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Your Membership Site Design Matters

You might be missing
the icing on the cake

Many business owners choose AccessAlly as their course and membership plugin because they’ve seen beautifully executed websites on AccessAlly.

But if we were to use the analogy of a baking a cake, AccessAlly might be the plate that holds your cake up… while you provide the course membership content (the cake itself) and your WordPress theme is the icing on the cake that makes it beautiful.

Without a plate, your cake will break apart… and a plain cake without any frosting looks unappealing. But before we can start baking, let’s start with defining what a membership website is.

What is a membership website?

A membership website operates like an exclusive hub, where only registered members can access exclusive content within its platform. This content is often divided according to specific membership tiers. 

Membership vs. Subscription Websites

You might think that membership and subscription websites are pretty much the same—where you pay to access exclusive content. But there’s a big difference, and that’s the idea of online communities.

Being part of a membership website is more than just gaining knowledge; it’s about becoming a member of a community.

You can share your own expertise and experiences with a diverse group of people. It’s like being part of a friendly club where everyone gets to contribute and learn from each other. It’s not just about one-way access; it’s about connecting with others and building a collective pool of knowledge.

What should it include?

Every business has its own idea of successful membership websites, but there are core elements that need you will definitely want to include, such as:

1. Gated content

2. Membership plan (Tiers, Pricing plans, Features, Application forms, etc)

3. Online payments options 

4. Simple and clear design


Now, let’s get back to making our cake and why I think design is one of the most important elements from this list. 

plate icon


bare cake icon

Course & Membership content

cake icon

WordPress Theme

There are many ways to add design to your membership portal: from ready-made themes, using a theme builder plugin, to hiring a designer. So let’s talk about the icing and design you’re looking for in your AccessAlly website, shall we?

cake icon with candle

The value of design

We all recognize good design when we see it, even if we can’t put our finger on what makes it speak to us.

Design often uses principles of spacing and ease of use that make things more intuitive, and that just click with how our brains work and if done right it can result in a positive user experience.

In a sense, design cuts out the “extra thinking” that a poorly thought-out user experience forces on a person, and having a strong online presence is essential for any business or organization since this is the first point of contact for any potential member.

That’s valuable in itself.

But what about the hard numbers: does design offer a return on investment, or is it just pretty fonts and colors?

Some studies out of the UK show that for every $1 invested in design, a business can expect over $20 in increased revenue.

Should you Invest in design before you launch?

These statistics apply to many industries and types of businesses, but when it comes to online learning and membership sites… does design pay for itself?

Understanding your target audience and creating buyer personas are crucial when considering design investments. A thoughtfully designed membership site that caters to the specific needs, preferences, and expectations of your target audience is more likely to attract and retain members.

But in my experience, investing in branding and design for your membership site will be profitable when you already have a proven product and paying customers.

Let me explain: I don’t think it makes sense to invest thousands in making a beautifully designed course or membership site (or website for that matter) until you have a proven proof of concept that you can scale. However, a responsive design is essential, given the variety of devices users utilize to access websites nowadays. 

There’s a lot to be learned from launching your course, and refining your marketing and branding based on your real world experience.

Instead of investing in design up front in these cases, it makes more sense to use that money to build an audience, and bootstrap your first launch offering.

Once you’ve got people on board, and you’re starting to add more paying members – then it’s time to invest in custom design and branding. At this point in time, it will give you a higher return and help you attract even more customers.

But without a product that people are willing to pay for already, working on your branding and design is a form of procrastination that stops you from making money in your business immediately. Read this next to find out how to price your membership site.

Designers vs. Developers

Not every expert you hire has the same skillsets. Some excel at design, some prefer the coding and implementation of websites, and some are able to do both.

Most membership site and online course projects will require both skillsets. The visuals aren’t functional without the website elements, and a plainly coded website won’t look as professional and put together.


  • Focus on branding and visuals
  • Come up with creative ideas
  • Lay elements out visually, using space, colors, and images
  • Think about the User Experience (UX) and flow
vs icon


  • Focus on functionality and making things work
  • Come up with smart technical solutions
  • Implement visual guidelines and mockups into working websites
  • Use code, plugins, and theme builders to do their work

The good, fast, cheap triangle

(You get to pick two)

cheap good fast triangle

There’s a rule that applies to all projects (course and membership sites included!) and it states that:

It can be done fast, cheap, or well – but not all three at the same time, you only get to pick two.

So if it’s cheap and fast, it won’t be very good. If it’s good and fast, it’s going to cost you. And if it’s cheap and good, then it’s going to take a long time.

Keep that in mind as you make your design decisions.

Your membership design options include:


Do it yourself, using the AccessAlly theme

Learning to set up the design side of your course or membership area is the “slower” way, but it’s very cost-effective if you’re launching programs for the first time.

You can use our free AccessAlly Theme for WordPress, which offers design flexibility and allows you to create a minimalist design that aligns with your brand and vision.

As with any new theme, there’s a learning curve, but the AccessAlly Theme makes it easier than ever to create and launch your AccessAlly site.

With this option, you will be the one working on your site (rather than hiring someone else). If you get stuck or want feedback, you can join us for our free AccessAlly Tune Up Calls.


Hire someone who can customize a template for you

If you don’t have the technical inclination or the time to learn how to set up or customize WordPress theme settings, then you might want to hire someone to do it for you.

In this case, you’re not hiring a full blown designer so you won’t pay as much as you would for a custom design. Your designer or developer might recommend you start with an online course template or pre-created theme.

From there you’ll get something back fairly quickly, and it may not be 100% unique to you but it will look professional and you won’t have to do all of the work yourself.

This is a great option to create a proof of concept for your course or membership without spending all of your time mired in the tech stuff if that’s not your forte.

You might spend anywhere from $1000-$2500 for this option depending on how much customization you want and what theme options there are.


Hire a designer for a fully unique design

This is the option that we all want to go for, right out of the gate – but as I mentioned earlier, hiring a designer prematurely can be a waste of resources if you don’t have a proven product and market.

This is the “good and fast” option, and it won’t be cheap – you might spend $5000 on the lowest end and up to $10,000 or more on a really great designer. (And speed here is relative, it might still take months depending on what branding you already have in place and how quickly you decide on a design direction.)

A skilled designer can create a custom and distinctive look for your membership site that truly represents your brand. They can incorporate your brand colors, logos, and imagery in a unique and visually appealing manner, catering to a wide range of tastes and preferences.

The upsides of hiring a professional designer or team of designers and developers for your project are that it will be unique to your company, and you will get a finished product you’re really proud of.

You’ll often get a brand guide that you can reuse to keep all of your visual assets on brand, and no one will mistake your brand for someone else’s.

If you’ve already got a successful course or membership site, doing a rebrand with a pro designer can build buzz and help you raise your prices and elevate your standing in the marketplace.

This is the option that many AccessAlly clients in our showcase have chosen.

AccessAlly grows with you,
regardless of your first iteration

The bottom line is that AccessAlly will be there with your courses and membership site as your brand evolves and your business grows and at the end of the day, there is no all-around ideal choice, you can make your choice based on your current business needs and timeframes (and we support you for it!).

You might start off customizing a simple WordPress theme or builder, just to get your first product selling out into the world.

If you’re looking to get inspired, check out these membership site examples for ideas.

Then you might revisit your design by hiring someone to up-level the look and feel using a customized template.

Finally, when your business is bringing in more money you can earmark some of it to hire the designer of your dreams.

The most successful businesses are in it for the long term, and they know that bootstrapping and re-investing as money comes in from sales is how growth happens.