Being a web designer is more than knowing how to slice layers in Photoshop and hacking code with Bootstrap. Yes, those two are important but there are many other stages that a site goes through before it’s ready to join its siblings on the WWW.
This illustration by John Furness shows the successive steps that a site goes through, from the first client meeting, to the research, wireframe, mockup, content generation, coding, testing and lastly, launching stage.
In this article we put an overview of each step along with hand-picked resources to help you achieve it. We’re going to give you not only Photoshop and coding tutorials but also advice on how to negotiate, how to write content, how to use wireframes correctly, how to optimize your site for search engines and other topics pertinent to each stage of web design. Put simply, if you’re just starting out and you haven’t got your first client yet, this guide will give you all the knowledge you need to go out there and close that first deal.
Ready? Let’s get started.
On your first meeting with the client you want to assess their needs, or why the heck they contacted you in the first place. On first look, this might seem obvious. “Well, they need a website, duh!”. However, with most clients, it seldom is that simple. Why do they need a website? Don’t they have one already? Is there something about the current one that could be improved? Will their business really benefit from having a website or is there more to the story? Professional web designers have developed a standard list of questions that they ask each new client. This allows them to accurately assess the client’s needs. To simplify your work and streamline your workflow, we recommend that you do the same. Here are the most important questions to ask:
- What is the goal of the website? Is it to sell stuff? Is it to get people to call a certain phone number? To make prospects fill out a certain form (to be contacted later)? Inform prospects about your products or services? Keep current customers up-to-date on the latest news about a product? A combination of these or none of the above?
The client should have a couple of ideas as to what they want their site to achieve. Make sure to note each down and sort them by importance. As a designer, it is your job to devise a solution for these needs.
- Who is the intended audience? Who will be using this site? Write down the age, gender, profession and other demographics that are relevant to the main goal of the website. Depending on this, you will make the decision on how to order the elements of a page, what colors to use, typography, what content to create and so on. You’re catering to a certain audience and you must be as persuasive as you can be to get your message across.
- What content is going to be on the site? From blurbs to full-blown articles, images, videos, audio and other types of content – all of this constitutes the meat and potatoes of the site. Who will be providing the content: you or the client? If it’s the client you will want to set deadlines: clients are notorious for procrastinating when it comes to content. If it’s you or someone on your team, we have a couple of links below on how to write (and outsource) great content.
- Do they have any specific requirements regarding the look & feel of the website? Perhaps they’ve seen another site which has a similar look to the one they want – let them give you some examples. Do they have a logo? Do they have the Pantone numbers for the logo/company colors (so that you can use them in your design)? Is there anything they’d like to avoid in the design?
- Do they want to be able to write their own stuff (news, updates), upload their own products, images and so on? While some clients won’t ever need more than 3-page static website, others will require the ability to edit and create new content, upload images and so on on a regular basis. In such cases installing a CMS like WordPress should do the trick. A dynamic site can also be a good way to make the client sign-up for a monthly maintenance fee. This, when multiplied over a number of clients, can prove to be a worthy source of almost-passive income.
- What is their budget? Arguably the most important question, the answer to this will tell you how serious the client is and allow you to ascertain whether the two of you are a good fit. Smaller clients will often have lower budgets – which is to be expected – but this doesn’t mean that you have to work for peanuts either. With corporate clients you will find that money generally isn’t an issue, so they won’t mind quoting them double your standard hourly rate (just don’t tell them… m’kay?).
These are some basic questions that should get the ball rolling. As always, make sure that you’ve got deadlines in place. Compile the answers in a document and send a copy to the client for review & approval. To get even more specific, see these 72 questions to ask web design clients (asking them in a row, in a low, monotone, robotic voice might be counterproductive though).
What about the contract?
Working without a contract is asking to get burned. Always make sure that you’ve got a solid contract in place and at least 1/3 or 1/2 upfront payment. The best time to send the contract is right when you send the needs assessment file for review.
- Paul Jarvis uses a template that is easy to read and gets straight to the point. Adapt it to your own projects.
- The folks at Pelago put out a full-blown contract that is based on years of working with clients as a web design company. This one’s longer and contains more legalese, but if you want something that says “we’re serious”, you can’t go wrong with this template.
- Web Design Law has also put out a collection of web design contracts, from the letter of agreement, to project proposals, terms & conditions, invoice form and so on.
Pick one, adapt it to your needs and then make them sign it.
Don’t start working until you’ve got a signature.
The traditional way is to meet with the client and have them sign two copies of the contract, one of which you will keep.
Another option is to send the signed contract to the client and have them sign and return it by mail. This, however, can prove disadvantageous as the client can delay signing the contract which can hold up your work on the project.
Are there any other options? Yes.
- RightSignature is a service for filling out and signing documents online.
- HelloFax is a service that does away with the need for a fax machine.
- There’s also a number of apps for Android and Apple devices: DocuSign and
How much should I charge?
- This 9 day email course from Brennan Dunn teaches you to charge what you’re worth as a freelancer.
- Here’s a post that explains the process that a web design shop used to arrive at the prices they charge. This is applicable to freelancers as well.
- F*ck You, Pay Me is required viewing for anyone that is or is going to become a freelancer and doesn’t want to get screwed over.
- Should I charge by the hour or by the project?
- A contrarian view: Why You Should Never Charge Hourly
- For a small business website: how much it cost to build one in 2014 (should be accurate for 2015 as well).
- Lastly, we recommend going through online communities and forums to get a feel for what individual freelancers charge. Like here, here and here.
How am I going to get paid?
- Bank Wire/Transfer
- Google Wallet (US only)
- Dwolla (US only)
- Stripe (if you don’t mind getting dirty with code)
- Plasso (uses Stripe. If you don’t want to deal with code)
Where can I find my first client?
- A (Proven) Freelancer’s Guide to Growing Your Business
- 3 Easy Steps To Finding Your First Client
- A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Your First Web Development Client
- How to get your first 3 paying clients
Don’t worry. You won’t have to wear a lab coat (unless you want to), handle acid flasks or peek at bacteria from under a microscope.
Research in web design is important because that’s where your real design is born. Research is what separates designs based on guesses from those built on facts and objective observations. As a result, research-based design is much more likely to help the client achieve their proposed goals and satisfy the user’s needs.
Giving exact instructions here is somewhat challenging since each new project will have different goals but to start off, we recommend this chapter on Research in Mark Boulton’s Designing for the Web book (the rest of the book is a must read as well).
Other resources that should point you in the right direction:
- Carrying out Successful Research for a Web Project
- When to Use Which User-Experience Research Methods
- An introduction to using personas to create more customer-centric websites
- How to Use the Psychology of Color to Increase Website Conversions
- Perfect Your Website With 3 Simple UX Research Methods
Site Outline & Map
The site outline is a a precursor to the sitemap. Creating an outline means sitting down with your client and creating a list of all the content that has to be on the site. All of this must be aligned with the goals of the website that were established in the beginning which means that some content will be more important while other pieces might be trimmed or discarded altogether. Once you’ve got an outline you can start plotting out the sitemap.
- How to Build an Outline for a New Website
- University of Texas’ Web Design Process Site Structure
- How to Architect a Better Site-Map
Wireframing is the process of defining the information hierarchy of your website, planning where an element should be placed in a page, according to how you want the user to process the information. Wireframes are like the blueprint of a house. It’s much easier to build a house when you know exactly the dimensions and placement of each building.
- A Beginner’s Guide to Wireframing
- Ultimate Guide to Website Wireframing
- How to Make Useful Website Wireframes
- The ‘Boxing Glove’ Wireframing Technique
See how others use wireframes
- A Tumblr blog displaying wireframes in action
- A website displaying side-by-side wireframes with the final design
Other UX and UI resources
Design also includes user experience and user interfaces. To craft great products you have to start with the user in mind: how can he satisfy his needs in the most efficient and straight-forward way possible. If you do that, users will reward you with loyalty. Here are a number of courses that will get you initiated into this crucial facet of design.
- UX Crash Course: 31 Fundamentals of User Experience
- Good UI
- UI Patterns
- Product Psychology – A Course On User Behavior
Content is just words on a page…right? Not so.
Good content spurs the visitor to take some kind of action. Bad content will confuse and irritate him, ultimately leading to a negative action, like leaving your website. Because of this, content is arguably the most important part of any website. Even a website with no design but loads of information will be useful to the user. It’s the reason why a user visits the site in the first place.
Even though as web designer/developer content creation isn’t really your responsibility, having some copywriting basics down will make a huge difference, not only in the things you write, but also in your communication with the clients and other people as well. If it’s your client or someone else that is writing the content, refer them to the links below.
- Make Your Content Make a Difference
- Bad Things Happen When You Don’t Put Content First
- Five Copywriting Errors That Can Ruin A Company’s Website
- 13 Simple Questions to Help You Draft a Winning Content Strategy
- 10 Tips for Creating Content That Converts Like a Champ
We’ve now reached the part where you can finally fire up Photoshop and get to work. However, you won’t really be creating the design from scratch: by now you should have a couple of wireframes to guide you in how to lay out the pages of your site.
Lessons / courses
These courses will give you the same essentials that you would learn in design school. Good to have a strong basis.
- Design School for Developers
- Design Lessons curated by top designers
- Design Principles
- Design for Hackers (email course)
Mastering Photoshop is a trial & error process, but you can accelerate that by looking at step-by-step techniques on how to create graphics and wholesome website designs.
- 70 Best Curated Web Design Tutorials (the site says 2013, but the techniques are as valid as ever)
- 35 Tutorials On Creating Responsive Elements & Designs
- 50+ Excellent Tutorials for Creating Website Layouts in Photoshop
- 95 Great Photoshop Web Design Tutorials
- Designing Websites With Photoshop – The Ultimate Roundup
Aids / PSDs / other things to ease your job
As you begin getting better at this thing, you will slowly create your own library of bits and pieces to reuse throughout projects. Creating things from scratch isn’t always the most efficient way to go about things. Tweak and reuse as you see fit.
- Bootstrap 3 PSD Template
- 365PSD – Free PSD each day
- GuideGuide – A Photoshop plugin that makes working with guides hassle-free
- Cut&Slice me – Photoshop CS6+ plugin to help you export your assets to different devices in seconds
- Freebbble – curated freebies from Dribbble
- PremiumPixels – free stuff for creative folk
- PixelBuddha – free and premium resources for designers
- Freebiesbug – Latest free PSDs & other resources for designers
- Marvel – Free, quality UI kits
- UI Space – Free PSDs and other resources
The design courses above have already covered the use of color. But what is a good way to come up with color palettes? These are sites and tools that will give you a dizzying array of matching colors and effective color suggestions.
Typeface or font? Helvetica or Arial? Serif or sans-serif? Humanist or geometric? What is kerning? What is the cap height?
Knowing how to work with typography is required of every designer, web or not. Give your content the typeface it deserves.
Learn how to use typography
- A Crash Course in Typography
- A Pocket Guide to Master Every Day’s Typography
- A Guide to Web Typography
- Butterick’s Practial Typography
- Handling Typography for Responsive Design
- How to Use Typography Effectively in Web Design
- Master Web Typography
- Web Developer Reading List: Typography
Free typography resources
- TypeGenius: Find the perfect font combo for your next project.
- Font Squirrel: 100% free commercial fonts.
- FontFaceNinja: Browser extension to find the web fonts a site uses.
- Google Fonts: Free, open-source fonts optimized for the web.
- Beautiful Web Type: Best typefaces from the Google web fonts directory.
- DaFont: Archive of freely downloadable fonts.
- 1001 Free Fonts: A huge selection of free fonts.
- FontPark: The web’s largest archive of free fonts.
- Font-to-width: Fit pieces of text snugly within their containers.
You can’t put just any stock photo you find on a website. There has to be some criteria for selection besides good composition and high resolution. We think this guide on photo selection for web designers nails it down quite nicely. After you’ve read the article, you’ve got two options: free or paid stock photos.
Here are some of the best resources for quality, free stock photos. These sites offer photos that can be used in commercial projects without attribution, however some do require it.
- Little Visuals
- Life of Pix
- Death to Stock Photos
- Superfamous Studios
- IM Free
- New Old Stock
- Lock & Stock Photos
- Snapwire Snaps
- Jay Mantri
“Good artists borrow, great artists steal.”
Although we don’t recommend lifting these designs right off, looking at other’s work should give you plenty of inspiration for your own.
This is where the logical part of the brain takes over. The part where you put the pedal to the metal, so to speak. A good design is just an image until it’s been put into code. Here’s how to implement a design, from Photoshop straight into your favorite code editor.
Here are individual tutorials that will teach you how to get a smokin’ design from Photoshop into cold, hard code. Fire up your favorite editor and follow along.
- From PSD to HTML: Building a Set of Website Designs Step by Step
- Tutorial on how to use Cut&Slice Me (CS6+ only)
- 35 Tutorials On Coding Responsive Elements & Designs
- Understanding Responsive Web Design
- A comparison of the top three CSS frameworks: Bootstrap, Foundation and Skeleton
- Tips for designing in the browser
HTML & CSS
Tutorials are good but knowing HTML and CSS in-depth goes a long way to sharpening your web design skills. If you’re starting or you already know these, the links will refresh and hopefully improve your knowledge of the web’s building blocks.
- HTML for beginners
- 20 Useful HTML5 Code Snippets
- 30 CSS Selectors You Must Memorize
- A Designers Guide to Flexbox
- Building Your First Web Page
- Code Avengers
- Codecademy / HTML & CSS
- Code School
- Dive Into HTML5
- Learn CSS Layout
- P2PU / School of Webcraft
- Scalable and Modular Architecture for CSS
- Teaching Materials / HTML & CSS
- Team Treehouse / HTML & CSS
- Thoughtbot / HTML & CSS
- Thoughtbot / CSS Grids
- Using CSS Flexible Boxes
- Codecademy / jQuery
- Code Combat
- How jQuery Works
- Learning jQuery with Street Fighter and Hadoukens
- Team Treehouse / jQuery
There are many CMSes out there, all good and useful for their respective target demographics. But we have yet to find one that is as easy to use and powerful as WordPress. It’s also very likely that your clients will want to have a CMS to upload content on a regular basis. Why not get used to the basics of working and creating themes for WP from the get go?
- Adaptive Blog Theme: From Photoshop to WordPress
- WordPress Theme Development: Getting Started with Underscores (_s)
- The Themeshaper WordPress Theme Tutorial (2nd edition)
- Creating a WordPress Theme From Static HTML
How do other web designers work? How do they prioritize tasks and what is the first thing they do? How can you be more efficient and create awesomer sites?
The answer to these questions lie in watching the masters at work.
- Chris Coyier: A Modern Web Designer’s Workflow
- Web Design Workflow Made Easy
- My (Simple) Workflow To Design And Develop A Portfolio Website
You need to keep track of the changes you make to your code. That’s the purpose of version control. The most popular with designers right now seems to be Git and is an excellent free solution for starters. As an alternative, there are other (paid) services that provide version control catered to creatives in particular.
Using a modern CSS framework like Bootstrap eliminates much of the hassle that was previously part of a web developer’s job. While there have been many significant advances made in this area, you still have to check out how your design looks across different browsers and devices. Here are a couple of tools to help you do that.
- 13 Essential Tools to Check Cross-Browser Compatibility
- What are the best practices for cross-browser web sites?
- Can I Use… – browser feature checking
- BrowserSync – time-saving synchronised browser testing
- Position is Everything – modern browser bugs explained in detail
Launch day is here. Are you ready? If you went through all the previous phases, you should be. This stage involves setting up the server, uploading all your production files to the main site and double-checking that everything is in order and running smoothly. Some small tweaks and adjustments to the site might be needed at this stage.
Don’t launch without going through this list at least once. Printable sheets available.
When to Launch?
Before you launch and hand off any project files, passwords and other materials, make sure that everything has been signed off and all outstanding payments have been settled. If you don’t do this, you are basically letting your client decide whether he should pay you or not. As we emphasized in the beginning of this article, don’t start and don’t hand off any finished work until the contract has been signed.
Now on to the technical aspect of this question, we recommend that you launch on a work day, from Monday through Thursday. Avoiding the end of the week will save you headache if something goes wrong while you’re away.
Search Engine Optimization
Once your site is online, you’ll want to do a little SEO to help your content get discovered and indexed. This means you want to get your page titles & descriptions right, have the proper URL structure, make sure your images have ALT tags and have your keywords present in your headlines, descriptions and copy.
- 15 Minute SEO List
- Google SEO Tutorial for Beginners
- The Beginners Guide to SEO
- The Ultimate Small Business SEO Checklist
- What is the New SEO?
By now, you should have a finished site that is alive and kicking and a client that is (hopefully) satisfied. What else?
You might want to install some kind of analytics solution to get data on how your visitors are interacting with your site and design.
Keeping regular backups isn’t hard. All you need is to setup a solution that will do so on a regular, hands-free basis.
- How to backup your site through Cpanel
- 7 Best WordPress Backup Plugins Compared (Pros and Cons)
- How To (Automatically) Backup Your Website Into Dropbox
- Backup Machine
Much of this stuff might take a lot of time or not make a lot of sense in the beginning. Our advice? Keep plugging away. The web will always need people who can craft products and sites that are useful and effective. Help our visual and informational ecosystem by perfecting your web and design skills further. Incidentally, as you get better your hourly rate will also jump through the roof.
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We would love to know what tools and resources you personally use. Is there something we left out? Let us know in the comments!