Finding the Best Web Designer

Why Are Web Designers Such Flakes?  A Reality Check.

Circling the drain of unresponsive or missing in action web designers is a common dilemma.  The Question is this:  As a self-respecting author with a plan and a purpose, how do you choose a designer you can afford and rely upon?

As a small publisher, or self-published author, you are faced with the high-cost of publishing a book.  Your ever-growing budget includes editors, book cover and interior design, maybe a book coach or adviser, printing costs, fulfillment needs, marketing … my goodness, where does it end?  When does the author start making money?  Well, this is a question for another article all together. The point here is, how much should you allocate to the added expense of hiring a web designer?  Can you hire someone who can do it all and is affordable to boot?

Ah, herein lies the problem.  The one-man show dilemma.  A newly graduated artist (or even an established one-person show) can be a very enticing option for someone with a small budget, especially when they are often a third of the price you would pay with a full-service design house.  They are typically hungry, excited, talented, reasonably priced, and they can do it all.  Yeah!!!  So what goes wrong?  Burnout.  A freelance artist often over promises and eventually under delivers.  They over commit because of the opportunity to build their portfolio; they chock it up to needed experience, and maybe even their desire to help another artist.  But at the end of the day this is the perfect recipe for disaster.  Why?  Because it’s truly hard to do it all yourself and when you finally reach that wall, you shut down and walk away, close the door, stop returning calls—you move on.

This does not mean that because someone is reasonably priced that they are a bad choice for your needs. The question we seek to answer is: How do you protect yourself?

As you search for a reliable, talented designer consider the fallout.  As you become overwhelmed with the production of your book, you tend to need a leaning post.  That is, someone you can consider a partner, someone who cares as much as you do and will be there till the bitter end, or God willing the glorious payout.  But let’s talk reality folks.  Few people care about your project as much as you do.  At the end of the day, people will do what is best for “me.”  If you lay something precious in someone else’s hands you have to know that they will cherish that precious thing and treat it with the same care that you would.  In the business world, this means you pay them to care—you appreciate them, you praise them, you create an environment that is rewarding, you pay them hard-earned cash.

What you are looking for is a long-lasting relationship, someone who delivers, who knows their stuff and someone who isn’t going to close up shop and leave you holding the bag.

A Sad Tale of Trust and Where it All Went Wrong:

The Spark: You have just written a book! You are ready to meet your public.  You are told you need a web site.  You look around, you ask a few people for references, you weigh the costs, you’re not quite sure how it will benefit you, you’re just about out of money, or worse your sinking further into debt.  And then you meet Bob at a community function.  Bob is great!  He is dynamic, he loves your book, he has great ideas, he is excited, talented, and he can help you build a site for a fraction of the cost—this you can afford.

The Honeymoon: You get started on the project and Bob really seems to listen, he’s working quickly, he answers your calls, he has something for you to see right away, and it’s pretty good, you like it, ok maybe it’s not great, but hey it was practically free and it’s something, it’s better than nothing.

The Fallout: You have a big signing at the local bookstore, you’re excited, but your site needs to be updated and there’s that issue of those few spelling errors you haven’t gotten around to fixing.  You know you need to talk to Bob.  But Bob is out of town until next week.  You call some friends to see if they know of anyone who can help, yes, but do you have access to the web files?  Hmm, no Bob has that.  Bob doesn’t seem to be returning your calls, or emails—Bob is MIA.

The Reality: So what if you do find someone who is so excited and hungry that they are willing to do it for very little, or even better, for free.  What happens when your designer needs a leaning post and you are pushing for more—you’ve started with this person, you need them to finish the job, your marketing success depends on it…they stop returning calls, they are less and less responsive…you go crazy with frustration, the process of getting a simple update to your site is maddening, you throw your hands up in exasperation, the love affair is over and you are left to pick up the pieces.

You face the facts, you know you must find another web master, you search for people in your area, you are horrified by the high-prices, your benchmark, what you had come to rely on was so much less expensive.  How can this be?  Ok fine, you find someone you think you can trust and they tell you your previous web designer didn’t know what they were doing.  Salt. Wound. Pain. They tell you that you have to start over and it’s going to cost you.

The Answer:

Finding the right Web designer can be like finding a grain of salt on a sandy beach. So what’s a savvy author to do?

  1. Get referrals. Qualified referrals will save you a lot of time, especially if they are from fellow authors. For this reason, consider joining your local authors’ guild and attending authors’ conferences where you can connect with other people in your industry.
  2. Industry Experts: Be sure to choose a designer who is familiar with your industry. A successful Web site goes way beyond the nuts and bolts of programming and coding. Your designer should have a firm understanding of what you are trying to accomplish and a definitive plan to reach that end. For instance, your navigation should lead your visitor in the direction of a sale—think of it like a funnel. You should implement an effective call-to-action that will guide your readers through the funnel and convert traffic into revenue.
  3. Ask for testimonials. Does he or she complete projects on deadline? A typical site should take from two to five weeks to design and build. Also, ask to see samples—including live sites. Test them for ease of use and loading time, as well as the general feeling you get from the sites you view. Chances are if you dislike everything someone has done, you will be unhappy with what they produce for you as well.
  4. Does he or she listen to your needs? A good way to tell if a company designs for the client or for themselves is to view their samples. If all of their samples are similar, this could be a red flag—unless, of course, that is exactly the style you want in your design. A good designer should be able to listen to your needs and translate them into a workable site that exceeds your expectations. Ultimately, your site should reflect your personality—not theirs.
  5. Communication: Make sure your design team is easy to communicate with. Do they understand your needs? Remember: this should be your vision, not theirs. Ego can often get in the way of your goals. When it comes down to it, they work for you. They should be able to set their artistry ego aside and follow your line of thinking, providing you with valuable insight and ideas that you hadn’t considered.

What You Can Expect From a Professional Web Designer

Most design firms will provide you with multiple design samples. This is the part of the project where you will have the most involvement. That’s not to say that you should be able to stare over their shoulders as they create for you—but you should be given ample opportunity to verbalize your needs. Make sure you approve the design before it goes to the programmer. Also, find out what their policy is on additional changes once you have approved the final design; you do not want to get stuck with hidden costs halfway through the project.

Always get a contract. Know exactly what to expect. A contract protects you as much as the design house. Read your contract thoroughly. Be sure that you own the rights to your site, the design, all the images, and your copy. When it’s all said and done, your designer should provide you with a disc that contains all of your design files and your Web files; keep this disc and all your passwords in a safe place—in fact, make backups. Should something happen to your design house, or they go out of business, you will need to seamlessly transfer everything to a new firm. And remember: this is a relationship, if you are not happy with your team, or you are not getting the results you expected, then don’t be afraid to find someone else.

Don’t rush it. Costly mistakes are made when people rush. Once your site is up and running, you can decide to change it, but it will likely mean starting all over and costing you twice what it should. Often, this can be the straw that breaks the marketing camel’s back. It is easy to get discouraged when you have invested so much of your heart and soul into a project only to find out you are back at square one. From the perspective of a coder, it is less costly to start over than to give your site a facelift—changing colors, navigation, and the overall look and feel of your site isn’t as easy as it may seem. Avoid costly mistakes in the beginning, even if it means stalling your project just a little longer.

How Much Should a Web Site Cost?

While industry standards are typically followed, prices vary wildly. The Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook: Pricing and Ethical Guidelines is a sufficient reference guide for industry pricing standards when it comes to illustration and design; this will give you a firm place to start.

It’s possible to pay anywhere from $200 to $44,000 on a Web site; all of this depends on the size of your site and your programming needs (and who you hire). What you want to concentrate on is the relationship you have with your designer. Meet with this person, and see if you like him or her; after all, you will likely be working very closely with this person. You should be developing a relationship that will help make you and your book shine.

Keep in mind, just because your site looks great doesn’t mean it’s effective. Discuss these elements and see what kind of ideas your potential designer may have that can bring your project to a higher level. Use someone who understands books and the publishing industry. While one firm may be able to design and build an incredible site for real estate agents, they may not know the first thing about selling books.

All of these things are crucial elements that you must consider before signing that contract. Always ask for a contract; no matter how much you trust this person, business is business—be professional. It’s okay and even necessary to build relationships and even friendships in this business, but never forget your end goal: You are an author with your own business, and only you will look out for you in the end.

Make a List—Check it Twice

Before you start shopping for a design house, jot down a list of your expectations; that way if it comes down to one or two firms / designers, you will make an educated decision based on all your needs.

Lastly, follow your gut feeling; listen to your instincts. If something doesn’t mesh, move on.

Finding a design team can be an emotionally overwhelming process. The following checklist will help you find the right team for your needs. And remember: just because the price is right doesn’t mean the fit is, and vice versa; an expensive team may be just that—expensive. You want to choose the best designer for you and your book. Believe me, you’ll be glad you did.

1.      Do they listen?

2.      Are they responsive?

3.      Do they explain things in a way you can understand?

4.      Do you like the other sites they have designed?

5.      Are all of their design samples the same? Do they have the feel you are looking for?

6.      Are their sites easy to navigate?

7.      Do they have experience in your industry?

8.      Do their sample sites load quickly?

9.      Will they give you recent testimonials and references? Do they have happy clients?

10.      What is their timeline?

11.      Do they provide more than one design sample for you to choose from?

12.      Are the designer and the programmer different people? Does the design firm have a specialized team?

13.      Do they offer hosting services?

14.      Do they offer E-commerce solutions?

15.      Do they understand Internet marketing?

16.      Do they have a company Web site?

17.      Do they provide a contract that outlines your rights?

18.      Do you get to keep the rights to every element of your site, including design and images?

19.      How much do they charge for Web site maintenance?

20.      Do they employ a solid back-up system? If so, do they keep back-ups offsite for added security?

21.      Upon completion, will they provide you with all your files and passwords?

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Jeniffer Thompson is the author of the highly acclaimed Website WOW, Turn Your Web Site Into Your Most Powerful Marketing Tool.  She is an author, speaker, Internet Marketing strategist and a co-founder of Monkey C Media, a full service design house offering web and print design services. For more information, visit www.jenifferthompson.com

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