Most of the time, we designers don’t suck that badly. I even kind of like us. But when the average person comes to us with the desire to build a quality website, we have a tendency to leave them confused by web-speak, cringing at our price estimates, and disheartened by the thought that their desire won’t become a reality. And that’s when we suck. A lot.
Here are some of the main reasons many designers, including myself, suck:
- We’re expensive. Hiring a high-quality designer is going to cost you a lot of money. For a basic brochure-style website, I start my fees at about $800, and I’ve heard that’s on the cheaper side. Most people who have an idea for a website they’d like to make a reality don’t have the extra money to shell out for that idea. And even if you do, most of the time you’d be better to spend that money on other areas of your initiative.
- Design isn’t that important. The design of a site and how it’s built aren’t the most important parts of a site. The most important part of a site is the content you put into it. People come to your site because they’re looking for information. That information is what makes up the site’s content. While great design compliments and supports great content, great design can’t make up for shitty content. But great content can more than make up for shitty design. Just look at craigslist or StevePavlina.com.
- Most of you can do just as well without us. Most of you can make the site you need on your own. This article will show you how to do exactly that.
Instead of making a sales pitch on why you should shell out a grand for a site, I’ll show you how to create a high-quality, professional-level site for nearly free, with minimal technological know-how (if you can make your way through adding photos or writing a note on Facebook, you’ll have no problem making this site). Note that I didn’t say easy. Building a quality site will take some motivation and time, but you’ll come out of it with a website you’ve created yourself that’s got an edge over everyone else’s.
If you are a designer reading this, please share this advice with those who come to you and are considering building a site. I’ve been giving this advice to people for years, and instead of pushing clients away like most designers fear, it has built stronger relationships and generated more referrals than I could ever have imagined, as well as saved me from spending all my time on small projects, leaving my schedule open for bigger, more interesting, and more profitable projects. Both you and your clients can appreciate that.
Start with the right tools.
Instead of having a website custom built for you, which is both time consuming and expensive, there are services you can use that will make creating and running a website about as easy as using Facebook. The service that I would recommend is called WordPress. Maybe you’ve heard of WordPress as a blogging platform, but over the years it has grown into a full fledged content management system (CMS). Since WordPress is open source, meaning any developer or designer can add to it, it has evolved to do any range of tasks: from hosting a basic brochure-style site, to running full-out online stores. WordPress is one of the most powerful CMSs available, and it’s completely free to use.
One of the greatest benefits of WordPress is the vast amount of customizable themes and plugins available. A theme is the design of your site, how it looks and how the user navigates it. There are literally thousands, if not millions, of themes available for free, and very high quality ones available for relatively cheap. Most of them allow you to upload your own logo if you so choose, and modify the layout to suit your needs.
WordPress also has thousands of plugins. A plugin is an add-on that allows WordPress to do things it wouldn’t usually do. For instance, a basic WordPress install doesn’t have the ability to post your Twitter feed in your sidebar or host an online store. But there are plugins that let you do both those things. With plugins, there’s almost nothing you can’t do with WordPress.
Using WordPress is dead simple. All you need to do is login, choose and customize your theme, and add and edit pages much like you would in Facebook. It’s really that easy.
Now, I’m not going to walk you through how to install and use WordPress, because there are already tons of guides that explain that better than I ever could. What I will give you though is a list of services that will host a WordPress site for you, and link you to some good guides to get you started using WordPress.
These are the two hosting services I recommend:
- WordPress.com is a great place to try WordPress out. They have a free option and a $17/year option for hosting. Functionally, both options are the same, but the free option will be www.yoursite.wordpress.com, while the $17/year option will be www.yoursite.com. The free option is great if you want to try using WordPress but aren’t ready to commit yet. Both require very little set up, but you’ll be restricted to only a couple hundred themes, and you won’t be able to use plugins. This option is best if you’re not that tech savvy or just want to try the service out.
- HostPapa.com is my hosting provider of choice. They’ve got a variety of plans that range between $4-12/month and have excellent customer support. WordPress comes pre-installed and you can use any theme or plugin, though it’ll take the tiniest bit of tech savvy to upload them. Since HostPapa is a full fledged hosting service, you’ll be able to evolve past a WordPress site in the future if you so choose. This option is best if you’re comfortable doing basic file uploading, are committed to putting up a site, or want to have the ability to expand the scope of the project in the future.
As for starting guides, check these out:
- Most of the best resources are WordPress’s own. Their First Steps with WordPress article is where I recommend you start. If you’re content is not going to change much, you’ll want to get familiar with pages. If you’re going to be putting out content on a regular basis, like a blog or magazine, you’ll want to get familiar with posts. For any and all other information, check out the rest of their instructional articles.
- Another good resource to check out is WPBeginner.com. They’ve got guides and tutorials on almost everything WordPress.
In case you’re worried that using WordPress could be seen as unprofessional, stop worrying. This site is powered by WordPress. So are sites by Ford, the Wall Street Journal, Samsung, and a slew of other major companies.
If you have any questions about WordPress, how to set it up, or how to use it, put them in the comments or email me and I’ll give you a hand. If somewhere down the road you think you need a custom theme made for you, give me a shout, I’d be stoked to put one together for you. Switching to a custom theme is easy and you can preserve all of your original content.
Give your site some real value.
As I mentioned before, design isn’t that important. That’s why you can get away with a pre-made theme and still have a quality site. What is important is the content you put on your site. There’s a reason you wanted to build a site, and that reason was to share some sort of information. Whether it’s information about your business, information about you, or just information you think everyone should know, you’ve got to turn that information into some sort of meaningful and valuable content for your readers. And since no one knows that information better than you, there are few people better qualified to write that content.
Creating valuable content out of the information you want to provide isn’t just a matter of writing a few paragraphs and slapping them onto a page. People build entire careers out of knowing how to craft content to provide valuable information, entertain the reader, and sell the service it’s promoting. Now I’m not expecting you to sweat content creation that much, but I would suggest taking a look at some of these guides on writing quality content so you have a basic knowledge of what works and have an edge on everybody else.
Here are a couple guide that I frequently reference while writing:
- Copyblogger’s Copywriting 101 series is the place I go when I need a refresh in the basics. Although it’s geared more towards sales copy, the suggestions apply to almost all writing for the web. You have to use some sense when applying them though, as some of the tactics they suggest have been used poorly so many times that users have become desensitized to them. To make sure you’re not using them poorly, read your content out loud to yourself and see if it sounds like something you would hear people say in everyday conversation. If it sounds overly sales-pitch-like, I’d say you should try to get it sounding more natural.
- I don’t know where I came across Joshua Sowin’s Guide to Writing Well, but I’m glad I did. This guide is considerably more in depth than Copyblogger’s, but it’s really worth a read if you need to do any sort of lengthy writing.
- You can add me to the list of people who recommend everyone get a copy of Strunk and White’s the Elements of Style. You’ve got to know the rules before you break them, and Strunk and White lay out the rules better than anyone.
One key step: PROOFREAD! Once you’ve drafted your content, make sure to read it allowed to yourself and have someone else read it over as well. Work on any bits that you have to read twice to understand, or that confuse whoever’s reading it for you.
Remember when I said there are areas that are better than design to spend your money on? Well, if the idea of writing your own content terrifies you, sounds daunting, or you just really want high quality professionally crafted content, this might be one of the areas you’ll want to consider spending money on (note that content creation is one of the many things I do!).
If you have some content you’ve created yourself and would like a professional to go over it, I’d love to help. Just shoot me an email with the content you’ve created or a link to your site, and I’ll give you my honest feedback and suggestions, free.
Note about SEO: If you put the effort into maintaining your website and making it worthwhile, you’ll no doubt run into SEO tactics at some point. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization, and SEO tactics are tactics for trying to get your site to show up more in search engine results like Google. While this might sound all well and good, 99% of the tactics out there are snake oil. They are spammy, out-dated attempts at stuffing keywords into unnecessary places, and Google actually penalizes your site for using them. So a word of caution: don’t try any SEO tactics without the advice of a web professional.
Some design tips.
Although you probably don’t need a designer for your site, you can definitely benefit from some of our professional advice. If you follow these basic tips, your site will be head and shoulders above the competition.
- Make sure your contact information is on every page. All of us have wasted enough of our lives searching for phone numbers on a website. Save your users time, and make sure your phone number, email, or preferred method of content is conveniently displayed on every page.
- A bigger font size is better than a smaller one. If you have to lean in to read the screen, the font is too small. You can never be certain of a user’s quality of eye sight, so it’s better to play it safe with a big font. 16px is a good size to start with.
- Avoid weird shit. People often conflate being unique with being weird. Just look at most teenagers. Weirdos, right? That’s just their attempt at being unique. When it comes to your site, being weird can make your site unattractive and hard to use. Users have certain expectations of a site. They expect the logo to be in the top left side of the page and they expect the navigation to be along the top or down the left side of the page. Failure to comply with these expectations (us designers call them patterns) cause the user unnecessary confusion. Here are some good patterns to follow:
- Use dark text on light background.
- Stick to a plain, readable font, like Helvetica or Georgia.
- Make sure your links are underlined and a different colour than the rest of the text.
- Avoid things that are unnecessary or distracting, like music, flashing text and images, and splash screens.
- Keep your brand in mind. Your brand is what comes to mind when someone mentions you or your company. It includes your logo, your slogan, and the feel of everything you produce. I like to think of it as your personality. Take a moment to think about what your personality is, and try to convey that in your content and design.
- For bonus points, consider learning some HTML and CSS. HTML stands for Hypertext Markup Language, and is the language used to structure information in a website. CSS stands for Cascading Style Sheets, and is the language used to style that information. It’s pretty easy to learn the basics of both languages, and can give you control over small aspects of your site that you otherwise wouldn’t have control over.
Like I said with the content, if you want me to go over your site’s design and give you my honest feedback and suggestions for free, just shoot me an email.
When you should hire a designer.
If us designers were completely useless, none of us would have jobs. But that’s not the case. There are plenty of reasons why you would need to hire a designer. A good indicator that you’ll need a designer is that you haven’t understood this article at all, or that you think your site surpasses the scope of what this article has laid out.
If you’re still on the fence about whether you need a designer or not, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you want your site to do more than just convey information?
- Is your site going to be a key part of a serious marketing effort?
- Are you developing a cohesive and extensible brand?
- Have you hired other marketing professionals?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you should look at hiring a designer. These are situations when it’s best to bring in a professional who knows the ins and outs of what makes a site work and sell. So if your site is going to have an online store, if it’s going to be the make-or-break point between you and potential customers, or if it’s going to be part of a greater marketing plan, I’d definitely recommend hiring a designer. Naturally, I’d suggest you give me a shout to help you with your project, but if another designer pointed you to this article in the first place, I definitely suggest you see what they can do for you. Obviously they know their stuff if they sent you here!
With motivation and time, you can make yourself a quality site that won’t cost you much. And if that sounds like too much work for you, you can always hire me or another designer to do it. Hey, we may suck, but somebody’s got to do it.
So what do you think, has this made up for all that sucking of days past? Put you’re questions and feedback in the comments and I’ll hit you back!
Oh yea, and you can always return the favour of all this wonderful advice by sharing it on the social network of your choice. Thanks much!