Web Design as a Commodity06 May 2011
There has been much talk in the Web Development Community about growth of sites like ThemeForest.net and other that sell high quality web based themes for around $30 to $40. Many who make their living from selling themes argue that they wish prices would be higher, they are claiming that in contrast these same higher quality themes would cost you roughly $2000 in the custom space but selling through these sort of services undermines their bottom line and simply does not generate as much revenue as they feel their work deserves.
Though I may agree with the pretense I don’t agree with the conclusion, All businesses must face competition and while I think designers deserve a lot more than they are being paid now, the line between what we deserve to get and what we actually get can be extremely distant in any business let alone Web Design.
The question we should be asking is not whether theme prices are too low but on whether or not this industry which has gone from specialization to commoditization. I was a web designer back in the early 90’s when CSS was just starting out and we still coded everything within a single perl file. I got out of the design business because the fact was that within a few years prices dropped drastically, it had nothing to do with the lack of work available and had more to do with the influx of new designers and developers that were willing to work for cheaper rates.
I moved on to other forms of development but was eventually forced to move back into the web game because of clients that also wanted me to take care of their website along with everything else I did for them. At that point I decided to stay out of the design business because I felt it was too commoditized, you can tell when a business goes from specialized to commodity when the growers ask the market to make you pay more for their corn. I think there a lot of talented WordPress developers out there but seeing as I buy many themes for my own corporate needs, I do feel like WooThemes and Press75 are over priced for what they do, they’re designs are great but considering I don’t see much of a great difference between designs I’d much rather pay for a $35 design on Theme Forest that blows me away than a $200 design on Woo that looks like everyone of their other designs.
I don’t say all of this to upset to industry but the fact is that the web design and theme industry has always been a specialized business and when you go from making $2000 a web page in the mid 90’s to $35 for a fully functional site almost 15 years later, the business has commoditized and needs to think in terms of scale. I think the ThemeForest Model works because the designer can still make a substantial amount across multiple customers instead of making a ridiculous amount from a single customer. Wishing and hoping that this price point would change doesn’t better your industry, it just opens the doors for other less known dev’s to come in and corner the market with cheaper and better product.
I think the future in theme development has less to do with actual themes and more to do with individual themes allowing for greater customization from the end users. I see SquareSpace.com as the gold standard for what theme developers should strive to emulate and other companies like iThemes and Headway have already started doing this with their ridiculously easy to customize and modify themes while creating their own internal marketplace for customer creations. It’s no different than normal software development, things will get cheaper and forces people to innovate and add greater features and functionality at the same price. I think designers for too long have made good money with custom work while these new technologies are slowly making it easier and cheaper for others to enter the industry quickly and efficiently.
If you think like a designer than you’re going to want to get paid more for doing less, if you think like a software programmer then you’re job will always be to innovate and create tools that make your own jobs obsolete allowing for greater scale of their time and efforts. I’m sorry to be the buzz kill here but I’m just looking at it merely from a numbers and business perspective. Ultimately I’m more than willing to pay $200 for a theme, but it has to do more than just look pretty, the ability to take a single design and use it for many things is what causes people to want to pay more, otherwise $35 is the perfect price to experiment with on a theme and see if it’s going to fit the current project I’m working on or not. Anymore than that and I would have less wiggle room to work with and would be stuck with the design I paid so much more money for. Think less like your industry, and more like your customers and you’ll dominate your industry hands down.