1. Web Design
  2. General

Are Stock Templates Good or Bad for Web Designers?

Scroll to top
Read Time: 12 min

Whether or not it's a "good thing" that stock templates are so readily available to web designers has been an issue that's been hotly debated over the past couple of years. This article will break down the argument in favor of using templates - and I encourage you to post your own thoughts in the comments section!

This is an issue that every designer should have on his or her mind at the moment, so grab a cup of coffee and get comfy!

Do Templates Hurt Working Designers?

A really interesting question came up at the ThemeForest forum a while back; If you don't know, ThemeForest is a popular website where people can buy a website template for around $30. Someone on the forum made the comment that:

If you think about it... the fact that these template sites exist kind of kill business for web designers. Many potential clients know places like ThemeForest exist, so when they see a template for $32 or whatever, they wonder why they should even bother paying a designer in the first place.

And there it was, just like that the question was on the table: Are web site templates actually hurting the business of other web designers that are building things from scratch?

It certainly isn't a trivial accusation, but template usage has been growing like crazy for the past couple years, and it seems like most designers that I know either use templates themselves or are authoring templates as an alternative form of income.

Stock Artwork, Photography, and Web Templates Oh My!

My own personal opinion is this: the creation of stock templates doesn’t hurt the profession at all; Rather, it empowers designers to save time and money on development costs and it’s part of the natural progression of our industry.

If you look at any other industries in history and you’ll see the same trends towards the commoditization of items that were previous big-ticket services... It’s actually kinda surprising that it took this long for our quickly moving industry to hit this stage.

That doesn't diminish the fact that some people are probably irritated by the new movement within the industry. Using templates feels... well, wrong ... to a group of professionals that largely prides themselves on creativity, originality, and hard work ethic.

As an example though, let's examine the case of the photography industry not too long ago - an industry that was for years steeped in mysterious and inaccessible processes that were dangerous and difficult to master - which left 99% of consumers reliant upon film developers to process their film into prints; Film developers were probably irritated when the first serious digital camera / printer combination came out, but Flickr is bigger than ever and the photography field as a whole has benefited.

A Lesson from History

Let's dig even further back in history and consider the case of the Luddites. The Luddites were a social movement of British artisans who protested against the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution. They were enraged that the Industrial Revolution was producing affordable items for middle class consumers. Their primary argument was that these mass-produced items were hurting the individual artisans who once made them painstakingly by hand.

The counter-argument is simple though: for as many artisans that lost jobs as a result of the movement, there were countless people that benefited from the affordable products. Likewise, many artisans adapted and found jobs that worked alongside the new production methods. The market changed - it was those that refused to adapt that were left behind.

Stock Artwork Doesn't Diminish Our Work

There’s honestly no need to hide the fact that web designers are using templates – it’s not dirty or shameful or unoriginal if you’re using them properly. It’s only when the client finds out late in the game that you’re using someone else's template that it becomes awkward and dishonest. Educating clients has always been a key to the sales process, this is just another in a long series of updates to the sales pitch. The alternative is an industry-wide knowledge blackout where web designers collectively try to convince their clients that they create web sites with magic wands and fairy dust.

Personally, I use templates (as do most of my colleagues and many studios that I work with) as a major selling point. Since we started using templates our rates have gone up, as have the number of gigs that we can take on per month. Even if your average price per project goes down, your volume should be skyrocketing at this point. Honestly, all that this recent trend has done is remove the headache part of web design and streamlined our ability to meet the ever growing demands of clients.

Since we started using templates our rates have gone up, as have the number of gigs that we can take on per month.

I understand the “fear of the entire industry collapsing” notion, but web design has always been an industry where you keep up or get out – every month there’s something new and hot that you’ve gotta adapt to – and most designers would be liars if they claimed that they wrote every line of code (including JS, jQuery, PHP , the entire Wordpress backend, etc.) for each project they have ever worked on. Web designers recycle each others work and innovate beyond it – it’s part of what makes this such an awesome and invigorating job in the first place. Having readily available creative tools don’t diminish what we do, it frees us up to kick even more butt than we were previously kicking.

Don’t fear the templates, use them to your own advantage – the industry is never going to be the same as it was a year ago – whether it be 2000, 2010 or 2020, which is the reason most of us chose this as a profession in the first place.

Templates aren't Killing the Profession, They are Changing It

The Envato Marketplace alone has over half a million members and almost 60,000 files!

I would imagine that, while bidding on web-projects for mid to larger size businesses is probably improved through templates, the small client sector of the industry is one that’s hard hit by the notion that you can buy a site for $30 because they have the least amount of intuitive appreciation for the idea of paying $X,XXX for marketing (which most businesses do on a regular basis).

The fact remains that there were always (even before templates) clients who knew “a friend of their cousin’s girlfriend who says he can build my site for $50” – bottom line is that if they can’t learn to respect and appreciate your work (whether through education or common sense), they probably weren’t a really great client to work with in the first place.

I will say that my own career started out with small clients though – and while small clients back then hadn’t heard of templates yet, they did still have their own set of reasons for why projects should cost way under what they actually were worth; Most gigs that I took on ended up paying me about 1$ an hour for what I was doing… was I rolling in cash at the time? Nope; but it’s kinda one of those things that you have to do at the start of a freelance career to jumpstart your portfolio. It helped that I had a day job waiting tables to help pay the bills.

So How Can You Adapt Your Own Sales Pitch to Include Templates?

The lesson is this: templating isn’t killing the profession of custom web design, it’s just moving the market towards businesses that can actually afford it.

It might help to explain to your client that they can think of templates like buying an automobile – it would be silly to assume that they could simply pay an metal welder $10,000 to fabricate all of the materials of a single automobile from scratch (including the engine, upholstery, cup holders, etc.) – it’s the fact that they are mass produced in such volume that makes them relatively affordable to average consumers. Just the same though – if they want to customize that car to their own particular tastes (redesign the body, give it a new paint job, add extra seating, install a new sound system, etc.), it’s going to take extra $$$ that very well could exceed the initial cost of the car.

Perhaps a better analogy would be paying a band to create an album – it’s silly to think the cost of that album is just $10 – the real cost can easily go into the millions of dollars for a single mainstream album nowadays – it’s the notion that the album is mass produced that makes it affordable to individual buyers. Still, most people don’t expect that because they buy an album that they can simply request Jay-Z (or any other artist) to re-record a track with slight modifications for another $10.

You get the idea – find analogies as a part of your sales pitch if they gripe over the cost.

Counter-point Edit: Justin (below) made an excellent point that I just want to re-iterate: Be Honest! If you hide the fact that you're using a template and then you bill a client outrageously as if you coded it from scratch, you're engaging in a little something called "price gouging". You wouldn't like it if your car mechanic tried to bill you for "inventing the 4-cylinder engine" and casting it in metal himself, would you? So why would you try to hide the fact that you're using a web template from a client. You don't design your own fonts either... and they don't look down on you for that. Fully disclosing and educating our clients is part of the sales process, so don't skip it and try to pull the wool over your client's eyes. If you're a good designer, you know that you're still putting in quite a bit of time, energy, and skill into installing and customizing a template... those are things that you can and should be billing for.

Custom Design Still Exists!

The funny thing about the templating trend is that it actually raises the value of custom design by instilling a sense of it being rare. Let's return to the case of the photography industry - the advent of services like Getty Images, Corbis, and more recently, micro stock sites like iStockPhoto and others has actually raised the value of custom photography. When you (Joe Businessman) can pick up a half-way decent image for $10, why bother spending thousands of dollars on a custom photoshoot? Now consider the big companies who may have been previously using stock images; they are now forced to pay for elaborate custom photoshoots if only to separate themselves from the herd of Joe Businessmen.

When 90% of businesses have a well designed website, having a mediocre site is no longer the status quo, it's a liability.

The fact is that most of these "Joe Businessmen" weren't going to fund a thousand dollar photoshoot in the first place - but now that he's been introduced to the notion of buying a photograph, there's a much better chance that he'll need custom photography at some point in the future. Yep, that's right - in this case the stock movement is growing the market, not shrinking it! Furthermore, he now understands that the photograph is a commodity and that true quality only comes when you are paying a professional serious cash.

Let's take these lessons back to the design industry now. When small businesses can now pick up a decent quality website for a few hundred bucks (thanks to stock templates), there's now a helluva lot more pressure put on medium and big businesses to fork out $XX,XXX to $XXX,XXX for custom sites - all because the Joe Businessmen of the world have entered the world of business websites. When 90% of businesses have a decent website, having a mediocre site is no longer the status quo, it's a liability.

The lesson is this: templating isn't killing the profession of custom web design, it's just moving the market towards businesses that can actually afford it.

If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em!

The Top Sellers list at the ThemeForest Marketplace

My final point is this: if you're still really irked by the stock template market and how it's changing the design industry, why not use your creative powers to actually start authoring your own templates and make a little extra cash (or a LOT of extra cash in some cases). Setting up your own account and uploading files is actually pretty darn easy - and if you are the creative genius that you take yourself for, you're probably going to crush it on the marketplaces. Don't get mad at cheesy templates, bring your own flare for the original to the scene. There's no feeling like that first month that you realize that you can actually pay a few bills with the income that you made passively just because you allowed some other designers to use your creative files.

Here's some review points:

  • Stock templates have actually grown the market for design
  • They raise the rates for custom design by making it "rare"
  • They empower designers and businesses to kick serious butt
  • It's happening whether you like it or not
  • You may as well get rich off of it if you're a designer ;)

Full Disclosure

This is an editorial that I initially wrote almost a year ago, before I worked for Envato. I started creating stock templates about a year and a half ago as I was debating these issues - after spending nearly a decade freelancing and considering the issues discussed in this article. I've been on both sides of the issue, and I've thought long and hard about it. I also went to a college where using "stock elements" in projects was categorically disallowed on threat of expulsion, which is probably what prompted me to write this piece in the first place.

Let the Discussion Begin!

The great thing about an topic like this is that it's relevant to so many different people within the industry. If you have a different opinion, post it down below (politely!) and let's open this up for discussion with the community!

Did you find this post useful?
Want a weekly email summary?
Subscribe below and we’ll send you a weekly email summary of all new Web Design tutorials. Never miss out on learning about the next big thing.
Looking for something to help kick start your next project?
Envato Market has a range of items for sale to help get you started.