Don’t Neglect the Pony: Why Website Support Contracts are important.

My Little Pony

There’s one thing that I won’t build with anymore, and from the title you may have guessed what it is. I won’t take on a new client without a website support contract. Let me show you why it’s in everyone’s best interest to do so.

Today’s best practices are to have

  • a central git repository with at least a master branch of the project. This allows multiple developers (or a different developer, later) to work on the project at the same time from the same starting point.
  • A development site on which to present enhancements and test updates
  • A central project management system (i.e. not an email inbox) for reporting issues, discussing solutions, assigning tasks, and tracking to completion.

These all cost money if you want to keep them secure, private, and stable. More than that, updating on a monthly basis (which is another best practice on Drupal, Backdrop, and WordPress) takes billable time. If you have an internal team, like the projects I’ve worked on with Washington University, it’s still a good idea and one which I’ll still require. If one of the nation’s leading universities, with a dedicated IT and web staff thinks it’s a good idea to enter into website support contracts, you might want to consider one as well.

Think of it like buying a pony. You might get a pony for a good price, occasionally even free!  But you still have to feed and groom the pony, house it in a stable, give it exercise and attention, fit and replace shoes, teach it how to be a riding horse, and of course, muck the stables.  Now, if you want to do all of that by your lonesome, and know how to, great. Otherwise you’re better off keeping a trusted stable hand or two on retainer.  In this extended analogy, that’d be me.

It’s not only that I want a continued working relationship with the few clients I want to service really well – It is also a genuine on going concern for the success of your company. One of the worst assumptions clients have about a site is that it’s only a brochure; an on going support contract can open the door to better ways of helping your customers and more efficient ways of servicing them for your business. Support Contracts open the door to analysis of customer behavior and sales opportunities you’d never see before. And support contracts make your organization’s digital platform more capable and easier to iterate and build upon.

Bottom line: Just because you can hire a vendor to come in and do a one-off job, doesn’t mean that’s the right model. In fact, after years of doing exactly that, I’m convinced that it’s a disservice to the client and their customer to do one-off engagements. Any web property isn’t just a one-time thing.  They all fit in an organization’s broader competitive and strategic plans and that means planning and relationships for the long haul.

One caveat – I’m not interested or able to support sites I didn’t build. That’s simply too much hassle and overhead.  What I’m selling is a model where I nurture the digital aspect of your company on an on-going basis, not a place for you to outsource support.

That said,  you might want to re-think your web strategies any way, and then we’re cooking!

Pro tip – telling me that you’ve even considered how you’ll maintain and eventually retire a site tells me you are serious about the project.

Make better design decisions

A Four Step Decision Making Process

  1. Identify the problem (highest value; critical and creative)

    1. Often this is the most difficult step. It’s very very easy to mistake what looks like a problem for something that is not a problem. Most of the time clients think they have one problem when the reality is they have a completely different problem. The best way to identify problems is to ask questions! Unfortunately, most organizations have an inherent bias to doing things a particular way (often for good but opaque reasons), and this usually takes some convincing. But it’s like anything else: if you’re solving for the wrong thing, don’t be shocked when you get the wrong results!
    2. How do we know we have the “right” problem?  Well, simply, we don’t. We need evidence first. That might be: “We aren’t getting as many sales as we forecast”.  And that leads us to the question of why. It may be explained away by bad forecasting – really really common in startups that haven’t made enough demand yet.  It may be that there’s a hole in the funnel. It may be both or neither and something completely unrelated (like bad PR), but the point is that gathering evidence of what’s actually going on is important. Again, companies usually have really solid accounting controls and can see where every penny went, but other data collection and control methods aren’t as good.  This is why it helps to have a design consultant who’s worked in research before (ahem, like me).
    3. This is both a critical skill in understanding why something is problematic, and a creative skill in understanding what may be a problem in the future.  This is why visionary leaders are so prized. Their creative and critical faculties border on prophetic and are capable of delivering extreme value.
  2. Generate Ideas (very high value, high creative component)

    1. Here’s the “fun.”  But this is where most companies royally mess up.  This is where they assume design comes in.  (Or digital, for that matter, or culture, or… maybe I should make that it’s own post).  In my post about being creative,  this is where that matters.  Being creative allows you to generate more ideas and allows you to generate better ideas by making novel connections.
    2. This is important however: Generating more ideas (even really high fidelity materials) is not the end all be all.  It’s part of it, sure; but it’s far more important that the only qualifying criteria is relevance, which goes back step 1.  Imagine trying to put together a jigzaw puzzle.  The first thing you do is sort the pieces, right?  That’s what step 1 is all about.  You need to have the borders of the puzzle in place before getting to step 2.
    3. Everyone should be participating in these steps. Directing, analyzing, and facilitating workshops or research study does require specialized training but the key tasks of asking questions and generating ideas only takes a brain, and everyone in your company has one.
    4. This is obviously the part people associate with designers, writers, etc. But the creative aspect only describes the activity not the personality.  The best designers I’ve met are stone cold professionals who look like they are book keepers or HR people.  There’s no formal qualification here and more importantly diverse inputs drive diverse results.
  3. Evaluate top alternatives (high value, high critical component)

    1. This is a critical task because you’re evaluating options.
    2. Methods include pro-con lists, Cost-Benefit Analysis, ethical and environmental impact – the list goes on and on.
      1. The point isn’t necessarily to use every single method every single project.  Actually, the goal is to use the fewest methods necessary.
      2. And the point is more about using a method with intentionality, not simply going with your gut.
    3. I typically try to get to 3 options before making a choice.
    4. There’s never only one choice to make, which means there are at least 2.
    5. The third option is probably the scariest, but most powerful one available:  do nothing.
    6. Part of the reason that’s always included is because it is a choice, whether we recognize it or not. And often, it may be the right choice!
      1. Here’s an example: Question – “How are we going to migrate all of this content to the new CMS?”
      2. let’s skip coming up with lots of ideas for a second and go to the top options: “A) I could write a script that converts it to xml and uses the new CMS’ import tool,  B) we could farm it out to the interns or C) we could do nothing”.
      3. What happens if they choose C?
      4. Then they have to critically evaluate what content actually ends up on the new site, instead of just lugging it all over, which is an improvement in the question being asked in the first place.
      5. Choosing to do nothing is often a reframing of the original question. It’s perfectly ok to do this.  It should be encouraged!  As I’ve said before, avoiding stupid choices is a lot easier to do, and frequently a better idea than trying to out smart everyone else.  That’s the power of doing nothing.
  4. Choose one: (least value, but most activity).

    1. Whatever the decision is, this is the time for violent, quick execution.
    2. Spend as much time as you need to get everyone on board.
    3. Building sites and applications is difficult technical work, but it is far simpler when you know what it is you’re building.


How to be creative professionally

Premise: Professional Creativity is a skill just like accounting or management.  It can be taught, learned, developed, and honed.

If you don’t believe that premise you should never be given a budget to work with designers.

I spend a lot of time here talking about how to think more critically about your design projects.  I firmly believe that rigorous process results in consistently higher quality,  but that critical thinking only works because the creative insight is better as well.

When I was a political data director,  the way we put this was “Garbage In = Garbage Out.” It’s no different in writing, where the best writers are also the most voracious readers, and it’s no different in design. We need lots and lots of ideas to find the 2-3 best ones for any given project.

It’s also true that the more projects one is involved in the more finely tuned this sense of what can work is. That’s like any other craft.  A grandmaster in chess should beat a novice because their brain has learned at a seemingly preternatural speed what to expect. There are designers who are that skilled.  They are few and far between.

Now that I’ve convinced you that becoming more creative is a skill, how does one actually go about it?

Here are 10 tips that will improve your creative abilities.

  1. Give me 10 – every day, write down on paper 10 ideas in a bulleted list.  Over time, your idea generating muscles will build themselves up, and 10 ideas will come to you before you’ve put on your slippers.
  2. Get out of the office – block off time to get physically out of your office.  Here are a few really good places to go:  The library (especially the St. Louis city central branch – it’s gorgeous!), the zoo, the beach, the woods, a nearby park, or even a local attraction on the other side of town.  Routine speeds up our perception of time. Creativity depends on consciously breaking routine to expose how incredibly vast and interesting being a human on earth is.
  3. Observe – If the 10 ideas a day thing is too difficult to start, begin with this. Go to any public space and write down 10 observations. “Old lady wore brand new Jordans in line at the DMV.”  Eventually, your eye for detail will improve and connections between things will leap out to you.  Making connections between seemingly unrelated things is the quintessence of creativity. Everything is a remix!
  4. Mimic –  Ray Chandler used to practice writing the passages of writers he admired just to feel the how writing something that moving felt to do.  I learned how to code sites basically by mimicking others. Humans ability to ape is second to none, and it’s an important learning tool.  By mimicking you’re letting your body actually experience what it is like to do something you don’t know how to do.
  5. Exposure – While technically this is the same as number 2, it’s different. At a lot of companies,  it’s not uncommon that each different department is siloed off from the other, and the company is siloed off from it’s customers, users, or stakeholders.  The best way to remedy that isolation is to increase your hours of exposure to the people who use what you provide. This can help you generate better ideas on how to serve them.
  6. Learn to read –  Like I said above, the best writers are constantly reading and re-reading. One of the things that you might not see is how they have trained their brains to absorb what they read. In my own practice, I tend to read 3 times if it’s something I am studying. First, I just read and get a sense for it.  The second time I’m methodically going through and making notes, either in a notebook, index cards, or in the margins of the pages.  If I need a third round,  I make sure to read up on the material with secondary sources – criticism, review,  differing opinions, and try to synthesize everything.  You don’t have to go that hard core (I tend to only with about a book a year), but the act of it increases the ability to connect ideas.
  7. Play a game – so much of the “magic” of creativity is recall.  How quickly you make connections can be improved by playing trivia and using it to work on recall.  Cards against humanity is also stellar in this regard.
  8. Play a strategy game – for millennia, chess and go have been used to teach strategy, and they definitely have lessons for you. Challenge a friend and look for patterns.  Note the constraints of pieces and try to think through moves. Helps with both forward thinking “If Then” construction and working backward from a goal.
  9. Get Bored – John Cleese of Monty Python fame argues that getting bored is the best thing you can do to be more creative.  He’s right.  Our brains crave stimuli.  Being bored is when the stimuli aren’t sufficient to hold our attention. Our imagination starts to kick in to keep our brains stimulated.  The result is your imagination gets better and better – and your creative thinking improves.
  10. Learn to Draw – You definitely do not need to become an artist, but learning to draw does two very important things. First it strengthens both hand eye coordination and your confidence taking ideas out of your head and into the world. More importantly, drawing is the oldest visual form of human communication and therefore essential to how our brains understand our world. Whenever I get an assignment I like to sketch out a small diagram. Or, I’ll sketch out football plays. Or, I’ll draw in a sketch book. The point is that drawing helps you organize your world, which is exactly what design does too.

It should surprise no one that when your creative thinking is better, it makes evaluating options critically easier as well too. And you get to solve better problems, so, get creative and get a raise!

Top 10 Books for designers

Everyone loves a good listicle right?

Top 10 books for designers

  1.  How to make sense of any mess, Abby Covert
  2.  Designing for Performance, Lara Hogan
  3.  Just Enough Research, Erika Hall
  4.  You’re My Favorite Client, Mike Monteiro
  5.  Entreleadership, Dave Ramsey
  6.  Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon
  7.  How to, Michael Beirut
  8.  Canon, Massimo Vignelli
  9.  Why I Write, George Orwell (specifically, this essay)
  10.  The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell

If you study these you’ll learn more than you’ll need to be a designer who wins great projects, keeps clients excited, does well thought out, interesting work, not go broke, think and write clear and compelling thoughts.

These are the books I keep coming back to for how to think about my work and how to mine myself for deeper and better work.

BONUS: Farnham Street is quickly becoming my favorite site on the internet. There’s gold in them thar hills, people

How to design debt free

What we mean when we say a bad site is a site with an obvious design debt.

Design debt is not about how it looks.  We’re not talking (necessarily) about what platform it’s built on.

What do we mean by debt? 

Debt Free the way to be

In a design process that focuses on decisions instead of artifacts,  we can build with less debt because we are not making needless assumptions, like what kind of abilities our users have, what browsers they use, whether they have javascript enabled, or what kind of bandwidth they have access to.

Building responsible websites and applications starts with basic, disciplined planning and focuses on the system for making decisions, not on the artifacts. Here’s how that process might look:

  1. Set constraints – time, budget, function, performance.  Design is an applied craft and thrives when constraints are recognized.  Here’s when you’ll figure out really quickly who is responsible for hosting and maintenance. This is also the time to schedule evaluations – 7 days after launch, 30 days, 90 days, 6 months, 1 year, and 2 years.  Adults make plans and follow through on them.
  2. Set hypotheses for success/failure – how do we know we’re done and how do we know we did well? This is a research question.  Remember, data simply exists.  It’s not information until our brains put it into context.  And it’s no use to anyone else until:
  3. Organize content – oh man, this is it’s own article. Or book.  Or field of practice.  Suffice it to say, most bad sites skip this step and end up bloated messes as a result.
  4. Create mark-up and set source order – this gets all components of a good site into the right medium as fast as feasible.  This is the blueprint, if you were building a building.  Even functionality can be addressed here – if you need a form on your site, for instance, you should decide what fields you’ll need, and you can create the reusable mark-up now.  This saves time later!
  5. Sketch ideas  – this could be any thinking medium.  If a designer “thinks” in ink, then it should be illustrations.  If they think in Photoshop, then .psd. If they think in mood boards or style tiles, then it can be those.  It’s a step where we’re creating lots of ideas first, and then critically evaluating and iterating until it’s right.  This is the artist rendition, again, if you were building a building.
  6. Design a custom grid – this fits the design (the container) to the content (the substance).  The drawback to using a framework off the rack, or a WordPress theme is you need to work the other way around.  This is why everything looks the same (because they all use the same 3-4 grid layouts).  If you want to look special, you need to think about layout.
  7. Apply Styles.  This is where a framework can really come in handy, IMHO.  Sensible defaults and battle tested components help immensely in speeding up this process.  I’m never writing the CSS for a button again.  ZURB’s done that for me.

At every step you’ve got a chance to come up with something novel and evaluate it critically.  Business and user needs are considered from the very beginning.  Development starts with all of the raw materials and plan it needs to be done well from the get-go.  It’s collaborative, and it’s iterative, and progresses from conceptual to concrete.

Macro vs. Micro

Borrowing is a tool for growing an economy faster than income allows.  On the whole, credit is almost miraculous for building societies. But we’ve all seen the downside too: people take on too much to pay back, or take wild risks that they wouldn’t otherwise take, and at some point they do have to pay it back to the lender.

Design is about decision making and so, when you’re evaluating designers, or a design project, you need to start with risk. Maybe you’re comfortable taking a lot of risk to get your name out there faster.  Maybe you’re comfortable betting your company on looking like everyone else, sounding like everyone else, using technology that the company across the street is using, or just collecting stuff to impress people you don’t even like. Design debt is a lack of clear thinking; not technical ability. 

But if you’re not comfortable with those risks, and you want to truly serve your customers, the best thing you can do is to change your decision making behavior and not borrow for the sake of convenience.

CMS love

CMS are wonderful, terrible, and the sine qua non of agency life. Everyone is a WordPress shop or a Drupal shop or a Shopify Expert or specializes in their pet favorite.

There are strong reasons for doing so; one is expertise – you get better with a tool the more you use it. Another is marketing, as most web design and development is referral based, most clients come to you expecting a particular type of solution.  The other big reason is that each CMS has it’s own philosophy about how to think and operate, and there fore, different philosophies for different people.

This is the crux of the problem though; if we’re honest, many platforms are mature enough to handle many different types of use-cases.  But, to me, that doesn’t mean that a developer ought to only specialize in say, WordPress.

I just want to take a minute and point out some of the options you might not be aware of and that these are projects I would love to give a whirl on a client project (as opposed to just playing around with them on my own time).

Jekyll: Jekyll is actually a static site generator, and not a CMS.  However, because it includes a method to template files, there’s more maintainability than a flat file static site. Also, it’s a github project and therefore encourages good version control. Last, you can publish to GitHub Pages easily and for free. If you have a use case to develop documentation, training materials, reference materials, or other content that is not changed frequently,  Jekyll would be ideal.  You’ve got complete control over mark-up, styles, and interaction with next to none of the overhead of a CMS.  Free

Backdrop: Backdrop is a fork of Drupal 7.  Whereas Drupal generally prioritizes developers over site builders or editors, Backdrop is philosophically set up to advantage Site Builders; that is to say non-technical users who can configure the site via options and get it 90% of the way they want it.  Another advantage to Backdrop is that it seeks to impose the least technological cost on a user. So older PHP (as you might find on cheaper hosting) is just fine.  It’s only a year old and the module ecosystem isn’t what Drupal 7’s is, but the idea that you can quickly and cheaply configure a site without the issues that can plague other CMSs is appealing. It would have to be comparatively simple, at this point however.   This would make Backdrop perfect for clubs, non-profits, reading groups, small or medium business sites that would suffer from heavier maintenance requirements.   Free, open source.

Perch: The thing I love about Perch, aside from being the brainchild and company of Rachel Andrews, is that it allows me, as a designer/developer, to start with the mark-up and css that I want to use, and then graft the CMS on top of it (as opposed to starting with the question “How do I make [insert CMS] do that?”). Perch is a nice bridge between completely bespoke HTML and the systemization of a CMS.  I wouldn’t want to try to make too complicated a site here, but for a marketing or brochure style site, Perch would be a blast to work with.   Requires purchase of a license

Craft: Craft is a CMS that has a ton of things going for it.  First, most importantly, is a clean, responsive dashboard that even my mother could figure out. Second, because you buy a license, you get some level of support from the people who made it, and they are super helpful and responsive.  Third, like Perch you get a lot of control over your markup.  Fourth,  you get to keep that nice and clean with Twig templating built in (keeping logic out of markups).  Fifth, there’s matrix – so not only do you select the fields you want per piece of content, but you can drag and drop them however you like.   Can you tell I like Craft?  I’ve heard Craft described as “WordPress if you stripped everything out and replaced it with Custom Fields.” That might even be selling it short but I do like the idea and hints at good uses for it: sites with a lot of content to manage in a few different types (like WordPress).

The point is not to say “This is better than X” or any dogma whatsoever. And there are good reasons to only go with X or Y system. Universities, Dioceses, Government agencies (municipal governments, public school districts, etc) – really any use case where the administration of multiple sites is core to the mission of the organization – are better suited by picking either WordPress or Drupal and running everything as a multisite installation. I do think a hosted solution like Shopify is a really better tool for most e-commerce sites of mild complexity (more than a few simple items) than plugging in WooCommerce to WordPress.   I’m of the opinion that “specialty CMS” software like Rainmaker (attorneys) and Blox (news paper) are total bullshit.

The point is to say that there are more viable tools out there, that you, dear client or developer, do not need to be afraid of trying unless there’s a system-wide reason you can’t.  For me, if the project is worth doing, I’ll design and build it for any system that makes sense to use.

Full disclosure: I came up working on WordPress and still do most of my work on it. I work at a place that does a lot of Drupal based work, in addition to custom application development too.

RFP Advice to would-be clients

Generally speaking, I don’t get sent RFPs – most of the organizations that have to create RFPs simply would never think to send them to someone like me.  This is part of the reason I work where I work.  However, I often spend an ungodly amount of time trying to figure out how best to meet your needs, would be client.

This is a great little piece that clearly spells out the kinds of things you ought to be thinking about before asking me if I can make you a website.

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.