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How The CMS Destroyed The Web

WordPress logo with nuclear explosion behind it

A slight improvement on the WordPress logo, I think you'll agree

When I first start working in the web industry, almost seven years ago now, I had no idea what a CMS was. In fact, I’d never even heard of the term. Most people hadn’t. The concept was still infantile and the handful of open source and off-the-shelf products that existed were barely toddlers in comparison. Within a few years though everything changed and the CMS became one of the most important and focused upon features of every site… to the detriment of the entire web.

I’m not against CMS’, by any means – they can be quite wonderful if utilised properly, opening up the world of the online to the general public and technically insecure. Without the concept of managing your own site we wouldn’t have systems that give large organisations the ability to quickly and easily disseminate important, useful and entertaining information or small companies the ability to update and spread their news and events. Heck, we probably wouldn’t even have fantastic tools like WordPress or Blogger that give so many people around the world the opportunity to express themselves in long, ranting blog posts.

Yes, the principle is sound, very sound, the problem however lies in the status we give the almighty Content Management System. As web designers and developers we worship and obey it, unwittingly feeding our sites to it by focusing on creating reusable templates and placing the burden of populating them on our clients, ironically neglecting the entire thing the CMS was designed to manage – content. Just because a client can write and manage their own content, doesn’t mean they should.

“With great power comes great responsibility”

- Spider-Man

The result is a world wide web filled with sites of boring, useless text and awful stock imagery that has no meaning or relation to the copy whatsoever. What should have been a wonderful tool for freedom and flexible has instead become a noose around the neck of content, slowly threatening to destroy all consideration for it and undermine its importance. As as unfortunate side effect, the rise of the CMS has turned web designers into creators of empty and shallow templates rather than crafters of engaging and influential products. We’ve stopped seeing web sites as vehicles for well thought out and well crafted content but instead ignored it completely in favour of mindlessly slicing up designs to be compatible with CMS’ our clients will never use.

I think part of this trend is due to laziness and complacency on our part. It’s easier to imagine content than it is to create it, easier to fill our designs with stock photography and Latin text than it is to source and supply accurate, relevant informative, easier to just put the emphasis on the client to do all of these things and provide them with an empty shell to flesh out than it is to take the burden of responsibility onto our own shoulders. Ultimately, it’s a mistake. I honestly believe that to create truly effectual web sites we need to craft meaningful content and then design around it, not create templates and then simply supply the client with a means of filling them out like a glorified colouring book.

The popularity of the CMS has made us forget the importance of content, it’s banished good copy and imagery to an after-thought and it’s made us compromise on our creations, making us constantly produce work that’s “easy to CMS” rather than being as impactful and useful as possible. As much as I love the concept, as much as I love some of the tools that are available out there and as much as I can understand and appreciate its variety of uses and applications, I can’t help but feel that the Content Management System has done a disservice to the web by encouraging us to ironically neglect the thing it champions so.

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Author: Gordon McLachlan

Gordon is uncomfortably good looking.

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  1. Justin L. December 23, 2011 at 1:31 am

    Very good article Gordon! Even though my speciality is CMS design and development, I couldn’t agree more that CMS’s have made many in our industry very lazy by passing the content responsibility to the client.

    Although ever since I can remember many designers have taken an outside-in approach to design, I feel it’s getting worse with the idea of just designing templates/themes like shells to be populated at a later date.

    I’ve been a huge supporter of the inside-out approach to design, and strongly believe that without knowing your client’s content and designing for it, a designer fails to do their job properly. Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox now :)

    • Gordon December 23, 2011 at 11:13 am

      Absolutely agree, Justin! The principle of the CMS is great and giving clients the ability alter and edit their sites is very useful but I don’t think they should be used as an excuse to ignore content completely. Good copy, imagery and designs that reflect and enhance both are far more effective than empty shell templates that get filled with meaningless and irrelevant text and stock photos.

  2. Luke McDowell December 23, 2011 at 7:52 am

    Excellent post and well timed for consideration for some projects I have coming up. For many projects it’s a big budgetary savings to pass the content development off to the client. And as soon as I am involved in placing content I lose hours spending a lot of time customizing a nice layout. But the clients are never thrilled with developing and placing content. It makes me realize I need to partner with more copywriters and content developers to create fulfilling sites.

    • Gordon December 23, 2011 at 11:16 am

      Partnering up with good copywriters, photographers and content developers is a great strategy – good content adds so much to web sites although, unfortunately perhaps due to the popularity of CMS’, it can be quite a hard sell to clients sometimes. I’ve also found that projects run a lot more smoothly when clients can see designs with content in situ and also when you aren’t endlessly waiting for them to supply copy (that doesn’t suit the design anyway!).

  3. Luke December 23, 2011 at 11:43 am

    Nice post Gordon!
    however I am not really getting, why are you blaming CMS for destroying the web, since it’s not CMS fault – owners are responsible for content and missuses; don’t get me wrong I do agree – creating empty/flexible templates is making web less attractive – all websites looks almost the same with some minor changes, but shouldn’t that be opposite way? I mean shouldn’t CMS engine be integrated into template? After all it’s “only” content. The CMS responsibility is to flexible enough to fit into different designs. That’s why have so many CMS’ starting through small, simple home made ones through simple, crappy WP (yeah I don’t like WP any more) to overcomplicated J!

    what I want to say is: don’t blame tool blame people ;)

    oh and btw that was Spider-man’s Uncle Sam not himself :)

    • Gordon December 24, 2011 at 6:22 pm

      You’re right, of course, it’s people who make the decisions not the tech so ultimately it’s own faults for letting the CMS treat content so badly.

      And it was Uncle Ben, not Uncle Sam ;) But Spider-Man sounds better :D

  4. Adam Wilson December 23, 2011 at 10:37 pm

    That’s a spot on article, web guys have always had it tougher than print, as its just about physically impossible to design printed material without text or images. Ok there are ‘templates’ but its something only the designer ever sees. From my little experience is designing for web I probably have fallen a little into that habbit of designing a ‘shell’ with the though some content will do later. I know its wrong too, this article is a good reminder to start doing things the way they should be.

    • Gordon December 24, 2011 at 6:25 pm

      It’s an easy rut to get into because tools like the CMS make is tempting to just ignore content and pass off the burden onto someone else whereas with print it’s impossible to not consider it. Unfortunately this is why we end up with so many web sites filled with terrible content that serves no purpose.

  5. Michael December 28, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    Often clients will request CMS functionality, be given the access but are ill-equipped (technically and thinking about what customers want) to make the most of it. Part of CMS training should be instructing them about what should be written, how often and how to promote each article/web page they create.

    I’ve lost count the number of the CMS’ I have deployed for clients and they lay unused for months/years after.

    I do remind them to keep the site fresh both for customers and Google/Bing but sometimes you can never win.

    • Gordon December 29, 2011 at 5:45 pm

      Indeed, content creation is not easy and often underestimated. Writing good copy and creating or sourcing appropriate imagery (not to mention other interactive elements) is a difficult task and not one that should be undertaken lightly. Unfortunately people think a CMS makes this whole process easier when, ironically, it often means content ends up even more neglected.

    • Emma March 1, 2017 at 8:13 am

      #1 Customer Solution Profit should be the mantra for many overseas spas where the technicians have virtually no conversation prior to customer trinmteat.Serveces are delivered by rote with no client engagement therefore sales are never maximized. Great article.

  6. [...] is, CMS’ are more tools for developers now than for end users and ironically contribute to the loss of importance being placed on content that we’re seeing today, perhaps due to the difficulties they pose to [...]

  7. [...] the arrival of the now ubiquitous Content Management System hasn’t made matters any better. If anything, it’s made things worse by shifting the responsibility of creating content from the web agency to the client, often turning [...]

  8. Tealdev September 9, 2012 at 6:38 am

    The problem with this thesis, is not that poor consideration for content exists. It is that this has always been a problem. Way before CMS were around, it was very hard to convince clients that the purpose of a web site was to engage and enhance. Clients were totally focused on push marketing (offering nothing of value to a viewer). Or they wanted to copy (often exactly), some other website they perceived as the best. Even if their business/purpose did not line up with the already existing site.

    The fact is, a lot of people in business are not interested in things (copy, art, good interactivity), or users, they are interested in money (or social presence leading to money, these days). And they find it irritating to not be able to just create a quick easy money machine.

    • Lynsey March 1, 2017 at 8:28 am

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