Too much content

My gut reaction is that there’s just too much shit on sites that doesn’t matter.

Sites are over engineered, over designed, over written, over weight.

And although there are some compelling “minimalist” sites (which frequently require just as much heavy lifting just out of sight), that’s not what I’m talking about either.  One can be too minimalist, just as one can be too Modern or any other style.  And! Some minimalist sites push minimalism as an agenda too far, good information architecture be damned.   (a worthy critique of the site you’re on, by the way)

But then there are a sweet spot of fantastic visual design, excellent copy, and suitable development.

One example that I had ZERO to do with is Columbia College Chicago’s site.

In addition to simply looking great, there’s a little PHP to handle online forms, and that’s it. It’s just HTML, JS, and CSS (from the looks of it, it’s Foundation 5 SASS originally).

They also deleted 97% of their pages and applications went up 80%.

They thought about what it is they needed to say to be useful for their readers, and had the discipline to get rid of stuff they no longer needed.  That’s how you get results.

Content Strategy is not content marketing.  Don’t let too much of one destroy your site.

Joining Spry Digital


I’ve taken on a full time, big boy job at Spry Digital as a front-end developer.

I really love it there.  One nice thing about freelancing is that I did not feel trapped into taking a job just for money, although the steady paycheck is nice.

This was the right move for me and my family for a couple of reasons.  On a personal level, my wife has been doing yeoman’s work with her steady job and a lot of work around the home during my freelancing time and it’s only fair that I help bring stability and comfort to our home life and a steady job helps with that.

And it is exactly that.  It is not just a good place to work, but a great place to work. Spry and I have a little history. I met the owners in early 2014, and they even offered me a job all the way back in summer 2014.  I didn’t think it was the right opportunity for us at the time,  but we kept in touch.  Very important to all of this was that it was not a one-way street: whenever I asked to meet up, chat, or anything, they always made time for me, and that level of personal concern absolutely means something.  It was clear that the owners do not consider their team members to be cogs in a wheel or resources to be mined, but real people with dignity.

In August, one of their developers moved on to another city.  There was an opportunity to help with a project (which you can see here) and a chance to see how we’d work together.  There’s always a learning curve when working with a new team, and we were both happy to see that I fit in well with them.

When they made an offer to me, my wife and I prayed for guidance and talked it over.  It was a fair offer, and I enjoyed working there, but was it the right thing? I think it was (obviously, I accepted), because of these things:

  • Team – one thing that sets this place a part in my opinion is how team oriented it is. No one feels above doing anything. They really take their belief that creative work (and a functioning office) is a team sport seriously. Everyone here is a little bit nerdy, and very kind.
  • Depth – when you freelance, you maybe spend half of your time running your business – bookkeeping, marketing, sales, networking, learning – and maybe half of your time on project work. It’s great because you develop broad skills that help you be good at many different tasks, but you can get technically and creatively stale from having to task switch all of the time. Working inside a team like this, I know I’ll be able to spend more time getting better at the craft of front-end development.
  • Impact – This goes hand in hand, but typically as a freelancer you’re either working on small projects that you can do by your lonesome or discreet projects that are a part of larger projects and either way it can be difficult to look at and say that your work made a true impact.  With this team and their roster of local clients, arts and education clients,  non profits, and civic organizations it’s easier for me to see how my work will make an impact.
  • Less Stress – When you freelance, everything is on you. Working with a team like this,  I don’t have to worry about every minute aspect of every project. I just have to focus on doing my job well. It’s a nice change from feeling isolated on every single roadblock for every single project.
  • Fun – Like I mentioned,  everyone here is slightly (or not so slightly) nerdy, and very genial.  It’s a solid, mature professional environment with a healthy amount of fun in the mix.  Laughing is pretty common and it’s small enough to avoid cliques. It’s a good culture to be in.
  • Opportunity – on several levels. First, it’s a stable company approaching 6 years in business with year over year growth.  The management team have decades of experience and know how to bring in work.  With more people slated to come on in the coming year,  I know I’ll be able to advance.  And I’ll have the opportunity to contribute not just in my specialty, but to design, client relations, business development, and client support.

It was the right thing at the right time and I’m really happy about our decision.

What does that mean for freelancing?

Well, I’m still figuring that out.  This company has no problem with me moonlighting on personal projects, and I like the work, so I don’t imagine stopping altogether.  I also am able to bring work in to Spry, so if you have questions about that, please email me!

I think the nature of what projects I take on will have to change,  but even with that I’m not sure what to think or which direction to head. One clue is that I will be much much more selective about outside work. Projects like Holy Communion’s new site hit a sweet spot in terms of client expectations, attention, and time demands, along with the X factor of an intrinsic attraction to the organization I was helping. Because I can afford to not take on projects just on budget and time, the satisfaction factor of a possible project will play a huge role in determining whether or not I will take it on.


Pricing Strategies for Designers

Recently,  a friend of mine decided to take on some consulting work for a start up here in St. Louis.  He reached out to me and asked:

I was asked to put together a plan to increase a startup’s average revenue per user — which I did — however, now I need to give them a set number of hours to get the project done. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t do a lot of consultant work so I have absolutely no idea how to determine this.

My response was:

The first is I might reject the premise of the question altogether – Hourly work is fine and all, but you just put together the game plan for them to make a lot more money. So I might try a value pricing approach, something like 10% of the expected growth in AR/U multiplied by their user base – I’d use round numbers so the math is easy for them to understand when you pitch it. Like

Current AR/U = $100
New AR/U = $110
change = $10
10% of change = $1
Multiplied by Monthly Average Users (10,000) = $10,000. 

You can then break that amount up into as many payments as you think you’ll need over the course of it.

If they can’t grasp that you have earned a share of the reward, then you shouldn’t pursue the project further. (IMHO)

If that’s not kosher, I might just try a fixed price bid.  A fixed price can be a wild ass guess for all they know.  The nice thing for them is they know what you think it is worth and they know what they will pay. The bad news is, you now just have to make it work on that amount.  (For small projects this is not a bad thing – companies routinely outsource things they are inefficient at to experts who are.)

If that’s not going to work because the project is too big, estimate a timeline and establish a monthly retainer, i.e. 3 months at X amount of dollars paid each month by the 5th.  Monthly retainers are great because everyone knows where they stand, the bad thing is you have to deliver every month you have them.

Last, Hourly you need to break the project down into it’s smallest pieces, guess the time for each piece, pad it appropriately (to account for project management time, setbacks, workarounds, etc), add it up, and then I give them a range, like this.

“Based on my estimate, this project should take between 180-240 hours of my time and will cost between X-Y.”

Giving them a range is important so they can budget appropriately and account for changes during the project.

The conversation was in an email, and went on a little bit past that.  He’d never heard of value pricing, but was intrigued.  I cautioned him against going all in on just one pricing strategy:

All of the pricing models work and have been around for a long time.  The only right answer is the one that works for you and them that you can agree to.

The only other things I tend to do with contracts are:

1) a non-refundable deposit
2) a kill fee (an amount they agree to pay if a project is cancelled or indefinitely delayed) usually 1/2 of the remaining balance paid as a lump sum. In exchange,  it acts as a final payment on a contract and you hand over your work.

both of these are non-negotiable in my contracts.

the deposit works just like an airline ticket – it will reserve the time, headspace, and resources you need to start a project. Most importantly it allows you to say No to other offers (b/c you’re in demand, duh). Kill fees are project insurance –  if something goes wrong, you still get paid for your work.  You don’t buy a car without money down and without buying insurance, and working with me is the exact same thing.

To recap, there’s 3 basic ways for designers to price their work:

  1. Value Pricing, where the designer estimates the value add to the business the client – which is an ideal scenario because the incentives are aligned.
  2. Fixed Price, where both parties know exactly how much the project will cost (and then the designer is on the hook to make sure it is profitable for them).
  3. Time and Materials, where the designer knows how much it will cost (rate x time), but the client doesn’t know how long it will take.

Retainers are a kind of bastard child of fixed price and time and materials, in that X dollars buys the client Y time.  There are many many ways to price your work, and ultimately you don’t need to choose only one.  There are many prominent designers, like Dan Mall, who swear by value pricing.

I tend to agree with them.  As a designer (and really, just a competitive person), I’m always confident betting on myself.  I’m confident defining problems and building solutions, and when I make a value pricing proposal I’ve already done both.

Pricing Strategies for Designers reviewed:

Sometimes a fixed price is a necessity; especially when dealing with governmental and NGOs who often have RFP (request for proposals) that require an all in bottom line number. Fixed price does have the drawback of scope creep.  Like any business, designers have to make a profit. Every additional minute not estimated for in a fixed cost eats into that profit. From the jump, a client’s incentive to get their money’s worth is at odds with your incentive to maintain your margin.

Time and Materials inverts those incentives,  but can work out for everyone (if they are honest). Sometimes hourly makes sense too, but I will say that for experienced designers, it can be a raw deal both due to efficiency and rate resistance.

Efficiency is just being better at something than the next guy.  If it takes a less experienced designer 10 hours at $50 to do an assignment, and a more experienced designer only 3 hours to do the same task but $100/hour, is an experienced designer really supposed to be paid less for their work? How does that make sense?

Rate resistance is similar.  There are very few professions that Americans are comfortable paying more than $150/hour for. Lawyers can charge more –  but there’s significant barriers to becoming a lawyer. There are far fewer for a designer.  There’s also the simple fact that you have to bill hours to get paid. With just hourly pricing, if you aren’t working for whatever reason, your cash flow stops.

I know that I am personally moving more toward value pricing as more dominant strategy.  I am finding it requires more trust on a potential client’s part to figure out how much value I can add, which is a good way to determine if they’d be a client I want to work with in the first place. Later, I can point to how much value I created for them as part of my marketing and sales to future clients.  To me,  I think this is a method that takes a little more thought up front, but is ultimately the best strategic play for a designer.


Common Biases and Design Corrections

If design is the rendering of intent, then the two important things are the rendering itself (execution, tools, quality) and the intent behind the design.

Where most projects of mine have struggled have been with the intent behind the design.  Decisions get made without regard to the projects’ objectives or constraints, or in an arbitrary way.

Fortunately for you,  Business Insider cataloged some common biases here, adapted from Daniel Kahnemen’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

In my limited experience, I’ve noticed these three biases most often:

  1. Group Think
  2. Confirmation Bias
  3. Halo effect

The best design corrections for 1 and 2 is unvarnished User Research.  No, I don’t mean Surveys, either. Great Ethnography makes it much more difficult to ignore dissenting or contradictory opinions because there’s an actual human on the other end of the discussion.   It also does not take very much time, budget, or effort to do a passable job on this.

The halo effect most often takes the form of something like “He’s a wizard” or “She’s a rockstar” [insert title du jour]. As designers, our reputations work for us in winning projects and counter us in executing them.  Bad Clients erroneously equate reputation and rate for miraculous and obsequious – it’s our job to set and enforce working boundaries.

That’s why it’s important to explain that Design is a craft, not an art and certainly not magic; to explain (ahead of time) our process, needs, and timelines;  to show our work iteratively so they understand we’re not nailing it on the first crack; to measure our value in concrete terms, and to help clients understand their role in the process.  Design Corrections start with shared beliefs, taxonomy, and language about the project.

Research and project management are core design skills because without them you’ll build the wrong thing.