Do we need to handcraft websites anymore?

I was recently contacted by someone I met a couple of years back at a conference. He’s just starting out freelancing and wanted to get my opinion on web designers who sell sites created with ‘site builder’ tools such as Webflow and SquareSpace. He said the idea of using such systems made him feel ‘a little uncomfortable’ but that he couldn’t define why that was. I’ve had these sort of misgivings about using drag ’n’ drop builders too. Is it cheating? Will it lead to crappy code? Doesn’t the client deserve something totally bespoke? Let’s take a look at each of those questions in turn.

Is using a site builder cheating?

I certainly used to think that anything other than hand-crafting every element of a website was not playing the game properly. But why is this? I think there’s a certain feeling of pride that comes from hand-crafting something. When you put in hard work and build up a sweat you can sit back at the end and look upon the thing you’ve made with pride. The problem with that statement is that as web designers we’re not doing anything like that. We use terms like ‘hand crafting’ and ‘build’ because humans have, I think, an innate desire to create tangible objects. As children we paint and draw and build things with bricks. As we get older most of us stop doing things like that but many of us never really lose the urge to create. Often we just transfer that process to the ephemeral. Making websites makes us happy but there’s something missing. In our choice of language we expose the fact that we miss working with our hands. We liken ourselves to craftspeople in a subconscious attempt to regain that sense of creation and in doing so we trick ourselves into thinking we need to do everything. You are not a carpenter. A website is not something whittled from Scandinavian trees. And using site building software is not cheating. Is a real carpenter cheating when they use power tools? Of course not. But a carpenter will certainly know how to use a manual saw before they ever get their hands on a power-saw. That’s important as we think about our next question.

Do site builders create crappy code?

Maybe, maybe not. They certainly could but there’s nothing to say they have to. You already know how to code so why not try out some site builders and see what they generate. If you look at the source code and it’s horrible just move on. If it’s clean and efficient then rejoice, for you have just found yourself a powerful new tool. If you don’t know how to tell if the auto-generated code is any good then, and I’m saying this out of love, it’s probably better than anything you could write manually anyway.

Another thing to remember is that some site builders will allow you to export code and continue to work with it in whatever text editor you usually use. This combination method is a little like hand-sanding a bit of wood after doing the bulk of the work with an electric sander. Let the machine do the hard stuff and then finesse until you’re satisfied in the end result.

Doesn’t the client deserve a totally bespoke website?

I used to think this until I realised quite how silly a notion it is. Ok, you could write 100% of your website code from scratch but do you? Really!? Do you use a CMS? How about jQuery? And I’m pretty sure you didn’t invent HTML. When you stop and think about it we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants. The real question is not whether you should build on someone else’s work but how much of someone else’s work to include in your own. The answer to this will be different for everyone and possibly for every project and client. What you shouldn’t get hung up on is worrying that the client wants you to build everything from scratch. What your client wants is a well thought out, functional, attractive website that helps them to achieve their goals. If it does all that they’ll be happy whether you used a site builder, jQuery, WordPress, Drupal or anything else.

What site builders mean for the future of the web

I firmly believe that site builders will usher in a new era where web designers become seen more as business consultants than visual designers. Clients will start to come to us for our help with improving their businesses rather than creating a nice looking online brochure. We’ve found an increasing amount of our time is spent on helping our clients to understand everything from how to set and measure realistic goals to who their target audience really is and how to best serve them. The use of site builders will allow us to cut time from the build rather than cutting corners in the planning. And that’s a tradeoff I’m very happy to make.

Of course, we’re not quite there yet. Site builders are getting much better all the time and are easily suitable for fairly simple sites already. I’m not sure whether they’re quite up to the task of some of the more complex sites we work on but I’ll be keeping tabs on things and when the time comes for a full-scale switchover I won’t hesitate. Will you?