This overview features a hand-picked and organized selection of the most useful Smashing Magazine’s articles on business advice, design process and communication published here over all the years.
Becoming a freelance web designer is a common dream among many designers, although it takes quite a bit of talent, business savvy, committment, and time. With all there is to consider when becoming self-employed, one can become overwhelmed — enough to deter themselves from trying at all.
Realizing many Smashing readers probably already have a head-start into the world of professional and freelance web design, this post is meant to act as not only a step-by-step guide, but also as a checklist for those who have already started their career. Hopefully this guide can cover all aspects of becoming a professional and freelance web designer, from business aspect and working with clients, to creating an effective portfolio and advertising one’s work.
Upon first thinking about it, the idea of selling advertising on a website or blog with limited traffic seems a bit daft. After all, aren’t most advertisers interested in putting their product in front of the highest number of eyeballs possible? Approaching them with piddly visitor numbers seems like a surefire way to end up in the deleted folder. But though it may feel like putting the cart before the horse, there are many good reasons and ways to sell ad space on low-traffic websites. What you need to always keep in mind is that, while advertisers are drawn to high traffic numbers, they desire something else even more: high conversion rates.
There are plenty of success stories of websites that have limited traffic but sell a ton of advertising. These websites succeed because they do one thing well: they deliver the right type of customer to the right type of business.
Freelancers have it hard. I mean, really hard. In theory, the idea of working for yourself, of being able to choose who you work with and what you work on, sounds like the perfect job. In practice though, it’s a lot more than just working on amazing projects for amazing clients from the comfort of your own home.
There is a tremendous amount of competition out there, and a lot of it is willing to play dirty, cut-throat and underhanded to beat you to the clients. How are you supposed to get ahead of those guys? Is it even possible to earn an honest buck? Thankfully, it is possible and can be a lot easier than you think.
Marketing and its in-your-face division Advertising are all about one thing. Building brand equity. If you take away only one concept from this article, please let it be this one! In this internet fueled economy, brand strength is everything! But brand and brand equity are often misunderstood concepts, the easiest way to think about brand equity is that it’s the sum total of feelings people get when they think about your business or service. And it’s important to remember that brand equity can be positive or negative.
Have you ever had someone flirt with you and they did nothing but demean themselves the whole time? Did that make you attracted to them? Doubtful. Yet, this is how so many individuals seem to handle their business today.
With the advent of social media, the Web has been overflooded with individuals claiming that they are experts at everything. It has become so rampant that whenever I come to see someone label themselves as an expert, I immediately believe they are trying to pull a fast one on me. Unfortunately, many times these people get business because there are people out there who really do believe that they are experts.
How many great designers do you know out there who struggle to find clients, while the world’s worst Microsoft Frontpage jockey can’t keep client offers out of his inbox? I know some of you reading this are dying to get more clients or more users to the app you created. Obviously, to get more people you need to let more people know about you and that doesn’t happen unless you say something. Once you develop a big enough reputation, you can sit back and let others talk about you, but 98% of us aren’t at that point yet so we have only ourselves to depend on.
If you work as part of an in-house Web team, you have my sympathy. If that in-house team is within a large organization, then doubly so. Being part of an in-house Web team sucks. Trust me, I know. I worked at IBM for three years and now spend most of my days working alongside battle-weary internal teams.
It’s hardly surprising that most in-house teams are worn down and depressed. They face almost insurmountable challenges. Too often, a website becomes a battleground for pre-existing departmental conflicts. Political power plays can manifest themselves in fights over home page real estate or conflicts over website ownership. After all, is the website an IT function or a marketing tool?
This article is the second part of Paul Boag’s series about common problems and difficulties that occur in in-house Web teams working in large companies. The series explains ways to to improve how your team is perceived within your organization, overcome politics and problem people, ensure that a project gets approval and deliver work within scope and on time. Feel free to check part 1 of the article as well.
When working for a large organization, you constantly require the approval of others to move anything forward. If you want a budget for a new Web project, you need to get senior management to buy in. When you conceive an approach for a new design, it needs to go through marketing and the brand police. Sooner or later, everything you want to do on the website needs approval.
The Web is full of creative and practical resources that we can use to improve our projects. Photography, fonts, music and code are perfect examples. Finding stock objects and existing implementations is often quicker, cheaper and more practical than producing your own.
Whether free or not, these resources normally come with a license to ensure fair use. For professionals, understanding the limitations of a license is critical; with this knowledge, you’d be surprised by what’s available. Understanding copyright and licenses allows us to do what we do best: be creative.
In this article, we’ll cover the basic principles that govern copyright and licenses. We’ll then explore common licenses in our industry, with examples.
We often hear companies, including Web agencies, boast about how they provide exceptional client service. But how do they define exceptional?
Consider this scenario. You are hired to design and develop a new website for a retail client. The client loves the design, and the pages you develop use the latest in HTML5, CSS3 and responsive design, resulting in a website that works wonderfully across browsers and devices. The e-commerce features of the new website help the client significantly increase their online sales, and the entire project is delivered on time and on budget. Now, is this “exceptional” client service? I don’t think it is.
When the client hired you, they expected that you would design and develop a great website. They also expected it would be done according to the timeline and budget set during the planning stages of the project. As successful as this project may have been for both you and the client, in the end, you did exactly what you were hired to do. You did your job.
Winston Churchill once said: “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” Regardless of where you work or who you work for, being able to take criticism is part of the job description. Whether you’re getting feedback from your boss or a client, having a proper perspective on criticism and a sound understanding of how to use it effectively is important.
Unfortunately, not many people enjoy criticism. In fact, many have developed a thick skin and take pride in their ability to brush it off and move on. However, despite its negative connotation, criticism often presents an excellent opportunity to grow as a designer. Before you can respond effectively, you need to understand what those opportunities are.
Uncover blind spots. Doing your own thing is easy, but your habits will eventually become deeply ingrained and hard to break. Criticism gives you a vital outside perspective on your work, uncovering potential areas for improvement that you are unable to see by yourself.
Web design is a relatively young field. It’s youthful, growing and made up of people from all kinds of backgrounds, many of whom lack formal design training. We have learned, and still are learning, as we go. I came into my first job as a Web designer for Boeing back in the mid-1990s, with no formal design training. I was lucky to get some training on the job, and I would guess that my experience there was similar to that of many who are reading this article.
I had the opportunity to work with some very talented and highly experienced designers who all had made the jump from other design fields to the Web. It was there, as part of that training, that I learned about critiquing, both giving and receiving, through regular design reviews.
GIFs of spinning @s on the “Contact us” page. Common usability mistakes for the sake of visual appeal. Splash pages. Fancy search box. No whitespace. Music on page load. Home page banner of a jigsaw-puzzle globe with a piece missing. Sometimes you just know that what a client is requesting is wrong and that you have to find a way to tell them. But how?
Before getting into how to explain to a client that they’re wrong, ask yourself, “Is the client actually wrong to begin with?” Just because you don’t approve of the direction they’re taking or of a request they’ve made doesn’t necessarily mean it is not a step in the right direction for the project. To be able to answer this question effectively, you need to train yourself to be completely objective and humble when dealing with client requests.
If you are running a design agency, your job is very likely to combine business development, graphic design, technology and user experience design: a basketful of very different fields. When dealing with clients, one faces the challenge of clearly and effectively communicating the goals and results of the work done in these areas. In this post, we’ll provide you with some ideas on sharing information and knowledge with developers and clients — a couple of tips and tricks we’ve learned from our own experience.
As designers, our core purpose is to solve business challenges for our clients. No, I haven’t forgotten you Mac-loving, single-mouse-button-fanatic designers. A business solution includes an application platform, solid data design and a page design that makes the UI and website approachable and easy to use (for converting, transacting, clicking on a monkey’s butt, etc.). Your daily challenge, then, is to deliver the project on time while satisfying the client’s visual, business and aesthetic requirements.
Many things about our business make one glad to be creative; and there certainly are things that destroy the very soul and one’s will to carry on. Client interaction can either lead to strong relationships that last a lifetime or make you feel low and worthless. We look at our designs as our own children, and why not? We create our work from our mind and very being. We have an emotional attachment to our work. But we also need to earn a living from that creativity, and there lies the door to our problems and aggravation.
The question arose on a blog about how to screen a client. Perhaps talking about it in terms of how to spot a sketchy client would be a bit much, but like any freelancer, I need to dump my anxieties on those who sign my paychecks. From corporate clients to the single-owner businesses, clients are our lifeblood… and they can be a cruel, cruel mistress. No wonder we drink.
“How did you do that?” My colleague Leigh sounded impressed. He had been working with a problem client for weeks trying to get design approval. Then I came along and was able to get signed-off in a single conference call. “Can you teach me how you did that?” he asked. I mumbled something about years of experience, but the truth was I didn’t have a clue. It just seems I can find design approval easier than most.
As I thought about it I realised there are actually quite a lot of things that have become second nature for me over the years. But I have learnt the hard way through many painful projects. Unfortunately because I started designing websites back in 1994 there was nobody around to teach me this stuff. I wish somebody could have just shown me how to avoid all of those endless revisions.
Whether you are getting a client to sign off on a website’s design or persuade a user to complete a call to action, we all need to know how to be convincing. Like many in the Web design industry, I have a strange job. I am part salesperson, part consultant and part user experience designer. One day I could be pitching a new idea to a board of directors, the next I might be designing an e-commerce purchasing process. There is, however, a common theme: I spend most of my time persuading people.
As Web designers, we often have to nudge people in the direction we want them to go. It is a vital skill we all have to learn. We’re not talking about manipulation. Underhanded techniques, and certainly lying, won’t get you anywhere. But you can present yourself and your arguments in ways that make people more receptive. The first and probably most important way is to empathize.
Whether your product is an open-source script, a Web application or a downloadable product, you will need to provide some form of technical support. This article explores the subject based on my experience of supporting our company’s product, Perch, a small content management system (CMS) that we sell as a download for people to install in their own hosting space. Our support has been a key factor in the success of this product, not just because users love responsive support, but because we have used what we have learned from users to improve the product.
It didn’t work out as you expected, did it? The freelance life was supposed to give you more time with the family and free you from that incompetent boss. You even thought you might be better off financially. Instead, you’re working longer hours and under constant stress, worrying about various aspects of your business.
To relieve the pressure of entrepreneurial life and avoid burning out, freelancers and business owners need strategies. In this post, I’ll share some tactics that have helped me be more in control of my business, my projects and life in general. I hope they help you, too.
Management is a vast subject, with several sub-categories, such as product, team management and project management. While all are interesting topics, this article focuses mainly on team management and offers some useful tips and ideas to promote discussion and help improve the performance and happiness of your teams.
There seems to be in creative sectors a fear of management and a great divide between creative and “business” people. This is often because the people doing the managing are not business-minded or business school graduates but are rather designers or developers. Managers in creative industries tend to be staff who have moved up within the company; for example, a junior designer who reaches mid-level, then senior, and eventually ends up running their own team; or a developer who works for himself but gets a series of major contracts, and before they know it they are the Managing Director of a small company. This type of team has many benefits but also some downsides.
Some of these ideas are not new or indeed particularly innovative, but they are often overlooked or even ignored. Below is a selection of key items for discussion within your team. The snippets cover a variety of topics to help managers in creative industries who may not have a managerial background. You may agree with some suggestions and not others, but the aim is to gain a basic understanding of key issues so that you can look at how to improve your team. After all, if you spend all your time producing great work and no time creating a great team, the first will be harder to achieve.
How many times have you been completely confused at how that ‘small’ project turned into such a big one costing double and taking three times the length you estimated? Many of you will say estimating time for web projects accurately is an oxymoron, but by applying a few effective techniques it’s possible to dramatically increase the accuracy of most web project estimates.
So why is underestimating so common? There are several reasons, which are freely admitted amongst freelancers and web agencies, as to why web projects are so commonly underestimated – they include: a) the technologies required by the project have never been used before, b) at the time of estimating, there are grey areas or complete unknowns; c) the client operates in a specialized industry and the solution needs bespoke features that are not familiar to the supplier and d) splitting the project down into the detail would require as much as work as the requirements gathering phase that is chargeable.
For too many projects, there comes a time when every action taken, every decision and sacrifice made, is spurred on by pressure to finish. Tempers seem to shrink along with the available days, talk about “high standards” gives way to “good enough,” and people realize that deadlines are aptly named. During the last-minute crunch, someone may well wonder, how did it come to this? Could it have been prevented?
Every Web project has deadlines. But not every designer or developer deals with them the same way. Because a deadline marks the end of a project, everyone involved in the project must understand the deadline’s role. Most projects follow a schedule or have an estimated date by which they must be completed. The concept is simple then: when the work takes longer than expected, deadlines get missed.
One of the biggest advantages of online media over print is the ability to change, update, and enhance online media at virtually anytime, with virtually no negative side effects. In fact, if a website or web application does not continually offer its users an ever-evolving and growing experience, that site or application would soon become insecure, unusable, and out of date.
In this article, we will discuss ways that web designers and front-end coders can keep their websites relevant, timely, and accessible long after a site’s launch. This guide goes beyond simple text and graphic updates, common “best practices” for CSS and XHTML, or other things you might see in a typical website checklist. We’ll expand on many of the basics, and provide some effective tips for website maintenance geared towards front-end designers and coders.
Meet John the client. John runs a reasonably large website. He is a marketer who considers himself smart, articulate and professional. That said, he doesn’t know much about Web design, and so he needs your help. John comes to you with a clear set of business objectives and asks for a quote. But what happens next leaves John confused, frustrated and extremely unhappy.
Before giving John his quote, you ask a little more about the project. After chatting for a few minutes, you ask him about his budget. A fair question, you think. After all, you could approach the project in so many ways. Without knowing the budget, knowing where to begin is impossible. In your mind, building a website is like building a house. Without knowing the budget, you can’t possibly know how many rooms the client can afford or what materials you should use to build.
Truth be told, I am a philistine. When people talk about recycling, I don’t think of saving the planet. In my earlier post, “Lessons Learned: Productivity Tips For Running A Web Design Business,” I wrote about how we can reuse and recycle what we do in the Web industry to save time and money.
Now let’s explore the subject further. We will look at how we can recycle existing work (done by ourselves or others) in order to be more efficient. By doing so, we can finish projects more quickly and generate a better profit margin. The great thing about recycling is that we can all do it, whether we are a developer, designer or website owner. Let’s begin our journey with the masters of recycling: developers.
The Web has continued evolving since its inception, as have those who have devoted their professional lives to working in and around this massive communication tool. We have had to roll with the changes, and like with any major environmental shifts, we have had to adapt. During this shifting of our online existences, something quite interesting happened… interesting in a somewhat frustrating manner. The expectations of the client base, our colleagues and even our friends have risen to new, unreasonable heights.
Though this is not an isolated instance of schedule disrespect, we do understand that not every potential client or colleague is going to hold on to these extremely elevated expectations, so this post is directed only at those who do. Do not misunderstand, there is nothing wrong with having expectations about a profession, but when you allow those unchecked presumptions to take you to a disrespectful place, then a line is being crossed. One that we hope to clearly draw in the sand, for any and all of those who share in this frustration, with this article today.
There is no doubt about it, I am a hypocrite. Fortunately nobody has noticed… until now. Here’s the thing. On one hand I talk about the importance of having a good work/life balance, and yet on the other I prefer to hire people who do personal projects in their spare time.
Do you see the problem with this scenario? How can one person possibly juggle work, life and the odd side project? It would appear there just aren’t enough hours in the day. Being the arrogant and stubborn individual I am, when this hypocrisy was pointed out to me, my immediate reaction was to endeavour to justify my position. A less opinionated individual would probably have selected one or the other, but I propose these two supposedly contradictory viewpoints can sit harmoniously together.
To understand how this is possible we must first establish why a work/life balance is important and what role side projects play. Let’s begin by asking ourselves why it is important to have a life beyond our computers, even when we love what we do.
We who work on the Web live in wonderful times. In the past, we did of lot of trial-and-error learning, and the biggest hurdle was getting people to understand what we were on about. Over time, companies like Google, Yahoo, Skype, Facebook and Twitter managed to get the geeky Web into the living rooms of regular people and into the headlines of the mainstream press.
Now more than ever are there opportunities on the Web for you, as a professional, to be seen and to be found. I am a professional Web spokesperson for a large company, and I spoke at 27 conferences in 14 countries last year. I write for several magazines and blogs and have published a few books. When people ask me how I got to where I am now, my standard answer is: by releasing stuff on the Web and by listening and reacting to feedback. And you can do the same.
The term “social media guru” has almost become a dirty word within the Web community. In fact, despite most of us being early adopters of social networks such as Facebook or Twitter, we consider social media the purview of marketeers.
It certainly isn’t our responsibility—we build websites, we don’t run marketing campaigns. But are we justified in this point of view? Is social media really somebody else’s responsibility?
In my opinion, social media is very much our concern. That is because social media is firmly a part of the user’s experience, and we are user experience designers. The user experience does not occur within a single channel (such as a website or Facebook page). Users move between multiple channels and so all of these channels need to be designed as one consistent user experience.
At the moment, we largely fail to integrate the various channels through which we communicate with our users. Although most social media channels are great at driving traffic to our websites, few websites return the favor to anything at that same level.
There is a reason why marketeers are increasingly including the Web address to their Facebook Page in ads rather than the website itself—it is because if they drive traffic to the website, it rarely makes it any further. This is because as Web designers our thinking about social media rarely moves beyond slapping a “share this” button on the bottom of each page.
You might be interested in the following “Best of” selections as well:
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