Graffiti

Five tricks for staying sane as a long-term nomad

A little more than a month into my Grand World Tour, and I’m still utterly thrilled by it. My sense of time is all skewed—it feels as though I’ve been away from my “home” and the people I love so much longer, but it doesn’t feel like I’ve been living in México for a month. I’ve been absorbing, learning, and changing so much, and I don’t think I have, for even a single moment, yet regretted my decision to undertake this grand venture.

It’s pretty intense what I’m doing, and I often find myself overly emotional—not in a negative or positive way really, but I think it’s my way of processing the general instability of this way of life. Everything around me is either constantly in flux or constantly unfamiliar, and it would be easy to become unbalanced by it.

One month in, here are my tricks for staying sane. Nine months (and two or three more continents) in, I’m checking back with this, to see how much of it stays the same.

1. Realize that sometimes a day will be a wash.

Some days, you’ll be sick. Some days, you’ll be tired and jetlagged. Some days, you’ll be melancholy and homesick. I struggled with this with my recent trip to México City—I was only there for eight days, and I wanted to absorb as much of the city as I possibly could. It’s fascinating, chaotic, and a challenge to comprehend, and I castigated myself for being asleep or working at ten am. I should have been out exploring! Then I realized that running myself down just doesn’t work long-term. I’m not on holiday for a week, I’m living my life in a foreign place. Not every day will be productive work-wise, and not every day will be revelatory travel-wise. Some days will be neither. That’s okay.

Colonia Roma

Some days, you get totally lost for hours, because all the streets in Mexico City go in circles and have six different names. But then you accidentally bump into beautiful old buildings covered in graffiti, and everything works out.

2. Stay in touch.

My biggest fear is loneliness. This is my first time travelling for more than five weeks by myself, and I know that I’ll miss the social structures, and the people I care about, more than anything. Luckily, the internet is a magical thing, and it affords me roughly a thousand different ways to keep in contact with people. So I use Facebook and Twitter more than I would normally. I send texts to my litttle sister via WhatsApp. I send emails and make phone calls. I had a Skype date with my roommate, in which we both drank wine, talked, and made faces at one another for two hours. I send stories written on the back of postcards. Keeping in touch with the people who made my “stable” life so rewarding (and in fact were pretty much the reason I stayed in Halifax as long as I did between trips) goes a long way to keeping me sane and bridging the old life with the new. When everything around you changes, you change immeasurably too. Keeping grips on your alternate self helps you realize the things that remain constant and true throughout, and help you to be more assured of who you are, even when sometimes it feels as though everything’s been torn out from under you.

3. Make new friends.

While it’s important to stay in touch, if I didn’t make new friends, I’d be horrifically lonely and homesick. This was the biggest mistake I made in Argentina, when I wasn’t travelling alone, and it contributed greatly to the deterioration of my relationship with my travel companion, as well as my own sense of self.

Jaguar!

I didn’t make friends with a baby jaguar, but I really wish I had.

I tend towards being a hermit. I’m a bit of a misanthrope to begin with, and I work by myself all day, so it’s easy to spend a day in which I don’t talk to anyone. So I’ve actively been working against that, knowing that while yes, sometimes I just need time and space away from humans, but more often it’s healthy for me to meet new people and make new connections. I live with a roommate, I couchsurf a lot again, and I make it a rule to generally say “yes” when someone asks if I want to go out. As a result, I’ve met a ton of awesome, intelligent, varied people, and I’ve learned more about the culture and hidden undercurrents of this country than I ever would have if I’d isolated myself. Sure, sometimes I end up stuck at a party where everyone’s speaking Spanish and I feel lost and uncomfortable, but most of the time I find myself having a great time, making new friends, and learning new things. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a more valuable part of travel than seeing pyramids.

4. Focus on the little things.

I find, the more I travel, the less I care for typical touristy things. Sure, lots of these things are famous attractions for a reason, but I no longer beat myself up if I miss one or two (or sixteen, depending on the place). Usually, the guidebook attractions are swarming with people (this becomes especially true in Europe), and, while impressive, can feel like a one-hit-wonder. It’s nice to see, but then it’s over. I’ve seen so many tourists storm through an attraction, taking photos every two seconds, not stopping to consider anything or even look at the thing they’re photographing so enthusiastically. (Watch people in the Vatican if you don’t believe me.) It feels empty.

Graffiti

Really gorgeous graffiti in Colonia Roma. As much as I like museums and such, I think outdoor art installations (whether “legal” or not) are far more interesting. Art should be contextual and integrated into daily life. México City is full of great museums, but I liked the series of coffee cups installed outside the museum better.

I’m finding more value in taking a six-hour walk through a city, getting lost and finding interesting signs, buildings, or things happening. I’ve discovered that I love urban parks of all shapes and sizes and beautiful, multi-level bookstores (I’ve been to #4 and #6!). I really enjoy finding a perfect little café to work away my day in. Long-term travel isn’t so much about the awe-inspiring or the impressive as it is about the everyday.

5. Remain flexible.

This is, above all, my most important rule when travelling, living, or navigating relationships. Things will always fail in unexpected ways, especially when you’re in constant motion. You need to be super-flexible in order to make it work. Every time I embark on another long strange trip, I change the rules up, adjusting the formula until I hit on something that works.

If you want stability, stay home. If you want adventure, learn to adapt.

Centro

This doesn’t properly capture the chaos of Mexico City, but imagine that there are a few million people jammed into tiny streets overflowing with street vendors and old buildings. I’ve left the orderly world I lived in behind; there’s no room for rigidity here!

Girl with giant knife

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

All the way to Mexico, that’s all people asked me. The US customs officer, before I’d even left Halifax, looked at me like I was insane when I said I wasn’t staying in San Diego, but was just planning to meander across the border. (Technically a lie, as I stayed in San Diego the first night, but I have such rotten luck with customs officers that I find it’s best to give them the simplest answer possible, and they’re often confused enough by my vagabond ways.) “You’re going to Mexico?” he asked. “Near the border? By yourself? Don’t you know how dangerous it is down there?”

San Diego

San Diego, from my hostel bedroom window in Gaslamp. If you’re looking for a nice place to stay with surprisingly shoddy internet, the rooms at the HI hostel were actually rather lovely. I miss that bed.

I’ll admit I expected it from xenophobic Americans. (Sorry, America! You’re great! Travel more, okay?) What surprised me was that, as I got closer to the border and found myself the only white girl on a trolley crammed with Mexicans heading home, even they started asking me if I was in my right mind. I’ll point out here that they were busy being super friendly and helpful, helping me manoeuvre my sixteen tonnes of luggage around. But for whatever reason, everyone seems surprised at my decision to live 100km from the notorious border for two months.

It sunk in. I tried as much as possible to remind myself that a lot of travel alerts are xenophobic hooey, and that millions of people live out their lives in northern Baja with no troubles whatsoever. I’ve done a lot of travelling, some of it to places many would consider “dangerous”, and often these places were my favourites. (Sarajevo, with its two million unexploded landmines and its gorgeous wounded beauty, is a notable example.) In all my travels, I’ve only twice had anything really bad or dangerous happen to me, one of which was a mere pick-pocketing that lost me an iPhone. Ultimately, far more horrible things have happened to me in the city I call home than have in foreign countries.

Ensenada

Sixty miles south, Ensenada looks like a different world. Seriously, I can’t wear heels unless I’ve got a ride. (I just wear my “practical” walking shoes, which are wedges.) What is becoming of me? Also, I like to pretend this taco stand is called “Sarah” even though it isn’t quite. It’s one of my landmarks so I know what street is mine, since it’s not signposted at this intersection.

I’ve always believed it’s a matter of awareness, and that’s something I try to cultivate as I explore new places. Ideally, a foreign environment forces you into a state of heightened awareness. I pay more attention to what’s happening around me when I’m travelling, often because I’m usually a visible minority. There aren’t a whole lot of extremely white redheads in little dresses in Mexico, and I stand out. I’m also generally carrying about $2300 worth of electronics on me at any given time, and I’m aware that the combination makes me an easy target.

There was this day last week when I was walking along the sidewalk, and ahead of me were a group of men casually swinging baseball bats. Logically, I knew they were probably just waiting to go play baseball, but my brain wired itself up into paranoia mode. I suppose the “safe” thing to do would have been to cross to the other side of the street, but I don’t believe in giving in to fear when it’s irrational. Instead, I gritted my teeth, turned off my music, and walked through them, all with stomach-turning visions of a bat cracking into my skull dancing through my head.

Girl with giant knife

This little girl is the most dangerous person I’ve come across so far in Mexico. I’m not quite sure why she’s so pleased with her knife, or why the butterflies aren’t running away from her manic bellbottom-wearing weapon-yielding ways, or why the hell she’s on the side of this building, but I really like her. The type is pretty great, too.

Of course, nothing came of it, and as I’ve acclimatized to Ensenada, I’ve become less paranoid, without losing a sense of vigilance. I’ve also come to realize that—much as I’d expected—the reports of these parts of Mexico being so dangerous are largely unfounded. Sure, it’s different. There’s a military man standing outside the government building, right next to the hospital, with an AK-47. I saw a truck pulled over on the highway, its entire front assembly lifted up to look for drugs hidden within the engine block—apparently they’ve cracked down on drug barons in Tijuana, so many of them have begun to migrate south. And much of the city looks dangerous when you’re used to the sterility of Canada or the States—the sidewalks are broken and haphazard, houses are unkempt, and things are generally in a lesser state of repair. Most houses are gated-in, and many have bars across their first-floor windows. The bathroom of a cafe I frequent looks a little like a gulag, especially at night when the light is so dim I can’t see myself in the mirror. At first glance, it’s easy to mistake a lower standard of living for danger, but that correlation isn’t in all cases true.

Ultimately, part of what I like about Mexico is its rough-around-the-edges quality. I love that it isn’t perfect. I love that you can see where its weathered, and that things are a little bit more chaotic and haphazard than I’m used to. And in spite of wandering around late at night down empty streets, in spite of getting drunker than I ought on too many tequila shots, in spite of being such a blazingly obvious gringa, I haven’t had any problems whatsoever. In fact, people here have been exceptionally nice to me—much nicer than they were in the airport in Chicago or the pub in San Diego.

Bridge at night

While Ensenada isn’t as picturesque as other (generally more Spanish-colonial) cities in Latin America, it has its charms amid the dust and rubble.

I’d hate to think that I miss out on learning new things due to unfounded fears, and I’m glad that I didn’t listen to everyone who basically told me going to Mexico was a death sentence. I’ve yet to be kidnapped by roving gang—instead spend my days eating delicious food, basking in actual sunshine, and discovering new things! In a new place, even the tiniest everyday acts are adventures. I’m here to explore.

Getting scared: on becoming a nomad

Okay, I’ll admit it. Sometimes, I get terrified. Tomorrow morning, I hop on a plane bound for San Diego. From there, I’ll walk across the border and take a bus from Tijuana to Ensenada, where I’ll be living for the next couple of months (assuming I find somewhere to live). After that, I’ll head up to LA, and fly over to Hong Kong for New Years’. I’ll spend a few months flitting around Southeast Asia, living mostly in Thailand and Vietnam, depending on how the visas all play out. Come spring, I’ll hop over to Spain, and finally get to tour around—ideally visiting Morocco, Portugal, and France while I’m there. By September, I’ll be heading back home, with a brief stopover in Iceland to hang out in the lagoon.

I’m really, really, really excited—but I’m also utterly terrified.

Apparently Google Maps can’t calculate the directions between Halifax, NS and Halifax NS if you take the insane route.

I’ve been planning this for a while, but of course I’m nowhere near to ready. I haven’t even so much as looked at my suitcase yet, in spite of best intentions, and I leave in around fourteen hours. I have a couple of leads on apartments in Ensenada, but nothing concrete. Everyone and their dog wants to see me or send me emails, so I’m running about like a headless chicken and prioritizing based on fleeting feelings. I probably won’t sleep at all tonight, and I’m guessing I’ll be hung over on my plane.

And of course my brain is just going crazy. What if it doesn’t work? What if I’m miserable? What if my phone is stolen and I spill scotch on my computer again? What if I can’t find anywhere to live? What if I get sick? What if all my clients abandon me for being a wild vagabond? It’s hard to turn off the paranoid questions once they get started, and sometimes the uncertainty of it all is enough to drive me batty.

And of course I just realized that in all the excitement of learning more language-bits and plotting out maps, I’ve forgotten to tell most everyone I’m going across the world for nine or so months. Whoops! My five-month tour of South America last year went by so smoothly (well, mostly) that it doesn’t seem all that important anymore—my clients know now, that even if I’m in a different continent I’m available and working. Most of them only communicate with me via email anyway. I did just get an email from a client asking me if I could meet up on Thursday, which obviously won’t be happening unless they meant “in Mexico”, but I’m hoping that everyone realizes I’m just as reliable, if not more so, when I’m working from a cafe in Croatia than I am when working from my couch in Canada.

What I’m most scared of is not having a business anymore when I finally get back.

But ultimately, I think if I’m not scared, I’m doing something wrong. I’ve always made it a rule to do all the things that scare me—sometimes because they scare me—and as a result I get to be stronger and have a life that’s full of crazy adventures. I make my own rules and determine how I want to experience the world, rather than following a preordained set of steps. A few years ago, I decided I wanted to travel the world, and I’ve been testing the waters with trips that get progressively longer and more involved.

And now, I will literally be going across the world. Sometimes I forget how wildly lucky I am, but today, on the cusp of a new adventure, absolutely petrified, I remember.

 

Gas-nap

How a motorcycle made me a better businessperson

Last weekend was my birthday. (I won’t tell you how old I turned, but I am now officially starting to feel old. If you’re really interested, I’m sure a quick Google search will turn up something that’s not yet a lie.) As a present, my boyfriend took me on what can best be described as a “whirlwind trip”: we rode his motorcycle 3000 kilometers to New York City, and back, in four days.

It wasn’t until we’d hit Bangor, Maine on the second day that I realized just how insane of an idea that was.

For starters, when I say “motorcycle”, I don’t mean a cushy touring bike with backrests, stereo speakers, massive windshields, luggage racks, and padded seats. This was a beast of a superbike, with a tiny little triangular seat on the back that looks like a miniature rocket. I jammed all of our vital belongings–two computers, several pairs of shoes (Excessive maybe, but it can’t come as a surprise), my flat-iron, three books, clothing–into my giant orange backpack and strapped it to my back. The effect was as though I’d gained a 30lb hunchback, and my balance was thrown so out of whack that climbing up on the bike was roughly akin to mounting a nine-foot tall horse with a broken leg. After an hour, my bum ached like I’d never felt before, and my feet would keep going numb. By the end of the trip, I had friction burns on my thighs and back pain that lasted for days—along with a giant smile on my face.

It was most assuredly one of the most insane, intense, incredible things I’d ever done.

Motorcycle!

Yep. This thing. I may as well have ridden a rocketship. It was also hot as hell, so every time we stopped I’d strip off the moment I clambered down and fling my things all over the place, as evidenced here.

Things I think I can’t do

When the constant pain wasn’t distracting me, I was busy being terrified. Three deer standing at the edge of the road waiting to jump out and kill me. Taking turns at 100 and leaning 45 degrees with the bike. Flying into my driver during an emergency stop coming into the city. Foggy night riding while a thunderstorm lit up the sky around us. Lane-splitting between trucks. Construction coming out of nowhere. Other cars cutting and swerving in. I’m a nervous passenger. There were so many times when all I wanted to do was say, “Listen. I cannot do this anymore. Drop me off at the nearest exit, and I will hitchhike my way home. Thanks for the ride!” By day four, when we needed to make good time, and the riding was getting intense, and the wind blast was so crazy I was convinced I was going to be pushed off that tiny little seat, I was verging on downright miserable. The only thing that got me through was sheer determination.

That determination—less charitable people would call it “bull-headedness”—has gotten me through so much. Earlier this summer, I went to Cape Breton with a friend. We found this charming place where you walk through the woods, clamber down a cliff using a system of ropes, cross through a rumbly river, and swim in ice-cold saltwater through a cavern until you reach this lagoon amid the rocks. Above it, there’s a cave in the side of the cliff, and more ropes. The boys who had gone the day prior told us we’d need lots of upper-body strength to pull ourselves up. One of them had even needed to be pushed up.

Of course, I figured I wouldn’t be able to make it. Possessing an extra x chromosome already predisposes me to be rather lacking in the upper-body department, and my twice-broken wrists of last year put me at something of a disadvantage. I remember perching atop one of the rocks, about to jump into the icy lagoon, looking up at the cave in the cliff and being convinced I’d never make it.

Then I gritted my teeth, pulled everything in my body together, and I made it! I’m certain it was that stubbornness, not any hidden reserves of strength, that fuelled my success. I’m also pretty sure that’s how I’ve structured the entirety of my life.

Things that scare me

Breaking both my wrists last year made me pretty skittish about my vulnerability. Being in a couple of car crashes in quick succession when I was eighteen made me an extremely nervous passenger. As a general rule, I very much dislike things that are beyond my control.

Obviously, riding pillion on a motorcycle is sort of a double-whammy for me. But I’m quite certain that forcing yourself to face things you fear makes you a stronger person. As a result, anytime I think “Oh, gracious. That sounds scary.” or “That sounds hard. I wonder if I’m capable of doing it?”, I take it as a sign that I must do it. Learning to ride a motorcycle (I have a license now!)? Moving to South America for five months? Going ziplining? Life modelling? Bring it on.

And of course, running a business is one of these things. I’m amazed that I’ve been doing this for so long and I’m still terrified of it and convinced I can’t do it at all. What if I mess things up and ruin my reputation? What if I get jerked around and can’t pay my bills anymore? What if the stress drives me totally insane and I end up wandering about aimlessly, muttering about em-heights and kerning?

Running a business is one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, and it never stops being terrifying.

Being a brave little toaster

Facing fears in other areas of your life forces you to become stronger and more self-assured. That sense of determination—the “I don’t know if I can do this, but I’m damn well going to try as hard as I possibly can”—is enough to push you to do everything you can in order to make it happen. I think, ultimately, I would have killed my business had I not started pushing myself to confront fears in other aspects of my life.

I’m a big fan, however, of pushing boundaries incrementally. If you suddenly dive into something terrifying, it’s easy to become paralyzed by fear, and no longer retain the ability to respond in an agile way when things change, as they invariably do. It’s important to push through things you’re afraid of, and things you don’t believe you’re capable of doing, but you can’t allow yourself to become locked up by them if you take on too much at once. It’s a fine balance.

It’s for this reason that I keep ramping up my adventures. I’m deep in planning mode (by which I mean “vaguely thinking about from time to time”) for my next crazy adventure, which is shaping up to involve a few different continents. By pushing things a little further every time I do them, my brain starts learning that it can handle whatever challenges I can throw at it. I stop being apprehensive when something crops up and I think I can’t manage it, because consistent experience tells me that I can.

Gas-nap

This is the classy way to relax. (Don’t worry, I’m in Connecticut. The gas stations are spotless.) I was performing some variant of this sprawl, often with the backpack still strapped on, at every gas station down the eastern seaboard (when I wasn’t busy doing cartwheels to stretch out.) Coincidentally, this is also how I look when I’ve had the week from hell and have been working nonstop putting out fires, scrambling to get things done, and generally going crazy. Like this one! Good times.

And hey, if I hadn’t pushed myself to make it through this trip, I may not have learned how to smoke a cigarette while riding a motorcycle in New York City. You’re welcome, lovely clients. I do crazy things to make you happy.

Desert, Namibia

5 strategies for coping with the summer slump

I have sent out so many estimates in the past couple of months, it would make your head spin. This week alone, I have three open estimates floating about, and another couple of leads to follow up on. I hate writing estimates. It takes a lot longer than invoicing and feels much less rewarding. It’s always a tiny little bit nerve-wracking waiting for the response back: will we be making beautiful things together?

I don’t know if it’s something I’m doing wrong, but I haven’t heard a single yes in all this time. I’ve been doing my regular client work, and I’ve been taking on little maintenance or extension projects for old clients here and there, but I just haven’t picked up an exciting new project for ages. I am going through a brutal business dry spell.

I’d love to say I’m totally cool about it—but that would be a lie. I’m freaking out a little. It doesn’t help, of course, that I recently gave the taxman a metric ton of cash, or that I’m still adjusting to being back in a country where wine costs triple what I think it should, and that I keep doing asinine things like racking up expensive speeding tickets. I’m naturally pretty paranoid about money, which is great in some respects—I have no debt and money stored away that I refuse to touch until I actually am desperate—but lousy in the respect that it means that I feel like I’m “broke”, even though I’m really not.

Desert, Namibia

Is it crazy to worry that your business might be barren? (Probably.)

1. Keep calm and carry on.

When my dry spell started (what feels like a million years ago) I totally freaked out. I was convinced that I’d finally done in my business and was destined to spend the rest of my days living in a cardboard box (full of shoes) under the overpass. I debated moving to Costa Rica and becoming a banana farmer.

Then I took a deep breath and remembered that it’s summer—or, at least, Canada’s variant of the theme—and that business is always slow this time of year. There’s a summer slowdown every year, and every year I’ve had this exact same panic attack. Perhaps there’s a pattern there, given how I’m not presently eating out of dumpsters.

2. It’s not me, it’s you.

Most of the responses to my estimates haven’t been straight-up “no”s. Most have been variants of “we don’t have the budget right now”, or “the client changed their mind”, or “we’ll revisit this later in the year”. There’s a good chance that a lot of these leads will turn into actual projects in the future—I’ve had some leads turn into great work years down the line. It’s not really a comforting thought when I’m looking for work now, but it at least helps my self-esteem to realize it’s not just because I suck that the work isn’t coming in as enthusiastically as I’d like it to be.

It’s easy to let this sort of thing get you down, which is a dangerous place to be. I’m at my happiest when I feel like I’m being productive and I’m producing great work for my clients. This feeling of idleness, coupled with the sting of rejection, can easily derail motivation. I’ll admit I’m in a bit of a slump, and it hasn’t helped that I’m still suffering from the wanderlust and a sort of existentialist what-does-it-all-mean life-evaluation syndrome induced by my return to Canada.

I posted a list of positive reminders on my fridge, where I can look at it every day, and told myself to get it together. You can’t take anything personally when you’re running a business.

3.  Don’t get desperate.

Don’t take on projects you’ll hate (unless they’ll pay a ton). Don’t do stuff for a lot cheaper than you would otherwise. It’s so tempting to take on lousy projects when it feels as though nothing is coming through, but in the long run, doing so is devaluing both to your own business and to the industry as a whole. I’d rather spend my time finally sorting out all my accounting (ugh) than participating in spec work, or entering lame-o design contests where my logo could win $100 if I happen to be the lucky chosen one. (Actually, there’s a whole slew of revolting things I’d rather do than that.) Ultimately, devaluing your work just because things happen to be slow will contribute to the sense of negative self-worth brought about by the slump, and it’s difficult to recover once things start running smoothly again.

4. Focus on other stuff.

I’ve got a list as long as my arm of summer projects—some design related, some not—and I have no time to do any of it. It’s driving me bonkers, actually. I’m in a dry spell! Shouldn’t I have gads of time to fritter away? Apparently, it doesn’t quite work this way, since I’m spending a lot of time sending out emails and going to meetings for projects that don’t pan out. It’s frustrating, but a necessary part of the process.

I’ve been doing a little, though. I’m socializing more. I’ve actually read a whole entire book all the way though to the end. I’ve been going on little short-jaunt in-country trips to appease my wanderlust. I keep buying wine bottles with ugly labels, with the intention of doing my own personal-project redesigns. (Admittedly progress on this front tends to be sullied by my drinking the bottle as “research” before getting down to work.) I’m planning for my next series of travels, and learning to ride a motorcycle so I don’t kill myself touring Thailand. I bought vintage roller-skates and am learning how not to fall on my tailbone. I’ve got a whole list of business-y admin type things to do, and another list of personal projects and fun things. I’m certainly not bored.

Rollerskates

I have wanted a pair of rollerskates since I was a little kid, and now I’m a little terrified of them. Apparently breaking both your wrists in one summer makes you paranoid.

Keeping busy distracts from the fact that you aren’t, in fact, busy at all.

5. Think happy thoughts!

Ultimately, in order to get through a slump, I think you need to stay mentally afloat. For me, it’s too easy to get dragged down by a slump, which only magnifies the problem. My business is the only stable, constant thing in my life, really, and I’d be lost if I felt that I’d lost it.

So instead, I’m focusing on all the good things that are going on. For starters, all these people are coming to me asking about work, which is a great sign. I’m still not doing any active marketing, and I’m still getting leads. For every client who drives me up the wall and tempts me to use Let me Google that for you, I have two great clients who I adore and whose emails make me smile. I’m still making enough money to keep me in sandwiches, diet Coke, and shoes for the foreseeable future. My life is never boring and I basically get to make up my own rules for everything. I have wonderful clients, great friends, and I can travel the world while running my business.

And if I can just remember how lucky I am, I’ll stop feeling so defeated when things aren’t perfect.

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.

Birthday

Five things I’ve learned during five years in business

Every year, I have the best intentions to celebrate my business’ birthday in some fashion. Every year, I remember two weeks too late. Triggers & Sparks is basically my neglected child. I suppose that might explain why every now and again, it throws temper tantrums.

There are a number of anniversaries I could celebrate—the day I left my full-time job, or the day I was first paid for work, but this one falls nicely in the middle and is simple enough to remember: by sheer coincidence, the date on my official business registration is 06.06.06. While I’m neither religious or satanistic, I do believe in serendipity, and thought a pattern of numbers that has such impact on people could only be a good sign. Next year will mark my official six-year anniversary. Maybe if I set an alarm for it now, I’ll actually remember to break out the champagne and fireworks when it rolls around.

Birthday

Alright, so I did throw a birthday party in early June, but I must have been so distracted with celebrating human birthdays that I totally forgot about my poor little business.

I’ve learned a lot since I built my first “professional” website—obviously—in trade for a beautiful bicycle that was stolen about ten minutes after I got it. Here are the most important things.

1. Never say no. Instead, say “expensive”.

This flies in the face of everything that everyone says about being a freelancer, but I stick by it, and it’s worked quite nicely for me. If someone comes to me with a project that sounds boring, tedious, or generally awful, I won’t say “no, I won’t do that” unless I know I’m not capable of seeing the project through to its completion well. I’ll just say “sure, I can do that” and quote a nice high figure. That way, if the client balks at the price and tells me they can’t afford it, nobody’s lost out—it’s basically like I’ve said no. However, if they say yes, I’ll proceed with the project and be well-compensated for whatever additional frustrations or tediums come along with the project.

This approach may sound mean, but it works. It also means that sometimes I can charge less for the projects that are going to be more fun, but may not have as large a budget. Of course, this only works so well because I abandoned hourly billing for almost all projects and switched to a flat-rate, which has been a major blessing. And switching to flat-rate only worked once I’d been doing this for long enough to be able to tell how long certain tasks take, which took at least a year.

2. Stop working 18 hour days.

This is a constant process for me. My five months in South America helped me enormously with my workaholicism. I actually find it challenging to work weekends now, and I usually only work around ten hours a day—sometimes even less!

For years, I’d to work every single day, from the moment I woke in the morning until the wee hours of the night. This felt normal, after all—when I was in school, I was always working as well, and even when I was working, I was doing freelance work after getting home. I’ve always been like this—I have a lot of energy and I feel better when I’m productive. But running a business is so unstructured (at least the way that I do it) that Extreme Workaholic Behaviours simply aren’t sustainable long-term.

I spent the first few years of business constantly burnt out, and eventually it really started to get to me. I was letting things slip. I’d have little mental breakdowns in which I’d burst into tears, babbling about “the juggling balls break when I drop them!”, and then would refuse to leave my bedroom for a few days until I’d recovered. My work was suffering, and my brain would probably have eventually imploded on itself.

These days, I work less. I socialize more, and I try to do healthy things I never had time for before like eat and exercise on a daily basis. I’m happier, I’m doing better work, and my clients are happier. Everyone wins!

3. Talk to everyone and their dog.

I will take a meeting with anyone. Anyone! Since coming back to Canada I’ve actually been having lots of in-person meetings and I’ve realized I really miss it. (That may just be because I don’t usually drink coffee unless I’m going to meetings, and it makes me very excitable.)

Oftentimes these meetings won’t lead to business at all, so they’re a time investment that may not pay off. I’ve actually been tricked into “meetings” that turned out to be more like “dates” more than once, which can be a little awkward when you realize what’s happened.

Meeting people and talking to them is never an efficient use of my time. However, it allows me human interaction that I often lack sitting in front of a screen all day, and I often learn things I wouldn’t otherwise from an email conversation. There’s something to be said for sitting down with a stranger for an hour. Everyone—generally speaking—can teach me something, whether it’s of relevance to my work or not, and I’ve learned so many things for all these millions of meetings over the years. They’ve also helped me become exponentially more sure of myself. Sometimes just hearing yourself talk and realizing that—surprise!—you know what you’re talking about can do just that.

4. Constant work is worth its weight in platinum.

Cash flow issues can really make or break a business. (Canada Post employees, this is why I give you dirty looks when I pass you milling about in front of the dead post office that contains my cheques.) I have a line of credit that covers me when I’m waiting for invoices to be paid, but it’s not an ideal situation as it becomes very easy to accidentally end up in over your head when you can’t really budget effectively.

Years ago, I started doing regular weekly work for a local clients. It’s often not the most wildly exciting work, and it doesn’t pay nearly as well as the one-off project I do, but it’s been a lifeline for me. The fact that I don’t have to write up estimates, go to meetings, send endless emails, negotiate or wait for the work, means that I can offer a lower (hourly) rate than I usually would, and getting paid every two weeks means I don’t worry so much about my cash flow anymore. Basically, it gives me the bits that I liked about having a “real job”—stability—without cramping my vagabonding-unscheduled-flower-child sort of style of business.

5. Work less, charge more.

I charged all of $300 for one of my very first websites. It was such a bad idea, and the incredibly low rates I started off charging definitely explain why it took me a few years to actually be making any money at all. My rates increased fairly dramatically for a little while until they reached something of a plateau. I’ve hit the balance point where I feel that what I charge is fair, indicative of my ability, and allows me to buy shoes every now and again (okay, sometimes more often than that, but don’t tell).

Charging more means that I can spend more time on projects, which I like to do. I’m kind of on the anal-retentive super-detail-oriented side anyway, and charging $300 for a website simply doesn’t allow me to do the kind of quality work that I like to. From time to time, people still email me looking for the cheapest option, and I explain that I’m no longer competing on price. I don’t want to be the IKEA of graphic design. I want my design work to stand up, and I’d rather my clients not have to build everything themselves from incomprehensible diagrams. My clients pay more now than they used to, but the work they get is infinitely better. They get my full attention, they get support whenever they need it, and the end result is always much, much better than it would have been had I been charging bargain-basement prices.

And again, my clients are happier. More and more, I’m working with clients I love, who respect my work and my suggestions, and who really are a delight to work for. I’m happier working for these people, and they in turn refer other awesome clients over to me. It’s a lovely cycle.

Budapest

Just one part of world I've seen—the beautiful, complicated Budapest. Summer 2009.

All told, I’m so lucky to have come this far and still be running my business. I have the kind of freedom I’ve always wanted—I can travel the world, I can sit outside and work on sunny days, and I’m constantly challenged and excited by new projects. I’m never bored, I get to meet some great people, I make my own rules, and I very rarely have to wake up at 8am.

I never intended to start a business, and every now and again, I consider going back to a real-live job. However, the longer I do this, the less and less likely that becomes. I really do love my job.

Buenos Aires

Saying goodbye to South America

Three months in South America turned into five months, and I was still sad when it came time to come home. Somewhere in the JFK airport, exhausted from my eleven-hour flight and an hour and a half of standing in line, waiting for US customs to harass me for flying through a country I had no time to step outside in, I started to get horribly depressed. It was cold and grey. Everyone around me was speaking English again. Everything looked so familiar, too perfect and sterile.

Luckily, by the time I got to Halifax (and another long wait at customs while they inspected every single item in my giant suitcases), I returned to the most enthusiastic homecoming, otherwise I might well have turned around and gone back home.

When both the destination and the origin are “home”

The concept of home has always been strange for me. When I moved to Canada as a little kid, I felt always felt weird singing the national anthem, which my teachers insisted I do loudly and proudly. This cold foreign country wasn’t my “home and native land”, it was just the place I happened to be at the time. Years later, I do consider parts of Canada home, but it still feels like an adopted home—somewhere I’ve spent most of my life, but I never entirely feel like I fit. For this reason, I think, it’s easy for me to adopt new places that feel like home. After the time I spent there, Buenos Aires also feels like home.

Buenos Aires

Photos like this make me homesick.

Traveling long-term is so different from traveling short-term. When I spent five weeks circling through central Europe, I changed and grew so quickly, but no place ever felt like home, as I was constantly in transit. In Argentina, where I eventually settled into something resembling a routine, change was so subtle that I’ve only now started to notice it.

Be stronger. Less scared.

Given how much of last year I spent hanging out in the hospital with broken wrists, it’s not surprising that I ended up a little on the paranoid side. I felt weak and breakable. When I first got to Argentina, I’d been out of my second cast for nine days. I couldn’t do a single pushup or open a bottle of wine. Worse still, I was so aware of my own vincibility that certain things scared me that never used to—riding downhill on a bicycle, slipping down a stair.

I picked up an exercise habit in Argentina (probably the first time I’ve picked up a good habit!) and it changed me so fundamentally that I’m insistent on carrying the change over. Yoga, especially, turned out to be pretty miraculous for my poor wrists. I’m slowly getting stronger, and I can do all sorts of things I couldn’t before—pushups, yes, but I can also balance on my hands for short periods of time, hold myself up in a bridge, and open a bottle of wine with nothing but the most primitive of corkscrews.

I had a few moments in South America that utterly terrified me. There was that incident in the Amazon rainforest where I cut off my fingertip with a machete. Driving in cabs, and oftentimes just crossing the streets in Buenos Aires, where the bus drivers stop for nothing, held some surprisingly frightful moments. I drove around some pretty insane roads winding around the cliffs of Chile’s coast, in some cases nearly running into other vehicles when there was only room for one. The final, and most innocuous moment was the smallest—running down the stairs in my building, my foot slipped. I caught myself, but for a brief moment, my mind was paralyzed with fear (the second time I broke my wrist was due to a slip on a single stair). I just kept thinking how much people would laugh if I came home in yet another cast.

But I survived everything. When a friend took me out for a scooter ride upon my return, I realized something—I wasn’t scared anymore. We’d gone for a ride the night before I left as well, and I remember closing my eyes on some of the turns, holding on for dear life, my logical brain certain I’d be fine, but my heart still in my mouth. After five months of traveling through South America, I’m finally feeling stronger.

Work less. Worry less.

North Americans are workaholics. We have less holiday time than pretty much everyone else on the planet. Oftentimes, being a workaholic is considered a badge of honour. Small business people, especially, are prone to a form of boasting/complaining about working sixteen hour days as though it’s proof of their fortitude and commitment.

I used to be one of these people, but I’ve been slowly coming out of it. It’s surprising how much of life you can miss out on when all you do is work, and how easily you get burned out. I’m not entirely sure how I managed the first few years of my business.

The nice thing about traveling is that I simply couldn’t allow myself to be that much of a crazy workaholic, or I’d never have an opportunity to see anything at all. (Admittedly, I did spend way too much time working in Chile, but that was mostly because I was on a roll with a project.) I actually took days off. Some days I wouldn’t work a full eight hours.

Argentina was a great influence in this respect, because… well, I’m not sure how to put it delicately. They aren’t workaholics, let’s say. There were public holidays every other day, and some days when it wasn’t a holiday, everyone would just take to the streets for a good political protest. I got the impression that while a great many of the participants were truly involved in the affair—lighting off gunpowder and cheering and such—a large percentage would be hanging about, lazily chatting with one another. This attitude pervades throughout much of the city—service in bars and restaurants tends to be notoriously slow, and there’s a general sort of unhurried pace. This gets infuriating when you’re waiting in line for hours, but it did help me learn a bit of patience.

Balcony

Me, leaning out over one of the balconies in my apartment in Buenos Aires. I spent a lot of time in this spot, watching the street below.

…what next?

This whole slow-traveling of the world thing is something I’ve wanted to do for at least a couple of years now, and my time in Argentina was a litmus test. It didn’t turn out perfectly—I didn’t travel nearly as much as I’d wanted to, and I ran into all kinds of electronics-related issues that made things quite difficult. But I had such an amazing time there. I camped on the beach by the cliffs along Chile’s northern coast. I drove all the way around the coast of Uruguay and nearly ran over an armadillo. I crossed the Andes in a giant double-decker bus. I kayaked for three hours through the rivers of a sprawling delta. I learned how to set up a minimalistic camp in the middle of the Amazon jungle. I learned how to make jokes in Spanish that people would laugh at. I wandered through beautiful cities old and new, I explored, and I saw so many things I thought my head might explode. I fell in love with a chaotic city that I hated at first, and I even made new friends. At times, it was frustrating, infuriating, and I just wanted to go home. But I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.

I’m already plotting my next adventure.

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.