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How to Choose a Web Designer

Picking a web designer is a very personal thing. Not only do you want something that is going to be beautiful/useful to your visitors, you also want someone with whom you can have a good working relationship! (Much like an agent or an editor.  It isn’t enough to have “THE” agent if, “THE” agent puts you in the fetal position every time you speak with her on the phone.)

Before you get started.

Do your research!
Know what you want before you contact anyone.

What content do you want?
Map it out, at the very least. And it’s really best if you have the majority of your content written/gathered, including your biography, (both short and long), blurbs & excerpts for your books, photos you want to display, a professional (or at least professional-looking) headshot, and any additional extras/features. Know what your tolerance for specific types of promotion (social media, blogging, etc) is, and what you have the time to commit to.

What do you like?
I ask my new clients to visit a minimum of 100 Author sites, and to find five that really trip their trigger, and to tell me what they really like about it.  This gives me, as a designer, a good idea of what they will like, and gives the client an idea of what’s out there. When you do this, take note of the “Designed by” links at the bottom (or ABOUT THIS SITE page) when you find sites you like.  Every designer has their own flair (even when they’re making a site that’s very specific to you!) While a designer’s portfolio may completely speak to your critique partner, it might not resonate with you.

Talk to people who have used designers you like.
Ask RECENT clients about their experience. (Recent clients may be a better gauge of how a designer is to work with, than their earlier clients.)

Questions to ask.

  • What is the designer’s process?
  • How long should it take?
  • What is their pricing?
  • Can you make payments?
  • How will updates be handled?
  • Do they have a contract? Is it negotiable?
  • Who owns the design should you decide to leave that designer?

More Things to consider.

Is the designer a 1-person shop?
There are several reasons this might be a problem (though not necessarily an insurmountable one). First, are there contingencies if the web designer becomes ill, gets hit by a bus or decides he/she wants to join the circus? Who will take over? What will happen to that designer’s existing clients? Also, what happens when the designer is working on another major project… will she/he still have time to make updates on your site in a timely manner? If your web-development company has a person/team devoted to doing client updates, you can be more assured that anything you need will get finished on time.

What other services do they offer?
Your promotional efforts, particularly once you are published, will not be limited to your website alone.  Your options are to hire multiple people to handle multiple aspects of your promotional efforts, or hire a single company that can do your website, print materials, videos, digital and print ads, social media support, etc.

What is their experience with authors/publishing?

Not all websites are created in the same way. Someone who specializes (or at least has significant experience) in the Publishing market is going to be much better able to anticipate your needs as an author and help you guide your promotional efforts. Similarly, if you want a site for your restaurant, you’re going to want to find someone who recognizes the nuances of that market!

Does the designer insist on doing updates his/herself?
Or is your site going to be developed in a content management system that you can maintain yourself? If the latter, who is responsible for updating that content management system? Ideally, you’ll probably want a site that you can update yourself if you have the time, and that you’ll have your web-development team able to support you in that effort (to help if you have problems) and to be responsible for updating the server-side pieces. (WordPress in particular updates nearly monthly, so it’s a good idea (from a security standpoint) to make certain that your site is updated as often as new versions come out.) Request a manual from your web developer so that you have specific instructions on how to do everything.

Beware of.

Designers who are working on the side.
It’s my personal opinion that you want someone who is serious enough about your website (and that of his/her other clients) to be committed to it full time.

Working With Anyone You are Related to.

You’re going to want to have the ability to say: “This doesn’t work for me!” and not worry about someone getting snippy over the Thanksgiving mashed potatoes! Also, it’s very hard to fire a family member, whereas a business relationship that isn’t satisfactory is easily severed without too much pain.

…and so as not to appear self-serving, I offer you (in alphabetical order):

10 Web Designers Who Specialize in Author Sites.

Please note: I have not worked with any of these designers (with the obvious exception of Bemis Promotions, which is, it must be said, fabulous <g>) so please use this as a resource and make your own decisions.

I’ll be taking any questions you might have all day! If you had a good (or a bad) experience with your site design, tell us what was great or how you dealt with it. (Though please refrain from maligning any particular developer by name!) Thanks!

34 responses to “How to Choose a Web Designer”

  1. Laurie Kellogg says:

    Great guidelines, Liz. Your portfolio truly demonstrates how well you depict the tone and style of each individual author. Our RSS site is evidence of how wonderful you are as a designer. Thanks for creating such a beautiful home for us.

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  2. Liz Bemis says:

    Thanks, Laurie! I do try to make each site I design as unique as the client for whom it is designed… but I think it’s fair to say that I do have a style of my own (as do most designers). There are a number of designers’ work that I can recognize before I hit the bottom of the page. I HOPE that is not the case in my sites… but it’s hard to judge that from your own perspective.

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  3. Rita Henuber says:

    Great tips! Take all of them to heart. Especially the research one. I have to say I am a complete know nothing about web sites, worse I don’t think I want to know how to do it. So Liz is my designer and can I say I LOVE my web home. I could sit and go through it and do nothing else all day long.

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    • Liz Bemis says:

      Aww, Thanks, Rita!! I’ve heard it said (in fact, my new client Jeffe Kennedy said it) that building a website is a bit like sausage… you don’t really want to know what goes into it… you just know what you like.

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  4. Tamara Hogan says:

    I recently had a billing issue with my web hosting vendor – not my web designer – which resulted in my site being offline for two days right after RWA National. I was SO PISSED. All customer service requests and billing inquiries went to a generic billing email address, with a different person picking up the email from a queue each time. All told, we spent over a day playing email ping-pong, with me having to restate the original issue repeatedl, forwarding PayPal receipts all over the place. The issue was finally resolved, but IMO their poor support model meant that my site was offline at a time when there might have been an uptick in people going to my website.

    In hindsight, I probably should have asked my web designer to help facilitate when it became evident that the vendor’s processes weren’t up to the task.

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    • Liz Bemis says:

      Tamara — I can’t imagine how frustrating that would be. We have a few clients who insist on using their own hosts, and generally those are the sites that end up having problems! We host most of our clients’ sites, so we are able to control problems like that. But still, how irritating for you!

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  5. Amazing post, Liz!!!! I happen to have a fantastic web designer who is ultra talented and has created the most beautiful site ever! 🙂

    I just wish I knew more about them and how to update my own stuff better. I’m getting there, slowly but surely.

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  6. Jenn Stark says:

    Liz, GREAT post. I used to think the whole web development process would take SO much longer than I ever had time for, but in the hands of a great designer, you can watch your ideas spring to life–and often, turn out far better than you ever imagined! I’m a huge believer in the “look at other sites” research as well. It’s amazing to see what works and what doesn’t when you can be objective.

    Great post!

    ~J

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    • Liz Bemis says:

      Thanks, Jenn! It’s an exercise that I think a lot of people are resistant to… (At first!) However, once you start looking at a bunch of sites (one after another) you start to see things that really work, or really don’t work for you personally!

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  7. Elisa Beatty says:

    Really helpful post, Liz! I’m really looking forward to the day when I can have you design a site for me. For now, I’m trying to work within a pre-fab template that does all sorts of weird things I’d never have chosen for myself. It’s kind of like living in a pre-furnished apartment….

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  8. Barb Han says:

    Hi Liz,

    I wanted to say how much I appreciate the terrific job you did with my Web site. You were so easy to work with and my site truly reflects my personality and career goals. You didn’t just nail it, you hit it out of the park! I’ve even managed to make updates and I love having the ability to change News content as necessary rather than wait for someone else to handle it. Thanks again!

    Take care,

    b

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  9. Sienna Condy says:

    I’m a little bias, but great post, Liz!

    All of Liz’s points are good ones, but as one of the people who backs Liz up(you know just in case that bus accident occurs), I spend over half my day each day just doing site maintenance and keeping clients informed of any changes. It would be a tough gig for any one person to meet the needs of more than say 30 or so clients and keep said clients informed without running themselves into the ground.

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    • Liz Bemis says:

      Sienna, Make no mistake, if not for YOU I would not be as sane as I am (and I realize that my “sanity” is judged on somewhat of a sliding scale!) To everyone else… always be kind to this woman! She is my right-hand girl, without whom I would throw myself in front of the bus (or more happily, join the circus!)

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    • Sienna, can I have you?

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  10. KAK says:

    A very helpful post! Identifying what you like about other sites is definitely ground work that shouldn’t be skipped.

    As a designer, what is the most helpful way for clients to let you know when something’s just not quite right? So many of us are worried about coming across as wishy-washy or being that client.

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    • Liz Bemis says:

      KAK, I think it’s a matter of
      A) knowing what you want. (“I don’t know what I want, but THAT isn’t it!” can be very frustrating both for me as a designer and also for you (in the generic) as a client.)
      B) Articulating that as much as possible up front, before any design work begins
      C) Being honest, but professional when what you get isn’t what you expected.

      When I show a design to a client for the first time, I expect one of three reactions.
      1) Oh, Liz! This is everything I hoped for… and More! (my favorite, of course).
      2) Liz! I really like this… except for [some element]. (this happens most often).
      3) Oh… Liz… I just don’t think we’re sharing the same vision. (This doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while it does, and it usually means that I didn’t get enough information from the client (through my fault for not asking the right questions or theirs for not being thorough enough in their research).)

      And if it’s the third, as long as the client has been professional about it, I’m 1000% happy to go back to the drawing board. (I still will even if they’re unpleasant about it, but I’ll admit to a lesser degree of motivation )

      Thanks!

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  11. Great info, Liz! Thanks for the opportunity to compare designers. It’s so interesting to see the various takes on the same idea.

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    • Liz Bemis says:

      Gwyn — Thanks! And it is. If you look at the portfolios of all the designers I listed, I think you will find that each of them have things that they do a certain way. (I won’t call them out on their similarities, but anyone else is welcome to post their observations!)

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  12. Vivi Andrews says:

    What if I’m the designer working on the side? 😀 I know it’s a big no-no do to your own site, but I really enjoy using it as a break from my writing – activating a different part of my brain and all. And at least then I have no one to blame but myself if things go awry.

    Great tips, Liz!

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    • Liz Bemis says:

      Vivi — If it makes you happy, go for it! I would personally not hire someone to do work for me (especially with the expectation of ongoing maintenance/upkeep) if that person was working a full time 9-5 day job and then doing web design (or the like) on the side. Because I assume, and perhaps erroneously, that their primary focus/loyalty is going to be the full time gig, not the part time!… And I can also say, that when I was working full time and doing the occasional site on the side, that I wasn’t nearly as efficient as I am when it’s my full time gig. However, your mileage may vary! 😀

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    • Liz Bemis says:

      OK… I totally missed what you were saying here. (I thought you meant you were doing OTHER people’s sites on the side). If you have the time to do your own site, by all means, do so! Especially if you enjoy it, and can get the results you want! 😀

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  13. Great post, Liz. When I first finaled in the Golden Heart in 2008, I needed a website quickly. Saw one I liked and called the designer’s name on the bottom. I really knew nothing! Luckily it worked out super. Love your questions, especially the “Thanksgiving mashed potatoes” reference. Great advice.

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    • Liz Bemis says:

      Bev, I’ve had a couple of people I know who let their brother/husband/2nd cousin, etc take over their site… and usually that person was doing it for free, or super-cheap, and then they didn’t feel like they could say “Do this NOW! It’s URGENT!” or “I DON’T LIKE THAT!” without problem… so they just dealt with it and felt resentful. You should be able to say (no matter what you’re paying for your site) that A) I need this done in a timely manner and B) I need this done to my specifications.

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  14. Liz, My website (www.autumnjordon.com) was designed by Rae Monet, who is on your list above. I love her, but if ever I need to change I know where I’m heading. You’ve done amazing, unique work and I hear you go beyond the norm to help your clients. WINK

    Awesome post for those who are considering putting up a website.

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    • Liz Bemis says:

      Thanks Autumn! And far be it from me to suggest you sack someone you’re happy with… but should you decide to make a change, you know how to find me!

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  15. Leslie says:

    I am beyond thrilled with my web designer! 😉

    Excellent advice, Liz, and with you guiding the process it was one of the easiest I’ve experienced. I’m so happy with the results–and so are my contacts who keep dropping compliments!

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    • Liz Bemis says:

      Thanks, Leslie! Wow! This is starting to feel like “homecoming” 😀 I’ve got clients popping out of the woodwork all over the place! I’m so glad you still love your site! Liz

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  16. Excellent tips, Wizard Liz! My site is still a DIY job. I tell you, working with myself as a web designer, I’m never totally happy! When I get published, I’ll fire myself and hire a real designer. 🙂

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  17. Nora says:

    I’m a lurker here!

    I hope you don’t mind this being a little off topic but it’s not too far off.

    How important do you ( all of you) think having a strong web presence is for an aspiring author?

    I know published authors, all if not most, have websites/facebook pages/twitters/ect.
    For a little person like me, is an up and running website something needed or seen as desirable to publishers?

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    • Hi, Nora! I’m unpublished and I’ve had a website since 2007, when I signed with my agent. At first I was hesitant to get involved in Twitter, FB, etc, I now realise it’s been a good learning curve promo-wise. I just have to make sure writing comes before promotion.

      If you’re finaling in competitions, if you’re getting requests from editors and agents, this is a good time to start establishing your cyber presence. Even if you decide not to get a website now, at least consider registering a domain under your chosen name.

      Oh, and in 2009, us YA Golden Heart finalists were contacted by a senior agent at a publishing house. He found us through our websites and requested our full mss. So that’s something to think about! 😉

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