Small businesses can be the most loyal and valuable customers to a freelance designer. They often need repeat work and can grow to trust a single designer if needed.
I want to share tips and resources for working on small business design projects. It’s vital that you handle the project, the client, and the creative process in a personal way to work best with small business owners.
If you can land great clients you should be willing to go above and beyond for their needs. In the long run this can translate to lots of repeat business and word of mouth recommendations to other business owners.
Plan with the Client
Business owners hire a designer for their expertise. But designers don’t know everything about the small business world, so it’s important to work together with the client to plan each step of the process.
Close collaboration should occur throughout the entire process but especially in the early planning stages. You need to gather information about what the client expects in their website.
Be willing to ask questions that relate to user experience. Should their homepage include lots of photos? Should contact information appear in the header? What about different pages and links in the navigation?
The answers will be different for each client and you need this information before designing any wireframe or mockup.
Also think critically about the differences of each small business. A law firm website will be different than a local printing business. Visitors on a law firm site are looking for legal specialties, contact info, and maybe reviews. Visitors on a printing site are looking for technicalities, location, and contact info.
Many content requirements will be consistent with all small businesses. But some need to place more prominence on certain features. Gather this information from the client first so you can deliver exactly what they need.
I think the best way to collaborate is to ask questions and explain your ideas. If the client wants a more personal touch on the homepage, you might suggest a photo slideshow and explain that real photos give the website a personal connection.
The client’s expertise is in their line of work. Your expertise is in design and user experience. The more you’re willing to meld ideas together the easier it’ll be to open up communication.
Design From Example
There’s a popular quote often attributed to Picasso, although its origins are unclear. It asserts that good artists copy, great artists steal. Use this to your advantage for every project.
Study other websites that you like and design small business layouts based on the best ones. This is where client input can be helpful because you can determine which features the client likes in other websites.
This technique works best when you can borrow multiple features from different websites. If the client likes the typography of one site, the colors on another site, and the page layout of a third site, you can merge this all together with your own ideas to create something they’re bound to like.
Take for example the Page Law website. This uses a brilliant selection of blues and bright highlights to create a professional look on the page. The phone number is added right at the top in clear view.
There’s no reason you couldn’t take some of these ideas and work them into your own mockup. In fact this is probably the best way to build a quality small business site because each small business has its own eccentricities.
But you should always gather feedback from the client first. The design phase is the toughest to change, and you shouldn’t move forward with coding the website until you have a confirmed mockup that works well.
The Lawn Doctor website is another great example of a simple yet effective design. I think their domain name could use a revamping, but overall it’s a very good site.
When it comes to studying other examples I wouldn’t recommend completely cloning any site. Instead you should take ideas that fit with your current project and reject everything else.
This way you can design a mockup built from the best ideas you’ve pulled from other sites. Also if you think of something else that’d fit nicely in the layout be willing to add your own ideas too. You can always give the client a few choices and let them decide which mockup fits best.
And if you’re looking for a variety of logos to study check out the Logo Design Inspiration blog on Tumblr. It has hundreds of unique logos with custom animations and styles to help you gather ideas.
Simplify Content & Writing
Visitors want to get right to the point on a business website. Most visitors are looking for something very specific and they don’t want to dilly-dally.
What visitors are looking for will change based on the site. But there are a few consistent things most people need to find.
- Primary services/products
- People behind the company
- Contact details(phone and/or location)
- Average pricing or the estimate process
Make this information easy to find and keep it very simple. There’s no better way to scare off a potential customer than by over-complicating a small business layout.
The homepage of Punum Roofing has everything including a phone number, email contact form, and direct links in the navigation to learn more about each service.
It should be incredibly easy for every visitor to find whatever they’re looking for on this website. Short, sweet, and to the point is a great motto to keep in mind.
I also really like the Squarespace website even though it’s made to replace the job of a web designer. It’s a good example of a service-based site that operates regardless of location.
This means the homepage focuses more on the site’s features and services. The list of links near the top of the page cover possible websites needed by artists, restaurants, musicians, and other similar jobs.
If you’re tasked with copywriting try to keep it dense yet succinct. Don’t write more than is needed to convey necessary information.
But the most important piece is the site’s navigation. Make sure the link text is easy to understand to help visitors find what they need quickly.
Gather Quality Photos
Stock photos are a joke compared to professional photography. Unfortunately some clients may not want to pay for this. But whenever possible always recommend hiring a pro photographer and gauge estimates to see if the price can be rolled into your work.
Relevant photos are the best way to showcase a small business. These photos could include the owner(s), customers, and the interior or exterior of the building. A pro photographer will know how to take a shot that resonates with viewers.
Granted there is good reason for a web designer to learn photography, but it’s not mandatory for the job. That’s why it’s common for web designers to hire a photographer on small business projects.
The layout for b.good is very simple and litters photos all over the layout. These photos breathe life into the design and give it a more personal touch.
This same effect can be found on the Café Rouge website. It uses large background photos of chefs in the kitchen, patrons eating their meals, and the interior of the cafe.
Personalization lets visitors know the small business is real. If you take photos of the location it also helps visitors recognize the building when they arrive in person.
If the client is unwilling to pay for a professional photographer then try your best to snap a few photos with a decent smartphone camera. If your photos can look semi-professional they’ll be much better than not having any photos at all.
One last resort is to use stock photos you find online. But this is usually the worst option for small businesses.
The toughest part is finding stock photos that are high quality and genuinely relevant to the business theme. In many cases it’s not even worth using stock photos.
Be The Jack Of All Trades
This is often frowned upon in design specialties but there’s something to be said about having multiple skillsets in the web design world. There is real value in being a generalist over a specialist. As a freelancer this is especially accurate.
Think about how many technical skillsets are required to create, build, and launch a high-quality small business site. The list includes a handful of tasks:
- Domain & server setup
- Website design
- Web development(frontend+backend)
- Branding and SEO/marketing
Most clients would rather hire someone that can do “just enough” of all these skills, rather than hiring someone who specializes in one and subcontracts the rest.
It makes the process a lot easier and cheaper if a client can hire one person to do the design, development, writing, marketing, and server setup. If that person is you then you can charge for each individual task and rake in the money.
Plus clients will trust you a lot more if you have such a wide range of expertise. This can lead to further projects down the road and even repeat customers who might pay a monthly fee to hire you as their official webmaster.
If you’re serious about going freelance and making it work then it’s worth being the jack of all trades. Pick skills from the list above and see which ones are your weakest areas. Work on those skillsets to round out your capabilities. This will make you much more appealing to business owners who would rather hire a freelancer than a digital agency.
If you can land enough small business contracts you could sustain a livable income for decades. Web design is rapidly changing and more freelancers are willing to get their hands dirty in multiple areas.
By offering everything that the client needs you’ll be remembered fondly and often recommended to other small businesses. The first step is landing a design contract. From there just put in the work and make it happen!
And if you’re in the professional design field or interested to break into it, I highly recommend skimming these related articles.