Working with designers

It's very rare to find a web developer who has the whole bag of skills - someone who can create a website from start to finish, which is professional in all disciplines of the trade - I'm talking backend programming, frontend coding, usability, design, content creation, marketing, SEO, and anything else I have missed.

As a general-purpose web developer / SEO, I find myself working with freelance graphic designers on most new projects I take on. Sometimes it's easy and 'just works', sometimes it's frustrating and expensive. Here's some of the things I have learned over time.

1. Someone is in charge

Somebody needs to be ultimately responsible for the project - if the website fails to sell anything, or just doesn't work, it will be this person who has to explain to the client what is happening.
Sometimes this is the designer, sometimes it's the web developer, sometimes it's the SEO. Sometimes it's the client. I would say that establishing leadership in a project is critical early on - good websites are a compromise of so many disciplines, and someone needs to understand these delicate balances so they can decide what is best for the site. There will be instances where the designer and developer disagree, and more often than not the correct answer to the problem will depend on the individual circumstances of the site.

Without clear leadership, designers will create pages with 400kb of hi-res images, SEOs will pack pages full of keyword-laden text, and web standards zealots will create ugly sites that validate. And clients will insist on some things so silly that you have to double check they aren't taking the piss.

Sometimes as an SEO I'll find myself shaking my head saying "damn, they really should get rid of that splash page". If you are on a commission basis, or are ultimately responsible for the website, then it's your job to make sure that splash page is gone and doesn't rear it's ugly head again. But as a consultant who doesn't get to see the big picture, the responsibility is different. Your job is to put forward your reasoning and recommendations in a clear written format to the project leader, and let them make that call - they need to balance other competing agendas, and it's a delicate game of politics.

Without question, the worst jobs I have worked on are the ones where I am expected to bear responsibility of the site, but aren't given authority to make final decisions on the details.

2. Respect the design

Designers get really grumpy when your finished website doesn't look like what they supplied. And that's entirely understandable, they have spent hours getting it looking just so. And everything is important, from font size to whitespace to the borders on form elements.

Sometimes there are really good reasons why you can't implement a certain design - more often than not it's related to the filesize of the images, but designers often forget important things like breadcrumb nav, footer nav, home buttons, H1 headings, things that break in IE6, and in far too many cases - text content for the homepage.

The correct approach is to go back to the designer, explain the problem, and let them fix the problem in a tasteful way. The alternative is to hack up a solution yourself, but it's my experience that this will cause conflict - you are meddling with something that has already gone through several layers of approval, and while you need to stick to your guns on the important issues, you need to play by the rules. And that means letting the designer do the design.

3. Insist on content design

Any muppet can design a half-decent looking template. I can do a perfectly fine job of making a square box with a sidebar and some soft shadows. But designers can make the content blend into the template, and make the template a perfect fit for the content it's housing.

CMS sites tend to make us a bit lazy - it's easy to type text into a box, and insert a few images, and that's fine for blogs. But the key pages of a site really do need that careful eye to make the content look great. Carefully laid out text, attention grabbing buttons, good use of whitespace. All skills that your designer probably has and you don't.

So, when you commission a design, make sure you provide them with a good brief and content for the key pages - so they can create properly designed content. Your visitors are coming to read the content right?

4. Give the designer room to be creative

Do be specific about the points that matter, but give the designer a little room to breathe. Give them the brand guidelines, but allow the creative process to take it's course.
My personal experience is that when you get too involved, the design comes out looking like something you could have created yourself - which isn't what you are paying them for. Let the designer dictate the process, and provide them with the information they ask for. Let them advise on photography and colour, and allow them the room to come up with something great.

Good designers will take into account all kinds of things you might not have thought about - like how much it's going to cost to print that full-colour logo onto a vehicle or sign, or whether white text on a black background is going to be legible on a website (hint: it's not).

5. Design - part of the bigger picture

Design is not usually the most important element of a website. It's easy to blow most of the website budget on the design because it's usually the first part of the process. It's also the part of the process where the client can see a big difference in the 'before' and 'after'.
But there is no point getting to the end of the project and deciding there isn't any time for link building because the design took longer than anticipated, or leaving the client with an empty shell to enter their own content via the CMS.

I'm not picking on design at all, and I'm not suggesting design is not important. Creating a good website is all about compromise - when the budget is limited, don't be afraid to compromise on design in favour of other web disciplines which are just as important.

Clients will often ask for a redesign of their website, but that's not always what is needed. The project I'm currently involved with had an adequate design, but the usability of the site was appalling and it wasn't being found in search engines. In this case I consider we made the right call, which was to address the issues that needed addressing most.

There are also plenty of ways to freshen up a site without spending too much on a full redesign.

Working with search engine marketers

We SEOs have our quirks too, and our love of plain text and exact phrases has caused many a designer to shake their head in disbelief.

It's a matter of finding that magic balance - great looking sites that are optimized properly.
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Tags: designseo