Why I Haven’t Hired a Web Designer

Some people ask me why my website design looks so outdated. One reason is that I’m not much of a web designer myself (being color blind can be a minor obstacle there). The other reason is that the web designers who have approached me haven’t been very good at selling — to me. They try to sell me on features and style changes and giving me good deals. Sometimes they offer to update or modernize my website for free.

Then they ask me what I want. What features would I like to see? What other sites have a look I’d like to model?

And immediately I know this isn’t someone I’d want to work with.

Sometimes I visit their websites, which look very nice. Then I read one of their blog posts, where they complain about working with clients who don’t know what they want. This immediately tells me that this person is not a real designer. S/he is a coder pretending to be a designer.

When it comes to web design, I don’t know what I want, at least in terms of specifics and features. I don’t know what I should want. I don’t know what to ask for. I haven’t kept up with all the latest web design features and possibilities. I’ve spent much more time focusing on the ideas I share rather than the packaging used to present them.

I do, however, recognize that the packaging matters to some.

If I hire a designer, I want them to do some actual design. I don’t need a site to please me. I want a site that pleases my readers. But more importantly, I would like a site that looks and feels inspired, in the same way that the content is inspired. That’s what I want — inspiration. Now which designer is willing to tackle the risk of interpreting that? I take this risk all the time — when I write and speak — and I must deal with the possibility that my audience won’t agree with my inspired ideas. So why should I accept anything less from a web designer who wants to work with me?

When I was a game developer during the 90s, my work included designing new games as well as new levels for games. I couldn’t simply ask the players what they wanted and give it to them. All they would know to ask for would be sequels to existing games. They don’t know how to speak the language of game design. Figuring out what kinds of experiences would be fun for them was my job. And it was a difficult one.

I don’t need a designer to come to me and say, “Tell me what you want, and I’ll give it to you.”

When someone says that, I perceive them as trying to avoid doing the real, high-level design work. They just want to handle the low-level decisions and the coding. There’s nothing wrong with favoring those parts of the work, unless you promote yourself as a designer.

If I knew all the features I wanted and how I wanted the site to look, I could code it myself. I know HTML, CSS, PHP, MySQL, JavaScript, and many other programming languages. I know how to make things appear on the screen where I want. I can even do a bit of artwork as needed (I’m not saying I’m good at art though). If I were to see another website and wanted to copy its look and functionality, I could do that with relative ease, even if it required learning a new programming language or two.

You might think that someone like me would be a halfway decent client for a skilled web designer. I have a high-traffic site that’s been online for almost 10 years. I have money to pay someone. I’m willing to pay someone. I could really use a new website, and many of my readers would agree, so the demand is there.

Perhaps I’m being a bit Ayn Rand-ish in my attitude, but I’d like a website with an honest and purposeful design, something that aligns beautifully with the content. Do I know what that would look like and what features it would have? Heck no. But a real designer should be capable of making those decisions.

As far as I can tell, I haven’t met a real web designer yet… as in someone who embraces the difficult work of design.

Real design is going to require some iteration. It’s going to involve some risk. Real designers know this.

I think the less confident designers are afraid to tell their clients the truth about design work, fearing that if their clients knew the truth, no one would hire them. So they play it safe. They fall back on being coders because coding up a known feature set is more predictable. On the coding side, they can offer more reliable estimates. There’s less risk of having their work rejected. But I reject them up front for being too timid.

I’m not interested in throwing money away on a dysfunctional artsy website, but I’m not afraid of taking some risk when it comes to design. Call me crazy, but I think it would be fun to work with a real designer with the courage and willingness to do something inspired… especially with this particular website.

Where are those kinds of web designers? Do they exist?

Update Nov 2015: No need for a designer now. I decided to tackle this project myself as a growth experience.