WordPress and the Downfall of Design

Chris Feix
7 min readJun 22, 2020
Envato WordPress theme marketplace.

PREFACE: I wrote this in a fever dream this morning. If there are typos please let me know with the Private Notes tool. Thank you.

Webmasters ruined the world…

While the 1990’s saw the emergence of the Internet, due in no small part to Webmasters — the path that relationship would take has had a devastatingly bad impact to this day.

Let’s forget about UX design for a second. We can all agree that all designers nowadays need to have some knowledge of UX. Let’s talk about companies that need a website. Whether it’s a local dentist or a major manufacturer, we’ve all seen sites that make us sad. I don’t mean obviously hideous, I mean worse, a website that looks professional but does everything wrong.

This all started back in the 90’s with Webmasters. Again, if you were a Webmaster you were the designer too. In the 1990’s you decided what a site should look like and you put up the content and logo the client wanted to share.

The emergence of ecommerce (or back then, E-Commerce) made it worse. Because the technology that was needed to properly sell online was difficult, so if someone could solve that part, you had to suffer with the design limitations. Essentially, developers were the designers.

Today Wordpress is the culprit. So many companies searching for WordPress designers that the search itself reveals 99,000,000 results. 99% of these 99M ‘WordPress designers’ simply download a theme from a theme provider, select a layout the client likes, and add content and plugins for functionality.

I swear I can write an entire article on why this is killing the industry. But in short, it is the opposite of good UX design. These designer are taking order from their clients instead of leading the design process.

Why this happens…

Simply put, they are WordPress designers, not UX designers. Our company builds beautiful, well-oiled WordPress sites and we’re proud of them. But we are UX designers that develop our own themes custom for the product the client is presenting. Everything about the site is the same as if we didn’t use WordPress at all.

Since these designers aren’t UX researchers, they rely on the design they are buying. They add ZERO value to the discussion. The client begin the lead the design discussion. By the time they realize that they’re just a wrist for the client, who is a terrible designer, it’s too late.

Now the client is running the design team, barking orders to the WordPress designer. Sending them screenshots of other websites, saying ridiculous things like,

“Make it like this but with our colors.”

It gets worse.

Because companies are frugal, and because WordPress has been decided before the project even starts, the whole damn thing starts with a bidding war.

There are tens of thousands of Fiverr WordPress designers out there that promise you the world starting at $29. What can you possibly do to combat that? How can you convince a client that they need to spend money on UX Research, custom functionality and design, and constant iteration?

What to do?

You can start by educating yourself on 3 key subjects: how corporations work, ROI of good UX, and negotiating techniques. The last being critical.

STEP 1: How Corporations Work
Knowing how a company creates its budgets, who’s responsible for those budgets, and what their goals are is a superpower you must develop if you’re ever going to be a successful UX designer. You have to get to the right person, find their squishy soft, armorless areas and repeatedly stab them until they almost bleed out. Then you can go to step 2.

STEP 2: ROI of Good UX
I can talk about this for hours but here’s a list of articles to educate yourself. Learn ever rebuttal by heart. Have those cards on the table and ready to flip over. Use statistics, case studies, charts dammit, charts.

There are many more out there but these have helped me a great deal.

STEP 3: Negotiations
Ok, this is where things take a sober turn. You’re all excited you can get to the right decision maker. You’re chalk full of knowledge, ready to drop dem bombs. But some clients will NOT budge. They want a bid and they know their options. Reasons why:

  1. The most common reason is they are an asshole.
    They got to their position by knowing more than anyone else, and you’re NOT GOING TO LEARN THEM SOMETHING. They have their boss fooled and they want to come under a pre-UX, pre-research, pre-discovery, predetermined budget. They have already determined their KPI for success is a dog and pony show of “look what I got done”.
  2. They aren’t the right person, and you’re not ever going to get to the right person.
    You got to the Director of Digital Marketing, but not to the CMO. You got to the CMO, but not the CEO. Whoever you are talking to doesn’t actually have the authority to change the mission, timeline, budget, or KPIs.
  3. They broke, boy!
    This dentist needs a site and he has $1,400. You done, son.

Most of these clients you need to just walk away from. Sorry, but those are the facts. A small percentage of these clients can be turns to the light side of the force. How? Mastering negotiations. I’ll leave you some links to things that have helped me; but before I do I’ll give you my first secret.

Make a friend.

It’s tough to master this, but I like to do as much research as I can on the folks I’m talking to and become friends. Crack the door to one-on-one conversations. Divide and conquer. Once you’re friendly and have things in common, you can “make them a hero”. You and only you have the secret to their next bonus, promotion, big win. And since you like them, you bend a little and work extra hard to make this happen for them.

Sounds devious? It is. But statistically speaking, most of these clients have become real life and cherished friends. (Maybe not after they read this.) Some of them were total assholes. I once reviled this woman so much for years but she thought we were friends. She even made me a vendor at the next company she went to and I made a small fortune over the course 2 years. I did great things for her career and she did great things for my pockets. So what’s the harm?

Anyway, that’s just one tip. Here are some articles and books that have made me successful:

BOOKS

ARTICLES

The books are far more beneficial than the articles.

OK, one last tip…

No matter how desperate you are for work, under no circumstance can you take walking away out of the equation. In my opinion, the better you get at walking away, without burning the bridge, the more times those lost projects turn into lifelong clients.

Explain why this is not the project for you. Do not insult them. In 2017 I had a potential client and the negotiations were not going well. I used this, “I think I can help you better by recommending someone perfect for this job.” When they asked why - I stated several things.

  1. We find our success comes from improving processes and the overall user experience. We’re a UX company. Design is a small part of UX. You’re looking for a designer, moreover you’re really looking for a developer with a template.
  2. We avoid one-off projects. We don’t have a marketing department so every project we take on has to have a chance to become a lifelong relationship. This project seems to be more of a checklist item and if we can all be honest here, won’t impress anyone to the point of them saying, “We only want to do business with Culture & Spirit from here out.”

I never say we’re going to pass on this. I say we can better serve you by… I never say this is beneath our capabilities. I say this is a different type of project. I never say this is a dud. I say this isn’t the way we build our clientele.

They spend 6 months trying to do it their way with a bullshit Craigslist designer, came back hat in hand, and have been a super happy client ever since.

ALSO: Even if they don’t come back you saved yourself from a nightmare and made your work more valuable.

Anyways, hope that helps.

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Chris Feix

Entrepre-holic. UX & Business Strategist. Coined several obscure memes.