I love design, but I also hate design.

The unbearable lightness of designing

Most of the time, I love my job. I love being able to create something out of nothing. I love helping my clients figure out what it is they need, and how to give it to them. I love making things look beautiful. I love that I can listen to aggressive music and drink wine while I work. I love that I get to use both the left and the right sides of my brain in equal measures. I love making gorgeous things that people use and love, and I adore that feeling that I’m producing something tangible.

But sometimes, it’s so wildly frustrating that I want to throw my computer out the window.

When I was sixteen, I went through a phase of experimentation with religions, trying different ones on the way you’d try on a pair of shoes. Buddhism appealed to me quite a bit, and, while I ended up discarding it eventually, the concept of dukkha stuck with me. Put succinctly, dukkha is the idea that, once we achieve a goal, we are left unsatisfied—wanting more. In effect, this means that it’s impossible to be satisfied with an accomplishment, because each one leads to a redoubled yearning.

I don’t necessarily think this a bad thing. In fact, part of the issues I have with Eastern philosophies is that I feel they reject part of what it means to be human: that constant striving. Sure, it creates suffering and unhappiness, but I believe that’s an inherent part of being alive. We are constantly fighting: against entropy, against death, against our own limitations and restrictions, against ourselves and against others. It’s this striving that makes humanity learn new things and create great things. Enlightenment might be nice, but it’s analogous to death in my mind.

Even though I think it’s normal, positive, and healthy, I still struggle with dukkha on a regular basis. And being a designer—well, being a designer really brings that out in me. Every time I finish something I’m happy with, I get this brief, momentary feeling of elation. And then, almost as quickly as it appeared, it falls. I see something else that’s better. I realize it’s not quite perfect. And then that happy, satisfied feeling dissipates, and I’m left wishing I’d done better. Frustrated that I failed to achieve some impossible standard.

Sometimes, I think this is because I spend too much time poring over the details of a project. It’s very rare that I don’t hate a piece of work by the time it’s finished, simply because I’ve spent so much time staring at it and adjusting it, pixel by pixel. This problem is then compounded by those projects that drag on forever due to causes beyond my own control. I’ve been working on a fairly extensive and involved website design for the past year and a half: at this point, I’ve been staring at it for so long I just can’t tell if I like it anymore.

I think it’s very difficult to love something you worked on two years ago, simply because design tends to be a temporal thing, and often can become dated, especially when you’re working in web design. Some of the work I actually end up liking again (once I’ve ignored it for a while) is the work that’s timeless, but I’ll admit there is a great deal of it that doesn’t stand up to the passage of time. And when you’re a web designer, time is particularly important.

Wicker Emporium blog
This is part of the Wicker Emporium’s greater redesign, and the only part that’s live as of yet. The original CSS code was written a year ago. By the time we launch, I’ll have basically ripped the whole thing up and rewritten it, just to meet my own quality standards.

I’ve always said that a year in internet time is like ten years of normal time, and I still maintain that’s true. Thing is, web design changes so quickly. I was thinking the other day about the ageism in web design when I met an older fellow who I thought was—let’s be frank—just terrible. I finally realized it’s not that being older makes you a worse, or less relevant, designer—and in fact there are a great many fantastic designers who are over forty, and god knows I’m not getting any younger—but in order to stay relevant, you need to stay on top of the ever-changing trends and technologies of the web. Sometimes it feels almost as though, just to stay on top of everything, I need to spend half of my time reading and learning new things.

Admittedly, this is something I love about design anyway, but I do always feel as though I’m out of time. Just on the creative side of things, I’ve taught myself a great number of things—I’ve dabbled in letterpress and screenprinting, both of which I intended to get more involved with but ended up dropping for logistical reasons. I taught myself calligraphy and still have best intentions to get really deeply into lettering. I very nearly signed up for a typography workshop in Boston, then decided it was too extravagant an idea. And then there’s all the technical stuff you need to learn. Responsive design. Retina images. How to prevent my WordPress site from being hacked this week. The latest developments in bizarre CSS selectors and how they work across six different browsers. Best coding practises. Using a CDN to make sure that my site runs crazy-fast, even if it’s hosted on GoDaddy. Sometimes I’m convinced I’ll just never be good, smart, or fast enough. When do I have time for a life outside this?

The problem is that there will always be a million people who are better than me. I’m not so much an egoist to believe that this wouldn’t be the case regardless of which particular career path I’d chosen. But with design—and especially with web design—I can see everyone who’s better than me. If I were a doctor, at least I’d only be competing against the other fifty doctors in the hospital. But as a designer, I’m completing against an entire world full of designers, lots of whom are way, way better than I’ll ever be. And if I’m feeling frustrated and angry and like my work will never be good enough and I should just pack it all in and move to Costa Rica to become a banana farmer—a phenomenon that usually occurs about once a week—the only way to avoid seeing work that’s better than mine is to unplug my internet and hide in bed. That’s not really a sane option.

Book cover mockups
Book cover mockups I’ve been working on this week. I was really happy with them at some point in the process, but I can’t tell anymore if they’re any good.

Ultimately, I think that, in order to be a designer, you need to have this feeling of dukkha. Striving for more is what keeps us constantly learning, changing, and developing. To be a good designer, you need this bizarre mix of humility and self-confidence, just to keep from going completely insane. Most of us are strong enough to withstand the pressure of an art-school critique, something that’s hard enough on its own. But once you’re out in the real world, you need to be your own critic—pulling apart and attacking something you created, something you poured your heart into.

So maybe the trick to being a good designer is embracing the existentialist angst behind it all. Realizing that no matter what you do, you’ll always be frustrated. But that it’s that willingness to throw yourself to your own inner critic, to face your own demons, and to suffer through endless self-doubt—it’s all that that will make you a good designer.

And ultimately, maybe all that turmoil and suffering will make me a better person, as well.

Ave Maria

The Seven Deadly Sins of Websites

Forgive me father, for I have sinned. Actually, I haven’t, but you probably have. I don’t mean gluttony, lust, et. al. Honestly, some of those really have their time and place. I’m talking about the things that I see over and over, on websites big and small, that absolutely drive me insane. I make websites for a living. If I can’t use yours, or get frustrated by it and leave, there’s a good chance that your target market (unless they’re more technically-inclined than I am, which they’re probably not) is having an even worse time. Lucky for you, I’ll tell you about it! (Just ask about the time I gave a long speech to a poor phone-line person at my bank because their website only supported IE.)

1. Text that isn’t text.

Restaurant websites, I’m looking at you in particular. Scanning your paper menu and throwing it up on your website as an image file or a PDF is the equivalent of creating a door by drawing it in chalk on the side of your house. Never mind the fact that your SEO is going to hell, that it’s a pain to update anything, and it probably looks terrible. This is just a nightmare from a usability standpoint. This is pretty vital information, and locking it up in as an image means that the information becomes infinitely less accessible. Your users can’t copy-and-paste bits. It’s harder to see on a smartphone. They can’t resize the fonts if they can’t read something. It won’t conform to the available space, so they’ll probably be stuck scrolling back and forth, or they’ll miss your great deal on Kung Pao chicken.

It’s 2011. You can use almost any font you want in a website now. You can do amazing things with fine-tuned typography you couldn’t do three years ago. There’s no excuse for lazy-designer tricks like these. Text should be text.

2. Flash.

I’ve said it before, and lots of other people have said it before me, but it bears repeating. Don’t use Flash. Flash is slow-loading, doesn’t work on an iAnything, and generally is built quite badly. It generally crashes my browser these days (poor LazarusBook). Also, see above, and also below.

3. Stuff that sings, jumps, dances, or otherwise behaves like an over-excited puppy.

I’m the first to admit I’m a bit of a control freak, but most people don’t like it when you hijack their machines without asking first. I was visiting a website the other day that had the most obnoxious ad I’ve ever seen—five seconds after loading, this huge man appeared in the browser window and started talking at me. It was terrifying.

Most people know better than to load up their websites with giant-obnoxious-talking-man-ads, but there are many subtler examples of this. Links that open in new windows automatically (I’ll do this on my own if I want, thank you). Music and video that starts automatically (typically embarrassing people with speakers connected, and leaving me hunting around to find the offending site). 99.98% of animated gifs, banners, and ads. Let your users control how they interact with your website, or they’ll just leave.

Ave Maria

You can repent all you want, but if your website sings at me, you're damned to an eternity of animated fiery gifs. (Photo from a street corner somewhere in Rome.)

4. Ugly design.

My sister’s in library studies, and one of her prerequisites is a “web design” course. I told her she could save the $500 that credit probably cost her, and I could teach her the whole thing in ten seconds. Hire a web designer. This isn’t a self-serving statement. I don’t care (much) if you hire me, or if you hire some other competent designer. You can’t learn design from a three-month course. There’s all sorts of crazy complicated stuff, both technical and aesthetic, that goes into design. The reason most people don’t understand this is because good design is like a great push-up bra: it supports and enhancing its content without overpowering it. In theory, you’re not supposed to notice it. But it makes a huge difference.

5. Bad code.

Your website should be standards-compliant, semantically coded, and easy to update. If your web designer/developer doesn’t understand what these things mean, hire someone else. Surprisingly enough, there are still websites using tables. And frames. And inline boxes. Remember that internet years are like dog years, except longer, and that developers need to be constantly learning new stuff in order to make great websites. Make sure you hire someone who knows what they’re doing from a technical point of view, and you’ll end up with a website that performs far better—in terms of page speed, browser compatibility, and search engine rankings—than you would otherwise.

6. Business-speak.

A website is not a brochure. Most people reading online have the attention spans of drunk goldfish. Keep things short and scannable and people are more likely to read what you’ve written (says the woman who regularly writes 1000+ word blog posts). Stop using business-newspeak to make yourself sound more important. People no longer care about that sort of thing (unless they’re in government, in which case, aim for as dry and nap-inducing as possible). The internet is a scary place, full of fraud and Nigerian princes. Speak with a voice that’s genuinely yours and people will be more inclined to trust you.

7. It’s broken.

About three years ago, I bought a box of something from a certain unnamed food company with initials in their name. I’ve never bought anything from them since, but they gave me a card and a number at the time and signed me up for their mailing list. When I tried to unsubscribe, their website demanded that I submit both my email address and the number on the card that I’d never used and had lost. I put up with their irrelevant weekly mailings for some time until I finally found my card and unsubscribed.

When I did, their website told me it would take ten days to remove my address. Really? Ten days? Is your database maintained in a notebook or something? That’s utterly ridiculous. The best part was that after two weeks, they were still emailing me, and I had to send a long, cranky email explaining how broken their system was and that I really should be able to unsubscribe without putting as much effort into it as one typically does when getting a divorce. (They never responded, but I haven’t received any more emails—yet.)

This is a more minor example, but I’ve seen lots of websites that are broken in more major ways. Contact forms fail and there’s no fallback email address. Shopping carts that don’t check out. Validation routines that maintain “Buenos Aires” is not a city in Argentina (I lived there. Trust me, it is.) Test your websites, make sure they work, and fix them if they’re broken.

Crucifixion

Jesus died for your sins, not so that you can throw the word "synergy" around like it's going out of style. (Photo from Tierra Santa, the religious theme park in Buenos Aires. Don't worry, Jesus later rises, in giant animatronic style, from the hilltop.)

So hire a designer already, and save yourself for the sins you can really take pleasure in.

Actrees Website Before & After

6 tips to get the most out of your website redesign

So, you’ve decided it’s time for a redesign. All the signs are there, and you’re ready to take the plunge. But where do you start? I’ve seen too many people launch into a website redesign without serious consideration first, and unfortunately this can often mean that they’re not getting everything they should be from their redesign. A redesign is an investment on your part—both in time and money—and can be a great opportunity to turn your business around.

1. Get strategic.

Before doing anything else, you need to sit down and figure out what you want out of your website. The more clearly defined your goals are, the easier it will be for your designer, your copywriter, and you to direct the project in order to meet these goals. “I want to promote my company” isn’t a clearly defined goal! You should be thinking instead about who your audience is and what you want them to take away from the website. Do you want them to interact with it? Buy products? Send you a quote request? Come back every week to read your blog? Consider how you want them to react, feel, and interact with your website, and you’ll be closer to having clearly-defined goals.

If you’re having difficulty defining these goals, it may be helpful to work with a strategic consultant, who’ll bring an outside perspective to the project. Anyone outside of your business will see it in a very different light than you do, which will help you to get a better grasp of what your users are thinking.

2. Evaluate what works—and what doesn’t—in your current website

This is the time to be brutally honest. If your CEO designed your website five years ago, you shouldn’t be afraid to tell him it stinks—if I designed your website five years ago, feel free to tell me it stinks! I won’t be offended, it’s probably true. Five years is more like thirty in internet years, and most businesses—and people—will have changed considerably in that span of time. Once you’ve realized it’s time for change, you need to be frank in your assessment of what’s in place now.

Look at design, SEO, content, and ease-of-use (both for you in updating the site, and for your customers in using the site). Ask anyone who’ll tell you what they think. Spend a few hours poring over your Analytics to see how users are interacting with the site. Better still, drag someone in from off the street, sit him down with your site, and hover over his shoulder while he looks through it. You’ll most likely infuriate him, but it’s incredibly useful to actually watch how someone parses your site, and you’ll get an idea of what gets read—and what gets ignored—as well as any elements of the site that are currently causing confusion.

Actrees Website Before & After

The Alliance for Community Trees website, before and after. The logo was retained, and we used the same basic colour scheme. The end result was that returning users didn't feel as though they'd landed on some other site accidentally, and they welcomed the change.

3. While you’re at it, seriously consider your branding.

If you’re redesigning your website anyway, it may be a great time to consider redesigning your logo and branding as well. A gorgeous, well-thought-out redesign is going to have limited impact if your logo sucks. When redesigning, you often don’t necessarily want to rebuild everything from the ground up—you’re best off taking what’s there and subtly changing it to make it better. A great way to do this is to change the structure and graphic elements, but retain the same (or similar) colour scheme and typography. This way, it won’t be so jarring to return visitors as it would be if you were to rebuild everything from scratch. Basically, the more established your business is, the more established your branding will (or at least should!) be in your customers’ eyes. This means you’ll need to make more subtle changes to avoid alienating your clientele.  Realign, don’t redesign.

DVD Edge before and after

The DVD Edge website, however, had a less established brand and a less strong logo, so we were able to play with the logo a bit. Keeping the overall image means that it's still not such a dramatic change, but redrawing it to be a little cleaner and more modern made it stronger.

4. Consider a CMS.

I feel like I extoll the virtues of WordPress a lot, but it’s seriously fantastic. If you’re already revamping your website, and you’d like a way to manage your content more easily, I’d recommend getting the whole thing built in WordPress (or another CMS that suits your needs). While you’re at it, you can also add a blog to the site, which is great for bringing in traffic, boosting search engine results, building valuable content, and increasing conversation with your users. Static websites are out. Websites you can update easily and quickly the moment someone sends you a glowing testimonial are in.

5. Work on your content first.

I’m willing to bet that your content could be better. If you can’t write it yourself, hire someone. Great content is every bit as important as great design, and if you’ve already got great content plotted out, a great designer will be able to work with it in order to make the whole thing come together nicely.

Fernwood Before and After

Fernwood Publishing went for a complete overhaul and a custom-build CMS, while they were at it. The end result is a sleek, easy-to-use website that allows them to manage their large inventory of titles.

Consider the voice of your website—too many sites read like brochure copy written ten years ago by someone with an MBA. If your audience is other people with MBAs, that’s fine, but chances are, your audience is just put off by buzzwords. If you speak to them in an honest and friendly way, you’ll find your audience is much more receptive, engaged, and more likely to hand over their money to you.

6. Hire great people, and let them do their jobs.

Who you hire for the project is up to you, but I recommend at least a designer—obviously! A copywriter and a strategic consultant, as mentioned earlier, will also be a great help. When you’re looking to hire someone, you obviously want to be sure they’ve got a great website already. Unfortunately, while many people in the website-making industry suffer from pretty severe cases of “carpenter’s house”, their websites are the best way for you to determine their abilities. Past projects, of course, are also quite telling, as are client testimonials. Once you’ve found someone that seems like they may be good, send them a few emails. Ask questions. Make sure that they respond within a reasonable timeframe, answer your questions to your satisfaction, and know what they’re talking about.

Then, hire these great people. Send them your strategic plans, your content, everything you’ve already worked on—and let them build you something great. Design is very much a collaborative process, and a good designer should lead you through the process, keeping your goals in mind at all times, making suggestions for improvements. Remember you hired these people for a reason, and you should be able to trust their professional guidance! If you allow the process to play out like a partnership, rather than a dictatorship, you’ll find yourself with a much stronger end result.

And I recommend that you hire Triggers & Sparks.

Redesigned blog page

How to know when it’s time to redesign

I’ve recently been working on a slight redesign of this site. Now, when I say “slight”, I actually do mean “mostly so subtle, the vast majority of people won’t notice the difference”, so you may or may not see anything changing as I work on it. (I got very brave and uploaded the new design midway through working on it, so there might be some kinks here and there.)

But I’m a crazy obsessive detail-oriented freak. A redesign for me is basically a perpetually ongoing process, consisting of tiny little adjustments every day. The last time I redesigned (admittedly, it was a much larger redesign than this one!) took a few months.

What about you? Your business changes and grows over the years, but many companies don’t change their websites as often as they change their business plans. How do you know when it’s time to redesign?

1. Your website is severely out-of-date.

This doesn’t simply mean it doesn’t look “Web 2.0” enough (or looks too “Web 2.0”) or that it doesn’t make use of the latest design trends. As a rule, I try to advise my clients to avoid falling victim to web design trends—what looks fresh one month will be passé the next. The internet moves fast.

But if your website is still built with tables or frames—phased out years ago when CSS became usable, it’s time to redesign. If your business has grown and is no longer well-represented by your website, it’s time to redesign. If your website looks like it was built ten years ago, it’s time to redesign. If it’s just not pretty anymore, it’s time to redesign.

Redesigned blog page

Spot the differences! Can you see what's changed in the new website?

2. Your customers can’t use your website.

Restaurants with pdf menus, I’m looking at you. The same goes for photographers with fully Flash-based websites, and anyone else with a website that’s clunky or difficult to access. Remember that you want search engines to be able to access your content as easily as humans can, and that more and more people are using mobile devices now to access the internet. The easiest way to keep your content super-accessible by both is to build it wholly out of HTML. The nice thing, of course, is that HTML has come a long, long way since the years of heavy Flash (ab)use, and you can do most anything with HTML and jQuery that you used to need Flash to do. If your customers tell you they can’t access the information they want, it’s time to redesign.

3. You can’t edit your website yourself.

These days, it’s pretty vital to be able to manage the bulk of your website yourself. When you can’t edit a website yourself, you tend to change things less frequently, which doesn’t do your Google rankings, or your traffic numbers, any favours. I highly recommend that most of my clients build custom WordPress sites–they’re easy to manage, they make love to search engines, and they’re full-featured. While many WordPress sites that I’ve built d0n’t make use of the blog functionality at all, I highly recommend that you use one, even if you can only update it once a month. (If you won’t be able to devote the time, I retract the recommendation. Nothing looks worse than a stale blog—trust me, I’ve had one before!)

4. It’s broken, or it looks like everyone else’s.

If you’ve broken links or broken images, or things just aren’t working as smoothly as they once were, it may be a sign it’s time for you to restructure the site.

Look at your competitors’ websites. Does your match up? The design of your website says a lot about who you are as a company, and the more pulled-together it looks, the more professional you’ll look in the eyes of prospective customers. Make sure you’re not using a generic template, either—these can look great, but then you run into issues when you look exactly like another company online!

5. It reads like a brochure.

Websites once all read like brochures—and often, a company would use the same text, copied verbatim from their brochure, to create their website content! This isn’t a valid strategy anymore, as people absorb information differently from different sources. Websites need short burst of easily-digestible information. The average web reader has the attention span of a drunk goldfish, and your marketing copy should account for this.

The other thing that’s often overlooked is that the internet is intended to be an interactive medium. Links that change colour when you mouse over them don’t count as interactive elements—your website should include spaces for interaction, like comments or social media integration.

6. It’s no longer in line with your marketing aims.

It’s important to remember that your website is one of your most important marketing tools, and accordingly, you need to be looking at it from a strategic point of view. What are you trying to achieve with your website? If you’re looking to drive up in-store sales, are you promoting your latest products via the website? Should you be making use of a newsletter perhaps? It’s important to figure out what you want from your website, and then determine if it’s meeting these goals. If people are often emailing you the same questions, or calling to complain, this may be a sign the website is falling short of its aims. If so, it may be time to redesign.

Of course, it’s important to realize that a redesign doesn’t mean that everything changes. Sometimes, you keep the same overall structure, but adjust it to account for new or changing content. Sometimes, if you’re like me this time around, you just fine-tune things a little so it all fits together nicely and looks a little better. And sometimes, you’ll want to throw the whole thing out and start all over again. Next week, I’ll look at how to plan a redesign, once you’ve decided it’s time to have one done.

 

In which love bests money

Crossing the Rio de la Plata after a week-long “holiday” in Uruguay, I realized how much the way I spend my money has changed. Now that I no longer need to steal film from the grocery store or calculate the exact per-grain price of a loaf of bread, I find I’m more willing to spend a little bit more money on things. For example, I’ll no longer buy a pair of shoes that retails for less than $100, although I’m almost insistent on only allowing for new shoe purchases when the aforementioned shoe is on sale. I’d also rather pay a little more for a direct flight, or a faster ferry, or even the convenience of a cab to the airport. While I’m sure this isn’t surprising to most people, I’ve always been perpetually cheap. It took some time before I realized that price and value aren’t always as directly related as I thought.

The first website I ever built, as a graduated professional, cost my client a whopping $300. I wish I could say I was sixteen when I did it, but I was twenty-two, working a full-time job and freelancing on the side. Looking back, it’s no surprise when my first year of business after quitting my job landed me in debt. I’ve always had a policy of keeping my expenses as low as possible, but charging $20 an hour simply didn’t cover such non-tax-deductible necessities as “eating on a daily basis”.

When I first started out, my biggest mistake, bar nothing, was charging too little. My intentions were good—I wanted to save my clients money, and I wanted to provide quality design for a low price. What I failed to realize, of course, was that would become a difficult task when I quit my day job to run my business full-time. Sure, my clients were happy, but I was broke, overworked, and stressed out.
(more…)

Interesting things

After spending three months in a cast earlier this year, I have managed to successfully break my other wrist now. (Apparently my bones are made of eggshell.) I’m still in the early stages, so typing is a challenge, and I’ve had all kinds of emails and business to attend to. Accordingly, I’m taking the easy way out this week, and sharing some interesting, mostly design-related, items from my Google Reader.

Pretty and/or interesting things

Jewel House Collection: Gorgeous pattern, and it resonates nicely with my new infatuation with English royals around the time when they liked chopping heads off willy-nilly.

Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang: The font’s a bit overused and inelegant, but the titles are otherwise rather charming and lovely.

Nanny McPhee

Stunning NYC Subway Station Hidden From Plain Sight, Until Now: My love for subway systems knows no bounds. I thought Grand Central was NYC’s piece de transit resistance!

Infographic of the Day: What the Bible Got Wrong: The short answer is “everything”.

Inside Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Unmakeable” Interactive Book: Remember real books?

Sixty-two Reasons Why “Gamification” Is Played Out: More arguments against FourSquare!

How to Bribe Police in Foreign Countries: Something I’ve always been curious about, and will almost invariably at some point need to know.

Nocturnalis / Durinalis: More gorgeous wine packaging.

Turns out, it *is* a river in Egypt: Utterly gorgeous view of Africa from space.

In Real Hot Sauce Now: I need to find this girl and marry her.

Design

Gender Disparities in the Design Field: I wasn’t actually aware there were any, although it becomes rather obvious the more technically-inclined you are. Is it Lady Ada Lovelace day yet?

Equal Height Column Layouts with Borders and Negative Margins in CSS: I am almost certain this will come in handy soon.

Quick Tip: Using Nested Styles with InDesign: Holy crap, this is going to save me SO MUCH time.

Learning to Love HTML5: Because I already know how to love SmashingMagazine.

You Suck at Powerpoint!: Tips for better-looking presentations.

Business

Are You a Freelancer Or a Consultant?: An issue I’ve been thinking about a good deal of late.

Handling Clients Who Just Aren’t That Into You: My clients love me, so of course this is never an issue.

Statistics

12 plugins every WordPress installation needs

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I’m working on streamlining a number of my processes. The most important, and I think accordingly the most complex, of these processes is that by which I develop websites, which is often something of a mishmash of various methodologies and techniques. Since I build so many WordPress websites (and I do believe it’s magic), I’ve been focusing on developing a sort of generic template for WordPress websites. This includes the theme itself (and its corresponding frameworks and dependencies), but also a collection of plugins that I use on every site. Akismet and All-in-one SEO Pack are so ubiquitous as to be obvious, but I’ve been working on a list of others that are almost universally useful. Most of them improve upon the core functionality of WordPress straight out of the box, and so demand very little from either user or designer.
Here’s my list (at least for today).
(more…)

Building from a feeling

How to give feedback (without driving your designer insane!)

Giving good feedback is integral to good design. While I’m sure all designers—myself included–would love to just whip up a gorgeous design without asking anyone else for their opinion, good design can be made better by working within limitations and incorporating the feedback of others. And of course, we generally want to make our clients happy and give them what they want. Accordingly, any designer worth his salt will make sure that the design process includes his client: we make mockups, ask for feedback, then refine, ask for more feedback, refine, ask for more, refine—and so on and so forth, until everyone’s happy.

Sometimes everyone really is happy, and the end result is something that’s beautiful and usable. Other times, though, one of us is going to end up miserable. The design can end up so off-target, messy, or downright ugly that your designer doesn’t even want to have his name attached to it. That’s a bad scene.

I’ve been going through this process for years, with a whole range of different clients, both of the dream and the nightmare variety. Here are a few tips I’ve rounded up to make this feedback process as efficient as possible.

1. Don’t micro-manage…

This is, bar none, the fastest way to quash your designer’s spirit. I’ve gotten to the point where, if I suspect someone’s going to micro-manage me, I’ll walk away from the project. It’s one thing to give your opinions; it’s another thing to tell me exactly what to do. Usually when this happens, I’ll argue for a bit, citing rational reasons why the particular edit isn’t a good idea and backing my objections up with design theory points. The micro-manager client generally knows better, and eventually my spirit dies, and I become an unskilled, untrained monkey who happens to own a copy of Photoshop. “You want that font in 60pt lime green Comic Sans for your investment banking brochure? …fine.” This might be perceived by some as being inflexible, but it isn’t. I encourage feedback, but if I’m not arguing with you, you’re not getting my best design work. Ultimately, you hire a designer because they know stuff you don’t, and if you don’t respect their opinions, you might as well build it yourself.

2. …but don’t macro-manage, either.

The converse of this, of course, is the client who says “just do whatever you feel is right.” In theory, that would be lovely. But I always feel as though I’m cheating these clients out of really getting what they want. You have an opinion; I’d like to hear it. I want you to be happy with my work, and I really can’t read your mind (yet)!

3. Be specific.

Design is highly subjective. You can tell me that you don’t like something, but I oftentimes don’t know how to fix it for you—chances are good that I put it there because I like it, after all! What element don’t you like? Is it the type style, the colour, the juxtaposition of elements, the spacing between those two lines?

Building from a feeling
Snarkiness courtesy of the charming (and sometimes rather gruesome) the Oatmeal.

It’s true, designers do often need to design from a feeling and other vague, hard to define concepts. While it’s true that it’s our job to translate an immaterial concept into a tangible, visible entity, the more specific you are, the easier it’s going to be for us to figure out what you want. Which leads me to my next point:

4. Know what you want.

If you don’t know what you want, there is no way in hell I will ever figure it out. A good designer can help guide you, by asking questions and trying out different styles, but ultimately, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’re extremely unlikely to get it.

5. Realize that design is about solving problems.

Not like “world hunger” sort of problems, but visual problems. You’ve got something you want to communicate to your audience, and you need it to be easy to read, to communicate your brand message, to make the audience feel a certain way. You want to be able to lead them into bits of information, guiding them through your information in a very particular manner. While I often trivialize design by saying “I make pretty things” (which is true), I also make stuff that works, and stuff that takes into consideration your goals for the project.

Therefore, when I make suggestions for ways we could make the overall design better, take them into consideration. If I don’t immediately do everything you ask for, this is because I’m keeping your aims and needs in mind, not because I’m obstinate. (I mean, I am, but that’s something altogether different.) To make a design truly great, we need to work together to solve your problems—that means that I need to listen to your feedback, and you need to consider my advice.

6. Never, never, ever use the phrase “you’re the designer.”

In theory, this would mean that you trust my decisions, value my input, and recognize that, since I’m a professional that you’re paying to do this work, I must know what I’m doing. In actuality, it means that you’re going to be the epitome of a Difficult Client: you’ll constantly say the designs I present to you are no good, but you won’t give any concrete explanations of why; you’ll insist that I make every single tiny, micro-managing alteration you request, then complain when the design starts to erode and the whole thing ends up a giant mess; and you’ll ignore all of my advice and opinions.

This makes me crazy.

Freelance Freedom
That dude in the last panel? He might end up being a "you're the designer" client.

Really, it’s not hard to give good feedback. Just be specific, give examples, and respect your designer’s expertise. If you do that, you’ll both end up happy, and you’ll have a design that you love.

And then everyone wins!

Six (minimally self-serving) tips for choosing a designer

Hiring a designer is a tricky process. You’ve got to pick someone, sometimes out of nowhere, pay him a bunch of money as a deposit, and hope that he comes up with something you love. Chances are good that whatever you need designed is something you care a great deal about (especially if you’re a startup or have a stake in the success of the product/company/website), so you really want to make sure to get it right. But how do you go about finding a designer that’s going to be a good fit for you?

I’ve never felt the need to hire a designer, what with being one myself, but I’ve certainly been hired by lots of people who are looking, and I’ve also heard all sorts of nightmare-designer stories from my clients. (Yep, for every client from hell, there’s also a designer from hell.)

Here’s what I’d do!

1. Look at his portfolio!

Above and beyond anything else, this will give you an idea of what you might be able to get from a designer. Obviously, your results will vary (you, as the client, are an integral part of the design process), but you’ll be able to get a feel for a designer’s style and abilities from his portfolio. If a designer doesn’t have a portfolio—well, quite frankly, this shouldn’t even be possible. If you’re looking to hire a designer who doesn’t have a portfolio or a website, there’s something amiss.

2. Ask around.

Ask your friends for recommendations. Most good designers subsist almost entirely on word-of-mouth, and with good reason! If you know people who’ve hired a designer, chances are they’ll be happy to refer you so long as they had a good experience. You can also check the bottom of websites whose design you really like—most of the time, there’ll be a link to its designer in its footer, and you can go from there.

3. Ask questions.

And lots of them! Does he write his code by hand? Does he follow W3C standards? How long has he been in business? The more questions you ask, the more comfortable you’ll feel when it’s time to start working. This will also give you the opportunity to see how your designer communicates, so make sure that if you plan on doing most of your communications during the project via email, you are asking questions over email. If you’ve found a great designer who can’t communicate, you will run into problems down the road.

(more…)

How I broke up with a tyrannical beast

Last week, I made an important, life-changing decision. One that I should have made years ago, but I’ve cowtowed to abuse for too long. From here on out, I will no longer be developing websites that work in IE6.

I will, instead, be using the fabulous IE6 Update script on all of my websites. (There’s even a WordPress plugin. It’s going to be so simple, it’ll almost be automatic. In fact, if you run a WordPress site, could you just run out an install it, right now? I just did. It feels good.) I won’t even bother trying to check what I’ve created in IE6 any more (though I’ll admit I didn’t often).

According to Netmarketshare, almost 17% of the internet still uses IE6. That’s utterly insane, given that IE6 is nine years old, three versions out-of-date, and famed for being the scourge of the internet. If you’re bored one day, sit a web designer/developer—or whatever hybrid you prefer—down and mention IE6. I can almost guarantee you’ll get a frustrated or sickened face, and maybe a string of expletives, if you’re really lucky.

(more…)