Website 101 – Why and when to use a visual builder?

March 18, 2020

In this day and age, technology has made it incredibly easy for us all to become designers of content. Software packages such as Microsoft Word have been making it easy for us to select and format elements in our documents for years. And these incredibly useful editors, which we call ‘what you see is what you get’ or ‘WYSIWYG’, mean that we don’t need any technical ability to make things look “nice”. This is fantastic, isn’t it? We can all be designers and we can all cast our creative hand over everything with complete freedom to make it look totally crap – and yet because we did it ourselves, we will instinctively know that it looks totally amazing! Who hasn’t experienced the ‘home-made’ leaflet, replete with Comic Sans and badly cropped images, borders in gaudy colours and no particular prioritisation of messaging, so you are not entirely sure what information you are supposed to be looking at? Admittedly that is a bit flippant. But there is truth in this derision and a serious underlying point. These WYSIWYG editors are very powerful and to quote a cliché, with great power comes great responsibility.

There is a balance to be found between how much of something you make editable and how much you make sure is locked down. For example, if you have strict brand implementation guidelines and you want to make sure that everything always appears perfectly inline with these, then you don’t want to let anyone be able to mess around with it. Even the smallest deviation is going to stand out like a sore thumb. On the flip side, if you want to constantly introduce new and interesting styles into your online brand and you don’t want to have to pay some developer hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds each time you do it, then more freedom is better.

This was easy only a few years ago. This level of flexibility just didn’t exist in websites. We could build websites with ‘themes’ or ‘templates’ which ensured that most of the site design remained intact. Platforms like WordPress came into their own because you could go to a ‘theme’ store online and browse through literally thousands of designs and then pay a small fee, plug them in to your WordPress install. Hey presto, you have a professional looking website which you can’t break because you can only really change the text and imagery.

Back then the plugins didn’t exist to control that much of your website. Content management systems offered text editors for your main content, but the extent of this was probably to float an image to the right of your paragraph and choose whether you wanted Arial or Helvetica fonts. But over the past few years there has been an acceleration in the technology that extends the ability to customise more and more elements of a site. Now, with products like Elementor, Divi and WP Bakery (to name but three WordPress plugins) a user can literally start with nothing and control every single element of a website and all of the styles in between as well. The concept of a ‘theme’ has been pushed to the point that it really doesn’t exist anymore. Instead you have complete free rein to create whatever you want.

So with plugins like this available, why do we need developers or designers? Why do we need themes or fixed layouts and styles? Well the answer to that is quite simple. Because not all of us are able to create something that looks good; that is just reality. And it is incredibly easy to take a refined and controlled brand and quickly make it a shoddy mess that won’t impress anyone. This is the reality of visual builders. They give us all the control and none of the discipline.

The important thing to remember is that the WYSWYG is like a digital camera. They killed the photographer because suddenly everyone could take high-quality photos themselves. But they also ensured that every time we go round to granny’s house we have to sit through a reel of 4,000 blurry photographs of feet and ceilings before that nice photograph of granddad asleep in the garden pops up. It is much like darts. If you throw three darts at a dart board then, unless you’re actually good at darts, you won’t hit the triple twenty. But if you throw a hundred darts at the dartboard then even if you’re half blind and have a fairly major case of vertigo you’re still more likely to get that elusive 60 score!

And that is the point really. We use powerful visual builders at Idio Web Services because they make it very easy for us to quickly build really rather beautiful websites. But the reality we have to balance with is that it is also easy for someone else to login and ruin that design if they don’t know what they’re doing. That is why our bigger clients will often opt for a theme to be built, rather than a visual builder implementation. A theme gives them stability. It gives them structure and it gives them assurance that no matter who is editing it the page is still going to look good.

But there is also one other reality about visual builders that should also be considered. They’re time intensive. When we build a theme for a client we spend a lot of time up front designing and building it to make sure it works exactly as is required. We build every design and every block and then once we are done we put it live. And then whenever anyone wants to add new content they simply create a new block or new page, add their content and publish. Job done. But with a visual builder everything needs to be created. Every element needs to be built, styled and content put in every time. It is labour intensive, especially if you’re not familiar with the functionality and how to do things.

Ultimately there are plusses and minuses to either approach. WYSIWYG approaches are flexible but easy to get wrong. Themes protect brands and are easy to use but lack flexibility. And often you don’t actually see what you’re editing at the time so it is hard to envisage what you have actually created until it is published. For us there is no right or wrong, just the importance of discovering what is important to our clients before we set it up. And this is why our team is always on hand to make changes for our client. That way it doesn’t matter whether they have a creative hand or not.

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