I started the visual design with a blank sheet of paper, and then moved on to an empty Photoshop file. I designed the markup starting with an empty XHTML 1.0 skeleton in BBEdit. I designed the URLs on pen and paper, trying to maximize clarity and structure while minimizing cruft and length.
On the other hand, anyone who’s designed a software library is well aware that 90% of their customer’s shipping code has some chunk that was written by loading up the sample program in an editor. When I was working on ORBlite, it was pretty easy to tell who had used my sample code and not replaced the default log message (“Oops, an error occurred.”).
So, I disagree with John a bit. He makes the right qualifications for his recommendations (“… for anyone attempting to establish their own unique brand”), but that is a tiny fraction of websites, though a larger fraction of traffic.
There are plenty of websites that should be usable, attractive, and functional (utilitas, venustas, firmitas) without a ground up design. Said differently, the default templates need to be excellent, with a set of base styles broad enough to serve as useful starting points for various tastes. Even those tastes that design MySpace pages.
As John says at the close of the article, “If you start with nothing, you’re forced to think about everything.” For a designer, that’s great. For the rest of us, not so good. For good or ill, most templates aren’t that far from “nothing”.
To be specific, I’d like one, just one, template for Movable Type 3.x that has a fluid width.