Imagination is our power

Archive for December, 2011

The Importance of Link Building

Link building is the process of getting other websites to link to your website to promote popularity and other benefits throughout the online world. Link building is one of the core tasks of SEO. It not only helps promote popularity among users, but also contributes to the website’s ranking in search engines. Therefore, you need to work on link building in order to reap the benefits both from users and the search engine point of view.

The importance of link building is evident in the following example: “When A says that A is good, not everyone will believe it, but when one hundred other people say that A is good, it definitely adds value.” You know that your site has quality content, but if you are the only one who says so, it will not add as much value as when many other sites say the same.

Link building both within and outside websites is vital. Internal link building is important because it builds a linking system around the pages in your website, which allows search engines to crawl each and every page that exists in your website. This also helps users follow your pages according to their requirements. Along with internal link building, external link building has its own value as it makes your site more popular, which again helps you rank better in the search engine’s search. A back link from another site counts as a vote for your site, and search engines value each vote. However, links from any site will not serve this purpose. You need to gain back links from popular and relevant websites. A good link makes your site popular, but a bad link might ruin this popularity as well. One has to be very careful in the process of link building. The search engine understands what your website is all about and determines whether the linked sites are relevant to your site or not. Many sites accept links from porn sites in order to reap faster benefits, but such links will hamper the site’s reputation, which may also lead to a penalization of the particular site. Such shortcuts in link building may lead to adverse results. Therefore, it is critical to work on the link-building process.

The importance of link building has already been discussed. Links help your blog spread among people, thereby gaining popularity. In order to make your blog big, you need to gain a large number of website links; for this, link building serves at its best. Links will help more users land on your blog. The search engine will also recognize the quality of your blog. Link building comes naturally with time, but that takes a much longer time.

Natural links are those connected by people when they genuinely like your content, although this does not happen very often. Therefore, you have to work on link building yourself for more benefits. You have to start early in order to get your blog off to a strong start. The most important thing required to gain links is to have quality content and tools on your site. One major task that needs to be completed before working on link building is a competitors’ analysis. You have to recognize your competitors and research their process of link building. Check through the number of links coming into your competitors’ sites and list the websites serving those links. Go after sites that have linked to your competitors. Do not follow their ways; find out better ways to do it. Not every website might be worthy but making a list will definitely give you an idea for your link-building process.

This research on link building through your competitors’ site can be done with the help of online tools; the most popular such tool is the “Yahoo! site explorer.” Just enter the URL of your competitor’s website and all its links will be provided instantly by the site explorer. Thus, this tool provides great help in researching the back links of your competitors. In addition, determine how your competitors managed to get all their links and try to understand their strategies in link building. This will help you in your link-building process for your site.

To start with link buildings, you can utilize your contacts, asking them to share your site in social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and LinkedIn as well as providing a back link from their own sites to your site. Different strategies for link building are discussed below.

  • Asking for a link
  • Running newsletters
  • Using website widgets
  • Engaging in social bookmarking
  • Submitting to a directory
  • Blogging and article submission
  • Creating a complementary site

Asking for a Link

Asking for a link is the easiest approach to link building, and many websites do it during the very initial stages. This can be done by including a “link to us” or “tell a friend” option on your home page. Such options let your users link to your website easily whenever they like your content or any information provided by your site. In addition, many CMS software products include prebuilt forms for handling such simple tasks. When you are providing quality information on your site, people tend to share that information; linking is the best way to do so. In such cases, this process works perfectly as it lets people share your site very easily. Thus, making a segment on your website for asking for a link can be your first step in link building. Offering quality content and tools welcomes this sort of natural link building.

Running Newsletters

Running daily or weekly newsletters can be useful for link building. You can advertise your new products and the quality information available on your website. You can also remind your users about your updates; if they like them, they will forward the newsletters to their friends. This will help your site spread among people more easily.

Using Website Widgets

Creating website widgets are one of the most popular ways of handling link building. Many sites use these to reap the benefits. Creating widgets that can be used by other sites will be a real help in building links. Website widgets are units that can be used by other sites as well. Any information that can add unique value to other sites can be turned into a widget. Examples of popular widgets can be found on sites like widgetbox, and glittertools.

Custom websites widgets can be created too in order to serve this purpose. You can create custom widgets using simple html pages or with the use of RSS feeds, java applets, and flash. Many websites create calculators, convertors, clocks, and other such widgets that can be used by other sites (e.g., wolframalpha widgets). Such widgets are usable by other sites with the condition that the host site is present as a link in the widget; it helps to make your link visible enough. You can share your widgets in many different ways. You can either use your site or use a third party—or both. You can give a simple html code for the users. Copying and pasting the given code makes the widget visible on their respective sites. By doing so, a site will be using your widget for their user benefits and also let your link be present there. Website widgets work for the link-building process, and many sites are experiencing its benefits.

Engaging in Social Bookmarking

Social bookmarking is the idea of adding bookmarks and articles across different social bookmarking sites in the web. It is one of the ways to share and spread your site, opening your site to a wider audience and thus gaining popularity. Utilizing social bookmarking is very simple and beneficial. Social bookmarking sites ask you to register there and install a web browser tool bar thereafter. This makes adding book marks easier. Bookmarking sites store data through links from different sites, highlighting popular and recent links. These sites are frequently visited by users; therefore, the chances of your site spreading among users will be much higher. Thus, social bookmarking is one of the effective ways of link building. In terms of SEO, your goal is achieved as it is one of the best ways to promote your website or blog.

Social bookmarking not just makes you popular among users, but its value is counted by search engines as well. Search engines frequently crawl popular bookmarking sites and also index pages having bookmarked content. Therefore, adding a bookmark will definitely work as a plus point for your SEO work. Some of the most popular social bookmarking sites are:

Each site has a different way of working, but the idea behind all of them is same. After installation, the site offers you a bookmark icon on your site. Through that icon, every user can add a bookmark whenever they like an article or any information. Important links will carry more value. You can keep a track of your bookmarked URLS. Every site will have different interfaces to keep a track of links. You can see the results of your bookmarks through the use of such interfaces.

However it is very important that you don’t overdo this work in social bookmarking. Too many bookmarking icons on your pages will neither look good nor serve any benefit. Therefore, it is important that you select only the important and best ones for your purposes. You can also use just one icon, like “share this” or “add this,” with the ability of posting it to any bookmarking sites you want. This will help you avoid too many icons appearing on your pages while still reaping the benefits.

Submitting to a Directory

Another popular way of link building is directory submission, which is a popular approach with good results to websites over time. Before submitting to directories, you need to make sure of the quality of your page title and description of the pages to which you are going to submit as only properly optimized pages will add value to your work. Make a list of the popular and good directories. This can be easily done by carefully surfing the Internet. Also make sure that the directories to which you are submitting don’t have a “no-follow” condition. Your idea behind directory submission is to let the juice pass; whenever there is a no-follow link, you cannot avail any profit out of that link as it will restrict the juice from flowing. Therefore, make list of directories without the no-follow attribute. many free online tools can help you check whether a no-follow attribute exists. While making the list of directories there are certain points that need to understood :

  • 1) No-follow: Check the link attribute of the sites. Avoid sites with no-follow rules and make use of only sites that have do-follow attribute and can pass the link juice.
  • 2) Page rank: Check the page rank of the sites. The higher the page rank, the more value is added. Go for sites having a high page rank. You can also make use of sites having a medium level of page rank.
  • 3) Quality check: Check through the quality of content available in the sites. Choose only the sites that match your content both concept wise and quality wise.

Make a list of good directories based on these points. Start with the top directories in the initial stages. Many top-level directories exist on the Internet. Google maintains its own directory. Here are few top level directories :

In addition, many other directories are available that promote link building. Some of these sites are free, some are paid, and some are provided along with a reciprocated link. You can chose any of such sites according to your requirements. There is no rule saying to how many directories you can submit your site to; therefore, you can submit to an endless number of directories until you achieve your goal. You can make a search query to identify the relevant directories for your site. Here are few sites where you can submit your pages and site :

Directory sites vary from each other. While some sites allow you to add your pages separately, others accept only the home page. Also, these sites have a limit of accepting submissions from you. Despite of all these conditions, directory submission does carry a lot of value in terms of link building, making it a necessity for any blog owner.

Blogging and Article Submission

Another way of link building is blogging and article submission. You can write articles, blogs, or forums and publish them with one or more links pointing to your website. There are many article and blogging sites where you can submit good quality content along with links. Here are few of the popular article sites :

You can write quality articles in these sites to make your site popular. Every such site has different submission guidelines. Go through all the submission guidelines of the article site before submitting articles on the site. Also check whether the sites allow “do follow” links. Submit to sites only with “do follow” attribute. While some sites allow you to add an unlimited number of links, a few restrict you to one or two. Understand all the guidelines and make the appropriate choice for the best results.

In addition, you can blog to promote your website through links. Blogs and forums are valuable in the process of link building. Three of the most popular blogging sites are:

While working on article and blog submission, you have to make sure of keywords you want to highlight. Use only relevant keywords; otherwise, your work might look as spam, which might also lead to penalization. Therefore, use relevant keywords in the articles and blogs published. You have to pay special attention to keyword selection because only good keywords will lead you to success in link building.

Creating a Complementary Site

One of the less frequently but still useful ways of link building is creating a complementary site to your website. Such a site will help you in cross linking and promote your website well along with hosting quality content itself. Thus, creating a complementary site can be useful in the process of link building.

Such techniques promote link building. Natural links are the best approach to link building, but it is so important in SEO that you need to make it happen before it naturally happens. The idea behind creating a professional blog or a website is to spread it to the maximum number of people, which is possible only through proper link building. You have to make your site present everywhere on the web so that users cannot ignore your site. Once you get users, your content quality should be strong enough to make the users stick to your site. Also link building allows the search engine to know your site better and more thoroughly. However, in terms of link building, the search engine evaluates links based on certain factors, which are discussed below briefly.

Relevance

It is critical that you exchange links only with sites that are relevant to your site. For example, if your blog speaks about education, you should not welcome a link from a website selling shoes. You need to maintain links only from relevant sites; otherwise, it may lead to adverse effects as the search engines recognize that the subject of your site and the subject of the linked sites. Therefore, maintain relevancy while link building through sites.

Authority domain

In terms of link building, not all links count equally. Different links have different value based on the authority domain of the sites at times. Sites with government and popular authority domains (e.g.,.org, .gov, .edu) are counted with high value. Thus, links coming from such sites are of great importance. On the other hand, sites with .com, .co, and .net have a lesser value. Therefore, it is important to try to get more links from sites with a high value, without ignoring the lesser valued ones.

These two factors hold great importance in terms of link building. In addition to these two factors, you have to give proper heed to keywords, anchor text, quality, and such other things in the process of link building.

Using all the mentioned techniques, you can work on the process of link building for you blog. However, it is very important that you don’t overdo this work. These are just techniques that will help you reach more people and gain more popularity, but the real work remains with the quality of your website or blog as “good and compelling content is the only best way for link building”. Therefore, create it and maintain it throughout your site.

Are you being innovative?

With the recent passing of Steve Jobs, a lot of people and experts are crowning him one of the greatest innovators of our time, if not of all time. It’s rather hard to disagree, as he’s helped bring forth many innovations that have seriously changed the way we look at our future. And with all the talk about innovators, folks are starting to celebrate the lives of other creative geniuses at any level or platform before it’s too late. But all the talk about innovation is leaving people thinking, what is real innovation and how can one be innovative in whatever they’re doing?

Is innovation just a synonym for “invention”, or is it really just a positive spin on “imitation”? I guarantee if you ask five different people, you’ll probably get five different answers. Not because everyone is wrong, but because the exact definitions for ‘innovation’ and ‘innovator’ seem to vary by situation. Once you feel like you’ve answered the question, the next step is to figure out how you can be innovative so that it might help you go further in your situation.

Below, we will go through some definitions and examples to eventually get you to a better basic understanding of innovation, and how it can help you as a designer.

And the answer is…

The word “innovation” kind of varies and is almost completely subjective; it has to deal a lot with the situation and it’s surroundings. Some will tell you that it’s the act of coming up with a new idea while others will tell you it’s just taking any idea and making it your own. I think it’s safe to agree with both points to a certain extent.

The dictionary lists it as something new or different introduced. That’s a concise textbook definition but innovation is not just about an idea or just about creating something new. If that was the case we’d be talking invention, right? And if we were talking just about ideas, we’d be just dealing with cultivating creativity, right? Innovation is much deeper than that, and lies in creating new processes.

Coming with a new and creative idea is just one point of being innovative because the next step is making something tangible from that idea. When you make that tangible thing, are you just hoping people like what you came up with or are you really thinking about it? Innovation begins with research so that you can, in turn, come up with a great process.

Think about this: some of the most innovative things are not new ideas, they’re just better processes. You create a better process by looking at what’s out there, figuring out what’s right and what’s wrong with it, and coming up with something new. The “idea” portion isn’t the most important thing; it’s about how you portray it. For example, if you are a web designer with your own business, your innovation doesn’t necessarily come from an “invention”, but it may come from the way in which you carry out your process: for example, finding a great way to figure out what your client wants or creating an easy way to communicate with clients can be your claim to innovation. You may also show it through your super intuitive designs.

The most important part, however, is doing something different. It’s a competitive world out here, and when a company sees another company come out with something new, oftentimes they try to mimic it and mark it down a couple bucks. I guess I understand the current marketing strategy, but how does doing something like that gain you real loyal customers? Companies in this situation (where they feel behind), have a better chance at re-doing the process and coming out with something new—pay attention to what those customers are saying they hate about said product and fix it. Don’t make the same thing and expect people to come running.

 

What are the differences?

Once again, trying to really define and teach innovation is really sticky, so perhaps one could understand it when being put against related terms. Innovation can be a completely new idea or a borrowed and improved idea. The thing, however, is not to get caught up in the “idea” of it all, but to focus on the finished product. We all have ideas.

Invention has a very similar definition to our topic. When we think of inventing, we obviously think of making something new. But the process of invention really only deals with creation. In the invention stage, we are working things out, on what’s usually a new idea. In the invention stage, we are trying our hardest to put money into the creation of an idea. We want whatever it is to work and be amazing. Innovation suggests that whatever we have isn’t necessarily a new idea, but it’s our new attempt to basically put it in front of people’s faces. In innovation, we have our finished and tangible reflection of the idea and now we typically want to make money off that, or at least get it seen on a larger scale.

For example, if you’ve studied a bit of science history, you may know we attribute the invention of the telescope to Galileo. The problem with this, is that telescopes were around for a while before Galileo got his hands on it and many people used them. He actually joined that bandwagon fairly late; he was about a year or so behind. Telescopes prior to Galileo’s usage weren’t used as a device to look at moons and stars—it was basically a pretty useless magnifying glass, sometimes purchased for fun. However, Galileo decided there was something important in the sky and he wanted to take a look at it, so he researched the product, made it better by increasing the distance in which you can see things and ended up giving us the precursors of the modern day telescope.

Galileo did not invent the telescope, but he helped to innovate and cultivate the idea. Steve Jobs didn’t create the MP3 player, but he helped to innovate the idea. Being or creating something that is innovative is about making the right connection to your consumer. There are many products that take extremely complex topics and scale them down to put them in front of an individual so that they may use it. There are also products that seem to be useless, that can be innovated into extremely useful products. However, if you have a simple audience and try to sell them an extremely complex product, you’ve completely lost hope. It’s just about making the connection between an idea or invention and an individual who has a problem to solve. Inventions can be innovative, but innovations do not have to be inventions.

Innovation relates not only to creation and making connections, but the organization as well as the design. If you want to create a better process that relates better to your audience, you’ve got to design it and organize it in a way that is easily understandable to your audience. Else, you’re a lost cause once again. Any product usually does not live without invention in some stage, but at some point there has to be a focus on the process and how to make it better for what ever problem needs to be solved. It’s easy to confuse invention and innovation, but the truth is, innovation is much more important.

 

Moving forward

Any good business, whether large or small, knows that in order to stay ahead of the game, they’ve got to be innovative. It isn’t about being better than anyone else, instead it’s about creating products and services that will have longevity. The great thing about innovative products is that they are typically timeless. Gimmicky products? Not so much.

Why is it so important to cultivate innovativeness? For one, people have short attention spans and get tired of new things fairly quickly. Secondly, innovation is what changes the world—it changes our interests, it changes our government and it changes the way we move in the future. Some products are for a time period, even some categorically innovative ones. But it takes that quality to be continuously visited in order for the product to remain relevant. You don’t just update features, but you update how it works, how it interacts and what it looks like. For example, the Nintendo GameBoy at every stage in its life (from the bulky handheld to the slim two-screen), hasn’t just simply added a feature, it changed the way you played handheld games. Not only did other copycat companies have to keep up, but game developers had to do the same, as did mobile phone makers and full gaming consoles. Nintendo has always been an innovator in the game console arena.

Companies that spring up just to copy off another company won’t make it. Even as designers, if we are trying to design like our favorite and follow the same path, we aren’t going to make it. You have to be different. You have to want to change something. The longevity of a company is in question when their main purpose is to copy every move of another company. Think about two companies that have broken the mold of typical companies; for example Starbucks, Apple, and PayPal just to name a few. Now think of the companies that came to be because they felt like “they could do that too”. The innovators mindset is not “I can do that, too”, but rather “anything you can do, I can do better.”

We must also keep in mind that innovation is not just directly related to products and commercialism. There are ways available to innovate in society through economics, laws and much much more. It is the propeller for all things linked to progressive movement. Innovators have to keep in mind that they have an opportunity to change the lives of 6+ billion people. It isn’t all about products and consumerism, but it is definitely about raising the bar for everyone.

 

How can you be innovative?

As a freelance designer who has clients, you’re probably not thinking you have to be innovative. That’s just the job of your clients and you follow suit. But as previously stated, any business knows that they must be innovative in order to prosper and be successful. Don’t you want that for yourself?

You already have the upper-hand because if you’re a good and mature designer, you know that graphic design is about visually solving a problem. You have a client that wants to use their website to sell their product; how would you do it? Your client needs a flyer for an event that people have to RSVP for; how do you do it? If you can answer these questions, you are already a problem solver of sorts and have no issues thinking in that mind frame.

The thing about innovation, however, is not just what you’re going to use to carry out your tasks but how you’re going to do it. See, innovation for a designer can present itself in several different ways. Do you find yourself and others in the same situation often, so you want to try to invent an app to take care of something? Do you want to change the way people look and see design, so you create the difference? Or perhaps you just want to change and better the process of graphic design all together, so you want to organize things differently.

Many innovators have mastered the task of paying attention. If there is a problem that needs to be solved, you must pay attention to the solutions already out there and you must also pay attention to the way consumers have reacted to the solution. Figure out what works and what doesn’t work and come up with something new. The trick to creating that new thing, though, is creating it so that it is used intuitively by your audience. If a solution or process is outdated or doesn’t work, flip it around and look at it from all angles. Try to figure out what works.

In order for innovation to take place, of course you need some creativity and you need some entrepreneurship capabilities, and you need an excellent relation between both. But you must know how to make things intuitive. Products and services are used when they make sense for people without the use of training and such. You must know how to find the bigger picture and act on and solve that.

You also want to make your self as susceptible to innovative thoughts as possible. It really begins when you attempt to think outside the box. It sounds cliche and boring, but the truth is a lot of people have issues thinking outside the box. Many of us our cultured into believing certain things and in some systems, that when one thinks against it, you automatically get scared. As a musician, I run into a lot of other musicians who are looking for fame and fortune. If anyone knows anything about the music industry, it isn’t doing so well. These musicians want to catch their big break while they are still running through the dying techniques of the industry, and when they have an out of the box idea, they shy away from it because it’s “too different.”

If you want to be innovative and move forward, you have to abandon the thought that all different ideas are bad ideas. Keeping an open mind and paying attention to your surroundings are some of the best things to do in order to be innovative. Innovators look for unique ways to solve problems. There’s no better way to think uniquely than to be open, daring, and bold; don’t be afraid of your creativity. Taking risks and not being afraid to break down barriers and walls will take someone further than playing it safe. There’s nothing wrong with being different, especially if you can bottle it up in a product that people will love.

 

Conclusion

The definition and thoughts on innovation will always vary, but there’s never any real question of those who are innovative. Innovation doesn’t have to be this thing you put on a pedestal or fear but it should definitely be something you strive for and try to welcome. It comes in many different scales and in many different situations, you just have to open your eyes to it.

Is there a difference between the person who creates his own new innovative idea or the guy who borrows an idea and makes it better? Not really, as long as both things work and are accepted as such. Is there a difference between the guy who invents something but it’s deemed unusable for the public and the guy who takes that invention and flips it so that it is usable for the public? Absolutely—the latter person is an innovator.

You don’t have to invent the newest, shiniest technology, but you do want to bring something different to the table. If you find a consistent problem in some sort of process, turn it upside down and see if it still works. If it does, use it. If it doesn’t, try some other amazing idea. Innovation doesn’t require you to reinvent the wheel, but it does challenge you to look at that wheel differently.

Part-time jobs for creatives that help your business sense

Let’s share a dirty little secret that really isn’t so secret: the economy is bad and it’s impossible to make money ends meet.

Whether you freelance or have a full-time position, chances are you are not earning enough to live a comfortable lifestyle. Sure, maybe you manage to pay all of your bills each month.

But maybe you live in fear that the roof will need fixing or you’re driving on bald tires or you have no health insurance—you are not alone.

We are all part of what is now being called the “99%.”

While at my last full-time job, most of us had a second job or paying hobby. It’s not that we weren’t well paid because we all made more than the average income for that city. Still, it just wasn’t enough when the kids needed braces on their teeth, summer camp, and those little things that come up in life when you least expect it…like eating.

Costs keep going up while fees and salaries are not. It’s a fact and if we can get past the egotistical part of human nature while some say they are “doing great,” we can explore second jobs that will actually help your business sense for freelancing and being better at that full-time position you have.

Some of the limits you face

Time is precious. We have to shop for food, take care of our children, spend quality family time, and eventually sleep. That’s the human side. The business side can be tougher. If you work for a large company, chances are you signed a non-compete agreement. Basically, it means you can’t do freelance work along the lines of your titled position. If you are a designer, you can’t freelance creating design work. While at my last corporate gig, I was a graphic designer but designed web sites freelance. I had to apply for permission to do so from some corporate flunky hidden in the bowels of the main building in the “cult compound”—as we use to refer to the multi-building complex built from the long-lost blueprints for the Fourth Reich Berlin.

Some fellow employees played in bands, or created fine art paintings and sculptures, sock monkeys and one-of-a-kind jewelry. We all knew who did what and there was no embarrassment as we were all in the same financial boat. When someone in the company decided my designing web sites was “too close” to our new web initiatives, I had to stop.

A friend of mine made her extra money by catering weddings and events and asked if I would fill in for someone as a bartender. Playing with alcohol sounded like fun, so I agreed. When I showed up for the event, I saw that the wait staff and other bartender were all fellow designers from the company. It was pleasant, paid well and the tips weren’t bad…despite the nasty drunks who wanted to start fights with me—the male customers were much more civilized.

This brings us to our first part-time job that will help your business, or at least bring in extra income without draining you of your creative juices.

Food service

Everyone should work a food service position at one point in their lives to experience how stupid and thoughtless people are with waiters and waitresses. The public is insane, dirty, and thoughtless. Working in a service job has several great lessons that will help you in a freelance or office politics situation:

  • This is one of the best jobs to teach you how to handle different personalities and difficult situations.
  • You learn humility and how to “take a bite of a poop sandwich” and say “yummy!”
  • It teaches you the psychology of handling difficult personalities.
  • You learn that sometimes you just have to smile and take it.
  • You lean that the customer is not always right but you have to act as if they are.
  • You learn to lead people into a decision. When they can’t order a simple hamburger from a numbered list with giant pictures, you learn the subtleties of leading a client into a firm decision for the best results.

Unfortunately, food service gets old really quickly and if you work in a place where tips are not good, you’ll resent the job and it will affect your happiness at your primary job. The thing to remember about second jobs is you can quit them and still have your primary income.

Telemarketing

The better of the “hidden” second jobs: no one needs to know you are doing this if you want to keep your second job quiet. Telemarketing was one of the jobs I had while attending art school. Classes during the day and work at night, often getting out at 2:00 am. It’s not physically taxing but it’s selling and rejection can be frustrating. If you can hack it, this is a great position for helping you in business.

Telemarketing firms use scripts you have to read. They also have sections with what is called “objection responses.” When the person you are speaking with says they don’t want to buy the new and improved whatever-it-is you are selling, you have a first objection response, a second, and a third all written out for you. By the way, the best way to get rid of a telemarketer is to tell them you already have the item or service and they will let you go right away. When I’m called about taking a subscription to the local newspaper, I ask if they have a Braille version because I’m blind. That gets rid of them really fast. When asked about taking a subscription to one of many magazines being offered, I ask if they carry some magazine with the most filthy, pornographic title I can think of. That also gets rid of them very quickly…unless they actually have one or more of those titles.

I found, by using the simple lessons the telemarketing firm taught me for successful selling, I not only kept winning their sales prizes, which meant extra money on top of my salary and commission, but it also helped my freelance business once I left school. A job in telemarketing is good for:

  • Learning to take and shrug off rejection. It’s never personal so don’t take it that way.
  • You can learn objection responses when dealing with a prospective client. It’s not tricking someone into using your services—it’s exhausting all possible negative responses to see if there is a reason for them to say “yes.”
  • You learn proper telephone etiquette. Too many people just don’t know how important this is. As an art director, I grew very tired of rude morons who called me looking for work. I appreciated those who had good phone etiquette and would listen to what they had to say.
  • It teaches you to talk to people. That’s a skill many freelancers, stuck behind a computer for many hours don’t have.

Office manager

One of my first jobs out of art school was managing a small art studio. Although it was an art studio, my position was not a creative one. It didn’t pay much but it was great for my freelancing because I was being paid to learn about running a small business. If I made any mistakes, at least it wasn’t in my own business!

I don’t remember what I said to get hired but I had a sense of organization and a few of my art school jobs probably helped me get in the door. It gave me more than I thought it would.

I greeted clients, tracked and ordered supplies, kept financial books, organized the collection of art samples created by the artists the studio represented, answered the phone, did filing and wrote correspondence. If you are a freelancer, you need to learn all of these skills and, as I mentioned, better to learn at someone else’s expense, rather then your own. While I didn’t screw up at that job, I left with the ability to be more organized in my own studio and looked up the clients I befriended while working there. It doubled my clients immediately after leaving! The positive benefits of managing a small office is:

  • Depending on the type of business, you’ll make contacts you can use for your own freelance business.
  • You can learn bookkeeping and that’s HUGE in running your own business!
  • In a small office, being a creative source that is on site, you might be able to do creative work for that business.
  • You’ll learn day-to-day business management.

Delivery person

During a semester break in art school, a friend asked me if I could take over his job while he went away on vacation. The job consisted of making light deliveries and pick ups from businesses in my area. As I was paying for my own tuition and needed the money, I happily agreed. It was pretty boring and not very demanding. In the morning I got my delivery schedule, loaded the packages for the day and drove off for an eight-hour shift. I found it had other  interesting benefits:

  • There’s no one looking over your shoulder all day. As long as deliveries are made on time, the boss doesn’t care.
  • You meet people at different companies. Collect names, business cards, etc. and when the gig is done, approach them for design work. They won’t care that you delivered packages. If they think you are jovial and pleasant, they will be more than happy to listen to your proposal about designing for their business.
  • While on the road, you can make calls or a stop here and there to take care of your own business as long as you make your deliveries. Another benefit to not having a boss looking over your shoulder!
  • If you have eight hours to make deliveries but it only takes four hours, you have paid time to take a nap because, with two jobs, you’ll need a bit of rest.

Newspaper ad sales

 

We all really hate selling! Unfortunately, it’s part of our business. Selling ad space for a local newspaper will mean a lot of calls, visiting prospects, and keeping records of all your efforts to sell. As with other jobs mentioned here, the benefits are:

  • You’ll meet people! Maybe they WILL buy ad space. Maybe they need someone to DESIGN those ads. Maybe they will need a better logo or a web site. In a month of trying to sell ad space, you could meet 60 to 200 new small business owners.
  • Maybe the newspaper needs some design work, too! Proximity can be the best reason for someone to give you design work.
  • If you need to convince someone to advertise and they want someone to design their ad, perhaps the newspaper won’t mind you charging to design the ads? If the paper is generating ad revenue—hopefully more with you selling—why would they mind the methods you use to win over that business?
  • They will have a prospect list with business names, contact information and type of business and they just HAND it to you! A copy of that might need to go home with you to “study it.” Good for their business, so if it gets left behind when you quit selling ad space, who will really care?
  • Learning to sell something everyone needs but doesn’t want to pay for will sharpen your skills as a salesperson for your own business. After all, what client wants to pay for design, and we all know they need it!
  • It’s a newspaper so the “insider information” is priceless. Get friendly with the copy desk editor or the editor of the business section!

Being a “fine artist”

Several of my coworkers did this for extra money. They were extremely talented painters. If you can make the time, maybe an hour a day, several days a week, you can create enough pieces for a gallery show over time. One friend created several dozen pieces every year for one gallery show where he would profit about $25,000 each show. He also used his “notoriety” to get grants around town for installations and special projects, adding what I suspect was another $25,000 at least.

Another friend did it on a smaller scale. She created a set of skateboard decks with her art on them and had a small show at a friend’s restaurant. A nice little opening and she sold all the decks. A good payday that led to some professional work with her art on products. One small success leading to a bigger success. Eventually she left the company for which we both worked and found a much better job, due in part to her product work and of course, her talent. No list needed for this one. It’s a creative part-time job, so you can figure out the benefits and commitments for yourself.

Zazzle or Café Press

As with being a fine artist, you can sell designs on products through Zazzle or Café Press. Yes, it’s another creative outlet but we are talking of economic gain and these sites can give you the extra money you need. Some call it “beach money” (you earn money while sitting on a beach) and once the designs are made, uploaded and placed on products, you can sit back and wait for the sales to be made while the sites produce, ship, and bill the consumer and you get a check for your cut.

You will need to learn how to keep some records because, despite those producers handling everything, you need to know what you are selling, the taxes you have to pay on the income, and what, if any, deductions you can take on your taxes.

Sound simple? Well, you will also need to market the designs through social media and possibly newspaper ads, which you might be selling if you follow the advice in a previous category listed above…or delivering those products if you follow yet another category listed in this article.

Working for a former teacher

Yet another creative job…or not. When I left art school—mind you I didn’t graduate—I was offered some work by a couple of my teachers. One as a writer, coming up with sight gags for his comic feature in Playboy, for which I earned $10 per accepted gag, and another teacher who had me do odd jobs and writing for his studio. It eventually led to my being able to do work for a book with my name on it, so it was not high paying but a great benefit to a young creative just starting out.

Chances are you’ll be cleaning up, making copies, and shining shoes. It’s okay because you are also being mentored.

Teaching

From time to time, I teach a course on design or art for kids on Saturdays. I enjoy the kids with their unspoiled view of art and their fresh creativity inspires me in my daily work. The pay isn’t great but this is one of those jobs you don’t do for the money.

Writing or blogging

This is my personal favorite, for obvious reasons. There are sites that pay for content. If you can string a couple of sentences together with some kind of point to ranting and babbling, chances are someone will buy your articles. Maybe a local paper wants someone to write reviews of art shows or a museum? Maybe you’re an avid foodie and can write eatery reviews. Maybe you have a book within you but don’t want to go through the 29 rejections JK Rowling went through before someone thought Harry Potter might have some merit. Amazon now has an ebook publishing program where you get up to 70% of all sales. Spend your lunch hour typing up a chapter and before you know it, you’ll have your book…although, don’t do it on your work computer if you’re writing about blowing the top off the industry in which you work.

Can you create a site that can be monetized (ads with click-thrust, associate sales programs)? You will have to keep the content fresh and advertise it to bring in hits. It’s not an easy job and it’s a daily commitment. It also doesn’t have an instant return. With a part-time job, you have a check at the end of the week. With self-initiated second incomes, you invest time and effort and hopefully can start seeing a return within six months to a year.

Look around for interesting part-time jobs

The beauty of a creative outlet is you feel proud of your efforts but they are a commitment and are an investment in your future. A non-creative job can be left behind if you receive a raise at your staff job or if you garner more freelance clients. There is no emotional bond. Look at the want ads of job sites and try to imagine what you can learn from the jobs listed. Every job has possibilities and lessons. Be creative when considering what YOU will get out of a job, aside from extra income. Certainly paying for something like health insurance or taking your family on a fabulous vacation is a reward that is tangible. I wish I could say the economic bad times will be over soon. I wish we all could be paid what we are worth but when was creativity ever really paid what it was worth?

Designing for your target audience

Some of the truest words I’ve heard to date are, “If you don’t plan on creating your own business, then you plan on being broke.”

While, there are many people out there who have made a nice living working for other companies, it shouldn’t be crazy to think about going into business for oneself, whether it be a full time job or a part time gig. With the changing economic climate things aren’t guaranteed and, quite frankly, the time spent helping someone else achieve their goals could be time well spent on chasing your own dreams.

As graphic designers, freelancing and creating our own small business is usually a pretty common thought; it’s almost a given. Even if we don’t market ourselves as freelancers, I’m sure some of us have gotten into doing side jobs to put some extra cash in our pockets. Some designers just like to offer design services while others have full businesses revolving around clothing design or creating products, or perhaps partnering with someone else to offer more products and services.

Regardless of what it is that you do, in order to see some growth in your business you’ve got to figure out who you are targeting. Many of us may believe that our product is for everyone, but trying to get your product in front of everyone is going to be painful and expensive. What you want to do is figure out who you are specifically targeting, figure out that niche and put your efforts into them. Finding out more about them will help your effectiveness and eventually help your reach because once you know who you’re selling to, you’ll better know how to design for them.

Before we get started…

If you’ve never taken the time out to do some customer research, don’t go nuts now. Hopefully you have enough customers to try and figure it out, or perhaps you have developed your product or service far enough to know around about who you think you can pitch it to. The biggest mistake is to throw your product or service into everyone’s face and hope that they bite. That’s a part of working hard, but in business you want to work smart. So here are some things to get you started on figuring out who purchases and should be purchasing your product.

Who are they?

The first thing you have to figure out about your target audience is who they are. What kind of things do they do? What kind of music do they listen to? What products do they use? How old are they? The answers to these questions and many more will help you better understand the people you are designing for. Getting an understanding of these individuals helps you create with ease and make something you know will relate to them and end up communicating well.

As a young designer, I notice that I take an interest in flyers and brochures that relate to me with great design techniques, a clear message, and a professional look. I’ve also been known to brake for really creative ideas or illustrations and things of that nature. I like that type of thing, so for me it’s easy to want to create that type of thing but the truth is the audiences I sometimes end up designing for could probably care less about design and making things clean and professional. It sounds absurd but it’s true; you’ve got to relate to the audience.

Again, you have to know the target audience. If you or your client have no idea who you’re designing for, you’re really taking a stab in the dark and hoping and praying you come up with something. There are times when you may have a wide variety of people in your audience, but you’ve got to find a commonality between the majority of folks.

Do the research

Finding out more about your audience does not have to be rocket science and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It’s not about how you get your information, but what questions you ask and what you decide to do with it. Let’s say for example, you run a brick and mortar t-shirt store. You’ve got a shirt design that sells really well, but you want to know how to create more like it. If you have a low volume of folks coming through, just ask them what attracts them to the particular shirt. Not only are you doing research here, but you’re making connections with your customers. If you have more volume, or you run an online store, create a quick and concise survey that asks the questions.

Also be aware that you’ve got to ask the right questions. If I want to know why people like that t-shirt design, I’m not going to ask them what size shirt they wear, I’m going to focus on the design. For example, why they like the design or what it means to them. You want to ask questions that will help you figure your audience out and help you make educated guesses on the things they’ll like in the future.

Keep in mind, demographic information is only useful to a certain extent. You still need to figure out what your audience likes and what they feel (as well as what they like to feel). Don’t get so caught up in asking the regular boring questions about age and income that you forget to ask about their interests as well.

New products may make it hard to figure out your target audience, but you can research similar products and do beta testing. With your beta testing, you can continue to survey your group of users not just on the effectiveness on the product, but about all things design-related as well. Also, keep in mind that who you intend to purchase your product is not always the same person who will purchase it. Oftentimes, we will have a big great idea and we feel like we know who’s going to buy it, but sometimes it doesn’t always go as we plan. This is why beta testing and gathering information are important.

What are you doing?

Once you feel like you have a good grasp on your target market, you need to have an even better grasp of what you’re trying to do or what it is you are trying to design for. If you are trying to sell a product or service, what are you trying to convey about that product or service?

When you come to this step it’s easy to want to set up some sort of feature-benefit analysis. This means, for example, if you are trying to sell your graphic design services, you may feature that you do great print design as well as web design, so your benefit is that you’re a “one-stop-shop.” That’s really nice, but you’ve got to be more than that. Try to highlight what you can do for them and not just your skill set. Say that your print designs have the ability to captivate the intended audience, not just that you can do print design. Say that your web designs allow users to connect with a company in ways that were never imagined. Say that your product isn’t just a product but it contributes to your life in much deeper ways.

Knowing what your target audience likes and is interested in will help you come up with these types of things much easier. It’s not wrong to display the features and the benefits—for some audiences that’s all you really need. But in a competitive market, you have to know what makes your audience react and whether or not your product or service has that.

Design basics

After you have gathered all your information and you feel like you’re understanding your purpose and your audience, then it’s time to do your designing. Just because you’re designing with greater intentions does not mean you forget any of your fundamentals. You must continue to incorporate all the theories of design so that you can make an effective piece of design.

The greatest fundamental theory that you cannot ever lose is be visual hierarchy. As a designer, you have to remember and understand that you have all the power of figuring out what your audience looks at when they look at a flyer or a package. Use that to your advantage in everything you do. This theory basically states that you create hierarchy or importance based on what is the biggest and what is the smallest. While that’s the first contributor, the second contributor is going to be placement. Your most important visual, whether it be a headline or a picture, should be above or at eye level. Putting it below eye level or out of the initial view is a complete and total waste of time.

With visual hierarchy, you want to keep in mind the layout, the balance of the layout, and good proximity. These are just the basics to ensure that you have some sort of order and cleanliness about whatever it may be you are designing. A lot of times, we want people to stop and notice something crazy we’ve done with a layout or something, but we shouldn’t be reinventing the wheel, we should just be making sure everything makes sense and is legible. You want whoever sees your visual to get the main points even if they’re only passing by.

Putting the two together

Knowing your fundamentals of graphic design is essential. That’s going to make sure your audience, whomever they may be, can understand what it is you are trying to say. The purpose in researching your audience and getting to know them is that when it is time to design, the visual speaks to them and gets them to move.

As I said before, as a graphic designer, I just want to do fun designs with crazy colors, cool shapes, and illustrations. For my own personal business that works, because I tend to cater to trendier, younger folks who are interested in trying new things. However, sometimes I get a client who is less interested in that. I sometimes get clients who are extremely corporate, so I have to pull myself in a bit as they aren’t interested at all in cool and crazy designs. I don’t bore them to death with my design, but I will make sure there is focus on what needs focus.

Many times we can get caught up in ourselves and what we want, but it has nothing to do with what we want, and everything to do with what the audience wants. If you feel like in your design you want to be extremely creative with what you’re doing, you have to have a purpose for that. You have to know that that is something your audience will respond to. Being unnecessarily creative and crazy can alienate a large portion of your target audience if that’s not what they are into.

The ultimate goal with whatever you are designing is to get the people to move. You have to relate to them in a way in which they get. If you are catering to 60+ year-olds, you’re not going to use pastel colors and illustrations to attract them. If you are trying to attract teenagers, you probably aren’t going to use earth tones and photos of older people to get them to do something. You have to know the demographic and, most importantly, the psychographics (how they think, feel, etc.). When you have a real understand of the psychographics you can get them to do anything. If you want them to feel excited about your product and elite for owning it, you should know how to convey that to them. You should also know that’s what they want to feel about your product.

Creating a visual doesn’t have to be extremely forward. You do want them to think about your product a bit and let it relate to them. Basically while you are worrying about your target or niche market, every so often you have a person that comes along that doesn’t fit any of your research, but you don’t want to shut them out completely. Use design to tap into making someone feel a certain way because that’s what gets people interested in your product or service.

Try to put yourself in their shoes—what would you like to see and what would you not like to see? Even if it’s unrelated to your product, put yourself in a consumer’s shoes. For example, I dislike picking up a flyer or seeing a site for a real estate agent and the only visual given is a nice glamor shot of the agent. What is that doing for me? How does that make me want to purchase property? Well, it doesn’t. If you were to create a visual and just have a picture of yourself or even just the product or service, how would that really make a customer want to make a purchase?

Designing your website

One of the most important visuals you will have and use, is your website. Some people are just going to stumble on it and want more information, and some are going to go to your website specifically in an attempt to gain more information. You have to keep your research consistent with the visuals on your website. Part of your research should indicate why customers come to your website and what they desire from the site.

Many designers and owners believe a website’s sole purpose is to tell everyone about your product or service and why it’s completely awesome. Well, I beg to differ. A website is supposed to be an extension of your business and should be used to communicate with current customers as well as potential customers. Keep it consistent with your target market and make yourself available on your website.

Make sure you have a clear message on your site—if you sell several products try to highlight one. If you have several different services highlight one or highlight the reasons why people keep coming back; create a feeling. No matter the demographics of your audience, your website should be clear and consistent.

Turning Small Projects Into Big Profit, A Case Study

In the Web world, hearing businesses and freelancers alike complain about low-budget projects is not too uncommon. Let’s say that a local coffee shop needs to update its Web presence and contacts you for a redesign. It also requires a blog so that it can announce new coffees, events and so on. However, during the course of the first meeting, the client mentions that they don’t have a budget.

Being the inquisitive businessperson that you are, you say, “Well, we work with budgets of almost any size. What price range were you thinking of?” The owner of the coffee shop reveals that he has only $1500 to spend on the website. Thinking it would be a waste of time, you walk away.

This is where our design studio found ourselves. We had potential projects all over the place, but the budgets were all smaller than we thought we could handle. In the Web world, demand for small websites is up. There are always start-up companies and small businesses around that need some form of a Web presence. And, as a Web design community, our job is to answer those needs in the most utilitarian way possible.

We began questioning our business practices. We knew that there was money to be made on smaller projects, but it wasn’t until we sat down and did some simple math that we realized the business opportunity we had been missing.

Here’s the simple premise on which we began to transform our business: if you turn away 10 to 15 small projects a year at $1500 per project, that’s declining between $15,000 and $22,500 every year.

Our company was a start-up business once, too, and it still is. Perhaps we were delusional in our belief that big projects grow on trees. We were struggling to find work. It became clear to us that we needed to take a serious look at our business practices, our development and design processes, and ourselves. We needed to find a way to make money. Let’s take a few minutes to discuss how we overhauled our operations and started making a living off of small projects.

It’s All About The Process

As a Web community, we are well equipped to handle any low-budget projects that come our way. We have more frameworks and streamlined solutions than we’ve ever had access to in the past, such as WordPress, HTML5 Boilerplate and ThemeForest. Learning how to leverage these tools is key to understanding how to make money on small projects. And mastering these tools gives us the flexibility to stray from cookie-cutter solutions.

However, before you decide to take on a workload filled with small projects, let’s stress a key point. Some clients are extremely demanding about their design process and the functionality of their websites. Be careful to set clear boundaries with the client so that you don’t end up working for less than minimum wage. We’ll cover a few techniques for this below.

Write Down Your Processes

During the course of working on projects, we’ve developed a master document that we call the Low-Budget Guide. It details every single step of building a website on a budget. We have sections on the fastest ways to deploy a test WordPress installation on various hosting providers, documentation on common WordPress settings, plugins and problems, as well our standard step-by-step process. We’ll review this process in a case study later in the article.

The Low-Budget Guide helps us address several important aspects of our work. First, it prevents us from forgetting to do anything. Having a step-by-step guide eliminates any errors that might cost several hours of development time.

Secondly, by having the Low Budget Guide, we’re able to review which processes are efficient and which are time-consuming. Using this standard, we can minimize build time by adjusting our processes in certain areas. We’re basically fine-tuning ourselves into the fastest website builders we can be. And lowering build time directly increases the profit margin.

Finally, it ensures quality. Having a repeatable process means that every time you follow the guide, you become more proficient. This not only increases the speed at which you work, but decreases deviation from a tried and true standard. Practice makes you a whole lot better.

Choose a Framework

… Or choose several frameworks and tailor them to specific website types. For example, if you want to quickly implement a custom design on a WordPress website, check out Carrington JAM (short for “just add markup”). It’s a blank slate for custom WordPress themes, with a lot of the heavy lifting already handled. I personally use a version of Carrington JAM that I’ve converted to HTML5.

If you’re not using WordPress, I would recommend looking into the HTML5 Boilerplate. If you’re adventurous, you can apply the Boilerplate to a Drupal, Joomla or ExpressionEngine theme. Then, when you deploy the content management system, your front-end framework will already be in place. Django is another fantastic and fast framework, if you’re familiar with Python.

Use a Theme

There’s no shame in using a pre-built theme to construct a website for a client. In fact, you should be proud of doing so if the budget demands it. Using a theme can cut build time by at least half, if not more. Instead of spending 30 hours coding a website, you would be spending 15 hours fine-tuning a theme, tailoring it to your client’s branding and inserting content. At $1500, you’d be getting paid $100 per hour. How, from a business perspective, would turning an opportunity like that down be considered a good decision?

That being said, always follow the licensing agreement that comes with your theme. Honest people put hours of effort into building themes. Never, never, never break the copyright, and always adhere to intellectual property laws.

Work in a Modular Fashion

What exactly is modular coding? Looking at various websites, you’ll see that certain areas are common to all of them. WordPress serves as a good example of breaking a website down into “modules.”

At our studio, we have built a code library around modules. We have custom Twitter and Facebook widgets, custom post templates, image gallery widgets, the list goes on. When you write new code, think of it as a module that needs to be flexible enough to function on other websites with as little customization as possible. For example, instead of having to write an image slider from scratch, we’d be able to pop in a tiny PHP function, pass along a few variables, set a few styles in CSS, and we’d be done in less than 20 minutes.

Building a code library over months and years enables your business to cut down on major coding time. And if you refine the module every time you use it, you will ensure that the product grows ever higher in quality.

Get Familiar With Less

Less, in simple terms, makes CSS more like a coding language. We could argue whether style sheets should even do that, semantically speaking. But the fact of the matter is that it has shaved off at least 10% of the time that I spend writing CSS.

Perhaps one of my favorite features of Less is Mixins. These allow you to embed the CSS from one class into another. You can also use them as functions and allow them to take arguments. An example of this from Less’ website would be:

Preventive Measures Save Time And Money

One of the bigger issues that we frequently ran into with clients was diverging expectations of what their money would get them. Business owners need to be honest and up front about everything, which we were.

Yet something still wasn’t clicking. We were seeing scope creep, delays in communication, hold-ups in payment, and clients who just weren’t satisfied. I was kept up nights thinking, “Is this seriously what the business world is like? I can’t do this for the rest of my life!”

And then I realized something: if this was a recurring problem, chances are it wasn’t the fault of my clients, but that I was to blame.

So, I started thinking. How could I prevent these problems from coming about?

Simply put, preventative measures turned out to be the key. Standardizing basic business practices for all of your clients will ensure that your projects run smoothly. By avoiding these headaches, businesses will be able to dedicate their time to what actually brings in money. The less time wasted on dealing with scope creep, bickering over payment, and addressing client dissatisfaction means more money saved and also a more enjoyable working environment.

Show Websites With Similar Budgets

This is one of the best ways to give clients a good idea of what their website will be. I’ve found that this method, more than any other, is the best way to prevent trouble down the road.

Have the Client Prioritize

During your initial meeting with a client, help them to list all of the functionality they would like to see on the website. After the list has been generated, put each feature into one of three categories: “Essential,” “Highly desirable” or “Bell ’n’ whistles.” This way, you will be able not only to determine what needs to get done, but to trim the project to fit the budget.

Tell Them What You Can’t Do

Be honest with the client. This will save countless hours of frustration if the client keeps changing their mind about a font or background color. Tell them up front that you cannot include a photo gallery for such a low price, or that a blog would simply take too much time for the budget. By stating it from the beginning, they won’t think they can just add it later on.

Sign a Contract, With an Accompanying Scope

Just. Do. It. By detailing what you will do and how long it will take, you’re again setting realistic expectations. A contract protects both you and the client. We strongly suggest “lawyering up” before you have to. Even if the lawyer is expensive, preparing a solid contract should cost between $300 and $1000. That’s a heck of a lot less than court fees; and having a lawyer on your side from the beginning tends to keep you out of court in the first place.

Charge for Missed Meetings

Ever since we started stating this clearly in the contract, do you know how many meetings our clients have missed? A grand total of zero! Over the course of six months, not a single person has missed a meeting. No more headaches, no more lost time. To top it off, our clients are even happier now because we’re not hassling them for having missed meetings. All we had to do was put a fee in the contract. It doesn’t have to be much: we charge $50 for the first missed meeting, and $100 for every one thereafter.

Handle Payments Better

For small projects, I strongly recommend requiring a down payment. Clients who have made a down payment are much more apt to pay on time and pay the right amount later on in the project when you’re hitting your milestones. So, save yourself some headaches and get a deposit.

Secondly, be clear in your contract and invoices about when payment is due. Inform clients of what will happen if they neglect to pay on time. Charge a late fee if a payment doesn’t come on schedule.

We strongly recommend late fees. However, if you do charge them, give clients a courtesy phone call a week before the due date to remind them of both the payment and the late fee. The fee doesn’t have to be much: ours is 10% of the remaining balance on the invoice.

Planning Phase

Hans and Niles requested that we look at their website and make a recommendation. They asked, though, that we keep the price relatively low. Being college students, Hans and Niles didn’t have much cash lying around for an extravagant solution. What they needed was a solid website that reinforced their brand’s identity and that provided key information to visitors.

Step 1: The proposal
Our final proposal was for a five-page website that adopted the new branding requirements. After some negotiating, we settled on a final cost of $2000. At our standard rate of $100 per hour, that gave us 20 hours in which to complete the project. However, because Menno Tea was a frequent client of ours, we decided that we could provide up to 30 hours of work for $2000. We informed them that, beyond this number of hours, we would have to start billing above our estimate of $2000.

Step 2: The contract and down-payment
After we agreed on the cost of the project, we pulled out our Low Budget Guide. Our first step was to sign a contract with Menno Tea and to get a down payment on the project.

After the contract was signed and the down payment was processed, we headed off to start the design. We explained to Menno Tea that, because the project’s budget was low, we could offer only two conceptual designs, with one round of revisions. Hans and Niles understood our reasoning and were even pleased that we were going so far as to provide two concepts. This goes back to the main point of this article: be clear with your clients. By setting limitations and explaining constraints, you will avoid giving clients unrealistic expectations that lead to headaches.

Creative Phase

Step 3: Mock-ups
After three hours of work on Menno Tea’s design, we developed two significantly different directions.

After presenting these two options to the client, they took some time to review them. We had some free time every so often over the course of the project while waiting for feedback. During that time, we scheduled several other projects, so that we would have very little downtime.

We found that by scheduling projects asynchronously, we are able to fill our days with work. Some businesses work better by having fewer, more spaced out projects. We’ve discovered that we produce higher-quality work when switching between projects during the week, because it enables us to draw inspiration from all of them.

Step 4: Address feedback
After a few days, Hans and Niles provided some feedback. They wanted a mock-up that combined the horizontal navigation with the key messaging from the second option. We always ask our clients to provide specific feedback so that our changes are efficient and to their liking. Here’s an example of the type of feedback we require:

Development Phase

Before moving into the development phase of the project, we sat down with Hans and Niles for a brainstorming session to determine what the rest of the website would look like. We sketched out the pages and determined every last piece of content that would be needed for launch. We provided them with the list of content and let them know that the website would be ready for the content in less than a week.

They started assembling the content as soon as we started coding. By doing this, we avoided any lag from having a coded website without any content. The process became even more streamlined as Hans and Niles provided us with content consistently throughout the development phase.

Step 5: Set up a test environment
For test environments, we simply create subdirectories on our local server. Because Menno Tea’s website was built on WordPress, we used our standard framework, which consists of Carrington JAM integrated with the HTML5 Boilerplate. We also uploaded several theme test packs so that we could test the blog quickly and easily. You can use the test pack provided by WordPress or the one developed by ThinkDesign. In addition, we use a set of reliable plugins to simplify common tasks, such as Contact Form 7 and WP-Blocks. Then, we go through and create the entire site map in WordPress’ Pages.

We did all of this — deployed a flexible framework with all of the required plugins and test content — in less than 45 minutes. This used to take us several hours just a year ago.

Step 6: Code the entire website
The next step is fairly simple. We code the website in its entirety, checking cross-browser compatibility fairly often to avoid major hang-ups down the line. To save time, we always install the wonderful IE9.js by default. All of the pages are coded from top to bottom, and the client is notified once every page is complete. We ask that clients notify us of requests during this step of the process only if the changes are big. In general, we ask that they make a comprehensive list of all of the changes they would like to see and then send it to us at once at the end. This cuts down significantly on email and on time spent opening and closing files to make minor changes.

Step 7: Address feedback
As mentioned, we ask clients to request revisions in bulk sets to save time. Hans and Niles loved the work we had done. Luckily for us, the revisions were small and cosmetic. We addressed them rather quickly, as well as a few typos and content-related issues.

Hours spent on the development phase: 13

Launch and Test Phase

Step 8: Cross-browser and mobile compatibility
As we geared up to deploy the website, we needed to ensure compatibility with most browsers. Obviously, on smaller projects, not as much time is available to ensure pixel-perfect rendering, but we try to get as close as possible. We had a minor hiccup with the top banner for the menu being too wide on tablet browsers; we ended up just setting the banner as a background image, which we should have done in the first place. As part of the process, we always have fun looking at our websites in Internet Explorer 6.

Step 9: Deploy the website
Deploying websites is something that we’ve streamlined fairly well recently. We always back up the client’s current system. Luckily for us, in this case, Menno Tea was running WordPress. We backed up the current theme, their database and all of their WordPress posts. After updating their installation of WordPress, we moved the new theme over to their server and activated it. We already had a list of all of the plugins being used on the test website, and so we promptly installed them, configuring each one as we went. As soon as everything was set, we activated the theme and tested everything.

After an hour of testing in all major browsers, the website was ready to go live.

Step 10: Write the documentation
We feel that documentation for our clients is extremely important. If we’ve given them a content management system, they will inevitably have questions on how to use it, even if we’ve trained them. Over time, we’ve developed a solid set of instructions on how to use various aspects of WordPress. We’ve found that this works much better than just pointing clients to WordPress’ website. Now, we just go into our repository of instructions and pull out everything we need. For a small website running WordPress, we generally have to write only one or two paragraphs in addition.

Step 11: Provide training
Training saves time with clients who are not on retainer. And for small WordPress websites, it doesn’t take more than an hour. We go through our documentation step by step with clients and address any questions they have on the spot. Ever since we started using documentation and providing comprehensive training, our support calls and emails have dropped by over 80%. That amount is significant; I can’t believe we took almost 10 months of operating the business to figure that out.

Hours spent on the launch and test phase: 5

Case Study Wrap-Up

With the launch and training wrapped up, we declared the project finished and archived our files in case we ever needed them again. This process was fairly typical for our studio, but we still had a blast designing the website. With a total of 26 hours spent on the project, we came in under our 30-hour estimate. And if we hadn’t given the frequent-client discount, we would have made more than $100 per hour. With the discount, it worked out to $77 per hour — still not too shabby for a small project.

So, what did we learn from this project?

  • Custom design can still be done on small projects, but only if the client’s requests are minimal. This might not work with every client, so discuss it up front.
  • Good communication is the key to making rapid changes. We used bullet points in our emails with Menno Tea, which made discussions easier and faster.
  • If the client is able to, get content from them as you’re designing. Working a design around existing content is much easier than guessing what the content will be. This streamlines the process and makes it simpler and faster for everyone.
  • When sent in batches, revisions move along more quickly.
  • Designing on a budget can still be a ton of fun. We loved this project and can’t wait to work with Menno Tea in the future.

Final Thoughts And Considerations

Obviously, we found these methods to work for us. Every project, client and situation is different. Use your judgment, and develop practices that fit your business’ style. If you’re a freelancer, do what fits your personality. Nothing is worse than trying to fit into someone else’s shoes.

Problems With a Streamlined Design Process

Needless to say, this particular approach to streamlined design has plenty of problems. Our biggest concern is that it takes a lot of the personality and art out of the work. Our passion for design is what drives us. Small projects tend to be much more rigid in their process, and we have to supplement them with work that allows our creativity to breathe.

With this process, we could also encounter issues with addressing the particular needs of clients. With budgets that are so low, not much time can be spent identifying the target audience, developing a unique design for the brand, or addressing any other things that are particular to your client’s situation. But we have found that, in most small projects, the client is never so demanding that you don’t have at least some time to address their concerns. In the case of Menno Tea, we had plenty of time to address their particular needs.

Finally, by no means do we wish to represent Web design as a cookie-cutter process. We hope this article serves as an overview of ways to cut down on cost and time, but never sacrifice too much of the organic and innovative processes required to be a quality Web worker. Whatever you do, don’t strip the soul out of design. Do what feels right. If you don’t feel right about your processes or feel confident that the client will be getting the quality that they’re paying for, then chances are you’re doing something wrong. After all, in order to succeed, you have to be true to yourself.

 

Skills for Front-End Developers

As a front-end developer, I’m constantly trying to learn new skills and technologies and adding to what I already know. Front-end developer job postings, however, vary from posting to posting so the list of different languages, libraries, and technologies that could theoretically fall under the category of front-end developer skills is quite large.

Here’s a list (that I’ll continue to update) containing a wide variety of skills and technologies that I think all front-end developers should be working on learning, at least to some extent. I certainly don’t know all of these, nor do I expect anyone else to.

The list is not necessarily in any particular order, but I tried to keep the more rudimentary stuff at or near the top. Also, many of the items overlap others, so there’s a lot of cross-over within the list. And of course the list has lots of potential for improvements (more on that below).

  • XHTML / HTML5
  • CSS2.1 / CSS3
  • JavaScript / Ajax
  • jQuery
  • HTML5 Boilerplate
  • Modernizr
  • YUI Library
  • OOCSS
  • CSS Grids
  • CSS Frameworks / Resets
  • Progressive Enhancement / Graceful Degradation
  • HTML and CSS Specifications (W3C / WHATWG)
  • UX / Usability
  • Website Speed / Performance
  • Dojo / MooTools / Prototype
  • Responsive Web Design
  • Mobile Web Development
  • Mobile Web Performance
  • Cross-Browser / Cross-Platform Development
  • Document Object Model (DOM)
  • IE6-IE8 Bugs and Inconsistencies
  • CSS Pre-Processors (LESS / Sass)
  • Debugging Tools (Firebug, etc)
  • Version Control (Git / GitHub / CVS / Subversion)
  • HTML5 APIs
  • OOP
  • PHP
  • Ruby on Rails
  • MySql
  • Accessibility
  • WAI-ARIA
  • Microdata / Microformats
  • Internationalization
  • HTML5/CSS3 Polyfills
  • Functional Programming
  • JSON
  • Localization
  • Content Strategy
  • Offline Web Apps
  • SVG
  • Canvas API
  • Image Editing Tools (Photoshop, Fireworks, etc.)
  • Web Font Embedding

I may eventually turn this post into an extended list divided into categories plus links to articles and tutorials where these subjects can be learned or mastered — but for now you’ll just have to trust your Google searching abilities if you want to learn more on any of these.

How Do You Deal With Overstressed, Irrational Clients? An Entrepreneur’s View

As an entrepreneur who has been on the client’s side of the design and development process, I’d like to discuss the thought process of the client, as well as some effective ways to interact with them. For example, why do they ask for Shakira music on the home page? And how do you respond to that?

What’s On the Line For Us

Before getting into the decisions that entrepreneurs make, let’s look at some of the factors that motivate these decisions. Setting the scene will shine a light on the thought process of entrepreneurs and give you a better idea of how to deal with them.

You’ll notice I use the terms “entrepreneur” and “client” interchangeably. Even if your client works within the confines of a corporation, as opposed to at the top of a new venture, it would not be unusual for them to act in an entrepreneurial capacity. And even if they aren’t entrepreneurs, but middle men who were assigned the project, chances are they will still behave accordingly.

First, let’s think about the person you’re working with. They believe in an idea. They believe in it so much that they’ve left a paying job for it. They’ve worked nights and weekends for it, alienated their spouse, friends and family for it. They’ve begged, borrowed and stolen for the opportunity to pursue it. They’ve put everything on the line for their idea, their vision. And you know what the most important part of their vision is?

You.

It’s not them. And to be honest, it never really was. The first question investors ask after hearing someone’s idea is, “OK, who’s building it?” Your client knows that their creative team is the only thing that can make their idea a reality.

You’re the most important piece of their puzzle, and, despite what they tell themselves, what they know about you before starting the project is often limited.

So, how did they find you?

Clients turn over every stone in search of a designer or developer, because, by that time, the necessity of a good creative team has settled in. Entrepreneurs might look harder than others because of the pressure of their particular situation, but the importance of a good creative team is lost on no one. And this isn’t like finding a lawyer, a doctor or even a girlfriend.

It’s way harder.

The Leap of Faith

There are three gigantic problems with the process of finding a creative team. First, the client has probably never done this before. Secondly, finding a creative team is tough. Products such as Elegant.ly will help, but because clients generally don’t speak your language, assessing the strengths of a firm and how it would mesh with their product is difficult. When the team I picked told me they were experts in Ruby on Rails, my first thought was, “Is that a train or a restaurant?” Thirdly, and by far the most important point, for those of us not in the Web design or development community, feeling comfortable with our evaluation of creatives is impossible.

This is a relatively young industry, one with very low barriers to entry. Heck, my designer took his first client when he was 13. There are very few, if any, metrics we can use to evaluate a creative team. We can look at its past work, speak with the head of the team and maybe get some sort of sample or mock-up, but for the most part, we are flying blind. There are no requisite degrees, certifications or guarantees. If you go to a physician who hasn’t finished college, you probably wouldn’t be willing to let them operate on you. A developer who hasn’t gone to college could build you the next Foursquare.

The Search

In our search for a creative team, we come upon cousins and uncles of acquaintances, people who have designed investor-relations websites for Fortune 500 companies, people who wait tables but build iPhone apps on weekends. We have absolutely no idea what to think of all this.

First-time clients especially don’t understand how hard their product is to create, or how long creative design takes, or even if you’ve done this sort of work before. It’s all Japanese to them, and it’s an enormous leap of faith. All we can do is look at some of your prior work and decide whether we like it. In what other sphere of life would you make a decision this important on a gut reaction? (Wait, don’t answer that.) It’d be like grabbing someone at the grocery store and asking them to marry you because you both have Fruit Loops in your carts.

Even when we look at successful companies in our fields, their success is not always commensurate with the development or design of their products. Take Craigslist: great business idea, poor design; but it doesn’t matter because the content is great. On the other hand, Flipboard’s design is fantastic, and that’s enough to make the product successful, even although its functionality isn’t really revolutionary.

Grasping For Control

With reservations and doubts lingering in the back of the client’s mind, in steps the creative team. You start pumping stories into Basecamp, PivotalTracker or some other product-management system that the client’s never heard of, and suddenly they are on your turf. Now the client works when you work, and often sits quietly on their hands when you don’t. The product goes when you say it goes, and their input is limited. Worst of all, we flat out don’t understand what you’re doing.

This is extremely hard for people who are used to complete control. Your client has gained so much momentum to get to this point that, when the creative team takes charge, the ground drops from under them like they’re some unfortunate cartoon character. This reversal of control is jarring.

This would be fine if the entrepreneur was working with a lawyer, an accountant or even a bank. But early on in the life cycle of a company that depends on a creative team for its success, nothing, and I mean nothing, is as important as the creative team. And our control over the success of this phase is so limited. That’s why we make uninformed suggestions like, “Let’s make that @ symbol spin,” and “I think users would like some Shakira playing when they land on the home page. I know I would.” Because we’re grasping at straws.

We are trying to hold onto our vision, because suddenly it’s in your hands. We may know what we want, but we often don’t know how to do it, and we have trouble expressing it. I’ve often found myself telling my developer things like, “I want a magic search box that pulls information from the Facebook API [I learned that term a few months ago, no big deal], Twitter and Foursquare and spits out relevant people based on our compatibility algorithm,” only to have him respond, “… Yeah. Let’s start by allowing users to log in with their Facebook account.”

I know how I want the product to feel to the user, but I have no idea how to get there without my team’s help. Saying, “I want it really simple, easy to use and elegant” is not helpful. Grasping at some visual element that we comprehend is sometimes the only bullet in our gun.

So, How Do You Deal With Overstressed, Irrational Clients?

Now you have an idea of the sometimes fragile psyche of the client. The question is, how do you handle us when we say we want Shakira?

Sam’s points are all well taken and, for the most part, right on. But they are directed at a rational, faceless client. The overview is good, but implementing it in real life would be difficult. So, here is the perspective of a client with a face. The following five actionable tips should drastically help your client relationships.

  1. Show us.
    This one is the most important. It’s very hard for us to visualize our idea. We know how we want the product to feel, but we don’t know how to get there. We would certainly recognize that Shakira isn’t the answer if you showed us this on our website — or on a comparable website if building our mistake would be too time-consuming. Usually, if the client was savvy enough to get to this step in the process, they would know what works and what doesn’t. And if they don’t, their idea is hopeless anyway.
  2. Tell us.
    This one wasn’t in Sam’s points. Good entrepreneurs are flexible and can adjust their vision to meet the reality of the situation. If we want something, but you think it would take too long and not be worthwhile, tell us. Suggest a workaround if you want, or just ask us if there’s another way. Entrepreneurs are usually great at creative solutions; we make our living by avoiding barriers. But we can only avoid barriers if we know what they are.
  3. Explain the rules of the game.
    If you’re building a basketball, you know what you can and can’t do. You could probably make one that’s bouncier or more durable than competing products. But you couldn’t make one that goes in the basket every time. You know your limitations, but sometimes we don’t, and creativity is only able to flourish inside the box of reality. Because we don’t know the rules of the design and development game, we often don’t know what’s possible. More often than not, we’ll assume that something isn’t possible when it actually is. The head of my creative team had a good solution for this: he created a folder of ridiculous ideas that I wished could be part of the website, and I dumped stuff in there from time to time. More often than not, he’d ping me saying, “Hey Brian, that’s possible. Let’s try it out.” Being creative is difficult when the canvas is blank. If you can give us a line to start with, some sense of what you are capable of, it’ll help us enormously on the creative side.
  4. Be confident and enthusiastic.
    Everyone appreciates an expert. Sam touches on this, and it’s extremely important. When I told my designer that I was considering profile pages that end users could design, he said something like, “Well, it certainly worked for MySpace.” Point taken. Demonstrating your expertise puts clients at ease and instills trust in your decision-making abilities. Also, don’t be afraid to occasionally ask for forgiveness rather than permission (as long as the change is not customer-facing). It will reaffirm that we made the right decision. Nothing is more invigorating than someone who believes in your vision.
  5. We can’t act like locals.
    Clients aren’t completely oblivious to their mistakes, either. They know that some of their suggestions are absurd. They know that they don’t understand this stuff one-tenth as well as you do. They know they’ve stepped into a subculture that they couldn’t possibly fit into. It’s like when you go on a ski vacation and try to act like the locals. No matter what you do, you won’t be one. And we hate that we are an outsider in your world. That manifests itself in a number of ways: weird suggestions, holding firm on an irrelevant point, demanding certain color schemes that probably don’t matter (but sometimes do). This will still happen, but now that you know where they’re coming from and how to assuage them, you should hopefully have a more effective connection with clients. On the flip side, expect to be treated with the same level of suspicion and hesitation when you step into our world. Sam urges you to speak the client’s language, to set goals in business terms. Be very careful with that one. Misusing one business buzzword can waste your credibility, just as one suggestion for a spinning @ symbol will make you wary of any other design ideas. Discussing markets that you have exposure to but aren’t immersed in can have adverse effects. Know that we are all tourists. Which leads to the final point.

The Odd Couple

In writing this article, I realized how odd the relationship is between creatives and clients. Without my creative team, I would have no shot at getting my company off the ground. I rely on them 100%, but I have no clue what they do, how they do it or if the work they do is reasonably priced. This forces me to try to speak their language, to attempt to enter their world by learning quickly, and to try to maintain control of a vision that they are responsible for bringing to life.

Creatives, on the other hand, rely on clients only somewhat. They don’t live and die by each project, as clients do. Their work is in great demand; many of the firms I considered are growing quickly in this recession.

However, bits and pieces of Web design and development work are slowly being fragmented and commoditized, and for the same reasons that evaluating designers and developers is difficult: the barriers to entry are low. This opens the door for 99Designs to pick off clients, especially vulnerable entrepreneurs. These services leverage the crowdsourced model by matching designers who have little or no experience with clients who don’t understand the nuances of the craft well enough to be able to tell. This pushes creative firms to differentiate themselves through means that clients can understand. Business acumen is an incredibly helpful skill for creatives to have, and something 99Designs can’t offer.

Summary

So, we’re left with two groups, each possibly operating in unknown waters, working to create a product that requires both of them to be firing on all cylinders in order to succeed. That being said, do business-savvy creatives exist? Heck, yeah. I’ve got them helping me build my company, and it makes all the difference in the world. Do design- or development-savvy entrepreneurs exist? Probably. I’ve got a Mac — does that count?

The goal is to establish a working relationship between the two parties that leverages the strengths of each to quickly and effectively create a product and bring it to market. The tips above should help those working on the creative side. I’d be interested to hear a designer or developer’s take on what I should be doing to get the best out of my creative team. After all, we’ve got to have more in common than liking Fruit Loops for this thing to work.

Go easy on us poor entrepreneurs. I realize we make dumb suggestions sometimes, but it’s just an attempt to maintain some control over a process that we occasionally feel we’ve lost control over. And consider the business decisions that clients make from both sides. We’ve had a lot of practice with this stuff.