. Therefore, site design is much more straight forward (and simple) than it used to be. What are the key selling points? What is the mobile-friendly call to action? And how do we get that to load quickly, look good and function across all devices?

    I would say this is the power of WordPress. It’s risen in popularity not because developers and designers are unnecessary, but because the technology has changed the way we discover, interact with, and browse the Web.

    Web users are fluid. Design must change to meet the way people are using the technology to get to the website.

    The key questions today for designers are:

    Can your site be found?
    Does it look good?
    Is it mobile-friendly?
    Can you move the visitor to connect to a product or person or both?

    These are all user-driven behaviors. Businesses don’t need the robust sites people created before, but it doesn’t mean they can really do it themselves. We’re still in demand…for now.

    We must find new ways to deliver custom work to clients who need it while also giving the rest the basic website that fits their needs and their visitors’ needs.

  3. Chris Raymond

    From my own experience, when you work in a small organization where you are tasked with visual design, information design, content strategy, user experience/usability research and design, and prototyping, to name a few hats, it is very hard to also tackle sophisticated, standards-compliant, responsive WP theme building.

    So in order to focus on the value-added of the design thinking, sometimes you have to let others tackle the front-end development. So long as you know enough to assess the quality of theme building and coding, it’s a trade-off I have become comfortable making so that I can focus on what I do best.

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