Bespoke Vs open source CMS web design: Which content management system is best?

Whether or not we use a bespoke content management system (CMS) or an off the shelf open source Content Management System (CMS) to build a project has always been a key question clients ask us. This is a decision we always make with the client after careful consideration of the options, based around their individual needs.

In our opinion whilst there is no right or wrong answer here (it’s about evaluating what’s right for the individual web design project/client), the answer to this question is increasingly becoming an open source content management system such as Orchard, Word Press, Umbraco, or Drupal.

Typically in the past the decision would be made to use our own CMS which has been developed over many years. This hooks into industry standard tools like the Telerik ASP.NET Ajax toolkit and is a very robust system. The decision to opt for this as opposed to an off the shelf option was generally taken because most businesses/organisations are very different from one another, making the applications and websites they require quite bespoke. Creating this very personal website around a generic system that provides hundreds of modules like blogs, forums, events calendars or ecommerce modules, none of which they would ever use, didn’t make sense for a client. It made much more sense to create their own bespoke website using proven building blocks of our own CMS. This creates an application that does exactly what the client’s needs it to do, no more no less, with no bloated code.

So why is this changing?

  • Content management systems and their ecosystems have evolved and matured

    In the past there were less obvious market leaders when it came to CMS systems, and the ecosystems around them were less established. This made developers nervous because it meant investing large amounts of time in something which may or may not succeed. Development was also more time consuming because of the lack of other people doing similar work on these systems. These days we can be pretty sure that if we invest time in learning a CMS such as Word Press, that this knowledge is still likely to be relevant in years to come. We can also be relatively sure that if we do need help its out there and easily accessible. Equally as a business owner I know that there is not going to be a shortage of talented programmers out there to work on the projects we need.

    The systems themselves are also now very slick, they are quick to setup, easy to configure, and don’t suffer from the same performance issues they did a few years back. There is also generally a wealth of professionally developed modules, plugins and themes out there which in some cases can saves weeks of development and therefore cost for the client.

  • Client expectations and knowledge of systems has evolved

    Its very regular these days for clients to come to us with a clear idea of which CMS platform they feel their new website should be built in. This is typically because they have heard good things from other people about a system, or because they have spent time researching the market themselves.

    This research will point them towards open source, mature platforms, with plugins for everything, and large ecosystems to help support them. Compared to the unknown of a bespoke system developed by a company they more than likely haven’t worked with before, they are understandably led to feeling more comfortable with an open source platform.

    As a company we relish this kind of knowledge in a client, because it means they are interested in the technical side of things which means working with them will be infinitely easier. Over the years we have found the more a client is willing to take on board in a technical sense, the better and longer the working relationship is for both parties.

    That’s not to say this kind of knowledge cant often be challenging as a developer, because whilst the intentions are correct, sometimes the actual choice might not be. For example we have had clients come to us adamant they want to build an ecommerce website using Word Press. Now whilst this is possible, Word Press is not really designed as an out and out ecommerce platform. If you are doing ecommerce you would be much better building it in something like NopCommerce or Magento. Thankfully most clients are usually to open to new ideas here and when its properly explained to them they quicky adapt their decisions.

  • Economies of scale

    One of the key phases in our web design process is a scoping phase we go through with clients. This is where we take the full list of what they want to achieve, and match it up against their budget. Its very rare they match exactly, and so compromises need to be made. This is exactly why we have this process, so that the client rather then us decides where compromises are made.

    Often this is easy, for example there may be a particular feature the client thought was simple but didn’t realise it would take up 10% of the budget, so its shelved for the time being.

    At other times its not so simple, and this is where picking the right choice of CMS platform can help. For example are their plugins that already do much of what the client needs? Maybe they dont do it in exactly the way the client had in mind but with some creative thinking we can often make things fit, and if something saves a client thousands of £ you would be amazed how quickly they can adapt to a different way of doing things!

    Another key area is often responsive web design (making the design adapt to mobile devices). For reasons I discuss here this can often add significantly to a projects costs, and so something we always consider is whether or not an off the shelf theme such as these for example can be used. These can either be used as is, or adapted for use by developers at a significantly reduced costs compared to creating a responsive web design from scratch. Often having a completely bespoke and unique design isn’t a top priority for a client, especially when it can save them thousands of £ and speed up development time by weeks.

To summarise then there really is no right or wrong answer here; you may think from the list above that we will always recommend an open source platform from now on to new clients, but I know that won’t be true. So many systems we build are completely unique, and because of the needs of the project (e.g. efficiency, complicated functionality etc…) a bespoke solution will still be the right choice. The key point is that all options are open, and we make this choice with our clients based on the needs of a project.

If you are interested in any of the content management systems mentioned above please do get in touch with us. We can very quickly help you determine which option might be suitable for you, and in most cases we have demo sites of platforms setup which you can have a play around on to see what you might be getting. You can either call us on 01273 603995, or email us at

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