Should You Hire Someone to Design Your Website?

In publishing, we often say how critical it is to hire a professional editor if you plan to self-publish. Or we say how valuable a professional publicist or PR person can be.

As someone who isn’t trained as a designer (but who has worked with many designers over the years, and knows the benefit of great design), the following advice is going to sound paradoxical, yet …

As a writer, you don’t need to hire a designer or a design firm when you first start your own site or blog. Why? Three key reasons.

1. There are probably hundreds of solid design themes and templates available for standard WordPress sites. (I always recommend writers start their sites or blogs using WordPress and this is one reason why.)

To be confident you’re choosing something with good design and functionality, you can pay for a premium theme (like Thesis), which usually run less than $100.

If you choose a different platform—like Blogger, Posterous, or Tumblr—the same principles apply. These tools have already been designed for optimal online reading and presentation. So: Avoid messing with the defaults too much. They are there for a reason.

(That said: There are some really awful design templates and themes available since nearly anyone can contribute/develop one. Try to have good taste.)

2. If you’re just starting your site or blog, it will take time before you really know what you want it do and what it should look like. Most people don’t know how their site should “feel” for at least a year or more. Once you’ve experimented—and started paying attention to other site/blog design—you’ll start to form a vision and purpose. That’s when a designer can make the most impact.

3. Unless you’re launching a business or selling products, it’s unlikely you need the “sleek” factor of a professionally designed site.

That said, here are a few considerations.

  • If you’re already a successful author, and need to have a polished and branded site, hire a designer, by all means—especially if your author career is 100% of your livelihood.
  • You may be so new to websites and blogging that you need the help and attention of someone who’s not only a good designer, but a good teacher. This isn’t so much a design consideration as a service consideration. It can help reduce frustration and beginner mistakes.
  • Chris Guillebeau is known for recommending that creative entrepreneurs hire a professional designer to ensure your site reflects your unique qualities and mission. Of course, he had a business plan and strategy when he started his online presence. Unless you have a definitive plan and set of goals, you may be wasting money on a designer.

My motivation for writing this post is that I see many unpublished writers (and other creative folks) hiring design help when they have an unclear idea of what they want their site to be, or what it should accomplish.

Until you have a clear idea of what you want to do with your site, a professional look and feel won’t be much help. If you’re in the process of establishing your online presence, the design templates provided with well-crafted systems like WordPress are more than sufficient for your needs.

And I can use myself as an example: My own personal site is designed entirely by me, using a premium theme, Headway. Next step I’m considering: Hire a designer for a customized header.

What’s your experience? If you hired a web designer, was it worth the cost? If so, why?

Photo credit: tifotter

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27 thoughts on “Should You Hire Someone to Design Your Website?

  1. Julian Cassell

    I’m seeing a lot of my considerations/issues/concerns in this post! I have gone down the WordPress route and after the initial set up by a web designer, and after a little tuition, I now do pretty much everything on the site myself. I have to say though that although there are the obvious financial savings in doing it yourself, it can often take a lot of time/experimentation and general trial and error to get the results you want. Therefore, I think its very wise to have a good number to call when you hit those major problems!



  2. Jennifer Mattern

    "You are correct that it does not make sense to pay someone when there is so much out there we can avail ourselves for free"

    If that were correct, you’d have to equally say that it doesn’t make sense to hire professional writers when you can get free (or nearly free content) too. After all, if you can just fill up a site with articles from EzineArticles (done with the exact same intent as releasing free themes — it’s usually about link marketing), that’s good enough. You can’t make one argument w/o the other. Of course it’s just easier to value writing more when we’re writers.

    "It’s to focus more on what really matters, less on the artifice."

    I’d rephrase that and say it’s time to focus on what really matters — appealing to the audience you want to reach. Content alone doesn’t do it in most niches. I write in several, and better designs always have increased traffic and interaction with that content. Too many people seem to worry about what others are doing in general, and in the process they forget that every target audience is different in what they want and expect from a site. (Using the blue and red examples I gave earlier, they work fantastically on a small business blog, but would be far less impressive on my freelance writing blog where the audience tends to react better to a "warmer" feel.)

    There has been a strong minimalist segment of blog design for years now, so what Leo’s doing is actually far from new. Given the nature of his blog and that audience, that makes perfect sense for him. It would make less sense for someone writing about art, where visual appeal is important. You could say the same for authors wanting to sell books through that site or blog — people want information, and some of that information will be visual (who the author is, what the book looks like, examples of images in the book if it’s image-intensive, etc.). It would be a mistake to assume that minimalist alone = good designs for writers because you put more emphasis on content. You package your content in a way appropriate for your audience if you want to maximize your reach. Minimalist isn’t always it. And there are just as many awful minimalist designs as there are great ones. You have to keep in mind that many aren’t released to be used as-is, but rather as frameworks to let people create more unique, customized designs so their blog doesn’t look like everyone else’s.

    As for slick designs and the hyped up sales aspect some have, keep in mind that most of the spammy sales copy out there is actually released on minimalist sales letter style Web templates — not highly-styled professionally-created Web designs.

  3. J.M. Lacey

    Since I work with corporate clients and my focus is on marketing and branding, my site had to reflect this. I reviewed other writers’ Web sites and frankly, was appalled at the lack of imagination. I opted to hire a firm and after writing my own content and passing along my "vision" for my site, I was pleased with the ultimate results. I had to consider my audience, my image and look long-term–exactly what I do for my own clients when building their Web sites or helping them brand their companies.

    When it came time for my blog, that was an entirely different market. The blog is designed to build an audience for my novels, which have a strong focus on the arts, and in particular, classical music. I designed most of the site myself and came up with the concept. I work with a design and tech firm that helps with all the back end. They built my blog in WordPress. Again, I had to have a plan since the blog is to help build my platform for future novels.

    Both the Web site: and Blog: have professional domain names.

    Jennifer’s comments are on the mark because it is about branding ourselves. As writers, we work hard to make sure the content on Web sites is top notch and SEO-friendly. However, most people are swayed and pass judgments based on design FIRST. It is all about looks, then content, on the Internet. (Similar to passing judgment on someone we meet for the first time. We pass judgment within the first 10 seconds based on outward appearances.)

    It is better to hire a designer, or marketing/ad firm that "gets" you and your vision. When companies hire me, I am not emotionally attached to their company, so I am better able to offer an outside perspective. First, I have to understand their vision, their goals, and then I can help them.

    When hiring a designer, check references. Look into other sites/blogs they’ve done. And keep in mind that you get what you pay for. Just as clients pay me for quality work, I expect to pay designers for quality work.

    If you are a professional, everything you do should exemplify that. Web sites and Blogs are no exception. A cheap-looking site and blog screams lazy amateur.

    Your site might also affect the kind of work you receive. A sloppy site will get you clients that have low expectations and small pockets.

    I actually get quality work from clients in large part because the quality of my Web site reflects how I do business.

  4. Claire Goverts

    I decided to design/code my own website, which I haven’t been linking to much because I am in the process of putting up content. I enjoy creating websites so for me it was an easy decision to do the work myself. While having taken a web design course while in college does help I had already figured out enough on my own before taking the class.

  5. poch

    I think hiring an individual to design your site is risky since the person’s design might be in conflict with other persons whom you will hire to create your site. The wiser thing is to hire a group or company.

  6. Florence Fois

    This post is on-target for me and what I have been doing. This month I purchased my blog name as a domain to register with WordPress. I also purchased the domain name for my future web page. I began my blog eleven months ago with the help of my daughter.

    From blogspot to wordpress, with changes in photography and format, I have found what I wanted in the blog. My plans are evolving through my interaction with other writers and many of the "help" sites out there for writers.

    Each connection to the network of what and who is available to assist, creates a new avenue for me to explore. I suggest that your readers use customer service, tech-help whenever it is available, either by phone or e-mail. Also, don’t be shy and ask questions of other bloggers, writers and other professionals. You won’t know, if you don’t ask.

    You are correct that it does not make sense to pay someone when there is so much out there we can avail ourselves for free. Use resources, plan what you want and allow enough time for those plans to evolve with a bit of flare and professionalism … and by all means enjoy.

  7. Alberto D

    The good about Blogger, WordPress, Etc is that during following years screen sizes will change the layout look constantly and we won’t need to know how to deal with it. Smartphones included.

  8. DazyDayWriter

    I tend to agree, Jane. My site and blog (SunnyRoomStudio, home to DazyDayWriter blog) were done without professional assistance. I knew I needed time to really define the "creative, sunny space for kindred spirits" … so this has worked out well for me. WordPress has its issues, as do the various themes, but for the first year, I think it’s a good way to go. Stay fluid and flexible to match the nature of our swiftly-moving world! By investing too much-too soon in a site/blog … it’s easy to feel locked in when, really, you want to change things or move quickly in another direction. Drop by SunnyRoomStudio sometime, let me know what you think! (Time to call in the professionals?!) –Daisy Hickman

  9. Carol J. Alexander

    As a beginning freelancer, I have very little money to spend on my business. I’m thankful for the WYSIWYG templates and I used Blogger to design both my website and my blog so that they would have the same look. Honestly, I can’t see that they are any less professional looking than others that have been done by a designer.

  10. Jane Friedman

    (For all)

    This is a fascinating discussion for me because I’ve actually found myself becoming distrustful, over time, with slick-looking sites that seem almost desperate to sell me, charm me, or say "Hey, I’m original and eccentric and special!"

    I suspect this is why Leo Babauta has, over time, really stripped down the design and presentation of his blog, Zen Habits, and also launched the extremely bare-bones Mnmlist:

    It’s to focus more on what really matters, less on the artifice.

  11. Laura Roberts

    Agreed. There are so many great free themes out there for WordPress (among others) that it’s not worth it to pay a designer.

    That being said, I have seen an awful lot of really awful looking author websites. "Try to have good taste," indeed! I guess some people just don’t have an eye for what will look good, in which case they might want to ask their more design-oriented friends for advice on picking out a theme that doesn’t look completely amateurish and horrible. The coffee-stained "desk" design covermyscript mentions is one of those overused designs that, while cute on first glance, becomes less so with repeated exposure. Same for the one with the books on the shelves. Let’s be a bit more original here! Do some keyword searches for the elements you’d like to include, perhaps based on the genres you write in, at minimum.

    I do like Jennifer Mattern’s advice to seek out a theme designer whose work you like and approaching them for customizations. Haven’t tried it yet, but I’m definitely considering it for some of my sites!

  12. Jennifer Mattern

    "My advice is mainly targeted at unpublished writers who may not yet have a thing to sell — and even when they do, they’re really connecting with people I’d consider "everyday" folks (readers) who probably aren’t going to judge on the same criteria as a paying client."

    Today, they are what they’re trying to sell though. You’re selling your personality to readers. If you do that well, you build a solid platform. And we all know that a writer’s platform is incredibly important these days if they’d like to ever land a publisher. Taking that seriously up front is important, especially given that there will be thousands of others with the same goals who don’t.

  13. Jennifer Mattern

    I think people pick up on design issues a bit more than we give them credit for. When I ran a PR firm I used to work with various creative types — musicians, writers, etc. And it was amazing to notice the differences in traffic musicians got over people like writers. They made their websites real hubs for their communities. On the other hand, I’ve rarely come across an author website I didn’t think was godawful design-wise, including big name authors who have no excuse anymore.

    I think some writers are more forgiving as an audience than others. And that’s why authors shouldn’t ask other writers for design opinions — they don’t represent the reader audience which is used to more sophisticated designs in this day and age. Unless you’re a big name social network or something like Craigslist (where simplicity keeps the site running smoothly) ultra-simple rarely works. Being a writer involves personal branding, and branding goes beyond your content. You need to personalize.

    As one of your other readers noted, it can indeed affect traffic and sales. Speaking for myself, if it looks like someone just slapped a site together to get online using a freebie, I’ll probably leave. Unless I already know you (or know of you), a generic site is an immediate turn-off because it tells me you’re not serious about what you’re doing. For me it’s not subconscious because this is a big part of how I make my living. I’m highly sensitive to the feeling a site gives me. And if you target a fairly Web-savvy audience, they’re probably somewhat close to that too.

    On the other hand, some people absolutely do subconsciously judge a site based on its design. In the business niche for example, I’ve found that good old consumer psychology holds true — people trust your site more when you focus on a red (authority status) and blue (trust) design. With my now-retired PR blog, serious simplicity worked very well because transparency and getting past corporate PR spin was the emphasis behind the branding. Traffic jumped up by tens of thousands of visitors after that change.

    When we made our most recent change on my freelance writing blog, I got some interesting feedback (in addition to another quick traffic jump). There was the basic "oooh, pretty" feedback. But two that stood out included one reader who told me she didn’t really like the previous design but never said anything because she just couldn’t put a finger on why. There was a subconscious judgment of the old design and even though she recognized it she couldn’t understand it. Another reader made a comment to the effect of "this is how I always thought All Freelance Writing was supposed to look in my head." Now that’s interesting — she knew the feel she wanted from the site even when she wasn’t getting it. The current design is actually modeled after the last one (which I did solo). I just worked simultaneously with a designer on changing images, buttons, and the color scheme. The idea was to warm it up as a contrast to the often very blunt advice given there. Not only did traffic increase (which led to increased e-book sales and ad revenue from that new traffic), but we also saw more regular comments coming through. And hey, conversation is supposed to be what blogs are about. Nothing up until that point affected the number of comments as much.

    Of course we don’t want to think that we’re this subconsciously judgmental, but we’re human. We’re going to have gut reactions to things. You could ask 100 people what they think of your site design. Most will probably give you some vaguely positive feedback. They don’t want to hurt your feelings. Then change your design to something more appropriate for the rest of your branding. Watch what happens. There’s a reason people are paid big money to manage branding for companies. Even the most seemingly subtle things can make a huge difference in how your audience reacts to you. They probably wouldn’t admit it, because they don’t realize it themselves. That’s why people hate ads, but companies still advertise — like it or not, we’re influenced by them.

    I wish I could say content could completely make up for an awful or just non-unique design. But it doesn’t. If that were the case, there would never be a traffic increase after a design change. The content is the same. The idea is to have a design that makes readers feel at home on your site so they want to sit back and enjoy that content for a while. Think of your favorite coffee joint, let’s say one a writer pulls out a laptop in because it’s cozy and a nice play to work. Now picture some seedy dank little place in the middle of a bad neighborhood. They could have the best coffee in the world, but if the atmosphere is wrong, people are never going to be comfortable hanging out there. The same goes for the atmosphere of your site and how it presents your content.

  14. covermyscript

    my only further issue, jane, is how do you transcend from being just "a home writer" to a "pro writer" if you don’t look pro? hollywood is all about how you look and how people perceive you. and if you look the part, you get the part. it’s like a fake it ’till you make it deal.

    the compromise for writers is to just invest in their name as a domain, host it, and then if they still want to make their own site until they feel like going up to "the show" go for it. but anytime someone gives me their writing website and it’s got /blogspot after it and someone’s clever nickname, it just makes me feel like they’re a hobbyist rather than someone actively trying to go pro.

    i guess it’s really a function of what the person’s real needs are.

  15. Jane Friedman

    @covermyscript – All points well taken, and I’m glad to have the alternative perspective here for readers of this blog.

    I do think there’s a different dynamic at play when you’re seeking professional or high-powered clients, or trying to be a creative entrepreneur. My advice is mainly targeted at unpublished writers who may not yet have a thing to sell — and even when they do, they’re really connecting with people I’d consider "everyday" folks (readers) who probably aren’t going to judge on the same criteria as a paying client.

    For nonfiction authors who want to be seen as experts and authorities, though, I think these are extremely important considerations. I just don’t believe that simple or ordinary or cookie-cutter design (read: unbranded) is a bad thing.

    Here are a few well-known media powerhouses with very simple websites, who don’t seem to be suffering due to poor design:

    Clay Shirky

    Paul Graham

    Jeff Jarvis

    That said: Notice the URLs. I do think it’s important, at some point, to own your own domain. That speaks more of professionalism and seriousness (to me) than anything.

  16. Claire Wagner

    I’m a professional writer w/ almost 30 yrs experience. I first got a friend to build a small site (CSS template) and blog (free theme). I could never have invested the time myself. But it was not very professional looking and I soon knew it had to be a temporary solution.

    I hired a designer to build a blog entirely in WordPress with all the features and widgets I knew I wanted (from researching other good blogs) and plenty that I didn’t know. Not only do I have a great-looking and well-functioning site, but I have access to continual updates and improvements from the designer’s extensive research and experimentation. She is like a business partner now and I am extremely happy about the whole situation.

  17. covermyscript

    i dunno, jane. i’ve been a professional writer for over a decade and i designed my own websites for years and never got any real business or traction. while it’s true as a writer, mostly execs and people seeking me out will check my IMDB or Studio System for my street cred first, not having a proper branded web presence was hurting me in the long run.

    it was unprofessional for me to use my personal AOL email address for business correspondence, for not treating myself and my name like a brand. because as writers all we are are our names. in the information age, we need to claim our names and stake out our web territory. it’s the wild west again, only it’s viral and if you don’t get in there and make your voice heard well and clearly online, no one will know you.

    also, so many pitfalls in designing your own site. yes, 1000’s of free templates, but none of them were quite right for me. the templates i chose were wrong, they weren’t customized to meet my needs as an author and story analyst. while yes, i needed a sleeker design because i offer services to be purchased, i am also very aware that my professionally designed site and graphics help me put my best foot forward.

    in fact getting a professionally designed site increased my traffic, my sales and my google ranking, making the information about me that i want out there, at the top of the list.

    i used merrel davis, or @uncompletedwork on twitter, to design my site. he was reasonably priced, took my ideas and what i wanted and then took it up another notch for me.

    now everywhere i go, people know my logo, they know my name, they’ve seen my site and it’s largely due to the fact that i professionally changed my web presence. i am so thrilled i invested in myself in this way. it was the best thing i have ever done.

    the only people who should go it alone without a pro, are people who are not tech-tards like me, or people who need help and advice deciding how they wish to present themselves to the world. if it takes you a year to figure out who you are as a writer, that’s a year you’re not selling or working. and no one wants that. i did the best i could on my own, but it was only with help from a pro that i was able to achieve my goals.

    really think before you commit to a single column standard blog with a coffee ring and a header that looks like a desk. are you, as a writer, really that common that someone else’s pictures define you? i would hope not. that’s the first way to get ignored or be perceived as unprofessional, and no one wants that.

  18. Jane Friedman

    @Alexis – Totally agree. Most beginners are better off spending money on hands-on training to become better skilled at using WordPress.

    @Tom – I’m hearing about SquareSpace more and more. Debbie Ohi is a major author/freelancer who I know is happy using it.

    @Therese – Amen. Anyone reading this who’s using a black background: Please, for the love of god, change it.

    @Jennifer – I was hoping I would get at least one dissenter like yourself!

    Certainly, for a professional freelancer or freelance biz site like yours, the professional look and feel is critical from the get-go.

    I do wonder if you have any further advice on what concrete differences someone who is NOT in business might expect? Do you think most online readers are savvy enough to know the difference between a customized theme vs. one that isn’t? Does good content make up for not having a customized theme? Maybe you believe there is a subconscious judgment going on that we don’t even realize?

    I do love your suggestion to get in touch with a theme designer for a customized version. Excellent idea!

  19. Polenth

    My blog started out with one of Blogger’s default templates. It’s now my own template, apart from a few graphic elements held over from the old one (the line dividers)… which I’ll replace when I get a round tuit. I hadn’t blogged before, so starting out with templates gave me a feel for what I wanted.

    My website started out with something I’d made from scratch, header included.

    I doubt I’d pay someone, because I’d rather learn to do it myself. So far it’s only cost me the price of the webspace and domain. And buying Bryce (the program I used to make the header), but I had that anyway.

  20. Jennifer Mattern

    I’m going to have to disagree a bit on this one. I’ve been in Web publishing for years in addition to my work as a writer. I’ve used out of the box free themes and templates. I’ve used premium themes and templates. I’ve done my own design work. And I’ve hired professionals. And running dozens of sites over the years I can tell you that a unique design (when done well) really can make a difference.

    I used to buy into the "you don’t need a unique design" concept too until I put an emphasis on giving it a fair shake. Like it or not there’s a difference in professionalism when you use a generic theme that people have seen around before, just like there’s a difference in the appearance of professionalism when someone uses a blog address instead of showing they care enough to invest in something as basic as a domain name. It shows people you’re serious. Now maybe that’s more important in the freelance writing world than it is for authors, especially when the clients finding you online are the same types of people who have seen all these themes that might seem new and gorgeous to a writer who doesn’t heavily stay on top of those things.

    I think there’s also a huge pricing misconception here. If someone can spend $100 or so on a premium theme, they can get a unique design too. While I don’t suggest that most clients outsource writing overseas because there’s a strong risk of a disconnect between writer and intended reader due to language issues, the same is not true of design work.

    A visual design project (and coding) can be completed just as well in a country with a lower cost of living as it can be in the US, UK, or wherever you’re living. I’ve had great work done this way (although I opted to pay much more for special feature integration).

    If a writer is even remotely design-savvy they can also work on their own design and simply hire a coder to convert it into a working template or theme. This is what I most often do, hiring designers for special projects or when I don’t have the time to work on the design myself.

    There’s another issue to consider, and one most writers I know don’t seem to know about. When you choose to use a free theme, in most cases you’re required to include links in the footer as a form of compensation. And that’s fine, albeit unprofessional in appearance. But many people giving away these free themes have since resorted to including links other than to the designer’s site — ones paid for.

    There was a big crackdown on these types of links by Google a while back. They’re considered a form of spam by them, like most paid links, and you risk having a site penalized if you include paid links (especially sitewide such as in your footer). Now if the writer knows enough to make them no-follow (and the theme’s terms allow for it — most won’t let you change them in any way), then they might be fine. But there are also cases where these footers are encrypted specifically to stop the user from editing them.

    Now there are a few places where you can get free themes that don’t require links. We offer several free ones at All Freelance Writing that I personally contracted or purchased full rights to, solely to distribute them to writers who wanted simple professional designs to edit without a link-back requirement. But resources like that are few and far between, and the loss of a professional appearance plus the SEO risks just aren’t worth it if you’re trying to rapidly grow a new site or blog.

    If you really must use a free theme, make sure you edit it heavily enough that it appears at least somewhat unique (even if it’s just a major color scheme change and swapping out a few default images.

    Better yet, here’s another option I rarely see people talk about. Go to a designer who released a free theme. For $50 or less you can usually get them to customize it for you to make it appear more unique, and in many cases payment means the designer will let you remove those footer links (although some will request simple credit on your about page or something similar). It’s an extremely affordable option to bring in a designer to help you create a more unique Web presence.

    Just my $.02 as both a writer and Web developer. Or at this point maybe that’s nickel’s worth. 😉

  21. Theresa Milstein

    I haven’t hired a designer for my blog. But the day I land an agent, I will hire a designer to help me set up a website. I’ve already purchased two domain names for when the time comes.

    Blogger’s pretty recent changes have made it easier to create a unique blog. Some people have gotten carried away and now have cluttered pages. And I still can’t stand a black background with white lettering. If you have a blog like that, please change it!

  22. Laurie London

    Great post, Jane. I totally agree.

    I designed my own website w/ WYSIWYG software (Webplus) and used a Blogger theme for my blog. Honestly, with the great blog templates out there (Blogger has a new Pages feature), I probably would’ve been fine going w/ just a blog. I like not having to pay someone (and wait for them) just because I want to do a little rearranging. It’s surprisingly easy to do yourself.

    Recently, I hired a graphic designer to create a professional website header to replace the simple one I made. It cost less than $100. I use it on my blog, my website, and on my landing page on Facebook.


  23. Delia Lloyd

    Thanks, Jane. You read my mind as this is *precisely* what I’m thinking about right now – what to redesign and how much to invest in it. After 1.5 years of steady blogging I feel like I have a better sense of what the redesign would be for, in a way that I didn’t when I started and I was overwhelmed just by the challenge of putting up new content. I’d add 2 things:

    a. know your readers so that your design can reflect their needs/interests and
    b. look around/keep a file of other blogs/sites that you think have a snappy design.

    I happened across a site of a colleague (not connected to our mutual place of employment) and discovered that in addition to being a writer, he’s also a freelance web designer! (And I may well use him for my own redesign!)

    Anyway, thanks, as always for your great advice. I’m putting in a link to your blog on my "Friday Pix" today!

    Delia Lloyd

  24. Alexis Grant

    Excellent advice. Rather than hire a designer, hire someone to help you learn to use WordPress and look like you want it to look (if you can’t figure it out quickly yourself, that is). That way, when you want to make changes down the road, you’ll be able to. It’s very possible to create clean, professional looks for our sites without spending a ton of money!


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