One of the most frequently received emails that come my way are from aspiring and hopeful blog and website designers asking how I got my start. In the last month alone I’ve gotten fourteen letters from different people regarding starting a business. I replied to one or two of them individually, but as the emails kept coming, I decided that a blog post would be a better answer to that question. Then, as I started writing the post, I realized that there was more that I wanted and was willing to share than I would normally put in one post.
Instead, I’m breaking it down into a series. Much like my Move to Manual series, I’m going to cover different aspects of how I started my business, how I built my portfolio, resources I use and places I frequent, as well as a handful of other information that might be helpful to someone who’s just getting started.
Now, let me also so this in advance going into this series. I’m not going to be sharing coding secrets or CSS or shortcuts that I may or may not use in my design process. There is a ton of information available on the internet and I’ll be offering resources and links to other places that can get you started with your learning. It would be foolish for me to give away freely everything that I’ve worked to learn on my own or to give away information that was shared with me out of confidence from other designers.
How and Why I Started Designing
I started designing my own blog way back when I was on Blogger. I published my first blog post in August 2008 and fell into the habit of blogging quickly after. I remember that the first site that I started reading on an almost daily basis was a little but growing blog called Outside my Kitchen Window. At that time, Kelly had a great little scrapbook style design (remember when those were popular?) and my blog was nothing more than the default blogger template with a background pattern. It wasn’t but a few months into my blogging career that I decided that I needed to up the anty and customize my look. Needless to say, despite contacting other designers and even going so far as getting ready to make a payment, I’ve been designing my own look ever since.
Designing is a creative outlet for me. It gives me a sense of control and creative freedom. I can manipulate what is essentially a blank canvas and mold it into something completely different. It’s a rush for me just like painting, sketching or drawing is for any other artist. It’s something that I do every single day in some way, shape or form. When I moved myself to WordPress in January 2011, I couldn’t get enough of the tech side of designing (CSS, PHP, HTML…). I knew at that moment that designing blogs and websites was something that I wanted to do full time. Being a military family, working for myself also offered much more flexibility with our move every four year lifestyle and it gave me the chance to still be at home with my boy.
Tips to Get you Started
There’s a big difference between pursuing design as a hobby and making a business out of it. There are lots of things to consider and think about and it’s not really something that I recommend jumping into headfirst. Keep in mind when reading these that this is what has worked for me and for my business. Other designers might have different advice for you, but this is how I would get going. I also only design for WordPress, so many aspects of this series will be targeted more at designing WordPress based designs.
1. Choose a Platform for which you want to Design.
For me, I knew that I didn’t want to work with Blogger at all. I wasn’t blogging on the Blogger platform and had a desire to learn more about the more difficult aspects of coding like CSS and PHP manipulation. All of the sites that I admired and enjoyed browsing through were built and powered by Self-Hosted WordPress. Almost 18 months into my business, I still only work with WordPress. You don’t have to work with only WordPress. Lots of highly successful designers like Creative Girl Media (formerly April Showers Blog Design) work with both Blogger and WordPress, allowing for more clients and flexibility in their schedules. There are also sites like Tumblr that you could work with. Start where you feel comfortable and work your way up.
2. If you decide to design for WordPress, choose a theme to design with.
This somewhat coordinates with number one. When I started out, I knew that I wanted to build my site using the Genesis Framework from StudioPress. One of my favorite designers and mentors Lauren from Restored 316 Designs was behind many of my favorite designs and her sites were built using Genesis. I was also drawn to their Child Theme Selections and the ability to choose from a variety of baseline “jumping off” points to start with my site. There are other themes as well; the most popular being Thesis, but again, I’m partial and choose to only work with Genesis. I’ve had nothing but fantastic experiences with them and their team. Some designers build on both, so it’s just a choice that you will have to make for yourself.
3. Learn as MUCH as you can.
Once I chose which theme I wanted to work with and had my site set up, I realized that I didn’t know a whole lot of anything about CSS or coding. I remember opening up my new WordPress Site and my Genesis theme and crying because I was in completely over my head. My husband got frustrated with me because we spent a small start up fortune moving my site over ($100 or so for hosting and another $90 or so on my new theme and framework…). After I cried, wallowed in self pity and wondered what I thought I was doing (“Surely I can’t design a site as good as so-and-so’s…”) I made my mind up that I was going to learn. I spent hours in the StudioPress forum reading and studying.
Most of what I learned in the beginning, I learned through trial and error. I did a lot of Googling and searching. I broke my site (and by “broke” I mean that I got the dreaded white screen of death indicating that I couldn’t access my site) at least 50 times before I ever got ready to actually launch my design.
If you’ve played around with html and coded any in Blogger, then jumping into CSS won’t be as big of a deal. Once I got my bearings straight and got going, I realized that I knew more about what I was doing that someone who had never tinkered with code before. If you’re looking to jump start your business and your learning curve, check out some of the Workshops offered over at The Blog Designer’s Network. They offer basic and advanced classes that are perfect for someone who is just starting out. W3 Schools is another great resource for getting started. They walk through basic and advanced CSS and can teach you pretty much everything you might want to know about CSS.
4. Find Yourself a Mentor.
Now, this one isn’t a must, but I can’t tell you how helpful it was for me to have someone who was familiar with the business and had succeeded as a designer who was willing to help me out and offer me advice to get me started. Some people may be kind enough to offer advice for free (like I’m doing now) and others may charge you. If you’re serious, I recommend learning from someone who’s already been there. I’m generally up to answering questions (though please keep in mind before you blow up my inbox that I physically can NOT answer every single email, which again, is why I’m writing these posts) and there are other designers I know who are willing to offer some guidance.
There are also workshops and coaching sessions provided and offered by a variety of different resources (again, the Blog Designer Network being a big one) that you do have to pay for to gain access to. If you opt to purchase your theme from StudioPress, there are tutorials and a great support forum and team there willing to help and answer questions as well.
5. Start Designing.
Next post I’m going to talk more in detail about building your profile and how to acquire clients, but for now I want to leave you with this piece of advice: just start designing. Design for yourself. Design test sites. Design logos. Use different color schemes. Experiment with fonts. For those of you who have been hanging around here for a while, you know that I’m constantly changing things and playing around with my design. Whether I’m tinkering with code or playing with new fonts and colors, I’m always designing something. You only get better with practice. Just like a photographer has to shoot daily to get better, you will need to design daily. Create a dummy site where you can break and fix your site over and over again to see how far you can push it. Even if you never use the designs you’re playing with, if you think they are a good representation of your work, you can always take screenshots and use them to get your portfolio started. At this point, nothing you do is going to be wasted.
6. DON’T book a Client until you’re ready.
This is one thing that I can’t stress enough. I know that the key goal to being a blog or web designer is to gain clients and build your business. However, designing for clients (more specifically clients that you don’t know) before you are ready is only going to stress you out. Take some time, practice on your test sites, and get the feel of what you’re doing. Nothing is more stressful than having a client that you don’t know desire a layout or a design that you don’t know how to create. Trust me.
Was this helpful at all to anyone who has thought about or is thinking about starting their own business? In the coming posts, I’m going to talk about Portfolio Building, Pricing, Growing your Business, where I find design inspiration, and a handful of other things that I keep mulling around in my head.
If you have a specific question that you’d like me to answer, feel free to leave them in the comments or shoot me a message. I’m going to try to answer everyone’s questions, so don’t hesitate to send them to me!