When you think back over the last decade, or even the last few years, it's incredible to think how essential an online presence has become to running a business, especially as a creativepreneur. Creating an online home where you share what your business is all about, what services you offer, who you've worked with, and how to get in touch with you has now become a foundational step of starting up a business. Think about how often you head to a business’s website to learn more about them, or conduct a search to find information from a knowledgeable source, or need help from Google finding the best recommendation for a service or product you need. If someone went looking for your website now or if your blog post pops up in a Google search, what would they find? If you don’t have a website, or if your website isn’t a good representation of what you can do, then you're missing a key ingredient to your business! It’s time to bump your website design up higher on your to do list.
Having a website is essential, but having one that is welcoming, thoughtful, and well-designed is going to serve you best.
Creating a website from scratch is a daunting task! It requires an investment of forethought, time, and creativity to get it all planned. Plus, depending on what kind of vision you have for the end product and your abilities to make it happen–in other words, if you need to hire a designer and developer–it can mean a financial investment as well. In this post, I'm going to be speaking from my experience of building my website myself, but some of these steps could potentially be applied to working with a web designer. The process of creating a website from start to finish can be broken down into about 4 phases. You go from planning and researching, to gathering and building, then promoting and launching, and finally, maintaining your site.
1 | PLANNING + RESEARCHING
The “why” of your website
When designing your website, the very first step is clearly outlining what you want to accomplish with your site. Do you want to blog? Do you want to use it as a portfolio? Do you want to use it to sell services or products? A combination of all of those? Knowing the purpose behind what you’re doing is key to building a solid and lasting foundation. Without a clearcut direction, getting your website off the ground will take much longer, you may not be happy with the results, or you may end up changing it not long after you've launched. Save yourself the frustration and time-suck of having to overhaul your site by buckling down and thoroughly planning right from the start.
I was still at my 9 to 5 job when I started designing my website, and I knew I wanted it to a) serve as an online portfolio, b) help me grow my freelance business, and c) be a place to connect with others in the creative community through blogging, sharing projects, etc. With all that in mind, I started planning the structure of my site, like what pages I wanted in my navigation bar, how my portfolio should be organized, etc.
Your visitor’s experience
Knowing my 'why' helped me plan the structure of my site, PLUS it made me take into consideration who my target audience was. When planning your site, it’s essential to keep in mind the type of people you want to attract. Are they women or men? What are they interested in? What kind of lifestyle do they have? Narrowing down who is in your ideal audience will help you figure out if you want to have a blog, what kind of content you’re going to share, how you’re going to share it, and how you want your website to look.
As a creative entrepreneur, your website is your online storefront. Make sure it’s the kind of store where visitors want to come in and take a long look around. How user-friendly and welcoming your website is will make a big impact to how many people want to come back again and again. A huge contributor to how welcoming, professional, and trustworthy your website seems is the design. Yes, having a clean and easy to navigate layout is important, but I’m also talking about having a logo and accompanying visual identity that ties everything together. Being a brand identity designer I may be a little biased, but having a well-designed visual identity is so beneficial to your business. Why?
- A well-designed brand identity helps you give a great first impression to someone who just discovered your business. You'll come off as more professional and invested in what you’re doing.
- It’s proven that good design builds trust. Even people who don’t know the basics about design can distinguish between what’s bad and what’s good, and they often judge based on appearances (sad but true). A poorly designed site doesn’t encourage people to stick around and see what you have to offer, which in turn means that your business's success could suffer.
- It helps reflect the personality of your site and attract the right kind of people.
Having a well-designed visual identity to incorporate into your website goes a long way to helping you build a good reputation. It makes it a fun place for your visitors to return to, plus it encourages them to share your content on social media. But it doesn’t stop there! By having a brand identity that spans across your site, you’re building brand recognition and a unique user experience. That's a win-win-win!
If you're about to start designing your website, but need a brand identity for your business or blog, I can help with that! Check out my services page for more info, or just drop me line so we can chat.
The look of your website
While planning the structure and design of my site, I also started researching different websites and making notes about what I liked, whether it was certain design features or the type of experience I had with their site. On top of making notes, I also sketched out ideas for how I wanted a page to be laid out, the types of design elements I wanted to include, and how it would all work within my established brand identity.
Sketching out your ideas is a quick, easy, and flexible way to jumpstart your creativity and give your website a basic framework to guide you as you go. This step will also help give you a better grasp of different layouts that best showcase your work and your content. For example, do you want your “About Me” page to be really fun and include an infographic? Sketch out how that could look like.
Have specific ideas about your home page and what kind of first impression you want visitors to have? Sketch it out.
These sketches will come in handy in the next phase when you’re gathering the content, images, etc. that will go on each page. Think of them as a loose roadmap for your website!
Which platform to use
The research phase also includes investigating which platform will best suit your needs, give you the end product you desire, and be the best investment of time and money (if you don't have experience with web design, there will be a learning curve to take into consideration). Since I decided to go the DIY route, I looked into Wordpress vs. Squarespace rather than research web designers to hire for a completely custom site. After weighing the pros and cons of Wordpress and Squarespace, I decided to go with the latter. To be perfectly honest, it was a very easy decision! The templates are all beautiful, and accomplish a clean and professional look very easily. I don't have much experience with coding, so the platform's ease of use was a huge draw for me. The customer service is great, I have lots of room for growth, it’s affordable, plus all of their templates are responsive so they look great no matter what device people use to view your site. (Just expressing genuine love for Squarespace here!)
Key questions when planning and researching your site:
- What is the purpose of your website?
- Who is your ideal audience and what are ways you're going to attract them to your site?
- What kind of experience do you want a visitor to have?
- Are you going to have a blog? Make sure the content you create fits with your 'why' and your audience.
- Do you have a logo and accompanying visual identity to make your website look professional and trustworthy?
- Do you want to go the DIY route or hire a professional developer?
- If going the DIY route, which platform offers the best option for you concerning the learning curve, design capabilities, ease of use, flexibility, room for growth, etc.?
2 | GATHERING + BUILDING
Once you’ve got the first step of planning and researching for your website out of the way, then it’s on to the next step where you put that plan into action! Gathering materials for each individual page and then building it from the ground up is the most time-consuming phase of creating your website. However, keeping materials for each page and segment of your site will make the process much smoother.
All the pages you’ve planned either need graphics designed, photographs taken, and/or copy written. If you sketched out different layouts in the previous phase, then you’ll have a good idea of what you need to get ready for each page. Keep in mind that the content you include on each page will be driven by the purpose of your website, the tone you want to convey, and how it all ties in with your visual identity. When gathering materials for your site, keep things organized from the very beginning! It'll make your life so much easier. I personally have a folder for my website with a folder for each page inside of it. In these folders I keep photos, graphics, and Word documents with copy.
If you choose to DIY your website, you’ll already have looked into which platform you want to use. Before you begin building each page, you’ll need to set up an account, get your domain name, etc. Then you’ll sift through the different templates available and choose one that will best suit your needs. When I was looking through different Squarespace templates, I chose Avenue since it was one recommended for designers and it offered different features that I thought would serve me well. Be sure to look into templates that would best fit your needs. Are you an illustrator who needs a clean and easy-to-navigate portfolio site? Are you a food blogger who wants to easily share recipes, but also sell cute kitchen accessories? Knowing the purpose of your site and considering the ways you want your business to grow will also help inform your decision.
When you’ve got all your materials gathered and a template ready to roll, then it’s on to building each page! I love seeing everything come together and tweaking it so it’s just right. Even though sketching ideas out helps with knowing what you need for each page, actually getting in there and putting things together is how you’ll truly see what kind of experience your visitor is going to have. When you’re in the thick of building your pages, you may notice something that could be improved or that isn’t really necessary. You’re website will get even further refined as you go along.
Key questions while gathering materials and building your website
- How does your content relate to the purpose of your site?
- Does your content complement and strengthen your established visual identity?
- Do you need to hire a photographer and/or designer to help create the design elements for your site?
- When writing copy, what kind of voice do you want to have? Friendly or sarcastic? Formal or familiar?
- What kind of experience does your content and page layout give your visitors? Is it engaging and encourage exploration? Or is it full of dead-ends?
3 | PROMOTING + LAUNCHING
Just because your website is still in the works, doesn’t mean you can’t start promoting it and creating a buzz.
Squarespace has the option of giving your site a cover page, and in this instance the cover page can serve as a way to build anticipation for your site’s launch. It serves as a place where you can tell people your mission statement, what they can look forward to once your site becomes live (for example, what kind of content you’ll be posting on your blog), and you can even start gathering emails for a newsletter that’ll give people updates on your progress. There's a bunch of different directions you can go, so it's just a matter of what works best for you and your business!
Social media will also go a long way to promoting your website and your brand, even before your site is live. As you prepare your site, you can be curating content that relates to the type of services you provide, and (if you plan on blogging) the content you’ll be writing and providing for your audience. Besides sharing great content, social media also gives you a place to share what’s going on behind the scenes. For example, Instagram is the perfect platform to share photos of your work space, a recent project, a work in progress, your favorite tools of the trade, etc.
By getting connected into a community of other creatives in your field, you’ll already have an audience to tell when you launch your new, beautiful site! People will have followed along with your process and progress, so more than likely they’ll want to see the finished product. In my experience so far, people in the creative community are very supportive of one another. So as you’re leading up to your launch date, get in touch those you’ve connected with and ask if they’ll help you promote your launch. On your own accounts, you can do something like a countdown with a shareable graphic (start that brand recognition!) to make it as easy as possible to spread the word about your site, your services, your blog, etc. There’s a ton of ideas for fun and creative ways to promote your site, so think of what would work best to reach your desired audience!
Key questions for promoting and launching your site:
- Do you want a cover page to begin promoting your site and services leading up to your launch date?
- If so, what do you want to include on your cover page?
- Which social media platforms do you want to begin growing?
- What’s the best way to promote your site and services on each platform?
- How can you get connected with people in your niche's community? Maybe it involves Twitter chats, guest posting on a blog, or joining special Facebook groups and Pinterest group boards.
4 | MAINTAINING + IMPROVING
Congrats! Your site is designed and launched (internet high-five!).
Now that you’ve got a solid foundation built for your site to grow on, it’s just a matter of maintaining your branding, keeping things current, and improving things here and there as time passes. Ever so often, you’ll need to freshen, update and improve your website as your business grows and evolves. This doesn’t mean completely overhauling it or going through a total rebrand though. My website has undergone quite an evolution from when it began! I’ve added more pages as my vision has grown; I’ve reorganized and added elements to make my site more interesting and efficient. The longer I’ve been in business, the better I’ve gotten at seeing things that need to be maintained or recognizing things that can be improved.
Here’s a brief maintenance list to keep in mind as your business grows and evolves:
- Keep your blog post graphics and other design elements cohesive so you continue to build brand recognition
- If your business is service-based, update the work in your portfolio as you do more projects to keep things current and to properly reflect your skill set. The more you do things, the more you improve, which means your portfolio improves over time! Keep it fresh and timely.
- Photography is another easy way to maintain your site and and keep your site from feeling stale. Taking your own stock photos is simple (plus it helps strengthen your brand identity) with some basic knowledge, the right tools, and some practice, but if you don't feel comfortable wielding a camera then hire a pro to come snap some shots for you. It’s good to take new photos every once in a while so you’re not having to use the same ones over and over again. Same goes for head shots! People who visit your site like to know who the person is behind the blog they read or the services they need. Having a current and professional photo on your site gives them better idea of who you are, and I’d say that’s a plus (especially if they’re thinking about hiring you).
Improvements to your website can be great or small. Even small changes can make a big difference to your user’s experience and how they explore your site. By adding in a summary of related articles at the end of your blog post, it encourages people to read more (and hopefully share more!) of your content. By adding a “Pin It” button to your images, your work or blog posts can be shared more easily, which means more traffic driven to your site and potentially more readers, clients, and/or sales.
Key questions for maintaining and improving your site:
- Are your photos out of date?
- Have you been maintaining a consistent design for your blog post graphics?
- Does your site encourage and enable your visitors to share your work or blog posts?
- Is the work you’re displaying current and accurately represent your abilities?
- Are you offering new or different services? If so, have you updated your service page?
- Have your prices increased since you first launched your website? If you have them available on your website, have those prices been updated?
If you're working on building or totally overhauling your website, I hope outlining these four phases helps make the process seem more manageable. Do you have any tips or something you've learned from designing your own site? I'd love to hear about it in the comments section below!
Enjoy reading the Gillian Tracey Design blog? Follow along on Bloglovin'! You can also find me on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook posting encouragement and inspiration for creativepreneurs, interesting articles, business updates, and fun things happening behind-the-scenes.