Becoming a better web designer?
March 4, 2011 1:46 PM   Subscribe

Advice for someone wanting to get into freelance web design? More details inside.

I've been working with website for close to 6 years or so now, off and on and just as a hobby. I recently completed a professional site for a friend's business that I'm quite proud of. It is just a simple "brochure" style site that I created in Joomla. I used a free template that I found online and tweaked it (replaced most of the images) to my liking.

I realize that being a person who tweaks joomla templates doesn't exactly make me a web designer. But I love doing it, and for lots of startup businesses, it's a huge step above a simple "build your own" page.

So, what resources would you suggest I look into to learn more and become a more robust web designer? I have experience with joomla, wordpress, and drupal. I can find my way around css and html, editing and moving around what I need to.

Any suggestions?
posted by kraigory to Computers & Internet (5 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
My perspective is not that of a web designer (though I have done plenty of that type of work at various times in my career), but that of someone who has hired them and helped many others hire them in a number of contexts.

People who can throw together a website with off-the-shelf stuff are a dime a dozen. It's pretty easy to find someone who will do an adequate small business site very cheaply or even for free. The barriers to entry are very low, and a lot of people apparently enjoy the work. I think it would be hard to make a serious living in that niche (though I suppose it depends on your definition of "a serious living").

You'll have a better chance of success if you can set yourself apart from the crowd, either through much better than average design skills (and by this I mean real graphic design, illustration, etc. -- not customizing templates) or very strong technical skills (as in, being able to write custom applications from scratch, not installing Joomla or Wordpress). If you can market yourself as someone who does amazing, completely custom designs (with a blockbuster portfolio to back it up), or a coding ninja, you'll have better opportunities available (though the going can still be tough). If either of those specialties appeal to you, I'd recommend diving head first into becoming the best you can be at it.
posted by sharding at 2:22 PM on March 4, 2011

I run my own business and kind of started where you are.

I started with Joomla! about 5 years ago, and was working with plain HTML/CSS sites before that. Here are my suggestions:

You are asking about getting into freelance web design, but you're also asking about becoming a better web designer. I would treat those as separate questions.

Getting into freelance web design
Contact every web designer and web developer you can find that is local to you. Touch base, ask them what they do, see if you can get some time to ask them a few questions. You want to get their advice and start networking. This will help you out later.

Be prepared with your own simple website, business cards, resume (just in case), non-crazy email address, and phone number.

If you're in debt, get out of debt ASAP and start saving money. You will need a little pile to draw from as you spend money to make money (which really does happen at times). Don't rely on credit for this...playing with credit as a freelancer can be trouble, and fast.

You're also saving money so you can turn down crappy clients with ease. Just FYI. A lot of beginners don't and can't. They think the world is full of crappy clients.

If you plan to make this your source of living income (highly recommended), get into it for the long haul. Cut your rent, cut your expenses, and keep track of all of your hours (even playtime) to give yourself a solid idea of how long it's taking you to make websites.

Be dependable, keep your clients updated, and if you're working with other freelancers, be as super professional as you can. Many of them will be dying to have someone to work with, and you can be that person as long as you are dependable.

Getting better at web design
I'm sure you'll get lots of good answers here.

My suggestion is that you look into a more flexible CMS. Textpattern is the one I wish I would have started with, now that all is said and done. If you're really good with PHP, go with something like ProcessWire, which is like mini-Drupal. I use both and enjoy both way more than the other options.

Joomla! doesn't tend to scale well for freelancers. Freelance Joomla! users usually either hit a ceiling with extending the software (development skills are weak) or designing for it (templating and override skills are weak). In addition, clients quickly (as with WP and Drupal) get a feeling that the CMS is way bigger than their needs and start to look over the fence for industry-specific CMS software that feels a better fit. This is why a minimal, flexible system that you can really pare down is crucial.

I have been very successful with highly customized Joomla! sites, but as with Wordpress and Drupal, the maintenance and upgrade work also really starts to add up fast with such complex software packages.

It's recommended to learn at least one of those for working with other teams, but for your own freelancing use, you need something flexible, lightweight, and secure.

I ended up learning about 6 or 7 CMS packages good enough that I have done successful work with them, and I've tested about 40 or 50 more. I've written my own simple CMS and other software as well. So that's where I'm coming from.

How to make a serious living at it
-- Keep learning. Very soon you will be out of the competition with the dime-a-dozen folk.
-- Polish your customer service and customer experience. Smooth website, smooth work process (I don't make my clients purchase 3rd party hosting anymore), and pretty soon you have a solid reputation.
-- Hire a business consultant. Will probably cost you ~$100 USD for one visit a month, but they should make you at least $10K per year extra in return, the first year. Their job is to help you make a serious living out of this.
-- Give yourself time. The flakes always go out of business because they perceive "every guy with a computer and Dreamweaver" as their competition. Just wait it out and you'll see all the flakes become plumbers while you get better at it.
-- Don't rely on your skills alone. Partner with other locals and kick butt. This will make you way wealthier, way faster.

It's a competitive business but not nearly as much as The Internet would have you believe. It's hard work, and good, high-quality websites do not come a dime a dozen. All of the good clients know this.

Good luck!
posted by circular at 2:53 PM on March 4, 2011 [15 favorites]

Forgot to mention: Give yourself 4-6 more years before you start looking around and asking where the livable income is. Just a standard business principle. I think lawyers, for example, are commonly told to wait 7 years before they're average-successful.
posted by circular at 2:56 PM on March 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the tips so far! They have been very helpful.

Another quick question- what would you suggest as far as best practices for hosting? Do freelancers usually add clients' sites to their own hosting account, or have the client set up their own account and give you the passwords? Or some mix in between?

The last client I worked with on a volunteer basis already had a godaddy account so I just had them give me their passwords so I could do the work, but that seemed messy. (plus I HATED godaddy- will never use them again!)
posted by kraigory at 3:39 PM on March 4, 2011

what would you suggest as far as best practices for hosting?

First of all, it's smart to give certain clients a choice in the matter. Maybe they love their current host for some reason, or it's free hosting for non-profits. Or maybe you just feel like they've got so much gunk on their account that it wouldn't be fun to move it. Who knows. Anyway, for these people: Just get their passwords, verify that you have the access and tools to use the CMS or other software you need to, get in touch with support to test responsiveness, and you're set.

It's very, very common to ask clients for their current passwords. I know it can feel uncomfortable at first. But you'll get better at it -- just this week I walked into a hospital, had a short meeting, and walked out with a backup of their current website on CD, along with a list of all their account credentials for the current web host. If it's a big organization, it can feel intimidating. But it's part of your job ask for the information you need, or even the information you want.

If you're capable though, definitely offer your own hosting. For many clients it's great to be able to say, "yes, I can host that for you," for these reasons:

1. They used to pay an agency for hosting but now they hate the agency because they're slow. They want to move on and have you work for them, but they absolutely do not want to continue using the agency's resources.

2. Their current hosting is done by some guy who manages a restaurant full time (for example). They want something with more credibility behind it.

3. They want to feel like they're letting you work in your own workshop, doing what you do best. These clients are usually wonderful.

I initially signed up to be a reseller through Site5, and had a great experience, but eventually upgraded to a nice fast VPS because I had a client in the financial sector that had a crazy security requirement to meet. If you do ever end up going VPS, I recommend managed VPS setups like Site5 and others offer. I had to go with unmanaged because of the special circumstances.

So personally I ended up with a few accounts on different hosts (my current business site is still at Dreamhost, for example). But I'm glad I looked around at other offerings and tried them out.

And yes, I agree that the GoDaddy experience is very unprofessional. But especially once you see them grabbing domain names that your clients are trying to research by entering them into GoDaddy's search system.
posted by circular at 3:56 PM on March 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

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