A small-scale business owner can get by with no frills, but hire out if you need to.
The appearance of your Web site is a reflection of your business. When potential customers view your site, you make an impression that’s as important and varied as your product or service. Professional, amateurish, all business, or for-the-fun-of-it can all be valid first impressions, providing that’s what you intend.
If you want to design your Web site so that it reflects your business and its philosophy, you have to spend some time and money on site design. How much and in what way is up to you.
Today there are plenty of Web-site design options from which to choose. The spectrum of options ranges from hiring professional Web site designers to doing it yourself, with plenty of possibilities in-between.
You know your business and what you need to say about it. If you have brochures, press releases, and similar business information you have already said a lot. You may have also created business logos and other graphic designs that reflect your business perspective.
While most consultants will tell you that your overall appearance should be cohesive–that your business cards should carry the same design as your stationery, signage, and Web site–this is becoming less a rule than a general guideline. These same consultants will advise you to periodically revamp your Web site, keeping it fresh and new.
If the Internet’s done nothing else, it’s broken the tradition governing how your business graphics should be executed. Our advice is to not worry about whether your Web site’s look and feel corresponds to the other graphics surrounding your business. Design is very important, but don’t get bogged down by strict adherence to archaic rules.
The overarching concern of effective design is also the first rule of Web-site design: form follows function. This is one of the reasons Web sites often need to have a look and feel that’s different from those of other marketing materials. Screen colors are limited. Resolutions are limited. Download times are limited. And visitor patience is limited. These and other functional limitations dictate your design directions.
Despite these functional limitations, the goal of a business’s site design is roughly the same as that of other marketing materials–reflect the mission and culture of the company. What you say and how you say it is as important as how it appears. A paint store Web site that renders everything in black and white is not making a very vivid statement. A baseball history site that carries all text and no pictures shouldn’t expect repeat visitors.
Once you’ve decided that you’ll need to spend some time, effort, and probably dollars on site design, consider your options.
Hire it out?
Because budget is an all-important issue, the first thing you should find out about professional Web-site designers is how much they charge. If you hire professional help, expect to pay professional wages. Sometimes you can get lucky visiting your local college of art and design, or perusing the classifieds of your local COMPUTERUSER. On occasion you can find good, solid young designers willing to work for youthful rates.
But most often, if you want good Web site design you have to pay for it.
How much? Depending on your requirements, rates vary from $50 to $150 per hour. Some of the higher-end design shops will charge much more. And you won’t find many in the $50-per-hour range, but they do exist. On average, an anecdotal survey might reveal the cost of good Web-site design to be in the $75-per-hour range.
If you become interested in a design house or a designer, give them a test drive. For starters, you can visit several of the sites they’ve designed. If your design project is extensive, ask for references. The cliché about temperamental artists sometimes applies to Web-site designers.
Fortunately, locating potential Web-site designers can be easy. While geographic location is no longer mandatory, most business people planning to spend money will want to find a local designer. But the Web diminishes the importance of location.
I once used a designer from Denmark. The job was quick and light, but also well-executed and done for less than half of what some local designers wanted to charge. Sometimes the American dollar stretches farther overseas.
The best place to locate Web designers is on the Internet. Sites like Yahoo! Careers, Yahoo! Yellow Pages, Headhunter.net, and The Job Resource Online maintain résumés and listings of professional Web-site designers. If you want someone local, most of these services also provide geographic location as one possible search criterion.
If location is less important than high quality and low cost, consider reviewing Web-site design studios using one of the Internet search engines. Most of the top 20 search engines contain categories and subcategories devoted to Web-site design.
Templates and other low-cost designs
The area between hiring a professional designer and doing it yourself contains numerous possibilities. The most typical (and often most cost-effective) involves using a design template.
Templates enable you to use a predesigned look and feel for your site. Templates come in all formats, shapes, and sizes. They usually govern the appearance of buttons, links, fonts, and whatever other site characteristics you desire.
Microsoft FrontPage provides a good example of using a Web site template, called themes (the FrontPage term for design templates). The typical installation of FrontPage includes the setup of several Web site themes. During the process of building your site, you can apply a theme provided by FrontPage, or one you have customized.
Themes provide your site with an overall design, look, and feel that governs the way fonts are displayed, buttons are set up, links are created and maintained, and so forth. When new pages are created and added to your site, the theme can be automatically applied to it so that it maintains the same look and feel as the other pages on your site.
While the stock themes issued with the application are adequate designs, many people will be dissatisfied with the limited choices. Fortunately there is a burgeoning third-party FrontPage theme-development business available on the Internet. Visit any of the major search engines and search on the phrase FrontPage Theme, and you’ll receive plenty of potential resources. Some of them include themesets.net and Theme Gallery. Visiting these sites is also useful for reviewing some of your site design possibilities.
Most FrontPage themes can be acquired from third parties for less than $10. Of course using them presumes some working knowledge of FrontPage, but not much.
Users of Macromedia’s Dreamweaver have access to professionally designed templates. Similar to FrontPage themes, Dreamweaver users have a large library of Macromedia and third-party templates from which to choose.
Do it yourself?
This option is listed last because it’s the most problematic. Nine times out of 10, designing your own site should not be a viable option. Admittedly, designing a site on the Web can be fun, but if it’s your business you need to be serious.
Some people have a knack for design and can pull it off. But these individuals are rare. If you’re an artist, it’s possible you could do it. If you have a penchant for publication graphics, you might be able to succeed. But even if you have an artistic flair, knowing how to translate it into your business Web site is an entirely different matter.
If you still believe you can design your own professional site, make sure you get some guidance. A couple of good references include the Web Style Guide: Basic Design Principles for Creating Web Sites and Creating Killer Web Sites. In addition to the Web sites, you can also attain these titles in book form. If you’re a neophyte to Web-site design, resources like these are mandatory tools.
The look and feel of your Web site is one of its most important characteristics. How users view your site determines in part whether they’ll want to return. Fortunately you have plenty of design options from which to choose.