My Issue with Headway “Designers”

Headway theme is a great WordPress theme for the DIYer’s and the developer. If you’re looking to create a blog or a 1.0 site for your business. It’s a theme that allows you to create a site without having to code. You don’t need to know CSS or PHP or even a lot about WordPress. So fits really well with WordPress and the DIYer.

Headway has this awesome feature called a Visual Editor. It allows you to click on the area you would like to change some CSS properties of and change them very easily. Like I said, it’s great for the DIYer. There are a lot of other awesome features that Headway has but I won’t touch of them in this post. I want to touch on an issue that has been bothering me for the past few weeks.

There are people in the Headway community that do not understand CSS, PHP, or even how WordPress works. They people who started off as a DIYer to create their own site, but they’ve started taking it one step further. They are starting to charge clients to build sites on WordPress and Headway. These sites are all ordinary, cookie cutter sites that their clients could do themselves with the use of the Visual Editor.

Let’s take a moment so everyone understands what I just said. People that charge clients for sites designed with just the Visual Editor is wrong. They are NOT designers. They don’t understand basic web standards, how the site is going to look in various browsers, or how code works. What gets me is the fact that they charge almost just as much as real designers.

Where does the problem lie? Well it could start with the developers of Headway. Ultimately they are in the business of making money and so they are going to create a quality product that meets the need of their customers. But why do you want to display the same cookie cutter sites as quality examples of sites designed with the Headway theme? Is this because real designers haven’t used Headway to design sites? Is this because you aren’t going after the designers but you’re going after the DIY crowd?

Update: After thinking about this in greater detail I decided to rewrite the above part. We as in the Headway community should be highlighting what can be done with Headway and educating other Headway developers so that Headway sites are not cookie cutter sites. I would think as a Headway developer you would want to try new things with the theme. Clients are going to ask for things that the Visual Editor just can’t do and those developers are going to need to understand that it can still be achieved with CSS and PHP.

How can we fix it? There’s good news though. We can fix this. Instead of highlighting the cookie cutter sites, let’s highlight the great works that people have created. Let’s show the WordPress and Headway communities what can be created with Headway if you go above and beyond just using the Visual Editor.

40 thoughts on “My Issue with Headway “Designers””

  1. my site falls into the cookie cutter side of headway ….but for the type of site it is …it is good enough for me
    your post is 100% correct …headway forums are, or were full of people asking css questions apparently for a clients site ….AND IT IS WRONG and I myself stated so on the forums long ago….people you are not web designers ….not even close….nor am I

    Myself I am doing a site for a “client” as we speak….but it is for free and is for a non-profit/fund raising/awareness site

    this post is obviously a spin off from another users, what looks to be now deleted blog post…and a controversial post it was.

    one note,without looking around here too much …I d say this site fits also into the “cookie cutter headway” sites bracket….Ill continue to look …if I change my mind …Ill add another comment.

    good luck

    • Steve,

      I’m not referring to people that design sites for themselves, the DIYers. I don’t have a problem with that. The problem I have is the people that are going to make charge someone for doing something that the client could potentially do themselves. It’s great to do a site for someone for free. I don’t know the whole situation there, maybe they don’t have someone to design it or you’re volunteering for them. Whatever the case you’re not charging them, which is where my problem is at.

      Yes, this site falls into the “cookie-cutter” sites that I talked about. I was hoping someone would say something about it. The reason it’s a cookie cutter site is because I was showing people how to create a child theme from the new 2010 theme (and not Headway) and I wanted to play around with the Google Fonts API. This site is also not to reflect a grand design. It is simply to highlight things you can do with WordPress.

      Thanks for the comment though!!

      • No I realize what you are referring to…there are untold people because of frameworks like headway calling themselves designers and charging ..and it is wrong…
        one day I would like to quite my day job and do web design for a living…I wave a long road to travel ….and it is also the reason I am doing the above mentioned site for free …to gain experience,but I am far from a designer for sure.

    • That post was deleted because unlike AJ here, I don’t have the energy to be bashed repeatedly. And really…how is it controversial to suggest that people looking to practice a trade actually learn the craft?

      Like AJ, I’m also not concerned with either the developers or people building sites for themselves. It’s charging someone to do something you don’t know how to do.

      • Thanks Corey!!

        I actually don’t mind being bashed for my point of view. 🙂 I know not everyone is going to agree with me. And I’m fine with that. But when something like this affects more than just the community then I’m going to have a problem with it and let it be known.

  2. What are you referring to when you say that Headway is highlighting mediocre work? That’s not what I see in their gallery at all.

    • MommyGeek,

      I’m not saying all the sites in their gallery are “cookie cutter.” Perhaps I misspoke. But if you look at recent tweets and galleries from the Headway community (Both Grant/Clay and others) most of the sites look the same. Header, Nav, Search bar, all in the same places. There’s no creativity in those sites. These “designers” don’t mix things up. I can’t seem to find the post I was hoping to have but there’s a post out there that someone had taken the time to put 100 Headway designed sites on there. When you look at them I’d say close to 75-80% of the sites fall into the cookie-cutter sites.

      If I find the post I’ll add it to my post.

      • That post was by Owen Greaves, and it’s not something maintained by Headway.

        Headway supports the user community by congratulating and, yes, promoting folks who tweet with the #headwaywp tag that they just launched a Headway site – and I think it’s great. Whether these people designed the sites themselves to be cookie cutter or not, the whole point of this framework is that Headway allows these folks to put together their own site – and naturally they are excited about it!

        Headway makes a point to feature fabulous sites in their own showcase. I think you misspoke when you say that Headway is showing off these cookie cutter sites as examples of the best of what can be done with Headway – no, they are promoting via Facebook and Twitter what YOU, “the average user”, can do! 🙂

        • Is Owen Greaves part of the Headway community? I remember a recent tweet about the link and I thought it came from Grant. Regardless, it proves my point in that most Headway themes fall under the cookie cutter category that I’m talking about here.

          I think you’re misunderstanding my point. Headway is great for allowing people to build their OWN site. That’s great. But when someone starts to charge clients for doing something the client could do doesn’t seem right.

          In your last part, I’m not sure if you’re trying to call my “the average user” but I have been in web design and software development since the late 90s. I have been a part of over 80 site designs, redesigns, or mobile designs. I would like to think that I’m more than just the “average” user.

          • Ha, no, not calling you the average user — I meant to imply that when Grant or any of the Headway mods/support team RT a link, we are demonstrating to the average user what can be done. 🙂

            And, I totally understand your point overall. I just disagree when you say that Headway highlights cookie cutter sites as the best of what can be done.

    • Why because I’d rather see the web filled with a somewhat creative design instead of a bunch of cookie cutter sites? As I said, I have nothing wrong with the framework. I have a problem with people trying to charge money for something that’s so easy, anyone with a computer, internet access and a modern web browser could create. I have a problem that the Headway community thinks that this is OK. It’s NOT ok. As a community you should want to have variations to the theme to show potential users that the theme is worth the investment. I love the theme, have developed many sites using it, however, I don’t charge my clients for something they could do.

      • Let’s say Headway enables folks to make websites. Let’s say they take that and make a job from it. They put food on the plates of their family, keep a roof over their heads and it allows them to break free from any dead-end job they might be in.

        Would you stop folks from making a living and rather have them in a dead-end job they hate, a opposed to using their own creativity. They may be awesome artists, never had the chance to put ideas into web form, until now.

        If you think about it, everything can be done by someone on their own.

        The reasons they don’t can be many – time, budget, manpower, knowledge, etc.

        There will always be the need for proper designers; just as much there will always be opportunities for folks to make a living working for themselves.

        Saying folks “can’t do this” is being fairly short-sighted. If there’s a need for anything, market forces will provide a solution, in whatever guise that comes in.

        • PS – I “take back” the short-sighted reference; I’m a little crabby today (long story) and didn’t mean to snap as such.

          I just feel there’s a market for everyone. I’d never call myself a design, but I can help build sites for/with those that can’t for whatever reason. My key teaching while doing this is showing them how to use Headway so they can take complete control.

          Full-on designers will always be recognized for their work, and clients will go with them for that work. Simpler designs will have a simpler client base.

          Mostly. 😉

          • If you’re making a job from building Headway/WordPress based sites that’s great. However I would think that if it is your full time job you would invest in learning CSS and PHP so that you can create better designed more complicated sites. It is also helping by increasing what you charge for a site.

            I agree that clients hire people for different reasons, whatever they may be. But as you get more experienced in working with Headway you should be using custom CSS and PHP, not just making the same sites over and over again. Using custom CSS and PHP doesn’t have to be complicated, they can still be simple.

          • It’s certainly not my full-time job – more a nerdy passion that I can add when needed. 😉

            I do use CSS for certain sites, depending on the need.

            Though even without CSS, you can build dome funky-looking sites with some creative Leaf placement. And none of them look the same “over and over again”. 😉

      • AJ – With all due respect, I disagree with your assertion that it’s wrong for Headway developers to make money building sites using only the visual editor.

        Clients pay people to build websites because they get value in return (more time, more money, less headaches). They don’t care what tools are used to get the job done – whether it’s CSS, PHP, Visual Editors, Chain Saws or Laser Beams.

        I do agree, however, that we should show off sites that kick ass in design!


        • Some clients simply want a basic site – and they pick Headway because they will be able to change it up later.

          Some clients just want someone to do what THEY would do, faster.

          There’s a market for everything and anything out there; and Headway, like Thesis and other frameworks, help to fill that market.

          • MommyGeek,

            Even a simple site can take use of custom CSS or the use of some simple PHP hack. The point is to make subtle differences to not make the site a cookie-cutter site.

        • John – Thanks for the comment. I’ve never met a potential client that was happy with a cookie cutter site. But then again, clients that I work with could have larger budgets than ones people using Headway work with. I originally got started with Headway because I had a client that was looking for something I could train them on how to create new static pages. It was easiest for me to work with Headway because I could create a design using custom CSS so the client couldn’t change the design, but still allow them to add new leafs to pages and whatever else they wanted to do inside of the Visual Editor.

          • Of course; but the bottom line is that as a designer, sometimes – not all the time! – the client just wants what they want. I’m sure you’ve had clients like that 🙂

  3. Why don’t you also do a post highlighting some of the best sites? Show both sides of the picture, so to speak?

  4. Nice work, AJ.

    I came to Headway 6 months ago and 99% of sites seemed to be cookie cutter. So I went out of my way to build sites that didn’t look like they were made in Headway.

    Six months down the track, I work for Headway in support and I’m blown away by two things:

    1) The quality of design of a lot of Headway sites nowadays. A lot more “real” designers have come on board with Headway in the last 6 months – and some who aren’t designers but have still produced awesome looking sites.

    2) The quality of sites done with no custom CSS at all. This I find quite humbling coz I bust my butt with CSS to fancy up a site, and then I see these great looking sites from folks who aren’t designers or developers, but have a good eye, and make it happen in Headway without CSS. These guys show me up.

    I think it’s really good when Headway promotes these sites. We are about a product that lets most average joes build “design” and build their own site, so we need to promote that.

    These cookie cutter sites are our bread and butter. The quality designed sites our street cred. We need both, and we need to promote both.

    I think the “street cred” ones belong on the showcase, and the “cookie cutter” ones on places likes like facebook and twitter (along with the quality ones).

    There’s another reason too for us telling the world about the cookie cutter sites… We do it for them. Everybody wants that extra bit of traffic, so we don’t mind doing our bit for our customers.

    Now… on one of your other points I strongly agree. If you’re going to start charging people to build websites – whether Headway or any platform – you’ve gotta learn some basics of coding CSS, HTML and maybe even PHP. If you’re going to be a backyard mechanic, you gotta get your hands dirty. Websites are no different.

    Headway tries to reduces how dirty you get, and does a fair job of it, but if you’re charging people money for something they could easily do them self, if you don’t bring any added value, any expertise… well you need to.

    • Chris,

      Thanks for the comments! I gotta say I LOVE your site! I’m working on another post hopefully publishing later today that highlights great site designs of Headway. I would love to include yours!

      As for your experience with Headway mine is pretty much the same. I found Headway in July 2009, as I had a client that was looking for some requirements and Headway met those. I decided I was going to give it a try and fell in love with it ever since. I’ve now got quite a few client sites running under Headway and try to use it for every new client I get.

      I can understand that “cookie cutter” sites are bread and butter, heck I started out that way. I will still design a site that looks similar to those of another site I designed. After all if that’s what the client wants, then I’m going to give it to them or they’ll just find another person to do the work.

      The “cookie cutter” sites I’m talking about really are the ones where someone doesn’t put a lot of time into the site. They use the Visual Editor to change a few things and ship it off to the client. If they took the time to learn some of the business (really learn some language, CSS & PHP come to mind), maybe they would be able to add the subtle changes to be able to create great looking sites.

      Yes, there are some people that have designed truly awesome looking sites by using the Visual Editor and I applaud them for that. I hope that some of the sites in my next post will be some of those.

      I guess I can understand why Headway will show everything. They are in the business to make money and every Headway site out there means potential business for them. Maybe I am just sick of all the retweets people do of these sites. Or maybe it’s just because I’ve been working on my UX hat and can’t stand some of the usability of them. Either way, I will let that point go.

      What I’d like to see come out of all this is Headway designers (and developers) wanting to achieve better designs with Headway. You should want to learn new things you can do with this awesome theme. By learning you’re also allowing for yourself to charge your clients more, and you’re creating a better portfolio for yourself and you’re keeping with the time.

  5. I appreciate your opinion but I will say this….

    I have nail polish, emery boards, pumice stones, and any number of tools needed to complete a lovely weekly manicure and pedicure on my own, in my home . But I happily pay my local nail salon to do the manicure and pedicure for me. HAPPILY!

    I can spend that time staring in to space, plotting my next big idea, catching up on how many current and past contestants of “The Bachelor” have arrest warrants, or chatting with my friends on my phone ( much to the annoyance of my nail tech: “I need your hands, miss!” 😉

    I can make an amazing burger with every decadent fixing and delicious toppings, I could possibly imagine. I can even bake my own fluffy, buttery bun for it as well. Pomme Frites yup… De-Freaking-Licious… But alas, I have rolled through many McDonald’s Drive thrus. I would venture that you have at times done the same.

    The point is just cause its something I can do myself, occasionally it pays to have someone else to do it for me.

    I’m no css ninja. But I’ve got an eye for design, and by hook or crook or even paying a css ninja to fix what I can’t, I give my clients what they ask for and work to leave them satisfied.

    I’m learning more everyday but because I’m not a css pro today doesn’t mean I’m turning down clients tomorrow! Apart of the reason folks, hire me is cause they don’t want to worry about it… They just want to say I want this, this, and that. And they don’t care how I do it. The just don’t want to do it themselves. I just started using Headway for client sites and it helps me do a lot more than I could before. And for this I am a grateful.

    Also, are there complaints coming from these clients who are paying to have sites made with no custom css?

    • Senam,

      I appreciate your comments but let me ask you this. If you go to a nail salon, do they use the same exact products you do? Do the offer anything different that you don’t have that doesn’t cost you extra?

      When you purchase something (could be a service, or a burger, etc.) there is a higher expectation attached to it. Sure you could save the money and do it yourself, that’s not my point.

      My point is simply this. How has the expectation fallen so low that mediocre work is OK. By understanding just CSS and how to use custom CSS in your Headway designs can bring a lot of difference. There’s plently of subtle CSS3 techniques that can’t be done within the Visual Editor that should be a part of someone’s “library” that they can offer their clients for no extra charge.

  6. Would you have a problem with an interior designer arranging furniture in a room without knowing basic carpentry skills?

    If a customer wants a product or service, pays you for it, and is happy with the results – where is the problem? Most client sites will require custom css and photoshop (headers, gradient bgs etc) anyway.

    • Gaz,

      That’s really the analogy you’re going to take? There’s no point it it. That’s like comparing Apple to Bananas.

      There is no problem with a customer being happy with the work, however, I don’t believe that’s the case. I’ve had a few clients be weary of building a design on top of Headway because of the “cookie cutter” sites out there. Once they see better work there’s no problem.

      But that’s not the problem I have. Based on my experiences it’s clear that some people in this community really only want to do the bare minimum to make money. They charge a lot of what they are giving the client. They don’t want to learn and create designs be greater magnitude. They don’t care about web standards. They are NOT designers. I’m not going to sit by and watch the community feel that it’s ok do things that are mediocre. It’s like saying I’m going to hire an auto body guy to do build my house. Most designers these days do a lot more than what I’m asking. I’m just trying to help hold the community members that want to charge for work to a higher standard.

  7. I’ve yet to see anyone charging standard rates for a Headway site which only uses basic options from the visual editor – if that was the case, I’d have an issue.

    Again, if somebody only wants a basic site that can be accomplished through the visual editor, and are being charged appropriately, I don’t see why there would be a problem. There probably is a market for that type of low-end web solution. They are still designing a website though – how it looks and how the content is presented.

    Headway is capable of being used to produce sites of a higher quality than currently exist, but I think those will come in time.

  8. My two main problems with this whole “debate” are:

    1. People are kind of starting to treat headway like it’s “CSS immune.” To be more accurate, you can make an attractive website without WRITING any CSS yourself (which nobody is debating). However, it’s still being used. Treating CSS like icecream in a cake or “french tips” from a nail salon is ridiculous. It’s like the stucco or paint on a house. Would you want a house with the green paper siding up on it? Didn’t think so.

    Would you want to pay someone to paint your house with the same amount of skill that you have? (Assuming you’re not a master house painter)

    1. People “running scared” from CSS. It’s the simplest lanaguge to learn and used in just about everything required to produce a site – typography, color schemes, branding, getting hover effects and styling different leafs to highlight different content, etc. You don’t need it for layout, but that’s now what a headway-specialized designer would use it for (in most cases) anyways. It doesn’t matter if your client knows what CSS is or not. When they ask if you can change the hover effect, you better know it.

    So why do people come back with comments as though even the mere suggestion of learning CSS is like suggesting learning how to paint the Mona Lisa or construct a nuclear bomb? It’s a straightforward language that lets you break away from the mold.

    I like my cookies with sugar on them, or chocolate chips…not just piles of nicely arranged dough. Just sayin’

    Especially if I’m going to sell them to someone else afterward.

  9. Interesting debate. I like to think of myself as a real designer, I can do HTML, CSS, PHP, JavsScript, jQuery, ASP… blah! I make a good living doing it very well.

    For me… what makes a good designer is the ability to design something that is interesting, and easy to use. Something relevant and that fits the profile of the person or organisation that it represents.

    Headway has allowed many non technical people to get into design, which I think is fantastic. But there is a huge difference between a professional designer and someone who can make a site look reasonable using the Visual Editor.

    I would hate to see someone paying ‘good money’ (use your own definition here) for a design completed entirely using Headways options. There may be a place for those people who just want something simple and don’t have a large budget, but people looking for something with that ‘Pro’ edge, should not be sold one of these idea’s, they will only become disheartened, which is of no benefit to anyone.

    Custom Headway design should be inexpensive compared to Custom WP Theme design, there is a lot less work required in most circumstances, however, I have to say that IMHO, if you are going to sell Headway Design, you should be able to build WP Themes yourself. You never know what will come up!

    • I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said. 🙂 Until very recently I was building a custom theme for every client. Lately though I’ve been finding new ways to do what I was trying to do with custom WP themes with Headway. I do agree though that being able to create custom themes does help to create better Headway themes.

  10. Hey AJ! i read this post this morning, after reading Corey’s post the other day…and I decided to chime in with my 2 cents! I’ve designed several sites using headway this summer – some of them for non-profit organizations I’m a member of, a couple for friends, and now a couple I’ve been paid actual money for (with my pricing reflecting my relatively amateur status). I’m working hard to learn CSS, and am implementing it when it makes sense, and I hope these sites don’t look too “cookie cutter”. What I wanted to share with you was the fact that the folks that I’m working with – they could NOT manipulate Headway to do anything…their just struggling to get a website up there to do the task they need it to do (promote their fill in the blank). Now, could these people learn how to use Headway? Maybe….but they’ve got a steep learning curve ahead of them and NO interest in doing so.

    It gives me great joy to make a website accessible, affordable and easy for these folks – they really couldn’t have done it without me. Maybe other journeyman designers are are charging a premium price for out of the box Headway designs…but not all of us.

  11. Well, I couldn’t disagree more. I am a web developer, have been for years. Started out building basic, static HTML sites. Now I only design in CSS using WordPress to create CMS sites for clients. I use plugins and widgets to add whatever functionality I need. I also use Headway, but since I’m so used to typing out CSS, I really only use Headway for it’s columns and leafs functionality while using the Live CSS Editor (which is wicked cool) to design the site. I do not use the design editor at all. I am working on a 50 page site right now that will feature Buddy Press, photo galleries, video galleries, rotators, social feeds, and a host of other cool stuff and Headway with it’s leafs has been a great aid to development. My father (a designer, photographer, and artist of 30+ years) is providing some of the design elements as usual. So I feel that my client is getting well worth his money.

    That said, I feel that it is unfair to knock those who do not know as much CSS and use the design editor to design a client’s site. For one, if you speak for the entire Headway team regarding your “issue” with these designers, then you are contradicting yourself. On one hand you depict Headway as giving the designer so much ease and freedom to design every element without knowing one line of code, yet on the other hand say that it is “wrong” for people to design this way if it means they are going to make money doing it. That is absurd. Design and development skills have nothing to do with the tools and methods used and everything to do with the quality of design and final product. If the designer achieved quality of design and a final product that please the customer, where is the issue? There is none. Sure, anyone can tinker around with the Headway visual editor and arrange a few leafs and call themselves a designer when they aren’t one, but this type of “designer” would end up with a poor design and a poor product, which would be evident to the costumer. But to simply knock anyone who uses strictly the design editor or those who do not know CSS is ridiculous.

    Leave it up to typical techy nerd types (who know very little about true creativity and quality of design) to actually claim that the design method used is what constitutes whether a website can be called “good” or not.

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