In a perfect world there would be good design for everyone. Street signs, homes, magazines, posters, and identity systems—everything would look right, feel right, and work correctly, too.
Today, many of us are regularly making design decisions. We don’t just tweet, we use social media as an extension of our “personal brand,” choosing profile pics, page themes, and Twitter theme colors seriously. And in a time when more people work freelance than ever before (one in two people in the UK and U.S. will be freelancing by 2020), individuals are coming up against the question of how to build a global, virtual identity for themselves every day. If the goal is still widespread good design, how can we facilitate this for small-scale business owners and budget-conscious freelancers?
One answer is design templates. With the growth of the freelancer market, it’s no surprise that companies in the business of making templates are on the rise. Some even predict that high quality templates and mature design patterns means that web design is becoming irrelevant—why hire a designer when you can make design choices yourself, and cheaply too? For the record, we think this prediction falls in the same camp as the false prophecy of doom that “print is dead.”
It’s no surprise that many in the design industry feel less than positive about templates; we’ve already seen them perpetuate watered-downed trends and contribute to the standardization of design. At their worst, templates can undermine the importance of the role of the designer and make anyone with the ability to click a mouse feel like a designer themselves—as if choosing colors and selecting from a variety of patterns is the extent of the designer’s discipline.
Recently, when I needed new business cards, I came up against the question of whether to opt for a template or not. I ended up asking a graphic designer friend to design them for me for the very concerns I just raised. Together, we sat down and talked about things like what color spoke to me, and whether the addition of a manicule articulated my interest in the intersection of words and images, or was just a superfluous ornament. I realized more than ever why asking these kinds of questions with a designer who knows what the choices mean and understands how all the elements will work together in the end is important for your business—it actually gets you closer to understanding who you are and what you stand for.
A designer doesn’t just offer you a set of visuals, they offer clarity.
Many design template companies argue that individual freelancers and young businesses on a budget simply don’t have the cash to spend on design consultancy. It’s viewed as a luxury, not a necessity. This is one of the reasons that Emma Brooks and Chelsea Fullerton Jones, two graphic designers in their late 20s, started Hands-On Everyday, a young U.S. start-up selling beautifully designed templates.
“We believe that everyone deserves access to great design, no matter what their situation is,” Brooks and Jones tell me. “Are they super busy? Super broke? Super confused? Templates are a great solution to a lot of these problems.”
When designing the first round of Hands-On products (there are currently three packages) Brooks and Jones were acutely aware that the word “template” is often not seen as a good thing. It’s in direct opposition to the unique, which is what their customers—young, creative business owners—value. “To support that need for individuality, we have to design templates that are flexible,” they explain. Therefore Hands-On designs are editable in Adobe Illustrator, giving customers creative freedom. This of course leaves “room for errors, confusion, and general misuse of the designs,” and to keep these problems in check, the company has put a lot of energy into creating holistic guidelines and instructions.
When I raise concerns that this set up gives the customer the illusion that they’re a designer themselves and muddies the waters in terms of what a designer’s role is, Brooks and Jones counter, “Our customers aren’t designers, they’re editors.”
Bespoke-ish design might work for a small business like Hands-On, but how does that scale? For the answer I look to MOO, one of the largest, global design template businesses with roughly 1,900 templates to choose from. It refreshes its assortment every quarter, and the in-house team produces roughly 20-40 new templates a month. A multiplicity of options is integral to the brand’s vision, and allows for the kind of individualism that Hands-On also encourages. When I browsed through the site to look for possible business cards, I was overwhelmed by the selection.
“We pride ourselves in being able to make great design accessible to all, whether that’s a single business owner operating from home or a large enterprise with thousands of employees,” says MOO global creative director, Brendan Stephens. At MOO, there should be something for everyone—from the “bold and brave” as well as those with a “slightly more conservative aesthetic.” Changing up the templates regularly allows the company to move with trends. Right now, for example, geometric templates are particularly popular. Although I don’t find the company innovative in terms of its template designs, it’s true that its use of new technologies is pushing boundaries.
“We’ve embedded NFC technology into one of our paper products, Business Cards+, which features an NFC chip enabling the user to link their business card to any URL they want (their LinkedIn page, Twitter feed, website, etc.),” Stephens tells me. Scan the card and you’re automatically directed to the URL.
For another perspective on the matter, I decided to speak with a graphic designer who cares passionately about bespoke design. Rob Peart, a senior designer at the Singapore branch of SapientNitro, specializes in the development of creative technologies. When I first speak to Peart, he’s against templates, but after some thought, his perspective shifts. “The digital, always-on world that entrepreneurs have to navigate in order to succeed is demanding and complex,” he says. “It’s no longer a world of logos and typefaces, business cards and letterheads, but also of websites, avatars, icons, apps, and content in many different and ever-evolving forms.”
So what does this mean for small business owners and freelancers looking for design help? “My father is a builder, a one-man band. Should I criticize him for using Squarespace to save money?” Peart muses. “Of course as his son I help him out, but what about those businesses that don’t know someone who can design and code? Should we criticize them for using template designs, or even just using Facebook, Snapchat, or WhatsApp to run their businesses?
“Before Squarespace and Wix, my dad just advertised on yell.com. Before that, in the Yellow Pages. He used to get business cards printed in the local shopping mall. So has it ever been any different? At what point did we expect everyone, regardless of the size of their business, to start engaging designers?”
By definition, a template creates designs that look the same, and surely this has a negative effect on the progress of the industry. But for Peart, a major role of the designer is to service a genuine need, and as bespoke websites and visual identities aren’t necessary for everyone, creating templates and frameworks constitutes “a purer approach to design” that’s about “servicing a need rather than designing for the sake of uniqueness, or keeping up appearances.”
Similarly, Brooks and Jones see the process of designing templates as a new design problem in need of its own new solution.
One solution to a problem they’ve found—namely that some customers are unable to edit with Adobe Illustrator—is the creation of a service called Hands-Off. It allows customers to use their templates without having to do any of the heavy lifting themselves, as the Hands-On team do the formatting. The service is almost like an in-between: it’s half-template, half-bespoke. As there are such a range of requirements when it comes to a client’s design needs, perhaps there are just more problems that now need solving, and more for designers to think about.
“This is not zero-sum,” says Peart. “There’s no reason that we can’t have template design living along bespoke design. We must be aware enough not to look at each job and see a nail just perfect for our hammer.”
Bespoke isn’t for everyone, but neither are templates. For my part, design wasn’t an expense I was keen to shoulder, and while MOO would have been cheaper and faster, when I look at my new business cards, with their sturdy type and manicule set against pale orange, it says something about me and my approach. I could never have arrived at this personal design without a graphic designer, who honed, clarified, and transformed the mess of my thinking into a simple, striking identity.