Where’s The One CMS To Rule Them All?

I’ve written in the past about content management systems. The ability to quickly and (relatively) easily roll out a platform for clients to manage their own websites rekindled my interest in designing for the web in the early to mid 2000’s. My first few years were spent looking at the various systems available to me, picking one I liked best and fitting it to the needs of every client that came our way. I started with Greymatter, frustratedly skipped over Wordpress and Moveable Type and eventually found comfort in Textpattern. Since my last time writing on the topic we’ve moved most of our new client work to Expression Engine and life has been swell. But as site complexity continues to increase, budgets remain fairly static and the only regularity we see in client needs is uniqueness, our previous way of thinking has begun to loosen up.

Going back to the early 2000’s I was discouraged with web design and development. As my client list grew I found more and more of my time spent with simple content updates. The reality of the industry for me was that it was less design and more data entry. I was about to walk away when a good pal introduced me to the world of systems that allowed clients to manage their own sites. Who knows where we’d be right now had we never had that conversation. But, as I mentioned, until recently, I was on a search to discover the one CMS to rule them all.

The past 18 months have seen quite a bit of change in our industry. We’ve gone back in time and have embraced fluidity once again in our design systems and in our processes. As we embraced this fluidity at the studio, it became abundantly clear that I needed to embrace fluidity in the platforms we use as well. A client with unique needs requires a system that best handles those needs. So, how have my thoughts changed in the past few years?

Expression Engine

If I’m honest with myself I have to admit that I play favorites. Once we gather our clients’ site requirements, I’ll always take a look at Expression Engine to see if it fits the bill. We’ve been using it more than any other CMS since mid-late 2009 and I’m still regularly amazed at the perfect blend of flexibility, precision and structure it affords to both our devolopment team and our clients’ operations teams. A little bit of additional time spent during development pays dividends on site handoff with carefully constructed backend layouts that ensure clients only see what they need as they’re managing their sites.

Website: http://ellislab.com/expressionengine

Pros: Powerful built-in member management and permissions system, a great development community supported by users who expect to pay for great software add-ons, fine-tuned control over content structure, blank slate templates

Cons: content customization and member permissions come at a price with a plethora of controls that need to be managed (quite often an important permission will be set incorrectly, only to be discovered at hand-off), learning curve for new users is steep, many of the system’s features are overkill for smaller sites


Before we took the leap to Expression Engine, Textpattern was our CMS of choice (and I wrote about why that was right here). It’s still a wonderful system that benefits from being simple, flexible and fast, and we still look to it when we know that Expression Engine will be overkill. Textpattern was the first CMS I encountered that supported the way I preferred to build websites. It introduced me to the concept of blank-slate template development and by the end of my first project with it I had committed the templating language to memory. Unfortunately, as time has gone on, its development has moved slower than it needs to, and it can’t match some of the other systems feature for feature anymore. What it does, it does wonderfully. What it doesn’t do leaves it with some gaping holes that make it unusable for client work. Looking back on the sites we built on Textpattern, there are probably a couple that would have benefitted from us moving to Expression Engine a bit earlier.

Website: http://textpattern.com

Pros: quick learning curve, lightning-fast development, simple and structured content management for users, blank slate templates

Cons: inflexibile admin screens, inactive development community, poor member management and permissions options


The past few years have been quite exciting in the CMS world. While the big players (Expression Engine, Wordpress, Drupal, etc.) continue to grow, build and refine their systems, they’ve left room beneath them for simple, targeted systems to emerge. These systems typically integrate directly with your HTML files and support simple and minimal content structures. Perch is my favorite of the bunch. It is quick to integrate, allows clients the ability to update their content quickly and easily and has just enough features to integrate most any content we can throw at it. If all you need is a flexible brochure-ware site, or if you’ve looked at fuller-featured CMS solutions and have been confused at the process of building with them, Perch provides the perfect solution.

Website: http://grabaperch.com

Pros: adds content management to simple HTML files, quick learning curve, lightweight and fast

Cons: light in the features department, not much of a development community


Pixel & Tonic had been developers of some of the best Expression Engine add-ons on the market. This past fall they branched out into the world of CMS development with the release of Craft, their own system built around content structure. You define your sections, determine the elements of each entry and then build your templates around content requests. Their build philosophy is very clearly influenced by Expression Engine, but it’s obvious that they took care to address some of Expression Engine’s shortcomings and simplify some of its complexity. We haven’t built any sites with Craft yet as it’s still in beta, but it’s definitely on our radar and I can’t wait to give it a run through.

Website: http://buildwithcraft.com

Pros: content is king, flexible management, pay only for the features you need

Cons: still in beta, development community unclear

Ruby on Rails

Sometimes the needs of the project don’t align with an off-the-shelf solution. RoR has brought the creation of custom systems within the grasp of smaller organizations, especially when you add something like Refinery on top. The past year has seen more of our clients looking for fully customized solutions that are perfect for an RoR environment. This option is not for everyone since it requires some specialized programming knowledge, but it proves that the lines between CMS work and app development have begun to blur.

Website: http://rubyonrails.org

Pros: fully customizable solutions, if you can think it, you can build it

Cons: steep learning curve, doesn’t offer the "ready to go" backend that a pre-built CMS provides, specialized programming knowledge is needed

What’s The Best?

As we’ve expanded our platform options over the past months, we’ve found nothing but upsides. Clients get just as much firepower as they require and can manage, we spend less time trying to retrofit inadequate systems to the needs of our projects, and throughout the project, we’re able to let the content structure and needs guide the way. We build sites faster and our clients are happier. If you’re looking to hire someone to build a site for you and they start throwing out solutions before you’ve solidified your needs and content structure, then I’d approach the conversation with a degree of skepticism. If you’re a designer/developer working with a client, stop and listen to their needs before deciding on a platform for their site. As you can see, there are more than enough options for managing the site once you know the needs. You would do well to learn the ins and outs of more than a single system.