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It is OK for SharePoint to look like SharePoint

Posted on November 14, 2016

I am sick and tired of hearing people complain about SharePoint look and feel and lack of sophisticated branding capabilities. Yes, I agree, the ability to customize SharePoint Out of the Box is not that spectacular – you can choose between few color palettes, select from a handful of fonts and upload a logo or background image onto the site.

However, I am surprised to hear and read on forums and social media of users complaining about this to the point that they don’t want to use SharePoint in their organization. Or, in many cases, they would not let users use any SharePoint sites until they purchase 3rd party add-ons or let the developers create expensive custom code themes first. What???

We have all used Word, Excel, Outlook, Windows Explorer, DropBox, Google Apps before and never bothered with their “boring” look and feel. So what’s with the sudden urge to brand SharePoint?

Don’t get me wrong; there are lots of great companies out there doing wonderful things in the SharePoint branding arena, helping create really beautiful themes, fancy page layouts, creative navigation, and sliders for your Intranet. And just like you, I do get to say “Wow”, when I see the branding in action. But that usually happens the first time I see it. The second time I access that same site, I am oblivious to the look and feel, because I need to find the latest version of the document I worked with my team on, and frankly, that slider of yours won’t help me here. Metadata and enterprise search configuration, though, will. What I am trying to say is that once the “new look and feel” hysteria subsides, it is all about business as usual (and practicality).

If your users are not adopting to SharePoint well, it is not because of branding (or lack of, to be exact). If your users have a hard time finding content, it is probably because you did not set up any metadata or conduct proper training. Or maybe your Information Architecture and Site Hierarchy are so complex, or you did a bad job managing security and access. Or maybe you designed such poor and inconsistent navigation, that it is impossible for your users to navigate through the myriad of sites in your Intranet portal without hitting browser back button and mentioning the F-word.

Few reasons to consider before you brand your SharePoint


It ain’t going to be cheap. In addition to Office 365 Licenses, you will need to pay for either a 3rd party developer or separate license fees for add-ons and custom themes. Many vendors have a subscription model, so fees will add up. If you hire a developer, get ready to pay a hefty premium as well, as SharePoint branding is a unique niche with a very special level of expertise required.

Delayed Timeline

No matter which route you go, it will take months (many months to be exact) to get the branding/theme to work right before you can start creating sites in your environment. So if you are looking to get your Intranet up and running ASAP, forget about it. By the way, if you do want to get your SharePoint environment live ASAP, check out this post about my recommendation for SharePoint implementation (phased approach).

Mobile apps

For those who are in SharePoint Online, Microsoft has a whole set of mobile apps to complement your desktop experience. Those apps are written and controlled by Microsoft and you don’t have much control over their look and feel!

SharePoint Online changes

It is one thing when you have SharePoint installed on-premises, when you have tight control over the release schedule of updates in your environment. It is completely a different story when you are using SharePoint Online and you have zero control over updates! You can literally wake up one day, log into SharePoint Online and it would look different than it did yesterday. The point here is – you don’t know what the changes are, when they will occur, and how they will affect your custom branding. For example, some of my clients, brave enough to venture into the world of SharePoint Online customization, complain about custom and 3rd party themes being not compatible with new document library experience. So buyer beware!

Technical expertise

Kind of related to most of the points above, you will need to rely on some unique technical expertise if you decide to create own custom theme or master page in SharePoint. So that means, any time you need to make a change or fix compatibility issues, you will need to revert to your developer or vendor to fix the issues. When you don’t mess with customizations, you can rely on plenty of out of the box resources and expertise out there on the web, this blog being one of them.

More reasons not to brand SharePoint

I also recommend that you check out this post, by the great Mike Smith, that outlines 10 great reasons why you should not brand SharePoint. He wrote this article 5 years ago, even before O365 and SharePoint Online came out! Ironically, the arguments in his post are even more relevant now, with SharePoint Online being so popular. Please click here to access his article.


Am I saying you should never change the look and feel of default SharePoint site? Absolutely not. You can definitely do certain things Out of the box and must do at least some before you roll out sites to the users. I also recommend that you stick to some of the industry best practices for proper page and navigation design.

Am I saying you should never use 3rd party add-ons or themes? Absolutely not. If you have money to spare and don’t mind adding months to your SharePoint implementation timeline, by all means, proceed, as this will spice up your Intranet and will allow you to create that unique and different look and feel.

What I am trying to say with this post is that there are more important things for you to worry about with SharePoint than look and feel of your Intranet. At the end of the day, it is all about priorities. I always tend to put proper Information Architecture, security and integrity of the content above the colorful theme.

About Me

I’m Greg Zelfond, a U.S. based SharePoint consultant, and I provide affordable out-of-the-box SharePoint consulting, training, and configuration assistance to small and medium-sized businesses all over the world.

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