Bad Web Designers

Hiring a web design / development professional is often like an episode from Kitchen Nightmares.  The cook really believes he or she is great.  But a quick peek into the kitchen almost always reveals frozen, pre-made food.  The “cook” usually was a great construction worker or successful business person–but for some reason they thought cooking was a good idea, despite their inabilities.  They price their food either far too high or far too low.

The world of so-called “web designers” is incredibly parallel.  These folks might be great print designers, IT professionals, or advertisers.  But somewhere along the way they thought a jump to web would be easy, and since there’s so much pre-made stuff out there–why not make some money?

So how do you know when to hire someone, when to do it yourself, and how much a site should cost?  Here are a few tips:

To Cut Cookies or Not to Cut Cookies

No one likes to think they need a “cookie-cutter” website.  But if your budget is less than $1,500 or so–it means you’re going to get a cookie cutter site (unless someone is a beginner, fairly desperate, or will cut corners).  What I mean by “cookie cutter” is that someone out there has created a website that is fairly generic and easy to edit.  Simply swapping out the logo and making textual changes will take the template and make it “yours”.  This can be just fine if you’re a very small business with a low budget.  If what you need is nothing more than an online business card, just so you don’t look outdated, these options can work.

However, if you fit any of these categories, you should probably save up or shell out the cash for a professional, unique design:

  • You’re a business with serious competition in your area
  • You would benefit greatly from search engine optimization
  • Your business is a “parent” business that others look to (a manufacturer, a distributor, product supplier, network of professionals, etc.).
  • Your annual advertising budget is over $20,000
  • You advertise your website in radio, tv, or other publications

Cookie Cutter Hybrids

To be fair, there’s another viable alternative to having a completely “blah” template, cookie-cutter website.  A good designer can start with a pre-made template, and customize it enough to make it very unique.  This can minimize cost and still give you a unique design.  True web professionals may suggest this option if you have a lower budget, but still want a customized look beyond changing a logo or a header.

BEWARE:  Opportunistic “wanna-be” web professionals are numerous.  These are designers, IT people, or advertisers who are just tech-savvy enough to install a content management system, buy a pre-made template to install, and make very minor changes.  They think “there’s money in that!” so they charge premium prices (either because it takes them longer than a real pro, or because they want easy money).  I cannot count how many times I’ve seen businesses pay tons of money for a website I could produce in a day or two.

Made from Scratch: The Real Deal

These websites tend to start around $5,000 as a baseline cost and go up from there depending on functionality needed.  These are websites that work like this:

  • A designer mocks up a unique concept in a design program and sends a jpeg (or similar file) to the client for approval.
  • Once the design is approved, the design / development team codes the site, line-by-line.  They don’t go out and purchase a template from WooThemes for WordPress or RocketThemes for Joomla; they write the code themselves.
  • It’s likely they’ll use a content management system (CMS) like WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, Silverstripe, Concrete5, Expression Engine, etc.  But the development company creates their own unique theme that can plug into such systems.

While the creation of a custom theme (design) is vital, and the ability to program custom modules (custom functionality) into a website is paramount–it’s also important to note there are acceptable, time-saving options that exist that real pros will use:

  • Real pro’s may very well use a CSS grid-system like 960.gs, Yahoo’s YUI grid system, or something similar–but these are not design templates, these are frameworks that make for efficient code.
  • True professionals will likely use a javascript library such as jquery.
  • Content Mangement Systems that are not “proprietary” are OK.  In fact, if someone’s CMS is “proprietary”, I’d be careful.  More on this in another post.  It’s not bad to use a CMS, but the key is whether your designer / developer really knows how to create custom themes (designs) or modules (programming).  If the answer is no, you’re dealing with a hack.
  • Modules that are provided by the Content Mangement System are OK, too, to add functionality more cheaply.  But the web pro must be able to make fairly serious customizations to such modules, and should be able to build his/her own when needed.

Is My Web Professional a Hack?

The sad truth is that many who deem themselves web professionals are not proficient enough with web code (HTML, CSS), scripting (Javascript), or web development (programming languages, SQL languages) to create unique, effective websites.

Here are some clear indicators of fakers:

  • They cannot program and either avoid programming or outsource it.
  • They charge serious money for websites that use a WooTheme, a RocketTheme, a ThemeForest theme, etc.  Their “customization” of these sites will be minimal (changing headers/footers, content, etc.).
  • They may be overly expensive for template websites, or overly cheap because they do very little to the website.

These folks are not all devious, though many are.  Some had to become all things to all people because clients demanded it.  So they’re learning or doing the best they can.  But when they become parasitic–claiming they’re in the same tier as web professionals who know what they’re doing–they always rip off their clients.  Whether they lowball for a cheap website that won’t be effective, or whether they charge top dollar but rely on cookie-cutter solutions–it’s you, the client or the business, who’s left with the website equivalent of a limp handshake.

How Can I Be Sure I Get a Real Pro

Despite whether you’re doing a cookie-cutter hybrid or a from-scratch, unique design, you should find a true web professional.  The middle-tier options such as a “cookie cutter hybrid” will cost you middle-tier prices from a web pro, so you actually save money for a better web professional.  And if you ever need customized functionality, your pro will already be equipped.  If you hired a hack, they’ll be glad to “help” by outsourcing and up-charging.

If you’re screening a web professional or web development company, here are some things to ask:

  • Are you capable of building a completely custom theme from scratch for a content management system?
  • Can you program using PHP, ASP, or another web language?  If so, what are some custom modules or programs you’ve written I can see?
  • Do you have any education in database theory?
  • Are you proficient enough with HTML and CSS to take a photoshop file and create a web page from it?
  • Can you write JavaScript?
  • Can you create a website that is search-engine friendly?  (If yes,) Do you rely on a CMS module to optimize your website for search engines, or do you understand SEO well enough to do this from your own expertise?
  • Do you outsource any portion of your work?
  • What is your primary business?  Branding / print design?  IT work?  Or is most of your time spent in web development?

If you have a low budget, I commend you for recognizing the need for a website anyway.  I hope you create the best DIY option possible.  But inevitably, as you grow and recognize how high the return on investment (ROI) is with web services, you’ll need to upgrade.  Just be ready to weed out a lot of professional print designers, IT professionals, ad agencies, and inexperienced freelance desperadoes.  True web professionals aren’t scarce, they just tend to get buried under a pile of wanna-be bakers who have pre-made cookie dough, and cookie cutters at the ready.  Just be sure to peek into the kitchen when they pretend it’s from scratch.


Stephen has a 30+ year career in Information Technology which includes Web Design and Digital Marketing. He’s also a Foodie, loves music, Winter and the Oregon Coast. More often than not you’ll find him at the keyboard dreaming up new ways to promote and market his clients and the causes he cares about.

You can reach Stephen at [email protected]

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