Ever since page building tools hit the market (particularly the WordPress market), I’ve been rather dismissive of them. A big reason why is that they made a bad first impression.
First, they often wrote poor code. Some relied on methods, such as WordPress Shortcodes, that worked so long as you had the page builder plugin activated. If you decided to deactivate the plugin, you were left with a jumbled mess of code to clean up. This essentially locked you into using it, whether you liked the product or not.
Then there was also the way some of these products were marketed to business owners. The message was often that you didn’t need to hire a professional web designer. If your WordPress theme came bundled with a page builder, you had this beautiful theme and a tool to create whatever layout you wanted. No outside help required. Of course, the reality was a bit more complicated. This rubbed me the wrong way.
But since the release of Gutenberg, the WordPress block-based editor, I’ve started re-thinking page builders. After some soul searching, here’s what I’ve found.
The Need for Flexibility
The expectations of what a website should be have changed dramatically over time. It used to be that having a fancy layout on the home page was enough, with secondary pages being a simpler mix of text and images. That’s no longer the case.
Now, we see more complex design features spread throughout a site. Elements such as multiple columns, video backgrounds and scrolling effects are about as likely to be seen on a “Services” page as they are on “Home”. In many cases, the good old WordPress sidebar doesn’t fit the new narrative (which is why widgets can now be added as blocks within Gutenberg).
In many instances, web design has adopted some of the core elements of print. For example, print has been liberated from single-column layouts for decades. But this has taken awhile to become more easily achievable online for the non-designer. Page builders have played a role in making this type of layout available to more people.
For designers, this is sort of a double-edged sword. On one side, we can build a complex layout that clients can change with minimal effort. But that also brings the possibility of accidental breakage. Therefore, it may be that a page builder (Gutenberg included) may not be the best option for every situation. It’s on us to know when to use one and when to put a layout on lockdown.
There are times when speed is of the essence. Recently, I found myself in one of those situations. A client needed a fairly complex landing page, including some special effects. And it needed to be built within a day.
I pride myself on getting things done quickly, but this was going to be pushing the limit of what I could do. Because of the time crunch, I decided that the best approach would be to utilize a page builder.
While the project still required lots of hustle, I managed to get something that looked and functioned as it needed to – with a few hours to spare. Truth be told, I was both happy with and surprised by the results (thankfully, so was my client).
The point is that there is a time and place where a high-quality page builder can be helpful. Given more time, I may have done things differently. But in this instance, it provided a means to build an intricate layout in short order.
The idea of Gutenberg itself was controversial. Not necessarily because of what it does, but because of the change it brings to a tried-and-true workflow (not to mention a communication breakdown during the build process). The run up to its release was full of dramatic twists and turns.
But, in my mind, the block editor has brought another perspective with regards to the needs and expectations of the modern content creator. I’ve realized that there are cases where it just makes sense to build content in a block-based manner.
And this also applies to other page builders. Granted, they do add a lot of extras when compared to a stock install of Gutenberg at this point. The special effects, for example, may be overkill for some of us (and hopefully something that Gutenberg continues to eschew). But a tool for quickly building something beyond a single-column page of text and images serves a real need.
Now, this doesn’t speak to the quality of any specific page builder – or even Gutenberg itself. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. One thing Gutenberg has going for it is a dedicated development team that will continue to improve the product. We’re already seeing some of those results.
Rather, it’s about the role these tools can play in the design process. They aren’t going to be the perfect choice in every situation. And no, they still won’t replace the need for a qualified professional. But they do offer a viable alternative to more traditional techniques. That’s more than I thought I’d ever say.