CMS - A Conversation

Below is a conversation between three members of COIN on the Technical mailing list.  It is simply a conversation between one person who is asking about CMS systems - and two other members who provide these facilities.

One of my issues with CMS type web builders is that they inevitably produce very similar looking sites. Indeed, I followed links to a couple of church sites referenced on COIN recently and did a double-take on the second as it looked, at a quick glance, to be identical to the first!

Do you have a recommendation for anything better?


If your experience of CMS driven websites is as you describe then I'd say it's down to lazy design, a customer who has asked for "one that's like this but in blue" or - more likely - using a stock theme because it's cheaper/"easier"/"simpler". That's a dreadful over simplification on my part but it's mostly borne out of experience. I'd just like to jump to the defence of CMS driven websites if I may. A good one will not dictate the look and feel and a good developer will know how to get a different look to suit the client. That said there is always the fact that the client often has ideas of what they want which may or may not be based on another site they have seen.

As an example the following sites all use the same CMS (CMS Made Simple)  

http://www.equitasit.co.uk  
http://www.paellatapas.co.uk  
http://www.hanaroophotographics.co.uk 
http://www.limesfarminf.co.uk

And these both use a different one (Wordpress)   

http://www.gmphotographs.co.uk 
http://www.crimperman.org

You'll see some similarities in all of those with regards menu placement and orientation etc. but none of that is dictated by the CMS used and neither should it be.

As said, the situation you describe often comes from either having to or deciding choose a stock theme from a selection the provider dictates. There's nothing wrong with this - some companies do this quite well but eventually you are going to get a site which resembles another one. The other problem of course is that the needs of a Church or parish website are largely going to be similar to the needs for another church website and in such cases there's a temptation to do a (cost effective) one-size-fits-all approach. I don't blame the companies that do this as they have a business to run and for many people looking for a site that approach will suit their needs but it's not what I do because I don't believe one size fits all. This may be borne out of my experience of being 6'3" and trying to fit my legs into "standard" bus seats though ;)


A series of very simple CMS sites from the same stable:

This site:
http://www.coin.org.uk

http://www.parcevallhall.org.uk
http://addinghamaga.org.uk

all look pretty well identical
(though not as similar as all of the Sudan Diocesan sites
- see http://www.sudan.anglican.org/dioceses.php, though that similarity is quite deliberate )

I'm not sure whether this is down to sheer idleness on my part, but I tend to do what I am asked to do.  Whenever a new site is being discussed, I will always point out that the site doesn't need to look like this and that I am happy either to redesign the site to the customer's specification or to give full access to the CSS so that they can do it themselves.  As Ryan says, it is simply a matter of adjusting the CSS to achieve whatever you want.  The trouble is, no one actually asks for anything different!

I think that the bottom line is that you get what you ask for.  I'd  love to have a client who actually knows what s/he wants - and  asks for it...


What tools do you use to create web sites?

Incidentally, graphic designers often end up with a personal style which influences much of what they do, especially if it is being churned out for rock bottom prices (or as a freebie!)

Much the same, I guess, as with composers in the days when they too had to produce to order (eg Bach, Mozart, Tallis etc


Depends what you mean by "create". To write code (PHP/[X]HTML/JS/CSS) I use Vim text editor (old school!) and I test this on a number of browsers running locally. For graphics work I use GIMP and (mostly) Inkscape (vector graphics program). To "design" (as opposed to develop) websites I tend to use Inkscape and GIMP. But if I am using a CMS (say Wordpress or CMSMS or Drupal) then I will do some of the deployment development stage within the interfaces provided by that. Web development is no longer a case of a single or even a couple of tools because the process has matured.

> Incidentally, graphic designers often end up with a personal style which influences much of what they do, especially if it is being churned out for rock bottom prices (or as a freebie!)

This is true and makes sense if you look at it from an artistic point of view. I tend to view myself as a developer not a designer although I have (I am told) artistic abilities. I view coding very much as a creative art though and web development even more so. For me this is much like differentiating between a designer and an architect/structural engineer and I would say any good web site has to involve function and form.

> Much the same, I guess, as with composers in the days when they too had to produce to order (eg Bach, Mozart, Tallis etc)

In the end I guess everything we encounter (including that which we are involved in developing) has an influence on what we do in the future. This is part of the problem with copyright and "IP" greed that tries to legislate against our natural ability to inspire (and be inspired). But that's a different story ;)