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What does a website designer actually do?

Many people assume people who build websites like myself spend all day writing code. That may have been true 20 years ago, but the reality today is very different. So if we don’t spend our time coding, what does a website designer actually do?

In 2011, around 76% of all websites were hand-coded. By 2022, this figure had fallen to around 33%. So how are websites built if they’re not hand coded?

We use systems – specifically Content Management Systems like WordPress, Squarespace, Wix, Shopify etc. Without a Content Management System, you would have to alter the underlying code for every alteration to your website. So when you spotted a typo, wanted to change your prices, offer a new service or update images you would need to change the code. That’s why Content Management Systems and website builders (which use Content Management Systems) have exploded. These are good tools. They build good websites. The likes of Mercedes Benz, Sony music, Beyonce, Vogue and even the Sun newspaper’s websites are all built with WordPress. There’s no need to hand code websites anymore.

I’d love to say I never ever use code, but most websites I build have a tiny amount of additional code to do things I can’t do out of the box or where code is much more efficient.

A website designer doesn't just code

So what do we do?

Like any small business owner, there’s a lot we do that is unrelated to our day to day job. Things like marketing/sales, admin, checking emails, accounts/finances. But in this post I’m going to talk you through a “typical” client project – from when we start work.

Of course I work with several clients at any time so my day is typically filled with lots of these different elements.

1. Research

Your website is a marketing tool. It has a purpose. It’s purpose is to bring in clients. When someone who is a potential client lands on your website (someone you can help with whatever they need – not everyone who lands on your website will fall into that category!) you want them to take the action you want them to take. Be that “Buy Now”, “Book an Appointment”, “Schedule a Call” or whatever it might be.

It’s important therefore that I understand your business from your client’s point of view. What is going to make them take the action we want them to take? How can we make it easy for them to find the info they need to know to take that action?

I’ll look at your existing website (if you have one). I’ll look at your social media or other marketing. I’ll look at your competitors. I’ll think about if I were a potential client.

I’ll map out a client journey, recognising that some potential clients who visit your website will know very little about you and need more information and persuading than others who are ready to buy or take whatever action you want them to take.

I don’t do this in a vacuum. I’ll ask you questions (either in a sales call or other initial call) and I have a questionnaire that all my clients complete before I start work which helps me too.

I actually think this is the most important part of my job. This is the bit that makes the most difference to getting your website right.

A website designer should research a client first

2. Website Preparation

Sometimes a client will have an existing website, sometimes we will be starting fresh with a new domain.

If they have an existing website we want to keep that in place while we build the new one. So I will set up a temporary domain. If their existing website is in WordPress I will transfer everything I think we might need to the temporary domain – blog posts, images, forms etc. If it is not in WordPress I may not be able to do all of this, but I can usually copy over images at least. I build all my websites in WordPress (if you’d like to understand more about why I do this, check out my post Why I build my websites in WordPress).

If it is a new website I will start by adding it to my hosting (assuming they are taking my hosting and maintenance package). This involves logging in to where my client purchased their domain (or where their records sit which might be different) and changing some of their records. It can actually be one of the hardest and most stressful stages! Forgotten logins or passwords, 2 factor authentication and different set ups/terminology make it more challenging than I would like…

Once the website that I am going to build on is set up I then need to start adding key things.

I’ll make sure everything is set to British English to start! Time zones, dates, etc. I may also hide it from search engines if we are using a temporary domain. I’ll set default fonts and colours if we have them.

Then I will load images I have been sent. Before I do though I will resize them. I often get sent very large image files. Large image files are one of the main causes of slow running websites. I do 3 things:

  • Losslessly compress using a tool like tinypng
  • Reduce the physical size of the image
  • Translate it into a webp file (as this is now the preferred format)

I was doing this for a client this week and reduced one image from over 15MB to 119kB. The only difference in the before and after image on the website will be the time to load – you cannot visibly tell the difference.

The process of resizing images and loading them onto a website is really time consuming and not the most interesting work – one day I will get a VA to do this for me but for now it is me. But it is details like this that make a difference.

Resizing images is a key part of the website design process

3. Design

The design is the fun bit and also incredibly important.

You need to love your website or you won’t promote it. A large part of that is the “look and feel” of your website. I want you to shout about your website from the rooftops (seriously though you can’t promote your own website enough).

If you have branding colours and fonts I will use those in the design. If you don’t then I will ask about colours and fonts. I’ll also look at your other marketing – what do you use on social media? All of your marketing assets should have a similar look and feel – you don’t want someone to go from your social media to your website and wonder if it is the same business…

Again I will think about your target audience. What appeals to them?

Once I have done this research/design work I will usually write myself a briefing that sets out what I think. I can then refer back to it during the build.

Some website designers sketch out what’s called a wire frame first – that’s using a static graphic to show the design. Some will sketch it on paper (I have been known to do that). But usually I will just go straight in and start working on the temporary domain or a hidden page on a new domain.

I take the brief, brand colours (if I have them), fonts (if I have them), the draft copy and images and this is where I get creative. I will look at other websites the client has told me they like and dislike (and why) to see the kind of things that are common to them and to get some ideas.

I basically play around with different layouts, tweaking until I am broadly happy with a design concept. Then I will do another! Yes I do two design concepts for every bespoke website client.

This part is quite hard to explain, because it is definitely creative, but I do follow some pretty important design rules:

  • Making sure the content is easily readable (that relates to fonts, font sizes, line spacing, colours of fonts and colour of font on background colour)
  • Breaking up text blocks using images, different backgrounds, headings, sub-headings etc
  • Making sure there is the “right” balance between text and images (this depends on the type of business – highly visual businesses are going to have more images)
  • Putting the images in the right places
  • Ensuring the Calls to Action are in the right places and stand out and
  • Making sure your personality and what you want visitors to “feel” comes across – it can be hard to explain

Whilst I just show clients two design concepts I may have been through 10 or more to get to those two! It can be hard to know when to stop tweaking – I’ll often think “oh I wonder whether it would look better if the font were a size smaller” or ” what if I swap these round”.

Then it is off to the client.

Website design

4. Listening to Feedback

As I stated in the blog post 12 Questions to ask a website designer before you hire them, a website is a collaborative effort and, as website designers, we need to take into account client feedback.

Once I have received comments from a client I’ll go through them carefully. I might have a zoom call if there is something we need to clarify or if I think we’re further apart than we should be. Ultimately I want my client to love their new website and for it to get them clients. I’m not necessarily fixated on whether an image has round edges or square – so happy to go with a client preference.

Sometimes I might think a client is wrong though! Yes it does happen and I will explain why I don’t recommend that change. Making the logo bigger is a popular request I disagree with (although I may make it a little bigger) because it doesn’t serve your end client. They’re not interested in the logo. The beautiful image at the top of the homepage is far more compelling. But ultimately if a client is insistent I will give in to them.

I will then make the changes, optimising the revised design for mobile as I go, “firming up” the defaults (so if the design of the Call To Action buttons is agreed these will be saved as defaults) and making sure all spacings are consistent. I’ll also ensure SEO best practice is followed eg in terms of headings. Because it is more than just making the changes, this stage can take longer than you might expect.

Once the design is agreed then it is onto the full build. The key with building the other pages is keeping everything consistent and making sure it looks right on different size screens. It’s why I spend the time saving defaults, getting consistent spacing etc. It means I can use these elements in the full build and saves a lot of time.

5. Guiding Clients with their Content

Some of my clients find it easy to write content for their website and write great copy. But many others struggle. Writing marketing copy for your website is quite different to the English you’re taught at school.

I often find they need help. They don’t necessarily want to bring in a professional copywriter. But they need some guidance.

I’m always clear that copy is not my responsibility. But, if I spot typos, spelling mistakes or grammatical errors I will correct them. And I will provide guidance where I can.

So I find part of my role is guiding clients with their website copy. What they need and what they don’t. Marketing copy needs to be sharp and to the point. Most people are too long winded. I’ll tell them (politely of course) and I’ll often suggest reordering things. But at the end of the day it is their website and their copy so they’re free to ignore my suggestions!

Website design incorporates copywriting

6. Integrating with other systems

As part of a new website clients will often want an email sign up, or maybe a contact form, a membership, online courses and/or payment links.

There’s a bit more to these than just adding the relevant form or pages to the website. They usually have to speak to something else like an email marketing system (eg Mailchimp), or a payment mechanism (eg PayPal or Stripe). That’s part of my role too. Sometimes it is really straightforward, other times we’re battling forgotten logins/passwords, 2 factor authentication verification, unclear processes (and helpdesks) and/or tech gremlins. It’s not all fun and games. It’s why we charge extra for this kind of functionality.

7. Launching

Launching a new website is definitely my favourite part of building websites. I do wish I had a big red button on my desk that I pressed to launch a new website. The reality is more mundane!

If I am building a brand new website and we have been working on the real domain, the launch is like flicking a switch. It is very quick and straightforward

If we’re building on a temporary domain we need to switch the hosting over and put the new website live. There’s quite a lot that can go wrong here as various records need to be changed. Even after 5 years I worry that something will go wrong. Fortunately I haven’t had any horror stories.

Following the launch I do some tidying up in the backend of the website, add the client as an Administrator so they can access it, add Google Analytics if required and cookies policy where needed.

8. Teach

Another part of my role as a website designer is showing clients how to edit their own website. I’m a big believer in empowering clients to be able to update text and images and add blog posts. So I show them how to add images, edit text, change images and add blog posts on a zoom call after their website has gone live.

I actually love this part. Most clients are so excited and thrilled with their website. And I tell them if they’re on my maintenance plan they really can’t break it because I take a back up every night. You can see their relief!

Teaching clients about their website

9. Maintenance

My job doesn’t stop at putting websites live. Some website designers will just build the website and leave you to maintain your own website. I currently look after about 50 client websites that I have built. This means checking every day for updates to WordPress, the theme I use and plug-ins and deciding what to update. Security updates are carried out as soon as I can after becoming aware of them. Most updates are fixing bugs and/or adding new features but these can sometimes cause problems so if I hear of conflicts I will hold off on these. I’ll also hold off on major updates as these are usually quickly followed by more updates that fix the bugs introduced by the major update!

Backups are carried out automatically so I don’t have to worry about those. I pay to have these automated as it is important.

I get lots of emails from clients asking questions or wanting me to do additional work too. And of course those who have broken something and want it fixing.

10. Training

The world of websites changes rapidly. I don’t pretend to know everything or try to keep up to date with everything – knowing how to Google is probably the number one website designer skill!

But I do invest in learning. I’m an avid podcast listener and listen to several website podcasts, learning a lot from these. I also invest in courses on specific areas I know I need to improve. And I am in a couple of website designer memberships. These are great because you can see what other people are asking too – “you don’t know what you don’t know” as they say which is why seeing what others are asking is really helpful! I’ve learnt about issues like accessibility and some legal bits this way.

Conclusion

Do you still think website designers just write code? There’s a lot more to building websites than you might think.

Yes, I do a little coding, but I also:

  • undertake research to understand a client’s business so they get a website that gets them clients
  • set up domains, copy over anything we want to keep from an existing website and resize images
  • think about fonts, colours and other websites my clients like or don’t like so I can understand the kind of style they will like
  • put together initial website design concepts taking into account the research, design assets and best website practice
  • listen to client feedback and revise designs
  • help clients get the right content
  • build out the website making sure everything is consistent
  • integrate their website with email marketing systems, payment mechanisms etc
  • launch websites
  • teach clients how to add images and edit content
  • maintain websites and
  • keep up to date with the latest website developments and training

That’s quite a bit. And then of course I need to market my business, do admin, my accounts, etc.

Yes, now you know what a website designer does all day!