A lot of businesses start with less than ideal websites. A friend of a friend knows a guy who knows a girl who made a site for her brother's band, and, well, you know the rest. But every business reaches a point where it needs a professional online appearance. Unfortunately, commissioning a website isn't as simple as ordering office supplies. Web professionals and businesspeople don't always speak the same language, and the learning curve for an already beleaguered entrepreneur can be steep. Here, several web designers explain how to select and collaborate with a designer to create an attractive and effective site--on time and on budget.
1. Do your homework
The first step in finding a designer you like is finding designs you like. Joelle Reeder, a partner at Moxie Design Studios, recommends that small-business owners start by looking at the sites of their competitors and similar businesses. The key is to find a designer whose taste matches your own, she says.
"Ask around to friends when you're shopping for a designer," she says. "Don't just go to Google and pick the first one."
But taste is only one consideration, says Jesse Young, an independent designer based in Seattle. Many designers specialize in creating a particular kind of site, he says. A designer whose previous work includes only small, brochure-style sites might be a poor fit for a large online store, so it's important to consider the scope of your project as well.
2. Know the basics
Even for web professionals, keeping up with technology is difficult. Fortunately, as a small-business owner, you don't need to know the ins and outs of the latest trends to commission a website, but it does help to understand a few fundamentals.
Reese Spykerman, owner of Design by Reese, says she often begins by explaining the difference between a domain name, a web host, and a website.
A domain name is a site's web address--yoursite.com, for instance. These addresses are rented on a yearly basis from online registrars. A web host, on the other hand, provides server space--the virtual home where the site will live. Finally, there is the website itself--the collection of files that contain the actual design, text and media.
If all of that is unfamiliar, don't worry; Spykerman says designers are happy to recommend reliable domain registrars and hosting companies when they work with clients.
3. Be prepared to collaborate
Once you're ready to approach a designer, your input is key. Young says many people don't realize how much direction they'll need to provide in order to give their designer a successful starting point.
"The fantasy people have a lot of times is that they're just simply going to be able to call a web designer and say, 'Make me a website and show it to me in two weeks when it's all done,'" he says.
The reality, Young says, is that the process is a collaboration--from start to finish. In the beginning, designers typically ask for detailed descriptions of what prospective clients needs from their websites, as well as for links to other sites that the clients admire. If a designer provides an online questionnaire, potential clients should answer it as thoroughly as possible, he says.
4. Get comfortable
Because collaboration is so important, a shared aesthetic isn't enough--personalities matter, too. Once prospective clients have completed her online questionnaire, Reeder recommends a brief telephone call to determine whether they're a good fit.
"It builds a rapport, and it lets us listen to the client and really hear what they want. ... That first 20- or 30-minute phone call right at the beginning is really important to set the tone for your project," she says.
Spykerman says clients should also take care that a designer doesn't seem too eager or hurried. Reputable designers tend to be selective in whom they work with, because they understand how important a good match is to a project's success. She recommends contacting a designer's previous clients to ask about their experiences.
5. Know what you're paying for
Once the match is made, a contract is the next step. And here clients can't be too careful, Reeder says. Everything that's meant to be included in the project--from the payment schedule to the number of revisions that a client is allowed to request--should be spelled out. While some designers are flexible about small changes, clients shouldn't count on it.
"Read it thoroughly, because anything that is not in that document is going to cost you extra," she says.
Clients should also be prepared to put down a deposit before any work begins, she says.
6. Be honest, but don't nitpick
Generally, designers provide clients with a mockup of a proposed design before transforming it into a working site, and this can be the most delicate part of the collaboration. Reeder, Young and Spykerman were all adamant that clients should be honest if they want to see a different design, but they were equally adamant that wholesale revisions are usually better than a lot of small changes.
"If you feel like the design is way off the mark and it doesn't feel right for your business, speak up," Spykerman says. "At the same time, understand that requests like 'put more space on the left and right, and add these 10 things to the sidebar' may leave you with a design that resembles Frankenstein."
7. Hold up your end
While the designer provides a site's visual and technical framework, the client is usually responsible for providing the site's content--most commonly the text. Failing to do so on time can delay completion of the project, sometimes drastically so.
If the text isn't already prepared, Young recommends that clients consider hiring a professional copywriter. Aside from taking the burden off the business owner, a copywriter can provide text that's customized for search engines, which will help potential customers find the site when it's finished.
8. Be decisive
Content aside, the most common cause of delays or extra costs after the contract is signed are sudden changes or additions, Reeder says. Many people don't understand how long certain changes will take to implement, so they're quick to call and ask for what she calls the "just-dos." Spykerman says such misunderstandings are another example of the importance of establishing a good relationship between designer and client.
"A good relationship established before contracts are signed often helps ensure these issues are handled professionally and calmly on both ends," she says.
Young says the key is to do the necessary preparation when making your decisions--and then to stick by those decisions until the project is complete.