Design as Commodity — Sometimes Good Enough Is Good Enough

When I first began my career as a freelance web designer I spent a lot of time at small business forums. In part it was to get my name out in front of the people I though would become potential clients. It was also a way to observe what they were looking for in a web design solution so I could tailor my services to the market I wanted to serve.

Note: This post includes an audio version. If you don’t see the audio above, Click here to listen.

One of the things I noticed was many of the people who I thought might hire me, weren’t going to pay what I thought were fair prices for custom web design. That observation has always led me to to look for ways I could deliver the same level of service, while reducing my costs.

Over the years I’ve watched the rise of different content management systems, themes, plugins, design contests and services like SquareSpace push design toward commodity status. Regardless of how you feel about it, we’re only going to see more of these commodity products and services. Businesses want to spend less and there will be those willing to deliver them something for less.

Knowing this inevitability should we as designers move the industry in this direction overall? Should we push what we do toward commodity status?

Custom Design Adds Value

Businesses gain a competitive advantage through differentiation. They stand out through their unique offerings. Custom design is unique by definition and one way to add differentiation. It generally leads to higher quality products that provide a better experience.

Custom web design adds a layer of communication. It makes a site easier to use. It makes content easier to find and absorb and it too improves the experience. Because of the added value it provides, custom design isn’t going away. Could you imagine, for example, companies like Coca Cola or Nike grabbing a free WordPress theme and running their site on it?

There will always be those who understand and appreciate why custom design can do for them and these people will continue to pay for custom web design.

Good Enough is Good Enough

The majority will prefer and seek out commodity solutions. Some can’t or won’t see the value added by custom work. They think design equals making things pretty and never get the work involved in organizing information, developing navigation to get to that information, creating visual flows on a page, etc. These are the people who want to know why you won’t match the price of their nephew’s friend from down the road.

There’a another group who do get the value of custom design. They’d like to have it, but can’t afford it at the moment. They may be just starting out or have other aspects of their business in greater need of their financial resources. They want a custom site, but they simply can’t pay for it right now.

The thing is for both of these groups a good enough solution is just that. It’s good enough. It solves most of their design problems, especially as these good enough solutions get better. The good enough solution isn’t custom design and never will be, but it’s good enough to allow the business to spend elsewhere. Remember design is just one advantage for a business.

I’ve pointed people on my forum to free and low cost services. I’ve recommend free platforms to host a blog and suggested they download WordPress or Drupal and install a free or low cost theme. I’ve suggested services like SquareSpace and Shopify. These people have so many other issues to deal with on the way to a successful business that commodity design frees them from solving one problem and gives them something that will work well enough for the moment.

We have to keep in mind people visit a site for the content, not the design. Sure, there are exceptions, but in general it’s all about the content. Our design is the packaging for that content. We can improve a lot about how the content is experienced and remembered, but in the end it’s about the content.

I’ll ask again should we be pushing design toward commodity?

The Market Can Support More Than One Type of Solution

Te answer to the question is both yes and no. This isn’t an either or question. Like most things there are shades of gray at play. The market for web design is segmenting itself.

  • Low end  — DIY, free, and low cost solutions
  • Middle  — customization of the low end and the lower end of custom design
  • High end  — 100% custom work by talented designers

You can choose to serve any of these segments of the market. Know that more people will shop the the low end where margins per sale will be far less. Fewer people will shop the high end, though margins per sale will be much greater.

Know too that some customers who start in the low end will move up the chain over time. They’ll pay for custom work, but they need to do other things first. You can serve all 3 segments of the market and sell to these people at each step.

In the end I don’t think there’s a single answer for whether or not we should push design toward commodity status. It really depends on what your business does and what part of the market you want to serve.

If you want to play in the low end of the market it makes sense for you to emphasize lower cost, ready made, off the shelf solutions. If you want to play in the high end you should be stressing the value custom design adds as often as possible. If you play at both ends you want to talk about the advantages each end offers and place those advantages in the context of the person buying at the moment their buying.

Note: I didn’t mention it in the audio, but this post was inspired by an article on Smashing Magazine by Paul Boag. Paul’s article isn’t specifically about commodity design, though it’s similar and wonders if the goal of web professionals is to make themselves redundant. It’s a good read and an interesting conversation.

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  1. Thanks for the tips; one thing i find hard to balance is specialisation and client base. I dont want clients thinking I cant do print design if i do their web design for them, as finding clients full stop seems to be an issue without ousting potential ones. Any tips or is it a matter of experience and knowing when to say what?

    • There’s a balance and it depends on your business and clients. Let me ask you a question. Do you want your clients to know you can do print work because they usually have some print work or is it just in case they have print work so you don’t lose out?

      If it’s the latter ask yourself how much business you generate doing print work. Print and the web are different. Some people might think that because you’re a print designer that maybe you don’t know as much about the web as others. That’s not automatically true, but it’s how some people will see it.

      Some might remember you do print and forget you do web and so not call when they have a site to design. The idea is it’s conceivable that by making sure people know you do print work that you’re losing some web work.

      I don’t want to say you can’t do both, because you definitely can. However if you specialize a little it makes it easier to reach the specific people who’d be interested in your specialization and it makes it easier to convince them to hire you.

      If you’re interested here’s a post I wrote a few years back on differentiating your business. It goes into this a little more than I can in a comment. Here’s a quote from the end of the post.

      “Think specialization in order to reduce your competition and appeal more strongly to a smaller group of people.”

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