Being a web designer means that you have to have a creative mind to produce excellent work, the technical savvy to utilize necessary design tools, and the business sense to learn and adapt as your business grows. It also means building a toolkit of the design and business skills you need to build your business. In this article, we offer an overview of the essential business-related and design skills you will need for a successful freelance web design career.
As a freelancer, taking on the business aspects of your career can seem quite daunting. Many of the skills you need to be successful in business aren’t covered in design school, yet are imperative to master if you’re to have a successful career. There are loads of skills you’ll need, but we’ve zeroed in on some basic, yet important skills to have in order to make your business dream a reality.
Communication is Key
As they say, the key to any good relationship is communication. Since you will likely work remotely for clients both near and far, timely and effective communication is especially important. Since you probably can’t meet with many of your clients in person, it’s critical to be available via phone, email, Skype, or some other means.
Clients will want to know how things are progressing with their project, and they don’t want to have to contact you to find out. What’s more, if you remain diligent and keep your clients in the loop, there will be far fewer phone calls and emails from them trying to find out what’s going on.
That being said, be wary of being over-communicative and over-available. Your client doesn’t need to know every last detail of what you’ve done that day, nor should they expect to be given that depth of reporting.
Similarly, you shouldn’t have to answer your phone at all hours of the day or feel compelled to check your email every 20 minutes. Every client will be different, but just sending a quick email every couple of days to give an update on the project’s progress will be sufficient for keeping the lines of communication open.
If you find that your client has a ton of questions all the time, don’t dismiss it as them being clueless or them not understanding your workflow. Regardless of how frustrating a client may be, it’s ultimately your job to make sure they understand what’s happening. Many freelancers will encounter communication issues with clients for the following reasons:
- You haven’t asked the client the right questions and have just assumed you know what it is the client wants or needs.
- You’re speaking in a technical language that is difficult for the layperson to understand.
- You’re relying far too much on email and not enough on actual conversations.
Avoid these blunders by listening first and talking later. The first discussion with a client should revolve around you getting to know them, not the other way around. Also be sure that as you work on the project you’re using language that non-designers can understand. Not every client is going to know what a widget is or understand color theory, so you have to speak about those things (without being condescending!) so the client is able
comprehend. Lastly, sprinkle a few phone calls in with your emails. Oftentimes questions you have for your clients and questions they have for you can be much more easily answered with a few minutes on the phone than in a long, drawn-out series of emails.
The Sales Pitch
No doubt there weren’t many sales seminars in design school, yet being able to sell your services is one of the most fundamental aspects of being in business for yourself. It doesn’t help that web design is an incredibly competitive field in which there are many, many highly talented and qualified designers. Selling people on your particular skills and talents is how you will differentiate yourself from everyone else. Show off your skills in your portfolio.
Ask former clients to spread the word about your awesome services. Harness the power of the Twittersphere to give yourself some props. The point is, you have to be active in your pursuit of clients because you will have a long, lonely wait if you make them seek you out.
As a freelancer you will work on multiple projects at the same time that have different due dates. You will have different bosses who live in different time zones who have different expectations for you with regard to their project. Juggling all of that successfully takes an abundance of skill, patience, organization, and some design business tools. To maximize your efficiency, follow these easy organizational tips.
Keep a Regular Schedule
Whether you like working during the day or night, during the week or on the weekends, find a schedule that works for you and stick to it. The structure will help you stay productive and will also help define your day into work time and personal time. Adhering to a set schedule also helps your clients understand when you are accessible and when you are taking time for yourself. Some people assume that since you work for yourself that you work whenever you please. Maintain a set schedule to help dispel that rumor and give your work and home life some separation.
Stay on Top of Emails
Email is something that can quickly spiral out of control. Before you know it, you can have an inbox with 100 messages from a dozen different people. To stay on top of your emails, answer critical messages immediately and leave less critical messages for another time. Remember, your clients pay your bills, and they don’t want to wait forever for you to reply to them, so address their needs first.
Also organize your inbox with a dedicated folder for each client. Moving emails from your inbox to the appropriate folder will keep things nice and tidy and ensure that important emails from a client don’t get lost in the fray. Another good idea is to have a dedicated business email so your personal matters don’t bog down your inbox.
Disorganization is sure to creep into your professional life if you don’t know when to say no. Not only that, if you stretch yourself too thin by taking on an unreasonable load of clients, your work (and your reputation) will suffer. Take some time to figure out how long certain jobs take for you to complete and map those jobs out a couple of weeks in advance. Leave some extra time built into your weekly schedule to account for unforeseen circumstances, such as a problem or issue with a project that requires your immediate attention. Very seldom will a project take less time than you think, so be prepared by giving yourself some cushioning in your schedule.
As hard as you may try to keep a regular schedule, there will be days when things don’t go as planned. As a result, adaptability is a key characteristic of a successful freelance web designer. You will have clients who want last-minute changes to their designs. You will have clients who go for days without responding to your requests for their input. Some jobs that are supposed to last a week will end up lasting three weeks. And you will have clients contact you with a job that needs to be completed the next day. Its just the nature of the game and being flexible will help you meet your clients’ needs and help maintain your sanity.
Since web design is a field that is constantly changing, you should always be working on updating and perfecting your design-related skills. Not that long ago, most websites were based on fixed or fluid layouts. Now, most are based on responsive design principles. Staying at the forefront of design is absolutely critical if you are to have a long and successful career. There are some skills, however, that stand the test of time and which should be a part of your designer toolkit.
Having design sense may be less of a skill and more of a personal attribute, but it’s nevertheless the most important component of your design toolbox. You can have all the fancy software and tools in the world, but if you don’t understand the basics of good design no one will ever hire you. There’s a lot that goes into having good design sense:
- An understanding of usability, particularly with regard to site navigation.
- An understanding of typography to maximize readability and enhance the overall design.
- An understanding of color theory, including complimentary and contrasting colors, as well as appropriate use of white space.
- An ability to develop page layouts that utilize appropriately sized text and graphics.
- An understanding that good design is thorough, but not obtrusive.
Design sense is also having knowledge of current design best practices and letting go of old methods (remember table-based web design?!) when the time comes. To stay on your game, spend a little time each month refreshing your current skills or learning an altogether new one by taking advantage of resources to improve your web design skills.
UX and UI
Regardless of how a site is built or what platform it uses, it has to be something that is an enjoyable experience for users. It also has to be something that makes sense and that allows users to do what they need to do or find what they need to find in a manner that is intuitive. UX and UI are a lot of things to a lot of different people, but in very simple terms, your designs have to be functional, yet beautiful, purposeful, and yet creative. The folks at Web Designer Depot offer a highly in-depth discussion of UX and UI if you fancy learning more.
Ten years ago designers used Photoshop to construct every component of a site to pixel-perfect proportions. They then handed those designs off to programmers so they could build the online representation of that design. Today, there are many interactive services and tools like website builders that help designers create sites using a streamlined online workflow. This allows designers to bypass the need to render everything in Photoshop, and also allows designers to take on the backend duties of web development.
However, mastery of Photoshop is still an important skill to have. This goes beyond knowing the keyboard shortcuts – designers have to be able to harness the power of the program to make their creations. Building a banner for a website requires a different set of Photoshop skills than building a wireframe for a site design. Some argue that Photoshop’s best use in modern design workflow is in exploring the aesthetics of your designs such as textures, colors, typefaces, and other site elements with your clients. However you use Photoshop, it can still be a very powerful component of your designer toolkit.
As a web designer, you might be wondering why you need to know anything about coding. Although designers who work as part of a design team may not need to know any coding, chances are in the freelance world you will need at least a little bit of knowledge. It can be an advantage to have some knowledge of coding when talking to programmers or developers, and when thinking about how your designs will be implemented. It can also be an advantage in helping you make the transition from a website designer to a website creator. Utilizing a website builder to become a website creator will allow you to avoid coding, yet still offer a full set of website services.
The pace with which web design trends change can be a little overwhelming. Finding time to learn a new skill, whether it’s business or design related, can be difficult too but is just as important for your long-term success. Challenge yourself to learn something new each month in order to stay current, and once you’ve mastered that new skill, use it! Incorporating what you learn into your designs will not just make your job easier, it will keep your designs fresh as well.
What skills do you think are essential for a new web designer? Let us know by sharing your thoughts in a comment below! Also be sure to sign up for our monthly newsletter, which includes awesome information about web design tips, tricks, resources, and more.
Photo credits: Pointing at Button by citirecruitment via Flickr Creative Commons Phone by raindog808 via Flickr Creative Commons Business Calendar and Schedule by photosteve101 via Flickr Creative Commons I know you and Frank… by Tim Norris via Flickr Creative Commons