A Scenic Tour of the Online World

Why CMSes Make Better Websites

Friday, November 11th, 2011

I’ve done a couple of full 180s in my 15 or so years of online communications work. (Good thing I’m not running for office. I’d be a flip-flopper …) One of the biggest has been my attitude toward CMS templates. I used to apologize for the way they can limit design flexibility.

But no more. Things have changed with the way page templates can be customized in various CMS, and the limits to do still pose are all helpful in creating and maintaining a better web presence.

First, CMSes are just plain great because they allow non-programmers to manage a website’s content. That puts control of the site in the hands of the communications pros rather than the tech pros. It also removes the friction that comes with having to go to an internal team or external consultant for even minor content additions.

But that used to come at a price. Namely, CMS could look terrible. And then, when they stopped looking terrible, the looked generic. You could always tell a site built with WordPress. It just looked like a WordPress site.)

But as tools like WordPress, Drupal and Joomla improved their skinning/theming/designing features, that generic face disappeared.

What remains though, is having to lock in your design earlier during development, and staying with it between full site revisions. And that’s a good thing, for a number of reasons:

  1. It forces you to plan better during pre-production for the various ways you’re going to want to present your content.
  2. Website designs remain as beautiful as the designer imagined them. The design elements remain consistent from page to page, even with a large team of editors.
  3. It keeps content people focused on content, not on design.

That last one is key. Yes, great infographics are powerful and should  be used whenever time, budget and creativity allow – but that’s editorial content, not page design and layout.

And as long as you’re paying attention to the site’s goals during pre-production – see #1 above – it should be exceedingly rare that you would need to create  new page layouts between regular design reviews. (Which in most cases don’t need to occur any more frequently than once every 18 months if that soon.)

As importantly, consistent navigation and page layout help keep your visitors oriented and comfortable as they move through your site.

If you’re considering a CMS and your design team is lining up against, don’t let them use these arguments. (And truth be told, the designers shouldn’t be driving the process any more than the technology team. Stay focused on content and let design and technology serve your communications goals, not vice versa.)

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