Not too long ago, websites were a bunch of manually integrated pages of code. The IT guy made site updates because no one else knew how. Lacking a unifying structure, legacy web properties often suffered from entropy and devolved rather than evolved. Then along came the CMS to manage content and navigation, which also allowed anyone to publish a web page without being a coder. It ensured brand consistency and easy site maintenance. Initially too expensive for any but the largest companies, with the advent of open-source solutions this capability is now nearly universal.
While it’s substantially cheaper now, the decision to have a CMS manage your content still comes at a cost. The up-front fee of installing and configuring it is the obvious one. But perhaps more importantly, a CMS can be as limiting to content management as it is liberating. Because it is based on inflexible publishing rules, authors are forced to “draw within the lines” when adding new content. We usually do a great job anticipating our client’s content needs and designing a solution that meets them. But inevitably, they’ll create an exception… embedding a video on a page that wasn’t designed for it… posting a custom landing page… adding a unique call-to-action…
So we’ve started thinking about CMS development a little differently, beginning with the Spiezle redesign we just launched. Currently, nearly all CMSes are developed based on a fixed set of paged design templates. Each template is created to fit a particular type of content: a blog, or a contact page, or a home page. Choose a template and fill in the blanks. But… what if CMSes weren’t template driven, and instead allowed an author to select from a number of “content type” blocks that could be added, stacked, and re-arranged on a per-page basis? Instead of just a handful of templates, this would allow for a range of customizable page layout permutations. SquareSpace has implemented a system that is similar to this in concept, but because it’s a hosted service it’s not a good fit for large, complex websites with deeper functionality.
Spiezle was a proof-of-concept for us. Their home and project pages allow for a degree of flexibility, so the client can change the layout to prioritize content rather than tailoring the content to fit the template. We created a custom module in Expression Engine that allows for this functionality inside of an existing open-source CMS. It was so successful that we’ll be developing this concept even further future web sites. We can’t wait for the day that “templates” largely disappear and sites are no longer like a big Mad Lib… and neither can many of our clients.