02 - Custom Design or Template?

Now that we’ve looked at some of the issues regarding the choice of ExpressionEngine for building a church site, we’ll tackle the burning design question - should you have a custom design created for your church site, or purchase a pre-existing template?


One of the really nice thing about ExpressionEngine is that it really can drive sites of all designs - but this fact does put you back in the place of having to make a decision of how you will come up with a design for your church site.

Essentially there are two ways - create a new one, or buy an existing one.

To some web-folks the whole idea of purchasing a template is simply not an option—it’s akin to purchasing a suit off the rack rather than having one tailored to fit.  It’s like getting fast-food rather than a professionally-prepared meal by a trained chef.  It’s cheap, it’s tawdry, and it cheapens the whole process of building a website.

To which I say…well…let’s just say I don’t agree. Sometimes I think a template approach is the only logical choice.

Here’s the thing—there are plenty of times in life that we purchase major items that are either mass produced and then personalized, or based on a common start that could have been used by someone else.

For example - do you own a house?  Did you have it custom-designed or was it based off a common blueprint and modified somewhat?  My house is one of several very similar houses on my street - with the same essential floorplan, and just flipped end for end or having a single stall garage vs. two-stall garage, or a slightly different roofline, etc.  Some folks can afford and desire a custom-designed house, for the rest of us, well…this is still home.

How about your vehicle?  We Americans especially like to talk about how our rides are so much a part of who we are, yet not many of us completely build a custom car from the ground up.  Most of us buy a mass-produced version and then personalize - if desired - with aftermarket accessories.

Now this isn’t to say that I think templates are always the right choice for websites.  In general I actually prefer to build sites with a custom design - the end result is usually tighter, more specific to the client, and does a better job of presenting them on the web.

However, in the business world I’ve often encountered businesses with a set budget for their website.  And within that budget it boils down to a matter of choice - do you want to start with a customized template and invest more in advanced functionality and content management, or do you want to invest in a custom design and then implement in a more static fashion?  Many businesses choose the former - and as a web developer I don’t shy away from those projects because I think they still end up with a site that meets their needs and it was still paying work.

In the world of church websites I think the case for templates is even clearer.  Sure - there are mega-churches that can (and should) hire a talented designer to create a custom design for their site.  But there are also thousands of smaller, neighborhood churches that simply don’t have the staff or funding to do that.  The results of that situation are painfully evident on the web—just head over to HealYourChurchWebsite.com to see Dean Peters’ take on some of these sites. 

Or - do a search on the churches in your hometown.  Chances are, frankly, that most of them will have websites that are pretty bad - not only from a design perspective but with out of date content as well. 

One argument that is often levied against templates is that they are not always coded in the most optimal fashion.  And that’s been true.  But I am seeing more and more templates that are CSS-based, and that’s now trickling down into the “Christian Templates” as well.  While searching about for a template to use for this series I came across ChristianTemplatesOnline.com, and they offer their templates in both CSS-based and table-based versions, and they looked pretty nice (they don’t necessarily scream “template!” like so many I’ve looked at).

So my assumption (or thesis) for this whole series is that ExpressionEngine + a purchased design template == a much better site (from both a design and content management perspective) than many churches currently have.  If your church can afford it however - get a few quotes on having a designer do a custom design for your church website. 

It was a bit hard to choose a template for this series because I don’t have a set of requirements like I normally would with a client-specific project.  However, I knew I wanted to cover the implementation of some features that churches typically want - like podcasts, event calendars, etc.  After trading some email with ChristianTemplatesOnline.com about the nature of this project, today I purchased their #119 Church template as I liked the feel of it, the number of header images, and the different page types included in the set.

I reviewed the code this afternoon and it will take a bit of tweaking to be used with EE in an optimal fashion - but nothing earth-shattering and for the $58 price it’s well worth what you get (it actually has more page types than the templates I’ve purchased in the past).  That price plus $99 for the Personal license of ExpressionEngine puts us at a total investment of $157 so far—not bad!

Note that I did deliberate for a while over using a free template vs. one that needs to be purchased for this series.  The free approach worked well in the Small Business series as it allowed people to “play along” at home - but I think it also had the effect of causing a large number of bright-green sites to be launched. 

This time I wanted to build a site that looked more polished as it’s going to be auctioned off at the end of the series and actually used by someone.  It made more sense to purchase a higher-quality template to begin with so as to have a nice site for the end recipient without also encouraging a large number of look-likes sites to be born.

So there are my thoughts on using templates, and the first look at the visual design of the site we’ll be building.

Next up?  Good question.

How about we come up with a sitemap, and start thinking about the ExpressionEngine Architecture that it will require.



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Previous Comments

Picture of tzTrainEE

by tzTrainEE

Date: Tuesday, March 25th, 2008
Comment: #1

Looks like an awesome layout visually.
As a finicky css/html coder guy, I probably would not purchase a template that did not offer a demo.
That is only if the actual site template, can be loaded in a browser to examine the div structure and make sure it doesn’t have any issues with text resizing, browser window resizing, and validation concerns. If they provided a money-back guarantee I might risk it. Load the layout in some of the popular browsers and try it out.

Only offering this up as a discussion point, for what it’s worth from a professional designer.
I know Michael had to do the same, if you were following his twitter comments this afternoon. :)

It looks like a beautiful layout, any browser bugs can be fixed by tweaking the css if necessary. With IE8 set to launch in the not-so distant future, you will know it’s going to look great in that browser also.

A solid stamp of approval here!

I still like the lean green business machine layout from Michael’s earlier series small business site, it sort of grows on you.

Mike Boyink

by Mike Boyink (Author)

Date: Tuesday, March 25th, 2008
Comment: #2

I haven’t bought template yet that would give you your money back - it’s a digital item.

For $60 you take a risk. 

Even if you have to recode a portion of it there’s easily $60 worth of time savings there.

Picture of tzTrainEE

by tzTrainEE

Date: Wednesday, March 26th, 2008
Comment: #3

I guess I was speaking too open-source templates, some of those are pay items if you want to remove the backlink etc., there is usually a working demo.
That could be another source for folks customizing this tutorial down the road to look into, usually even less than the $50+ template, which was easily worth it’s value I agree.
So anyone wishing to follow along will have to purchase this template, if they wish to use it, would that be their licensing, any suggestions?
I’m still exploring my options on how to follow along, domain to setup, etc.
Thanks Mike.

Mike Boyink

by Mike Boyink (Author)

Date: Wednesday, March 26th, 2008
Comment: #4

Yes - if you want to follow along using the same template, you’d have to purchase it.

Picture of Forrest

by Forrest

Date: Wednesday, March 26th, 2008
Comment: #5


I am excited about following along on this. I am two days from wrapping up a church website, so this will be an excellent review to see where I did things right and where I could make improvements. Keep up the good work.


Picture of Dan Hoy

by Dan Hoy

Date: Friday, November 7th, 2008
Comment: #6

First of all, love the series’ you create.

“To which I say…well…let’s just say I don’t agree. Sometimes I think a template approach is the only logical choice.”

Regarding templates, from a designers perspective:

Templates for personal blogs and perhaps non-profits makes sense to me when it just would not be possible for these small entities to afford a unique, polished, professional design.

But, I think you would agree that when it comes to a business who is in competition with other businesses, a professional, often expensive design is the only way to go in light of R.O.I.

A good case in point, would one ever choose a generic business template over something like this:
To represent their business in a cut-throat industry? Even if it cost $thousands more?

I think not. Or, at least for their sake, I hope not:(

But, for a church who needs a break, by all means:)

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