A Website is a Thing, and Other Lies Businesses Believe



We need a new website.

Awesome. We build websites. Why do you think you need one?

Doesn’t everyone need a website?

Maybe, it really depends on what you want to d…

Well, I know we need content! Do you do content, too?!

I’ve been a professional designer since 2002. I have had some version of this conversation at least once a month since. I don’t fault prospective clients for thinking like this. Why would I expect them to think any differently?

When we don’t understand something, it’s human nature to look for analogs, or tangible, quantifiable touch points we do understand. The familiar. Things that fit nicely onto spreadsheets, or simple line items on an invoice.

This is how you end up with The Brand Starter Packâ„¢.
✓ Logo
✓ Standards Guide
✓ Letterhead
✓ Biz Cards
✓ Website
✓ Content

And so on and so forth, down the checklist of individual artifacts someone said you need to have to be in business.

That list is full of good things, and you may very well need some of them (or more!) for your business. But focusing on the artifacts themselves as if they’re individual tasks is the wrong play. A tactic should follow a strategy, not be the strategy. The artifacts we make must be integral, planned parts of a bigger aim. If we want them to be effective, we have to understand what they are.

Organizations get their websites wrong when they consider a website as a specific type of artifact with implied form and function…Maybe it’s better to think of website as a material. What do you need to make out of website?

Talking about websites as things rather than material…is what makes conversations about cost so weird…How much does a website cost? = How much does something made out of wood cost?

I grew up working construction, so I adore this metaphor — a website is a material you build things out of. You could build a brochure, a complex conversation hub for people with a specific niché interest, or a storefront for the whole world. But even though they’re all built out of website, building a brochure and building a worldwide storefront aren’t comparable in price, time, or effort. Same material, different outcome.

What can you build out of website? Literally almost anything.

Brand identites are made with tools and materials — logos, taglines, signs, websites, t-shirts, tweets, etc. You use a tool to accomplish a goal, but the tool is not the goal. You use a material to make something, but the material is not the point.

Gather ’Round for Storytime

Around a decade ago, a Dallas non-profit contracted me to build a brochure-style website to address some claims being made in the local media about a public works project. I was young in my freelance career, and just happy to have paying work, so I didn’t ask many questions along the way. But at some point I asked their board chairman, “Ok, everybody’s signed off on the copy and images and pages, we’re going to launch the website next week. But I’m curious, once it’s live, how are you planning on getting people to visit it?” The answer was a confident “We’ll get around to that later.”

Spoiler alert: they never got around to it.

The client had a goal in mind, but they failed to understand how to effectively reach it (or how to hire a designer who could help them understand it). Instead, they determined a website was the answer to their problem, and they hired someone to build it. Identify artifact, retrieve artifact, celebrate a job well done.

We could have built anything out of website. We chose to build a dead end.

Businesses Try to Buy the Wrong Stuff

Building well-meaning dead ends is more common than anyone in business likes to admit. There are thousands of organizations and individuals who like to put a checkmark beside a deliverable called “website.” And thousands of web shops happy to do the work. There is nothing inherently wrong with that exchange of resources and services. But a website is a wasted, expensive goal if it’s not doing more than just existing.

When a business owner says “I need a website” they’re likely thinking “I need to have this singular artifact. We’ll buy it, cross it off the todo list, and move on to the next thing.” It’s a vanity excercise. But what is the website supposed to do? What is the purpose? Heck, is a website even the best material to help you achieve your goals?

The problem isn’t a website. The problem is we don’t ask why we’re building one. Who is it for? What should it accomplish? To what end are we building a thing out of website?

What is Your Thing?

My studio Blankenship Office helps new businesses and established organizations build brand identities. But to do that well and serve our clients, we have to get beyond the initial “we need a new logo” pronouncements and discover what they’re actually trying to do out in the world.

The first part of our design process is focused on defining a brand’s problems and opportunities, so we can begin building appropriate solutions. When we know the strategy, we can properly evaluate the tactics. When we agree on their goals, we can determine whether they need a new logo (or environment, or website, etc.) or whether they just think they do.

Raw materials don’t much care how they get used, or even who uses them. Make a bomb, make a baby carriage. Make a good website, make a bad one. The point isn’t the material, the point is what it helps your organization do.

A website is not a thing, it’s a material you use to build a thing.

So what do you need to build?