New build

Some possibilities of modular design
This post is long overdue as I've been meaning to write it for ages! When I took on the task of rebuilding our company microsites, over two years ago, it was an easy decision to turn to Wordpress as the CMS. In particular I am a big fan of the Elegant Themes template Divi. This takes all of the complication out of a website build in that it is so malleable. So what is it about the way it uses 'modules' which made it really appeal to me as an innovative way to build and maintain our microsites?

As we all know content management systems allow website owners to manage content, sometimes tens of thousands of pages, via easy-to-use interfaces. This is primarily done by using reusable 'templates'. On average around 10 different templates for each website. However, these templates are just that - formulated structures that are ultimately not very flexible.

Divi has a massive selection of potential modules
In essence, Web content management systems don’t control content at all. They simply control webpages. It would make more sense to call them template management systems or page management as that's where the majority of the control exists.

Content can be a blog post, a collection of data in tabular format, a video, a graphic, or a list of items. It can be almost anything, yet existing CMS platforms are focused on making the content creator live within the mould of the system that has been created.

Templates are a prime example of that. They are rigid in behavior, making editing pages which need to do specific things difficult. It’s hard to move parts of a template around. If you do, it usually makes more sense to create an entirely new template. It’s also difficult to control what content populates a piece of a template, in a dynamic way. And because templates are so inflexible, the content stops being content. 

Traffic routes for modular buildings can prove a challenge!
So it's time to take back control and to move to a modular system! This was first introduced to me a few years ago via Divi and the concept is something which has been used for years in all types of manufacturing. For example, at Kier we have embraced modular building where 4,000-square foot houses are built elsewhere and bought in on trucks. Pretty much all manufacturing is based on this theory of reusable parts.

How does this theory benefit web design? By changing our perspective from the design and management of templates, to instead the design and management of pieces of content or design. I've heard them referred to as widgets, modules or building blocks and they can just slot together in countless different ways.

To build in WordPress using the Divi theme we now simply create a new page, select the column layout and then the types of content which appear in order. For example, we may want an image above some text or something more bespoke like a filterable portfolio or contact form. We can then edit them on the fly right from the page editor. If you want to reorder the modules just reposition them up or down on the page or move the columns. It’s easy.

To take this to the next level, true modular web design starts at the design stage if the CMS is flexible enough to handle it. During this process a developer cannot create modules based on a template as they do not understand what a marketer does and doesn’t need to accomplish. This needs to be a collaboration from the beginning.

I am a massive advocate of all websites being built this way. Templates are bloated, antiquated concepts. They have a large amount of dependencies between themselves. Modules are flexible and adaptable. An entire webpage should be a set of modules from top navigation down to the footer navigation. This massively aids iterative design as a methodology of constant improvement. It also makes the job of the web editor very easy.

Modular designs are cheaper and quicker to develop too. Even if you only have 5 modules built a new site can be launched with hundreds of page possibilities. Launching the site as a minimum viable product still means it can have a measure of uniqueness that a template driven site can’t achieve.

This is a massive topic and one I no doubt will revisit as we move into the redesign of our new company website. The future and possibilities of  modular web design are very exciting and extend far beyond our use of themes in our microsite provision. By building this methodology in from an early stage it solves many problems without being too complex a concept or too complicated to manage.
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