Don’t Be Afraid of the Third Party Solutions

Editors note:

I wanted to introduce you to a new contributor to the magazine, Clinton R. Lanier, a fellow educator who has agreed to share some of his practical web design knowledge with a series of articles. This is the first.

Thanks for reading,

Stefan Mischook

“I make everything in-house!”

As the owner of a web-design business, hearing this exclamation from competitors puts a smile on my face. As a web design instructor, however, I admonish my students for the same declaration.

I don’t know why so many web designers feel the need to try to make everything themselves. Maybe it’s the innate creativity flowing through their veins, or the fact that web design is a very artistic enterprise. Whatever the case, the philosophy that everything on a website should be proprietary costs designers time and money.

The reason is simple: reinventing the wheel—creating your own solution to a design problem instead of purchasing an already-made solution—does not give you the return on investment that you’d see by using a third party’s solution. This is true for every business, but especially so for web designers.

Here’s a simple case to illustrate this point. Let’s say you have a client that is going to pay you $2000.00 to design an e-commerce website with an online catalog, a shopping cart and a checkout mechanism. You could spend your own time to make this portion of the site, or you could purchase an off-the-shelf component.

Now imagine you find the component you need for $500.00 (companies like sell customizable solutions for as low as $149.00). Is it worth it to buy the product rather than make it yourself?

Well, now let’s say it would take you 20 hours to make the component yourself. If you do the math, you’re making $25.00 per hour to create the component you could otherwise buy for the $500.00. If you save yourself the 20 hours to work on or find another project, you could end up generating much more income in the long run through the volume of projects you’re able to complete.

The number of solutions available is enormous, and chances are you can quickly find just about anything you may need at a cost-effective price. The most numerous, perhaps are templates, which are usually available free or for a reduced cost by websites hoping to get you there to increase the number of page views for advertising revenue. Often the freebies require you keep the developer’s copyright logo at the bottom, but by spending a bit you can buy the right to erase their name and replace it with your own. Templates are especially smart to think about because they’re so easily modified, thus simple adjustments to the style sheets or the HTML pages will change the look dramatically.

It’s also a good idea to shop for and buy royalty free images. I’ve seen many designers—including, sadly, some of my own students—have to cough up money or pull down sites because they ripped images off of Google or some other place. Paying money to a third party for source images shuffles the copyright responsibility off to them, and you’ll have recourse if it turns out the image is copyrighted elsewhere. And like all other third-party solutions a primary rationale for buying royalty free images is to save you time (and therefore, money) and to additionally get a good quality product.

Not to pitch for anyone, but I personally use for images that I’m confident won’t get me sued when I use them on sites. They also sell Flash videos, music and vector graphics. Like the templates, the products can be modified after you’ve purchased them. I’ve actually never used an image I’ve bought without first cropping or in some other way editing it. Thus, I’m pretty sure the image I finally end up with on my site won’t closely resemble images on other sites.

Speaking of Flash, there’s nothing I hate more than wasting time making a Flash intro movie or menu when I could be doing something else. I’m a bit biased against Flash, to be sure, but many customers want it, and for some reason there’s a belief by those same customers that Flash products justifiably add 25% to the cost. I won’t complain when the customers up-sell themselves, but like other components of a website I try to get around doing it myself. Websites like sell just about any Flash-oriented component you could want, including slideshows, menus or whole site templates: and when compared to the time it’d take you to create a custom component, they’re quite affordable.

To explain my disdain for Flash, let me just say that I’m not what you’d call a Flash expert: I’m more comfortable with other aspects of site design and development. This, though, brings up yet another point to support using third-party solutions. I’ve noticed in my own students that for some reason they seem to gravitate towards different aspects of design/development. I have on a team of developers right now an individual who is about the best PhotoShop mock-up person I’ve ever seen, and he’s definitely above-average on Flash. But, he’s nearly illiterate when it comes to PHP (and just, ‘okay’ on CSS). However, another member of the team is a whiz on PHP and CSS, but only passable with PhotoShop and Flash.

The lesson here is that you can’t be an expert in everything. Yet if you are going to design/develop websites professionally you are expected to be a “Jack of all trades.” And this, in addition to the time-savings (leading to a higher ROI for both time and money) and the customizability of third-party solutions, is the next most important reason to consider using what someone else has made. In any of the sites I’ve used for example purposes here the products are the result of people who are masters at that particular tool. I guarantee that PHP experts are not spending their time making Flash components, and vice versa.

Some designers think that perhaps taking this approach makes them appear more like an amateur and less like the professional they want to be. But consider this: many larger technology corporations use this same approach. While working for IBM years ago I witnessed them go through a dilemma. While they had the DB2 product—a great enterprise-sized database tool—they needed a dedicated, online storage manager. Their solution? Partner with Tivoli and co-develop the Tivoli Storage Manager in order to customize the features of both it and their own proprietary product. They took the same approach to Lotus and a whole host of other products (which they eventually purchased, but the point remains).

Perhaps a better example is that of Adobe. In his book, Sketching User Experience, Bill Buxton—a designer for Microsoft Corporation—points out that of all of the applications sold by Adobe, only two were created in-house. ONLY TWO!!! Aside from Illustrator and Acrobat, every other application Adobe puts its name on was created by another company and then bought by Adobe.

Thus, there’s no need to feel like relying on third-party solutions makes you less of a designer/developer. Instead, rest easy in the knowledge that doing so is actually the same strategy used by big industry.

Personally speaking, I take this approach when I develop sites. For example, I do much of my work with the open-source CMS, Joomla. The wonderful thing about Joomla is not that the main component is free or powerful, but that so many extensions have been written for this primary system that functionality and modification is made super-simple. With just a few small tweaks of already existing components, I can have an online gallery or an online catalog (or both). If I spent the time making from scratch what others have already created, I’d end up losing in the long run.

One caveat, however, must be discussed before closing. While using third-party solutions is a great business strategy, ethics demands you not mislead your clients. If they ask for, and you charge them for, from-the-ground-up customized solutions, well then you’re obligated to deliver the same. I’ve found most clients don’t care as long as you’re charging them an honest fee to begin with and the final product does what you’ve promised and they want.

Thus, embrace the third-party solution. Revel in the fact that you can with confidence promise clients just about anything under the sun on their website and then deliver quality, professional solutions you didn’t even have to make. The time-savings will lead to better revenue in the long run. And that, I guess, is the bottom line, right?

About the author:

Clinton R. Lanier is an Assistant Professor of Technical Communication at New Mexico Tech, and the owner of Lanier Infomedia (, a web design/development and technical communication consulting company located in Las Cruces, NM, USA.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 18th, 2009 at 5:17 pm and is filed under News, Web Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

4 Responses to “Don’t Be Afraid of the Third Party Solutions”

  1. Daniel Westlake says:

    Good Post Clinton! You make a well reasoned arguement against the ‘we do it all in house’ but failed to mention competitive advantage.

    As the web design market gets more and more crowded you have to keep your costs down (and using third party products helps) but you also need to stay ahead of the competition. Surely having the skills you need in-house is important in staying ahead of the curve?

    At our studio, we do use third party solutions but draw the line when it comes to outsourcing work. I believe that in a knowledge based industry like web design, you just have to have that knowledge in house to stay ahead of the game.


  2. Clinton says:


    Great point. The article came to me after talking to a proud young web designer who’d created a God-awful site, but did it all by hand–a fact for which he was so proud (especially the hand-created SQL db). And I guess that’s who I’m focusing on here, but that being said my experience with some of the big guys (okay, just one big guy) showed me that it’s really expediency that often wins out. If IBM didn’t have the talent in-house to get something done, they’d go out and either hire the talent (as a contractor) to accomplish what was needed, or partner with another business to get it done. In either case, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a 3rd party solution because the talent isn’t an ‘IBMer’.

    You do bring up a great point in that you shouldn’t promise what you can’t deliver. If a client want’s something, and you don’t have the talent in-house and don’t want to go outside of your shop, you need to be honest and (enter salesman/woman) steer the client to something you CAN deliver (well, maybe not that honest).

    Another point is staying ahead of the game. Considering what I do–teach and consult–I have to bust my butt to keep ahead of the fresh new designers, and within the next 5-10 year those new designers I’m talking about will be doing the same thing to keep ahead of their younger competition. I’m sure you see that with the brand new firms that pop up, or the new designers you hire. Stagnating is not an option in what you do.

  3. Chris says:

    Thanks for a great post. I routinely farm out most of my PHP to outside developers, both to save time and because I’m not a good PHP developer. My only comment would be make sure that whoever you hire to do such work is honest and reliable. I’ve got an e-commerce site in development right now that has taken WAY to long to complete simply because the first few guys I went to either tried to leave clandestine back end access to the shopping cart or didn’t know what they were doing. In this instance I was forced to purchase a commercial Zen Cart template and have it customized by the company I purchased it from. Lost a lot of money on that job, (wish I’d read your post first!)
    One other note: A neat little solution for simple .swf files (navigation, simple slide shows, scrollers and the like) is the SwishMax
    application. VERY user friendly and does not require a great deal of scripting knowledge (no action scripting in fact). Plus it’s very reasonably priced.
    I look forward to future posts from you.

  4. Hi,

    I’ve used SwishMax in the distant past, it was pretty cool at the time.