Over the past 15 years, I must have read, seen or heard literally hundreds, if not thousands of business owners say words to the effect “can anyone recommend a website designer?”.
If asked in a public marketplace or group, the answers will inevitably be varied, and in great volume. Aside from professional services, a website is one of the few commonalities between every business; almost every business needs a website.
So, you would think, 25+ years into the Internet phenomenon, that the understanding of what a ‘website designer’ does, and common misconceptions about it, would now have ironed themselves out.
I often liken it to going out to buy a new TV. It isn’t something I do very often, but when I do, it never fails to amaze me – the wealth of options, acronyms, specifications, sizes, standards and brands which are presented. What follows is 50+ hours of intensive research to at least gain some basic knowledge, in order to decide which TV I actually want to buy. The difference is, buying a TV isn’t quite as important as commissioning a new website to be built, which is why personally I believe that every business owner should be armed with some basic knowledge, before they even think about delving into the realms of commissioning a new website.
The most shocking thing to me, when I see recommendations appear, is that so often people asking for, or even people who have gone as far as hiring a ‘website designer’, have been mis-sold. I don’t mean this in a ‘builders from hell’ type scenario, but rather general misconceptions persist about what a web designer does, in some cases with people actually advertising themselves as website designers.
What does a web designer do?
Yes, the name is literally on the tin. A website designer designs websites. Simple.
Things a web designer doesnt do
This list is a little more comprehensive.
You would not expect a website designer to be engaging in;
Photography, writing content, front end coding, back end coding, placing content (images/text), project managing, videography, 3rd party integrations (payment gateways etc), hosting setup, SEO, domain name control, and much more.
So the obvious question….
If you are hiring someone to undertake your website design, who does the content work, the hosting setup, the payment gateway setup etc?
This is where there are two alternative approaches;
In an ideal world, people who have expertise in individual areas undertake those parts of the projects; for example;
Content – A copywriter will write the copy, and a photographer will take photos
Coding – A developer will undertake coding work to take your design from graphic to website
The more common situation, in particular for low budget projects, is that the entire project is undertaken by one person.
Which approach works best for you?
This comes down to budget. But before we get into that, and where many business owners go wrong, is in actually understanding what they are asking for and what they are paying for.
When most business owners go online and ask ‘can anyone recommend a web designer?’, what they actually mean is “I need a new website. Can anyone recommend someone who can make this happen?”.
One of my biggest gripes in this industry is that many people sell their services as ‘web design’, when in fact no design process is being undertaken. This is now to the extent it has become the rule, rather than the exception.
So how does one person do all of those things?
The term ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ can often be applied to a project being undertaken by a sole person. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the client expectations and budget are aligned with the work being undertaken.
However, if you are paying for ‘website design’, it’s my personal opinion that you should expect that a ‘website designer’ has been hands-on with the project.
If you are looking for someone to cheaply build you a website, without involving a full team of specialists, then what you are actually looking for is a ‘website builder’.
In most cases (99% in my experience), a freelancer/lone provider will undertake the project by using a theme or template.
This means that no design is undertaken, at all. A graphic designer won’t be involved, and instead, your chosen provider will be purchasing or using a free template, which is then populated with your text and images. In some cases, the template will allow for minor design changes, but this is in a restrictive way prescribed by the developers of the template.
How does this compare to an agency approach?
Obviously, not every agency operates in the same way, but from the perspective of ourselves (MUV), a full ground-up web project looks like this;
Where no brand exists, we start by looking at the target audience and competitors; who will be using this website, and what will their expectations be in terms of brand. We’ll then develop brand guidelines, and logo executions.
Using the brand guidelines, we will graphically design the main layouts for the website. We will be taking into account calls to action, key messaging and usability, and tailoring our approach specifically for your industry sector.
Front end design
Our designed pages are then coded into HTML/CSS. This means that we can bring the design to life, and introduce animation and hover effects. This is effectively where the designer’s vision is realised.
Back end development
The HTML and CSS files are now taken and coded into the chosen CMS (Content management system). This is a fundamental stage, as it builds the work done so far into a platform that allows you to easily edit your website, now and in the future. Building into a CMS also allows us to introduce third-party functionality quite easily, for example, integrating with your payment provider.
Alongside the development of your website, you are probably going to need good copywriting. Much like images, the way your business comes across in text is crucial to the perception people have about your brand. The copywriter may be working with your existing text, or writing new, but the content will be delivered in accordance with the brand.
The best website in the world becomes a curse if bad images are used. Some projects have a budget for photography and some just stock images. Regardless of budget, this is a crucial stage for ensuring your brand is presented in the best way possible.
With the text written, images sourced, and CMS built, it’s time to populate the site, and test, before launch. At MUV, this is where multiple team members who may have had no involvement so far come in. With any web launch, it’s crucial to test across multiple screen sizes and device types, to ensure any bugs are dealt with before the big go-live.
Which approach is right for you?
The ideal solution for almost any website is to have individuals working across the elements which fall under their expertise.
In over 20 years of working with website designers and developers, I have yet to meet someone who is both qualified and experienced to a high level in both graphic design and in development. This is why our preferred approach at MUV is to let each professional handle the elements in which they specialise.
Let a graphic designer work on the brand, and let an amazing web designer work on envisioning the brand into a website. Have skilled developers then take the designs and present them in web form, and let content professionals handle populating the website. Most importantly make sure an experienced project manager is in place to bring everything together and keep you, the customer, in the loop.
The Take-away For You on Making the Right Decision
Decide what you want and where your budget is aligned. If you are on a shoestring budget, it’s unlikely that having individual experts working across the various elements will be viable for you. The solo freelancer approach might be the best fit.
On a larger budget, discuss with your chosen provider the elements you would like them to handle for you, so that they can scope the project. For example, perhaps your text and images are already in place, and you already have branding.
Most importantly, understand how your chosen provider is going to proceed. If they are advertising themselves as being a ‘web designer’, clarify with them that they are actually graphically designing the site. Clarify the creative process, and how you fit in as a client. Ensure that if the provider is promoting themselves as a website designer, they are designing and not populating a pre-built template. If you are using an agency, clarify exactly what work they will be undertaking for you, and what demands there may be on your own time during the project.
Proceeding with a new website is an exciting time for any business. By pinpointing your needs and goals at the early stage, you can make the project far smoother, ensure your expectations are met, and hopefully gain a far better website to present your brand.
Author:David Hamer, Director MUV.
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