Web Designers, Get Out There and Make Something!

About The Author

Michael is a designer working in Washington DC to create beautiful and useful web experiences for an array of organizations and their users. More about Michael Aleo ↬

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Want to start making something on your own? In this editorial, Michael Aleo shares his own experience to encourage “makers” and “creatives” out there to build their own projects.

When people ask me what I do, I tell them I make websites. They usually smile and nod and then ask whom I might make these sites for. I’ll ramble off a random list of clients I perceive to be most impressive. They, again, smile and nod. The conversation moves on. This has happened to me somewhere north of one hundred times. It always feels a little disingenuous.

My day job and clients aren’t the issue. I enjoy most of the projects I get to work on. My coworkers and clients are smart people, with good ideas, who usually have reasonable expectations and goals for their campaigns. At times, the deadlines are long and the budgets are bursting; other times they need something yesterday and for a largely discounted rate. Both scenarios are enjoyable: one allows for lots of iteration and produces a refined end product. The other is a sprint to the finish line.

Finding Inspiration I Wasn’t Looking For

October 2010

In the middle of browsing through my inspiration bookmarks, looking for something to catch my eye and spur an idea for a design, I had a moment of clarity. My perusing had brought me to Dribbble, the brainchild of Dan Cederholm and Rich Thornett. I knew they had started started small, built and designed the site themselves, issued invites to friends to test out the service, and are now a household name in the design community. They made something, and they made it themselves.

Make something!

I had set out to find design inspiration, instead I found inspiration for an idea: a self-driven project. I recently sent Dan an email, asking him some questions about Dribbble. Why did you build it? What was challenging about answering to yourself, instead of for a client? What drove you to keep going? He graciously wrote me back:

“I love making things. It’s why I love the Web so much — that you can build things, in some cases entirely on your own, that can be seen and used by potentially millions of people.

For someone who typically designs and hands things off to clients for implementation, creating and building your own stuff can be a tremendous learning experience. I’ve learned more about business, development, server administration, customer service, community management, etc., from building my own products, and that broader understanding of how the whole entire process works can be invaluable even when you return to your specialty with clients.

It also allows you to care about something from start to finish — to take ownership over something and watch it grow over time. It’s fun. And being able to collaborate with someone with complimentary skills (like Rich on Dribbble) helps me learn about the other side of the coin in a way I wouldn’t with clients.”

Dan’s mentality in his first sentence is a sentiment shared across our industry. I’ve said those same words many times, and I think it’s what draws me in to this idea of not just creating something, but making something new that I can run from start to finish. That’s really attractive when you spend your creative time answering to clients.

Realistically Getting Your Project Underway

Once I decided to make something, I felt energized, and wanted to get underway immediately. Forget that I had no idea what I wanted to make, and between my 60-80 hour a week job and my family, I had little to no time to execute anything anyway. But I was excited to set off and create something.

Let me just quickly add a note in here. I figured this was something I could probably bang out in about a weekend. Hell, I’ve designed and produced entire campaigns that have gone on to successes just working completely through a single weekend. And that was client work, with someone to go through revisions and their opinions. I’d just think up a great idea, throw some stuff together in Photoshop, toss it into Wordpress, and it would probably be a huge success in no time.

I started thinking about the prospects constantly. I could design posters with cool sayings like “Live What You Love” and “You’re Only As Good As Your Last Typeface.” But upon further research, decided it was too much trouble to keep inventory. The market was ridiculously saturated with people just like me anyway. I kept coming up with ideas and I used Evernote to keep track of them. They ranged from books, to t-shirts, to legitimate online business ideas. I struggled with this for weeks.

In retrospect, writing things down, no matter how silly or stupid they seemed at the time really helped. I now have a collection of nearly a dozen ideas I could act on. One or two are probably legitimate business ideas that I could pursue. If you’re not carrying a notebook, Moleskin, smartphone with notation software, or even just jotting things down on napkins, you’re doing yourself a great disservice: don’t let ideas slip away!

Finding Clear Direction Means Running Into Walls

Early November 2010

I finally decided one idea just seemed better than the others: a website that helped promote great designers in a given city and connect them with people needing their services. If you Google, “Web designer in Baltimore”, you get a litany of ridiculously outdated and obviously unskilled Web workers, with a few gems mixed in by the time you reach page ten. By creating a curated list of these designers — say ten per city to start with — I could point unknowing decision makers to great firms, and spread even more groundbreaking creative throughout the world. It’s like Match.com meets HotorNot.com: you’re only seeing the best of the best.

Devising a goal is really the first step in this process. You can’t start designing, coding, or writing until you have at least a loose idea nailed down. At the same time, don’t be afraid to pivot halfway through the project if you hit a wall, or see a more desirable avenue.

Internet broadcasting pioneers Justin.tv originally set out to produce original content. But how would they broadcast their shows? When another avenue looked more advantageous, they jumped (from the article Why Starting Justin.tv Was A Really Bad Idea, But I’m Glad We Did It Anyway):

“We were willing to learn, and to pivot. After quickly realizing the initial show wasn’t a sustainable model, we decided to go the platform route, and built the world’s largest live video platform (both on the Web and in our mobile apps, which have millions of downloads).

Some people wait until the stars are aligned before they jump in. Maybe that’s the right move, but plenty of businesses get started with something that seems implausible, stupid, or not-a-real-business but turn into something of value (think Groupon). If we hadn’t started then, would we have later?”

Try, Fail, Repeat: Your Goals Are Just Guesses

Late November 2010

I wrote down some goals in my sketchbook:

  • To get the site live by Christmas.
  • To recruit a select group of firms. I wrote out about ten for Baltimore, Washington DC, and Philadelphia.

That’s basically all I had. Simple enough — like I said, I could get an entire site live in Wordpress in a few hours. This was going to be a piece of cake!

The first thing I decided to do was settle on a name. Worldwide domain name lookups probably spiked during this time as I tried every conceivable, catchy name. I had figured this would take an hour at most. I had some ideas and keywords in my head, and one of them had to be available. Alas, they weren’t. So I moved on to things like writing copy, planning and, oh yeah, the mountain of normal client work.

Don’t let the name of your project stall your progress. If you know what the overall goal is going to be, there’s other work to be done. Marketing plans need to be written, design needs to get underway, there is a ton of research to do, and coming up with goals doesn’t require having a name. If anything, these steps will help you think more creatively about your project and might give you the boost you need to come up with the perfect name.

February 2011

Client work has returned to a normal busy pace, which allowed me to take back some nights to work on my project. I had this great idea. What if I built the entire site on a custom platform? I can code HTML, CSS and some Javascript, so picking up another skill set would be helpful anyway. I posted on Quora and asked around for a scripting language that I could learn and implement quickly. Ruby on Rails seemed to be the flavor of the week, so I settled on that.

I’m going to save you the pain and suffering of what transpired in the next few weeks. I watched YouTube how-to videos, I read tutorials, I set up Ruby on my machine and learned some commands. My attitude day one was probably that of a confident puppy, and by the end of December resembled one of the guys from Grumpy Old Men. There was just no way I could learn how to make a complex Web application with signup, login, an admin area, approval area, image resizing, categories and tags, and a litany of other necessities anytime this year. RoR, I’m assured, is easy to learn. Just don’t expect to rewrite your CMS by day nine.

This was a huge mistake. Building something is already a monumental task — even without the stresses and responsibilities of everyday life. Even the simplest idea has lots of layers you can’t predict at the start. Keep it simple. Do something reasonably within your abilities to start out with, see results, and then move on to larger goals. Alternatively, try and partner with someone with a complementing skill set. If you’re a designer, chances are someone on your tech team at your day job would jump at the chance to make something cool in his off-time instead of playing more Halo. I wasted weeks of time and energy learning this.

I was at a crossroads. I had planned on doing this project completely alone, but at this point that didn’t seem feasible. So I caved. I hired a respected developer. I wireframed every page on the site, wrote a twenty page brief full of variables and instructions, broke out the old credit card (don’t tell my wife), and waited.

Again, don’t be afraid to pivot! My original plan of doing this alone just didn’t work out. That’s fine, I considered other options that still achieved the end goal. Being stubborn and trying to force my way through learning enough Ruby on Rails to possibly completing a subpar product months and months from now seems silly now that the site is functional. Don’t be too proud to admit defeat. Fail, and then find a way past that failure.

Time Moves Quicker Than Your Goals

Late February 2011

To recap, I still had not picked a name, I had exactly zero companies signed up, and haven’t even told more than three people about this entire project. Working at least 10 hours a week on the project, and missed my personal goal of launching by Christmas by months, I was growing frustrated. My day job always has to come first, and with an abundance of client work to be done (certainly a good thing), my precious side project had taken a backseat on many nights and weekends.

So I take a close friend out to lunch and we sit down over spaghetti at a list of nine potential names. We cross them off one by one until only the victor remains. We both agree it’s the best option, and I quickly sketch a logo idea. It sticks.

Sketching a logo idea.

Getting someone else familiar with the project also gave me motivation not to give up. It wasn’t just my little secret anymore. I now had someone in my corner to bounce ideas off to. This would prove to be invaluable many times over.

Don’t Say It Won’t Work If You Haven’t Tried It

Late March 2011

That night, riding high on my new domain purchase, I made a list of companies I wanted to launch the site with. I lean back to look at the 13 names I wrote down. I have interacted with exactly two people at all 13 of these companies — this is discouraging. I write up a loose form email, and just find the highest-ranking person’s email at each company I can find. I try to personalize every email and fire all of them off in one night. The next morning I had exactly zero responses. That afternoon, still none. The next morning, they start to trickle in. Three weeks and one hundred and seventy six emails later, every single one of those 13 original invites has accepted. I still don’t know how I pulled that off.

If I learned anything from this stage, it’s that people are willing to help the little guy. I reached out to some pretty busy and important people, and almost all of them replied to my first cold email solicitation. Granted, my project only helps to promote their firm, but they could have easily ignored me. Most of them engaged me in pretty detailed email and phone conversations to learn more about my goals for the site. The networking aspect of reaching out to others to get them involved was invaluable.

Launch Before You’re Comfortable

Late April 2011

The developer has delivered a really nice product, I design through code (a la Andy Clarke), I’m knee deep in site updates, emailing my new members, talking ideas with these powerful industry insiders I respect (who have never heard of me) more site updates, working with my developer, and the work starts to mount. That’s when I realize I’m no longer building the site. I’m doing upgrades and maintenance work. The site is “done”. Time to flip the switch and share it with the world.

I’m a true believer in perfect is the enemy of good. I could perfect the design until every pixel is exactly how I want it, until every feature and filter is live on the site, but for what? My own personal satisfaction? That’s just silly. Launch now, provide value now, and sweat the details later. No one remembers what Quora looked like when it launched, but these days it’s widely being touted as a UX masterpiece. That didn’t happen overnight, and it certainly wasn’t like that on launch day. There probably isn’t one page on my entire site that I’m content with, but I’m at least satisfied that they’re all usable and acceptable right now.

This isn’t a unique idea. 37 Signals’ Jason Fried spells this out on their Signal vs. Noise blog, and again in their book Rework. Here’s from a 2008 blog post:

“As far as knowing exactly where the cutoff point is, that’s more art and gut than science and stats. The way we usually do it is to ask ourselves: Does what we have now solve most of our problems now?

There’s always more to add and plenty of things to refine, but does what we have now get the job done reasonably well most of the time? If you’re using your product as you build it, and as long as you’re careful not to confuse your needs with, wouldn’t it be cool if you then naturally get to the ‘yup, it’s good to go’ point soon enough. That’s when you launch.”

Flipping The Switch

Early May 2011

Today my project, YayTalent goes live with the only intention of exposing amazing local talent to companies that need amazing creative. It’s currently live in Baltimore, Washington DC, Philadelphia and Greenville, SC with plans to add ten more markets this summer.

YayTalent website.

This is not a money-making venture by any stretch and probably won’t ever be. If my project had to pay me minimum wage, I’d be owed a couple thousand dollars. It’s solely about me scratching my itch to make and own something, while doing some good in our industry (which I love deeply as you can read in my previous Smashing article). I just had no idea how long it would take to get here, but Dan’s words ring very true: I’ve learned more bootstrapping in a self-driven project than on almost any client project I’ve ever done. And now I can take those things I learned back to my day job.

It’s also a project that helps create quality work in smaller markets. I can’t tell you how excited I am about this. The average business owner doesn’t really know how to choose a designer, and this tool will help them as well. Everyone wins.

Other Side Projects To Check Out

I’m certainly not unique. There are so many other talented designers and developers out there working hard on long nights after their families have gone to sleep to make cool and interesting things. Some of these are moneymaking ventures. Some are just proof of concepts. Others try to simply make your everyday a little easier.

TeuxDeux is a simple to-do application which was created by Tina Roth Eisenberg and Fictive Kin. The product is a visually compelling and user-friendly app which allows you to use it at work/home and then take your to-dos on the road with the iPhone app. As developers say in the description, “Yay for checking things off!”

TeuxDeux application.

This tool allows you to express thoughts quickly and easily on any webpage. You just use a Get Markup bookmarklet and when you want to make notes on a webpage, click it, type some text and publish it when you’re ready to share your thoughts with your colleague or clients.

markup.io tool

Fast Customer
This tool helps you to connect with customer service at more than 1,000 companies without waiting on hold. A small, yet very useful side project.


Pen.io allows you to create beautiful text-based pages in seconds and share them with the rest of the world.

Pen.io website

Goal Finch
Goalfinch is a goal setting tool built on a principle that economists have known for centuries: incentives matter. If there’s a goal you want to accomplish, you have the best chance of succeeding when there are incentives in place to reward you for getting it done. That’s exactly what the tool does: it helps you create incentives to accomplish your goals.

Goalfinch website

What Does This Mean To Me?

The purpose of this editorial piece isn’t to toot my own horn. I learned a lot of lessons and just like I want to help promote other firms I have no stake in, I really want to encourage other “makers” and “creatives” out there to start making something of their own.

I hear lots of friends in agency jobs talk about how miserable they are with the everyday monotony of client work. Make something you’re proud of, that offers value, which makes you happy. Working towards and achieving your self-imposed goals will not only fill you with a sense of pride. I’ve found that it sheds a new light on my client work and has lit a new spark in my work. It has balanced my professional life to a degree I could not have previously imagined.

If you take nothing else away from this, I’d challenge you to keep your ideas written down somewhere. I think once you actually start putting them down, you’ll eventually find that one spark that ignites your entire project. If you’re building or running a project at any stage, please share it with us in the comment section below.

I’d also love to see designers and developers link up — even if you don’t have an idea yet. Who knows, one of these little ideas could change everything. And now when people ask you what you do, you have more to talk about than just rattling off some names they’ve heard of — the most interesting of all will be a little project they likely haven’t heard of… yet!

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (vf, il, mrn)