New Year, New Website
The motivations and struggles behind redesigning my own website
Every web designer knows how challenging it is to redesign and maintain your own website. The shoemaker’s children often go barefoot, as the cliché goes.
My professional website, Owltastic, has gone through many redesigns since its birth in 2008 (hard to believe it just passed the 10 year mark!). Before Owltastic, I worked under my own name — using a domain which turned out to be impossible to spell and easy to forget — so I decided to create a site under the emblem of my favorite animal, an owl.
I adopted owls as my symbol for many reasons: I aspire to be more wise, I am somewhat nocturnal, and they look like adorable flying cats. Also we had owls around our house that made lots of noise and kept my dad awake at night, “just like my daughter did,” as Dad jokes.
At first Owltastic was primarily a blog (back when we all still had blogs). I wrote about a mix of personal topics, as well as design and development (I was mainly excitedly discovering CSS3 back then). It eventually grew into a place to find out about my speaking engagements, see my latest work, see the work of people inspiring me, read about the history of my career, and get in touch with me.
My website kind of became my junk drawer of the internet — a place where I stored copies of articles that were only read on Medium, little snippets of thoughts and things I was up to, and a rarely updated portfolio with disjointed case studies. Buried somewhere in there was a page telling potential clients how to get in touch.
The 3 Sentence Marketing Promise
One day I was listening to a Seth Godin interview on Tim Ferris’ Podcast (during one of my very rare breaks from bingeing on My Favorite Murder), when I heard Seth talk about his “3 Sentence Marketing Promise.” He said that every company should be able to articulate the following:
“My product is for people who believe ___. I will focus on people who want ___. I promise that engaging with what I make, will help you get ___.”
When I heard this, I paused the episode and played it back about 15 times, then wrote it down, then realized I would have to throw out my whole website and design a new one.
The premise of the 3 Sentence Marketing Promise is simple, and Seth mentioned it in a rather offhanded way in the show, but it struck me that I couldn’t really complete these three sentences for my own business. I knew vaguely who I wanted to create websites for, who my ideal audience was, and what I wanted to give to the world with my work, but I couldn’t easily put it into words — and my website certainly didn’t convey it.
This was especially embarrassing because it meant I wasn’t taking the advice I give my own clients who want to market their business and generate leads through their websites. I would often tell clients that most great marketing websites:
- Are clear about what they offer and who they are for
- Are clear about what differentiates them from others in the space
- Have visuals and language that showcase their brand’s personality
- Have a primary goal and makes it easy for people to take action
When I held my own website up against this advice, I realized I wasn’t exactly practicing what I preached. Visitors to my site were prompted to: read my latest article, look at my latest case study, follow me on several different social media accounts, check out the work of other creatives that I liked, hire me for a speaking engagement, watch videos of me speaking, read more about me, and finally, maybe, if they felt like it — read my long contact page and see about hiring me.
Now that I’m back to doing freelance work, I decided it was time I take my own advice and try to create a website for my business that:
- Is clear about what I offer and who I am for
- Is clear about what differentiates me from others in the space
- Has visuals and language that showcase my brand’s personality
- Has a primary goal and makes it easy for people to take that action
Having given myself the same challenge I give my clients, I realize now that this is no easy ask.
To begin, I had to get clear about who I am for and what I have to offer them. After all, I’m not trying to make websites for literally anyone who wants a website, and I have things to offer that set me apart. So I spent some serious time considering the following:
Who do I want to work with?
I want my website to attract the right clients to hire me, not just anyone who needs a website for anything, anywhere, anytime. So I jotted down a list of all the beliefs and motivations of my perfect client.
My ideal client is a person or business who:
- Believes high-quality design is worth investing in. They’re not looking for a generic template that’s rushed out the door. They see value in doing things right. They’re not primarily looking for a quick, cheap solution.
- Believes one of the keys to a successful business is good user experience. They have endeavored to understand their users, or welcome guidance on how to get started. Consideration of their users drives their decision making.
- Has a unique offering and wants to convey this with a unique digital presence. They’re not trying to look like every other startup. Their motivation is not to copy what’s already been done. They want to stand out from the crowd.
- Understands (or is open to learning about) the importance of the build of the design. Wants the website to be built in a way that works on a variety of devices, is accessible, and considers performance. They know (or are receptive to the idea) that design is only part of the equation.
- Are trying to better our world by creating products that improve people’s lives. They don’t want to cheat, mislead, or steal from people. They’re not looking to profit from (or inflame) people’s fear, anger, or ignorance.
Phew! I mean, that’s not too much to ask, right?
In all seriousness, there may not be any such thing as a totally perfect client. But the way I market myself can certainly help or hinder my ideal client’s search to find me, their ideal designer. Knowing what qualities my perfect client has helps me speak to them more clearly (this is an ongoing work in progress — btw, did you guys know that copywriting is hard and a very valuable and rare skill?).
The next tough question I asked myself is:
What do I have to offer?
Let’s say the perfect client does come along —they have all the best motivations, they care deeply about their users, they care about the quality of their digital presence, they believe in investing in good work, they’ve got the right timeline and budget. What do I have that would make this dream company want to work with me?
I found it a bit squirmy, but I overcame my imposter syndrome just long enough to write a list of what I bring to the table:
- Almost 15 years experience designing and building websites
- A robust knowledge of and enthusiasm for the technical aspects of web design (aka, I’m a designer who codes)
- A passion for great user experience — I’m someone who can help clients to better understand their users, which has enormous business value
- Thoughtfulness — I think deeply about (but try to not overthink) my design decisions and I can clearly communicate why I made them
- A unique, often whimsical visual style informed by my eclectic interests, my passion for typography, and my creative approach to conveying abstract concepts
- An authentic, friendly, and enthusiastic way of approaching projects — and a pretty good sense of humor — which brings positive energy to the team
- I’m not a big agency, which means I bring a focused, personalized attention to every client and often work more quickly than a large team (and usually for a more reasonable price tag as well)
Sounds pretty great right?
(Lest you think I’m entirely without humility, I have many areas to improve too. But because this is all about marketing myself, I’m not going to write about my weaknesses in this particular article.)
Outlining who I want to work with and what I bring to the table helps be much clearer on my website (again, this is still a work in progress. By the time you finish this article I’ll probably have tweaked the copy and rearranged a few elements about 17 more times).
With this latest version, I’ve put my experience designing for other people into practice, and tried to follow some of the guidelines I recommend to my own clients. The new site is much more simple than its predecessors — it’s a singularly focused one-pager with one primary call to action that’s repeated throughout: “if you like what you see, contact me about your upcoming project.”
I also link out to recent case studies, where I delve deeper into my design process on specific projects. I include links to Dribbble, where images of my work now live. I also have links to my recent or upcoming conferences, as this helps to reinforce to the client that I am an expert, and is also valuable for anyone who wants to hear me speak.
There are still things I’d like to add and improve on with Owltastic in the months to come.
- I’d like to get a more professional headshot taken — the one I have now is a picture I love that’s nabbed from Andrew and I’s engagement shoot, and while I am lit up with joy in it, I should probably have one where I look more like a Design Boss Lady.
- I’d like to come up with a great way to showcase my work that is also easy for me to update. On the old site, adding a new portfolio piece was prohibitively difficult, which meant my portfolio was always (embarrassingly) out of date. For now I’ve decided that linking out to a fresh and frequently updated Dribbble page is better than having a stale portfolio on my own site.
- I’d also like to perhaps bring my writing back in-house (rather than solely relying on Medium) — however everyone seems to be more engaged with Medium (for the moment), so I’m not super incentivized right now to invest in designing and building a new blog. (Along those lines I’m curious: do you, the person reading this, still use RSS for web design articles on some sites? Or subscribe to email newsletters? Do people click on non-Medium article links anymore? It seems like many of the designers I know and respect have made the switch to primarily writing here, but I’m curious if this is an incorrect assumption).
I’m excited to learn from and continue iterating on this latest version of my website. I hope to keep experimenting with it, and to bring what I learn to my clients. I also hope to write more about it here.
Thanks for reading, feel free to go check out the new site! And if you know anyone who sounds like a great client (or are yourself a great client), who is looking for a great designer, I’m available to take on new projects in early March!