Last week I got a call from another web design business in Oakland that was looking for a partner.
They told me that they didn’t have the time for smaller clients, so they wanted to pass on those projects to another designer in return for a referral fee.
After talking to this person for a few minutes and looking through their portfolio of work, I realized that we disagreed about some of the best practices in web design.
And although I knew that we would not become partners in the end, I was still glad that they had called me, because it inspired me to write this article about some things to avoid when choosing a web designer.
Here are the top six warning signs to watch out for when choosing a web designer.
Warning #1: They don’t have a portfolio of work or their portfolio shows poorly designed websites.
I can’t emphasize this enough. If you are going to work with a designer, make sure you like their designs! They must have a portfolio of some kind that you can see online. When looking at their websites, do you find it easy to understand what each business does and how to buy and use their product or service? Do the sites tell the story of the business? Also, how do the sites make you feel? Sometimes designers use slick imagery, but it gives viewers an uneasy feeling. Buying decisions are based on emotion, no matter how rational we like to think we are, and imagery, colors, and compositions that make you feel good will be more successful in selling a product.
In this instance, I found that this firm’s portfolio was very hard to see. They used big images for each site that were not representative of the overall design, and they did not include direct links to their websites either. When I searched on their client’s business names and finally viewed their websites, I was not impressed by their designs. The compositions were cramped, the imagery was garish, and they didn’t pay enough attention to the way the information was structured.
Warning #2: They don’t use WordPress.
Most websites (except e-commerce sites) are now built in a content management system (CMS). A content management system is a program that allows users to easily update their own websites by logging in and typing text into a box, and it also allows designers to easily add functionality and create beautiful designs with plugins and templates. WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal are the top three CMSs, but ten times more websites use WordPress than Joomla or Drupal, partly because it is so much easier for both web designers to design and clients to update. You can see a graph of the most popular CMSs here. WordPress is an open source project, which means that millions of web designers around the world are constantly improving it by adding functionality, design options, and better security. I have also found that WordPress has the best built-in SEO (search engine optimization). SEO is the process of getting traffic to a website, and a platform that boosts your website’s traffic is very valuable.
Another thing to avoid is a company that uses a custom CMS. This is a content management system that they created themselves and only they know how to modify. This means that it would be very difficult to switch to another designer, because no one else will know how to maintain your site. You will never have that problem with WordPress. Because it’s so popular, there is a huge community of developers and designers who can work with it. Also, compared to WordPress, a custom CMS is going to be much less reliable and more susceptible to being hacked, because it is actually very difficult to develop secure web software.
Squarespace is another website building program that I do not recommend. I have used it for some clients who requested it, and no matter how many articles I read and things I tried, I found it very, very hard to do proper SEO (search engine optimization), which gets your site higher in search results. I have come to the conclusion that Squarespace simply did not consider SEO when they created their program.
Warning #3: They tell you, “SEO doesn’t matter.”
Another thing this other web designer said was, “SEO doesn’t matter for big clients.” That really shocked me. As I stated earlier in this article, SEO stands for search engine optimization. It is the process of getting traffic to a website. ALL businesses, no matter how big, will benefit from having good, basic SEO built into their website. If potential customers can’t find you when they do a search in Google, it doesn’t matter how good your product or service is, no one’s going to know about it. It’s like a restaurant in the desert.
Warning #4: They talk about how big they are, rather than the quality of their work.
The person calling also seemed to only refer to web design companies in terms of how much money they were making and how “big” they were, with no reference to how good their work was. I tend to admire other web design firms based on the quality of work they produce, not how much money they make. There’s probably a tendency in business to be comfortable hiring bigger firms because the decision will be less subject to criticism from others in a company, but when it comes to design, bigger is not necessarily better. If a website turns out to be a failure, then the size of the company you picked won’t matter much.
Warning #5: They don’t pay careful attention to detail.
Another thing that stood out to me was that this web design company’s own website contained many punctuation errors, including random capitalization and missing periods at the ends of sentences. If they don’t pay attention to the details of their own site, then are they capable of paying attention to the details of yours? When your website contains bad writing, your business will look unprofessional and customers will consider going elsewhere.
Warning #6: They are unfriendly.
I also found that the person calling me was overly aggressive and condescending (even though I think they copied some of my website ideas) and tended to go silent when I asked them questions, rather than answering them or simply telling me that they didn’t know the answer.
This is probably obvious, but you are going to have to work closely with a web designer to get the website that you want. You will have to ask a lot of questions and criticize their work, so the person/company you hire should be friendly and open to change.
In the end, I was happy that I talked to this person from another web design business, because it helped me to clarify my own ideas about what I think good web design is, and it inspired me to write this article. I hope this list of tips helps you too.