Introduction to Templates

Now that you are ready to start building your content managed web site you need to choose a template. This article discusses:
  • what exactly is a template,
  • the features that templates offer,
  • the limitations that templates suffer from,
  • and some of the quality issues surrounding templates.

Let's get started. Introduction to Templates

What's a template?

A template is a software program that is used to create an appearance for your web site. The template determines the layout of the site (where different content will appear on each page,) the text fonts and colors, the background colors and such details as the specific graphic symbols that will be used as bullets. Some templates include animated features such as sliding and rotating sections that sequentially display your articles or advertisements.

Templates must include some features that are not always simple. A good example of such a feature is the menus on a web site. Depending on the structure of the information in your site, your menus might require very sophisticated software to display them. Or you might want your menus to be animated in some sophisticated way.

In fact there are many dozens of details that are specified by the template - all of which go towards the look and feel of your site.

Most site administrators will find that they need to change the appearance of their sites from time to time. This is often related to the content but could also be due to changes in personal preferences - somebody might want a different color scheme, for example.

When you want your site appearance to change you will be happy to remember that content managed web sites separate completely the content of the site from the appearance - all the appearance issues are tied to the site template. So, to changes to the appearance of your site you need only edit the settings for your template. To get a completely new appearance, you can change the template.


What features are available?

Professional templates often have a vast array of features and are often programmed in a manner that allows you to customize them in various ways.

The main options that are often found in a professional template are:

  • Page Width adjustment
  • Page Layout adjustments and features - turning on or off the left or right margins, for example, or moving a single margin from the left side of the page to the right.
  • Style options - background graphics and color schemes
  • Color options - color options for a given style
  • Font options - choice of font families and default sizes
  • Menu options - choice of menu software libraries to suit different needs or for compatibility with the major browsers
  • Expanding / Contracting section animations - provide an ability to have some sections of the page expand and contract. An example would be control panels for login forms that open and close as needed.
  • Sliding / Rotating section animations - used when there are too many features that you want to advertise. Using a sliding section you can have one, two or three features showing on the screen with many more that slide or rotate into view every few seconds.
  • Special features such as templates that display a different style depending on the time of day.
  • Special features such as software to warn Microsoft Internet Explorer 6 users that some features of the web site will not work with that specific browser.

An article is being prepared to show you examples of these features and will hopefully be ready soon.

The less sophisticated templates will offer fewer of the above features - or perhaps none of them. These templates are appropriate for use with high-volume web sites that must serve pages to the public very efficiently. See, for example, cnn.com. Sophisticated features represent a heavy load for a server that must send out millions of pages per hour. As a result, companies that must serve such sites rely on simpler templates with fewer features to speed-up the delivery of their pages, reduce their bandwidth costs and also reduce the load on their servers.

More sophisticated templates include more of the above features and perhaps even additional features to meet various needs. The focus of all templates is general appearance - but the manner in which the appearance issues are managed depends largely on the viewing audience and the content being presented.

Sites that lack content often use sophisticated animations and graphics to capture the attention of the viewers.

Sites that contain a great deal of content must work to organize the appearance. The site needs a clean look that is easy to read while presenting as much as possible of the featured content in the site.

Sites that are designed for conducting business transactions must be able to integrate the business functions in such a way as to make them easy to find and use.

Professional templates try to meet requirements while balancing the costs and complexities that arise. Fortunately, because the content and the presentation are separated so clearly within a content management system, you can pick any template that will meet your initial needs to start building your web site. As your needs change, you can either adjust that template or switch to another one - your content will always remain available and accessible.


Template Limitations

Templates are designed to work within certain parameters. To some extent you can disregard the parameters. At some point, though, you might find that some content will cause your web site to lose some of the quality of its appearance.

An obvious example of this is the typical photo taken by a pocket digital camera: It is often more than 2000 pixels wide when you copy it out of your camera. However, your template will never be wider than, in most cases, 1000 pixels wide. So, if you post your photo directly to your web site without resizing it - you can be sure that something will go wrong.

Most templates will assume that you wanted the picture to show - so they will show the picture at the expense of the other items on the page. Items that were intended to appear on the right side of the screen will not be visible as they will be too far out to the right.

Some templates take a different approach: they will simply cut off the right side of your image so that the other parts of the page will not be affected.

In either case: You will want to look at your pages after you've posted any new content and make adjustments if needed. There are many programs available (including Microsoft Paint, included in Windows,) that you can use to resize your images before you post them to your web site.

There are other formatting issues that can arise:

  • Text that is formatted so that it can't wrap. Such text will push the page over to the right just like a huge picture.
  • Software Compatibility issues. Some features on the more complicated templates may not work with all browsers.
    • At the time of this writing (April 2008,) many new templates are no longer supporting Microsoft Internet Explorer 6 as Internet Explorer 8 is near release.
    • Apple Safari is not fully supported by some templates.

Template Quality

From the above list of features and limitations you can come to one simple conclusion: Templates can get complicated!

When BNT Solutions first started in 2001, our plan was to build relationships with local artist / programmers who were going to meet your needs. Sadly, this plan did not go well for some years - it was too far ahead of its time. It quickly became apparent that most artists don't really understand the issues related to content management and those that do are not always able to write sofware.

Still, templates don't look complicated when you are first building your web site. The truth is that you simply just don't notice the many issues involved until you have more content on your site. As the old saying goes, "Ignorance is bliss!" So, we built web sites that started out looking very nice - but then we were wondering what the customers were doing over time to make them start to look so bad?

It took time to learn that the simple templates require a great deal of maintenance to get them to work with all the new ideas that customers try to fit into them. We saw that some articles would have very long titles, for example. Some would have blocks of text that were too wide and fixed that way due to some codes that were added by programs like Microsoft Word.

One customer paid to have a template made that showed products one at a time in little thumbnail photos - but then he didn't want to prepare similar photos for future products. Instead he used photos of many products and displayed them in the little thumbnail image. It was convenient at the time but eventually these shortcuts took their toll on his web site.

Needless to say, these pages, after a while, did not look very nice anymore...

Fortunately, the whole world was experiencing these same problems as Content Management Systems became more and more popular. Now there are artist / programmers available who know how to deal with these issues. Some of them produce attactive, sophisticated, high-quality templates. These templates are either sold or licensed at a cost which represents a fraction of the time it would take to build something much less functional from scratch.

BNT Solutions has been able to develop relationships with some of these artists. We have begun to collect both free and professional templates that you can choose from to build your web site.

When you first build your site you will have a small amount of content available - so you can go ahead and use any one or more of the thousands of free templates available on the internet. Check the BNT Solutions collections and pick any of the free templates that you like. You can switch between them as needed until you find the appearance that you need.

Later, or if you already have lots of content for your site, you might feel a need to get a professional template. Again, you can check the collections maintained by BNT Solutions or go ahead and purchase a professional template from an external web site. Either way you can find the perfect template to meet your needs.

Please note that switching templates, although relatively easy to do, is not a trivial exercise. You should estimate an average of about two to four hours work to switch templates. There is also a bit of effort required to arrange the content within the layout of the template.

Regardless of which template you choose you will always be able to contact BNT Solutions for help with editing any of the template features, options and settings. We are always happy to help you achieve the perfect look and feel for your needs.