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Front-end frameworks: Overrated?

Front End Frameworks

Front-end frameworks are becoming increasingly popular and there are lots more popping up regularly. In the past I have looked into these and partially used them to some extent, Bootstrap in particular, which seems to be the leading one to go for. I can definitely see the uses for them and how they could be beneficial to a Web Design novice with not too much experience. I can also see how it could help them to produce a nice looking design for their personal site very quickly. However, what I don't understand is why there has been an increase in popularity for experienced web designers and web design agencies building sites based on them.

Any clients I have dealt with personally would always want a unique, bespoke design for their site, so I find it bizarre that people can justify charging a lot of money to build a site on a framework, sticking to it's pre-designed element styles. I regularly come across sites now mainly using Bootstrap and you can tell straight away because of how similar the layout and elements look. I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, as the design is quite slick more often than not, but they are really boring to look at now as every site seemingly looks the same.

When did templates take over the benefits of custom web design work? I thought every good web designer was against the use of templates, it takes away the element of creativity. I feel the use of frameworks completely limits your availability to design outside the boundaries of the pre-defined layouts and classes and would personally never use them for my own designs, I like to be able to plan and visualise exactly what I want and design it from the ground up, giving the client that cutting edge over their competitors with their fresh and unique internet presence.

The main pros I see to a framework would be that it would allow you to quickly produce a site, saving more time for other projects and it would do a lot of the work for you, including responsive elements for mobile devices, but I would rather consider that as "cheating"; essentially it is not your own work. Another drawback to most of the frameworks I have reviewed is that the responsive integration is very limited, as they are still sticking to specific device sizes, which really isn't future proof for new resolutions. Designing it yourself allows you to work through your own responsive design, applying changes at each break point for all screen sizes.

Other downsides I have also considered for frameworks would be the potential need to update them, which in turn would make it a huge task when you have written custom designs into it, of course this could be avoided and you could make any necessary updates yourself, but large changes to browsers and emerging internet technologies can completely turn your current code on its head. There is also a further key factor that you would need to consider for making customisations, which is the fact that this isn't your own code. We all have our own ways to write code, whether it be different small habits in syntax, or how we arrange it, these differences can only be read and understood well by yourself. This also goes for how we name/label classes too, from prefixes to completely unrelated names. A lot of time would need to be invested to get your head around the whole structure of a framework completely and even once you do, any additions you make are likely not going to follow the same patterns and it can end up as a dangerous mix of styling methods, which then from another third party, such as a team member who is required to collaborate, would likely get very confused by this, causing more issues down the line.

My thoughts seem to be the general consensus among others too, I contacted a couple of Web Designers who have written interesting blog articles for some big sites, asking what they thought of frameworks over custom design.

I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to using a framework or building from scratch. If a framework fits the project that a designer is working on, then I definitely think it's a smart time-saver. But it's better to start from scratch on something rather than try to shoehorn your project into a framework that doesn't quite fit.

Cameron Chapman

These are interesting points and I can agree on the time saving aspect if it fits in with a project well, although again backing up my preference on creating a bespoke design from the ground up. There's no point attempting to bodge together a website within someone else's code and limiting yourself to the set layouts and boundaries within it.

I personally don't use frameworks and choose to instead use my own custom snippets. But frameworks are great for launching projects quickly and iterating through ideas more rapidly. I just prefer to have more control over my code, and also don't like to include all the external JS/CSS libraries. Most frameworks do a great job compressing these files but I still prefer to keep my websites as slim as possible. However I don't deny the value of frameworks and actually do recommend them to designers who are not super code-savvy. It can be easier to learn how to code if you practice with a framework first.

Jake Rocheleau

Again, really valid points and something I didn't actually consider was for any designers that aren't very experienced yet, it may be a gateway to learning code and syntax first-hand. I can see the benefits of the Frameworks for these types of people of course and it would save them time and help to create a nice looking interface for their website with minimal knowledge still. Admittedly, when first learning web languages I based a lot of my content off various open-source snippets, which helped me to understand some good working practices and understand more about how to structure everything. Whole frameworks weren't really around or that popular when I was first learning, so I didn't really think of this as another method of learning so I'm glad that was brought to my attention.

With regards to producing websites from the ground up or using front-end frameworks, we are a big proponent of the later. We don't try to reinvent the wheel so leaning on these great frameworks just makes too much sense. Most of our clients want their sites done yesterday so leveraging these frameworks really accelerates our development life cycle. There are obviously some challenges inherent in working with these platforms. There is always a degree of customization and determining if it will work for the client needs, but 9 times out of 10 it is a no brainier.Mark Runyon

 This was an interesting response from Mark and I am really glad I heard back off him, I had to update this post with the quote and it has swayed my view a little in terms of a fast paced web design environment, were sites will need to be produced and ready very quickly. We usually give a very good turn-around and produce unique sites in a short time-frame anyway, but as he said "don't try to reinvent the wheel", this also made me feel I had been very bias in my own views towards unique design, but realistically, if you can manage to quickly get a site out there and are comfortable in customising it efficiently enough, then it would make sense. If that's what a client likes, then give it to them.

Maybe I just haven't used them enough to know or don't quite understand the whole concept of them, but I definitely think they are overrated and any professional Web Designer should avoid them. If you have a different opinion and something to back it up, feel free to comment below as I would love to hear someone else's insight and spark some discussion.

Thank you to the experts that allowed me to quote them in this article, I really appreciate it!

12 June 2015