Category Archives: Web Stuff

Find a Web Designer

How do I find a web designer?

So you’ve decided that you need a website.

Maybe you’ve just started a new business. Or perhaps you’ve realized that your current website is a bit long in the tooth and needs an overhaul. But you’re not a web designer, and you’re not a developer. For that matter, you’re not a techie at all. What do you do? In brief, here’s how to get started on your search.

  • Go local, that’s just my preference. Local designers know your market; they may know the competition, have local resources and — most importantly — they can actually meet with you to go over details. It is definitely possible to do massive projects over the phone and via email. I’ve done it. You just have to decide if that’s your thing.
  • Get references. Do you have a neighbor or friend or colleague who has a website you like? Ask them who they worked with and if they were happy with the results.
  • Check out the websites of competitors (of similar size). Very often there’s a link to the design firm at the bottom of the page
  • Check your local Chamber of Commerce or Better Business  Bureau for reliable providers in your area.

There is nothing wrong with doing a web search for a local web design firm. Your chief problem will be an overwhelming number of choices.

First, look for a portfolio.

  • Do you like the firm’s work? Do they work in a style that meshes with yours?
  • Does their portfolio have examples of the kind of functionality you’re looking for? Like shopping carts, or animation, or blogs?
  • Many companies (but not all) now put pricing plans on line. This can be very helpful in finding out if you can afford their work, and if they work on projects like yours. But just because the pricing is not posted, doesn’t mean you can’t afford it. Contact them with a brief description of your project and ask for a typical price range for projects like yours. Whoever you work with, be sure to talk to them in detail about your work and get it in writing. The bigger and more complicated the project, the bigger and more complicated will be the written agreement between you and your design firm.

Things to beware of:

  • A portfolio with hundreds and hundreds of websites. Real companies only put their best work online. Hundreds of websites = webfarm. Don’t expect too much.
  • A portfolio that is full of errors: spelling, grammar, pages that don’t load, images that are over there when they should be over here. Your site will not be any better than what is in the portfolio.
  • A firm that gives you a price without asking for any information about your project.

Things that you may be surprised about, but shouldn’t be:

  • Most of the best design firms will not do work ‘on spec’. That is, they will not not provide free sample pages and then hope you choose them to design your site. Students or companies who are just starting out may do this in order to build their portfolios … but the business relationship will not be there.
  • Most professional design firms require installment payments once a mutual agreement has been reached to start a project. A typical arrangement might be xx% up front, xx% midway, and xx% on completion. Scope of work and payment can be a challenging area to navigate, and it is always advisable to clearly explain the what is provided and what is expected.

No matter what kind of project you’ve got, there is a web designer for you. From the one page “Get to Know Me” site, to the next amazon.com, there’s a firm out there who can do the work. And if you take a couple of wrong turns while you’re looking for them, that is life. As they say, education is never a waste.

When you speak with potential designers, ask them what kind of work they do best, and beware of folks that only seem to be paying lip service. You’ll have a more productive relationship with a designer who will be honest about what your expectations should be, gently but firmly push you out of your comfort zone, and who will be forthcoming about areas in which they are not an expert.

You should always look for a vendor who asks lots of questions about your business and — even if they are not an expert in your field — understands your overall mission and goals. Trust me, the designer wants you to be happy with their work. They want to add your site to their portfolio, and they want you to tell all your friends! They have lots of incentive to do great work for you.  You’re the expert on your business, and they’re the experts on web design. As long as everyone keeps that in mind, your project will be  golden.

The Shy Person’s Guide to Blogging

Not too long ago I was asked an eternal question. “If a blog entry falls in a forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it really make a sound?” In other words, how do you get people to read and comment on your blog?

Contrary to what Google and other internet search authorities would have you believe, the answer is not as simple as “Just build good content.” The internet is filled with awesome content that no one reads. And it’s also jammed with worthless garbage that millions of people see. You know what I mean. Search for “Job Interview Tips” and the first two pages of search results are  robot-written “about” pages that  offer brilliant advice like, “Bring a resume that you printed out a peace of paper.” Ugh.  Then somewhere on the twentieth page of search results is a really useful article from a former HR professional with practical advice on how to tell an interviewer about your salary expectations or explain your so-called “weak” points. Now why isn’t that article on page one? Why does it have no guest comments? Why does it say, “You are the 17th visitor to this page”? Unfair interwebs. Unfair, I tell you!

In my personal life, I am not a great success as a blog traffic generator. So take that as fair warning about any advice I may give. However, in my professional life, where I occasionally blog for others, I have had more success. What is the difference? Besides time and the financial incentive? It may have something to do with personality. If, like me, you’re shy in real life, you may be shy online, too. When I write professionally, I’ve got another persona, and I’m more comfortable putting my stuff out there and doing things that generate blog traffic.

What do many shy people have in common? We over-think things. For example, when you’re at a party, do you find yourself thinking along these lines: “Oh, no one is really interested in what I have to say. They don’t want to be bothered. They’ve got their own thing going on. I’ll just stand here quietly and wait ’til they come over to me?” Then, my friend, you are probably a shy person. The naturally gregarious dude doesn’t operate that way.  He is not thinking about what other people are thinking about him. Or about what an oddball he is. He just walks over to someone and says, “Hey,  here’s words that are shooting out of my mouth. By the way, you seem cool. Want to go over there and get some shrimp?”

Which brings me to my first guildeline for the shy-person blogger:

Make like a gregarious dude and start reading and commenting on other people’s blogs.

In the words of the Beatles, “The love you make is equal to the love you take.” Seek out other  bloggers who are into the same topics you are, read their articles and comment on them.  For traffic generating purposes, it’s best to comment on blogs that allow you to leave a link back  to your own blog in the signature area. (But don’t get married to the link back. It’s ok if it’s not on offer.)  Don’t leave a comment like “Nice post.” That’s what robots do. Say something that indicates you’ve actually read the article.

Which brings me to my next point:

Be kind when commenting.

That doesn’t mean agree with everything all the time. If you do disagree with something a blogger has written, do it respectfully. It won’t take much blog surfing to find examples of commenters who are great at disagreeing without being offensive. Don’t insult the blogger; indicate that your opinion is just that, and be open to further discussion. Lively discussion is one of the essential components of blog popularity, so you have to get comfortable with it.

Which brings me to another topic that makes shy people uncomfortable:

Use your other social networks to publicize your blog .

Use your twitter, facebook, linkedin, pinterest, google+, whatever, accounts to tell your followers that you’ve just written a new article. Yeah, this can be a tough one for the truly shy. But just tell yourself that not that many people are paying attention to your google plus account anyway.

In addition to your personal networks, there are some other effective ways to get your articles out there in the public eye. Services like digg, reddit, technorati, and delicious, will make your blog more easily findable for folks who are searching on your topic. While it probably won’t hurt to use all of them, these services tend to fluctuate in terms of hotness. You may want to research which services the most popular blogs in your field are using. And, like everything else in the “getting readership” game, you’ve got to give a little to get a little. When you’re using these services, it helps to read other people’s articles, promote them, comment on them.  Or you get relegated to  no-link-juice purgatory.

My next point, Be yourself, if you can.

My personal recommendation is for bloggers to blog as themselves. Readers like to know that there’s a real person behind the blog. “About” pages are extremely popular. And people do want to see photos. You don’t have to publish your phone number and address (in fact, don’t.) but a reasonably accurate avatar is a real plus.

If for some reason you don’t want your family or your coworkers to know that you’re really into, say, birdwatching, then it’s fine to blog under an online persona that preserves some anonymity. But base your persona on the real you, and be advised that a truly motivated individual (such as the FBI) will be able to uncover your true identity in no time flat.

Whatever name you blog under, for traffic reasons, your blog will benefit from having a unifying theme and a distinctive voice.  Do you blog mostly about vintage cars, or astrophysics, or water sports, or cute outfits? That’s excellent. Your “About” page should tell your readers how you got interested in that subject  and what qualifies you to write about it. If your blog is a potpourri of subjects, it can still have a unifying theme, like “The Adventures of High-School Sophomore” or “Funny Things that Happen in Cleveland.” For search-engine-related reasons, your blog entries should contain words and phrases that relate to that unifying theme. Most popular blogging platforms like wordpress and blogger include features like “categories” and “tags”. Use them to highlight those key words and phrases.

And lastly:

Don’t over-think it.

Seriously, most people are not that  into your blog. They are not dissecting your every phrase and punctuation mark.  Or questioning your expertise and judging you. Most folks are just interested in themselves when web surfing. We’re all just looking for useful or entertaining content– for our own selfish purposes.  Is this a good restaurant? How do you paint a fence? Wow, that’s a funny hamster! We get our information and we move on.

And now my last point — it’s good to blog regularly.

If you blog, like I do, twice a year (scrapes toe on floor), that is probably not often enough. Once a day: you are a rock star! Once a week is awesome. Once or twice a month — depending on your topic — passable.  Now hear the advice I am repeating for myself: don’t overthink it. Blog entries do not have to be masterpieces. That’s one of the great things about the interwebs. There’s plenty of room to do it all over again. Shy brothers and sisters, the internet was invented (in part) for us and by us, so let’s enjoy it!

Should I buy a web site template?

Not so Easy WebsitesFor some reason web designer seems to be one of those jobs that lots of people think they could do if they just get through the “Web Magic For Dummies” book. And maybe one of the reasons why web design seems so accessible are all those sites that offer “free” website templates and promise that you can be up and running in a couple of hours.

The “freelancer wanted” bulletin boards are littered with pleas from small business owners who need help making their web templates work. You will not be alone.

On occasion, I have been asked to design a website using a purchased template. It’s not my favorite way to do things, but there are some advantages.  Most templates are well designed and use clean, valid code. And they’re compliant with popular browsers. But editing them is not for amateurs.

If you don’t know at least a little something about html and css, a web template is probably not for you. Even a moderately experienced designer will have to come up with some ingenious work-arounds to adjust a canned template for a real customer.

However, if you’re a bit of techno geek, and you’d like to learn about building websites, and you don’t mind spending long hours at your computer making your template work, then go for it. It’s fun. And you will have a somewhat valuable skill when you’re done.

On the other hand, if you’re not a geek of any kind, here’s my advice: gird your loins, look at your budget, and hire a professional to do the work. Get estimates from a few designers, and be specific about the scope of work. Adjust what needs to be done to fit your budget.

But what if you really have no budget?  Look into a totally and utterly free blog. WordPress is my preferred blog provider at the moment, but there are other good providers out there, like blogger. If you want to brand your blog with logos, backgrounds and customized pages, you may need some assistance.  Don’t expect to be able to do much customizing right away, but a blog will give you a functioning online presence, and a way to engage in dialogue with users.

Perhaps your 12-year-old nephew spends too much time online already, and his skills could be put to use.

Facebook pages and twitter are two more ways to get online and start networking for free. But please don’t confuse the idea of “free” with “guaranteed popularity.” You have got to be in it to win it with social networking, and the constant provision of content and feedback that drive successful social networking can eat up a lot of time. There are professionals today who are becoming experts at marketing with these tools, and their services can be worth every penny.

While I wave most newbies off templates, there is one group to whom I freely recommend them: developers. If you are a developer — someone who makes websites function efficiently and securely using back- or front-end coding — but would be happy with green type on a black background, then you would be smart to invest in a template. You know how the code works, but you just don’t have a feel for design. For you, my brainiac friends, a template could be just the ticket.

Still wondering if a template is right for you? Try this simple test: the Should I Buy a Website Template Decision Tree

And stay tuned for the next article: How do I find a web designer?

My year in review

Most people don’t make New Year’s resolutions. I commend them. Why should you put off your goals, your plans, your ‘making things better’ kit until this one essentially random day? And then, why should you wait another 365 to make more plans?

But, but … if you are not the kind of person who takes stock on a regular basis, January 1 can be a useful moment. So I’m just gonna say this.   2010 was much better than the year before. It had its highs and its lows — for sure. Interactions with other humans were sometimes great, sometimes not-so-great. But that’s another blog entry for another day. My overall plan for 2010 was to travel more. I went to Italy and Chicago, and took a couple of local jaunts, but honestly I coulda done a little more travel-wise.

One unexpectedly good thing that happened this year was that I got really interested in web design. And by that I don’t mean some kind of  machiavellian job advancement strategery. I mean I got interested in my field of endeavor. All by myself. No one was training me, or telling me to be able to do this or that. I just wanted to take it up to the next level. And I think I did.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m any kind of a leading light in my field. I’m just saying that I took it up from a “2″ to a “3″. It was very energizing. What’s funny though, is that when you have those moments of feeling driven to figure out how to do something,  you dream about it, you surf it, you read it, you can’t wait to get home to work on it — and you’re telling yourself, ‘this is the ticket… i’ll be amped up like this forever’ and you forget that these things run in cycles. Sometimes you’re really into it. Sometimes you just want to watch American Idol.

So that’s our story 2010: you and I had a couple moments, and I know there’s lots of work to be done in the year to come.

Green, swirly design trends

We seem to be living through a green and swirly moment in design. Everywhere there are tendrils curling through our graphics, and layer upon layer of leaves, flowers and vaguely botanical-looking patterns. I find it pretty and soothing, and I, too, like creating restful vegetalscapes, but I suspect this will be one of those trends that quickly becomes trapped in amber. Will those transparent ivy-leaf overlays scream ’07 by the end of ’08?

I like Kuler, Mostly

Try Kuler Adobe’s Kuler is a Flash-based application that uses color theory to provide users with a variety of pleasing — or revolting — color pallettes. To develop you own color pallette, you can select a base color (your favorite green or yellow, for example) and then let Kuler offer up four compatible swatches. Or you can search through Kuler’s well-tagged library of color pallettes for words like “ocean” or “retro” or “dull” to see what other Kulerians have cooked up.

Kuler is a useful tool if you’ve realized that the swatches you’re working with are either ugly or all over the map, or there are just too many of them, and you need to edit. It’s also useful when you have no idea which colors represent concepts like “investment banking”.

What I don’t like about Kuler is, I’m not sure it works right. Or maybe I just don’t work right. My base colors never seem to stay in one place and my adjustments seem to run off when I’m not looking. Downloading and importing other users’ pallettes worked, but was so time-consuming that I resorted to the dumb guy strategy of just eyedroppering a screen grab.