Intangible Templates

06 June 2004

Learning about Sam's Club's new offer in a post from Scrivsyesterday, I decided to nose around at it a little more, with half an eye on the future of web professionals everywhere. What they are offering appears to be slightly different to your standard $5 (£2.72!) web design package - if there is such a thing. It is certainly feature packed, with options for e-commerce with intergrated merchant accounts, server logs, message boards, and the like. Of course, without signing up for a yearly subscription to Sam's Club and then paying the extra for the website package (neither of which I was particularly attracted by!), it's not possible to ascertain exactly what is available for $5 a month; and frankly, I've lost interest in finding out anyway. What has been raised though, is the question of whether freelance designers like myself - and Scrivs I believe - be concerned about the rise of template packages such as these, no matter how featureless or feature packed they are? There is no doubt that these offers are taking work from smaller design firms and the freelancer. That is unfortunate for whoever is losing the work; but at the same time it is pushing us to understand how we need to extend our skills as designers and developers. Services such as Sam's Club, which offer a web based interface allowing pretty much anyone to set up a website 'in less than 5 minutes', lack one pretty crucial function. No one is planning or designing the site. Users are just dumping content into various holes, specified by the templates. How are these sites really different from a small business owner, sitting down on a Sunday afternoon with a copy of Frontpage, and 'designing' a site for his business? Anyone with a reasonable amount of common sense and patience can do that, but it does not guarantee a successful online store, or customer service solution, or anything really. My point is this: Yes, these services will take work from freelancers; but is it work that we would value highly anyway? I, like all designers, take a certain amount of pride in my work. I happen to specialise for a particular client type in my work, and I have a measure of self-esteem, and belief that I offer an excellent service in that area. The expertise I offer, as do all designers and developers, cannot be funnelled into some templates for a £2.72 website. What about information architecture, site goals, target audience, search engine optimization, not to mention standards. These are facets of design that web professionals obtain through knowledge, experience, and practise. They are also skills that cannot be replicated by a template, the skills that we should continue to learn and develop, and the skills which mean we have a few more years left in us yet. The philosophy behind the Sam's Club service is, as Scrivs rightly points out, to increase the number of small/medium businesses with a web presence. So let's hope, firstly for good old Sam's sake, that many people sign up for it; but let's also hope that within a few years, these businesses come to see the importance of a successful site, and realise what they have missed out on by buying a template service. Remember the digital watch you bought from the petrol station for 99p thinking you'd found a bargain? Me too, but Rolex didn't have much to worry about did they?