Freelancing 101: Dos and Dont’s of Designing Your First Website

Designing for yourself can be impossible. I can almost guarantee that within a month of designing your logo, you’ll want to change it. And your color scheme, because you’ll realize that mustard yellow is much more “you” than chartreuse. And your website? A day after going live, you’ll realize 20 things you forgot to include, decide none of the images work, and embark on the long, arduous journey of making endless “tweaks.”

But, you’ll have to trust me on this, your website will never, ever, be perfect. Never. Ever. It’s better to have something up there than to wait until it’s “perfect” to launch, because otherwise you will be waiting forever. And in case you’ve forgotten (as we all tend to do when our eyes our twitching from staring at the screen too long in our “perfect website” quests) you have clients to get, services to advertise, and a portfolio to show off.

But, you don’t want to just throw any old slapdash attempt at a site up there—after all, you’re a professional. So here’s a few dos and don’ts of creating your first website.

1. DON’T design your site to impress other designers.

Yes, we all want our peers to think we’re incredibly cool, talented, amazing designers. We want them to seethe with jealousy over our design process and cutting edge ideas. But unless you’re trying to get hired by fellow designers or an agency, you need to appeal to your clients. And the majority of your clients (I say majority, because sometimes designers do hire other designers to design things for them) are not designers. When you’re just starting out, they’re often not even established businesses. They are ordinary people, people who want websites to be easily navigable and who want to be able to figure out whether you offer what they’re looking for without having to spend 30 minutes chasing your hide-and-seek navigation around the page.

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2. DO tell people what services you offer.

You’d think this would be a given, but I see a lot of designers coming straight out of school who have nothing but portfolios on their websites. Yes, your portfolio is important, and you may think that from your CD redesign project (one of my personal favourites from the Brand X class at FIDM) potential clients would understand that you offer branding services, most of them won’t make that connection. Your clients aren’t designers, they don’t see CD redesign as branding—they see it as CD design. And even if they’re looking for a CD design, if you don’t state anywhere that this is something you offer, the likelihood that they will contact you is slim to none.

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3. DO explain your projects.

You don’t have to write an essay on every single project you have in your portfolio, but a logo with no explanation doesn’t look like all that much. With just a few short sentences about why a particular design worked in a particular situation, about why you chose to go in the direction you did, and how that solved the problem at hand, you’ve taken a pretty or cool or whatever icon or typographic treatment and given it a backbone. You don’t have to do this with every single project in your portfolio, but showing that your designs are more than just good-looking—that you put real thought into them—elevates you from pretty-image-maker to problem-solver. And that elevation takes you one step closer to looking like an expert.

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4. DON’T be afraid to ask for testimonials.

Look, it’s always awkward asking people to praise you. I personally do it through a questionnaire, to add in a level of separation and make it easier to get the kind of feedback I’m looking for. Others just ask for it straight up. But however you do it, testimonials– as “late night infomercial” as they may initially seem– give you clout. And especially when you’re just starting out, you need that clout. You may think your work should be able to stand all on its own as an example of how truly awesome you are, but for most people, that’s not enough. Clients need proof that you’ve had successful experiences working with people who weren’t your teachers and aren’t your mother. They need proof that others have been happy with your work and are willing to publicly recommend you for it. I’ve seen great designers with no testimonials or social proof to speak of struggle to make rent. And I’ve seen not-so-great designers with raving reviews book out months in advance.

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5. DO include a photo of you, somewhere.

Ask most people who have ever been to a social event with me, and they will tell you I avoid cameras like the plague, but even I have a photo of myself on my website. People like doing business with people. And the best way to prove you are in fact a person, and not a robot (though it does seem the way future technologies are going that we aren’t really all that opposed to doing business with robots) is to include a photograph of your human face somewhere on your website. You don’t need to plaster yourself all over it—though if that’s your thing, you do you—but just somewhere, a nice quality headshot where you look generally groomed and approachable will help people connect a name with a face, and feel more comfortable when they contact you.

So there you have it! Keep those things in mind when you’re designing, and you’ll find you maybe only have 15 things you forgot the day after you launch, instead of 20. The most important thing is to just get it up there. If you find yourself stuck in the perfectionism loop, just remember: you have a lifetime to make all those endless tweaks and re-designs, and even if you do happen to stumble upon the holy grail of website perfection, you’ll change your mind about it tomorrow anyway.

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Editor’s Note: FIDM Digital Arts contributor Sara Berkes is a graduate of FIDM’s Graphic Design program and a freelance graphic designer based in Canada. For more freelance advice and to see more samples of Sara’s work, visit her site at www.saraberkescreative.com and follow her newsletter here. If you have any questions about freelance graphic design, be sure to leave a comment below! Images in this post are courtesy of Sara Berkes Creative and Death to the Stock Photo.

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Author: Sara Berkes

Sara Berkes is a graphic designer, writer and maker based in Ottawa, ON, Canada. She has a combined BA in English and Creative Writing from the University of King's College and an AA in Graphic Design, which she earned from FIDM in December 2013 along with the 2013 / 2014 Graphic Design Award. When not designing or blogging at Sara Berkes Creative or writing for the FIDM Digital Arts Blog, Sara can probably be found sewing, knitting, or hiding from Winter. You can find out more about her and her work at www.saraberkescreative.com

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