The perils of DIY web design

The perils of DIY web design

I’m a huge fan of DIY (not DUI, I should be clear). The Do It Yourself approach has served me well over the years, saving me incredible amounts of money on various minor construction projects etc. I took a DIY attitude toward my first website which I made in the late 1990s using manually input HTML and CSS code. I did this myself because I had more time than money and I wanted to learn all about what I perceived as being a growing field.

I made the right choice. For the kind of website I wanted, designers and developers wanted to charge me $10,000, which I simply didn’t have. To save that kind of money, it was worth it to me to invest 20 hours a week part time while I built my other businesses. That worked for me, then.

DIY isn’t for everyone

I’ve expanded and applied my web skills and, having kept pace with advances in web design technology, it would always be better and cheaper for me to design my own websites that to outsource, even if the rates are super-cheap, if only because I can build a resource like a landing page in less time than I could describe my concept to another designer (especially one who doesn’t speak English).

But DIY web design wouldn’t be right for most business people. Why not? Because if you don’t already know a lot about web builders (like Elementor), platforms (like WordPress), hosting services (like Siteground), plugins, e-commerce integration, encryption and more, the learning curve is steep. Chances are you’ll waste considerable time troubleshooting your way out of design or technical traps a pro would avoid. There are also a number of important design principles that non-pros tend to get wrong in ways that potentially cost them a lot of conversions.

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Measuring opportunity cost

Even if you know what you’re doing, does it pay to invest your time in building a website? In most cases, no, even if the cost of the website is greater than value of the time you put in. That’s because in reality web design is finicky, painstaking, tedious, repetitive, frustrating and potentially emotionally draining. You need to keep your attention focused on serving your customers or creating your products.

Way too many business people make the mistake of trying to do everything themselves. Even if they’re reasonably good at things not relating to their business (most people overrate their abilities), taking time and focus away from the actions that produce revenue is not the way to increase revenue. But “a dollar saved is a dollar earned” you say? Honestly, I agree, but doing your own web design while also, say, running your dentistry clinic, law practice, restaurant or bakery is not the way to conserve resources. It’s the way to become exhausted.

Case study of failed DIY creative

I teach photography, mostly to beginners, but also some semi-pros come to me to learn a few tips and tricks. One of my beginner students, who is mostly interested in wildlife photography, was asked by the CEO of the company he works at in some technical capacity to take the company photos. The CEO’s plan was to save money by having one of her staff do the work instead of a professional photographer (I couldn’t quote on the job because my student had since moved to another city).

As keen as my former student was to do the job, he lacked the equipment and skills to shoot decent head shots. Since he was a wildlife photographer he wasn’t used to shooting with flash (and had none), so his colleague went to a friend and borrowed some inexpensive video lights. They didn’t have a professional backdrop, so they used a bed sheet, which they didn’t bother to iron, and nobody brought a steamer to work out the smaller creases. My former student didn’t know what lenses were best for portraits and wasn’t sure where to position the lights, or where to position them. Finally, he forgot to frequently remind his subjects to come ready for photos. The women were mostly okay, but the man mostly showed up with three days stubble on their faces.

Not up to the task

As keen as my former student was to do the job, he lacked the equipment and skills to shoot decent head shots. Since he was a wildlife photographer he wasn’t used to shooting with flash (and had none), so his colleague went to a friend and borrowed some inexpensive video lights. They didn’t have a professional backdrop, so they used a bed sheet, which they didn’t bother to iron, and nobody brought a steamer to work out the smaller creases. My former student didn’t know what lenses were best for portraits and wasn’t sure where to position the lights, or where to position them. Finally, he forgot to frequently remind his subjects to come ready for photos. The women were mostly okay, but the man mostly showed up with three days stubble on their faces.

Needless to say, the photos were a disaster. Worse, the CEO (who lacked any kind of aesthetic sense as far as I can tell) didn’t really know how bad the images were, so the company end up posting photos of poorly lit, unshaven (though well dressed) men sitting in front of a crumpled bedsheet. When my student called and asked for a critique, I gave it to him straight and he was grateful for the lesson. Too bad it had to come after the test (as lessons often do).

The cost of getting it wrong

If the CEO had hired a professional portrait photographer, it might have cost her $1,000 or so (that’s what I would have charged) for a three-light setup shot with color-balanced flashes in front of a well-ironed, professional photography background and the photographer would have given them a checklist of what to bring and how to groom themselves. The head shots would have looked like professional photos shot by someone who knows how to take headshots and, best of all, my former student could have spent his time doing the supposedly important job the company pays him to do.

Looking at the photos of the employees my former student shot on the company website makes me question the judgement of the company’s management. The quality – or lack thereof – of headshots on the company website says a lot about the company’s values and photos that are objectively terrible are worse than no photos at all.

Your website is your face

The same goes for your website design. Yes, doing it yourself can save money, possibly, but like the CEO of my former student’s company, can you afford to go cheap on the part of you that faces the digital world? You know the answer.

Contact me about how I can help you upgrade your presence on the web.

Paul Sean Grieve

I am a professional designer, photographer and author living and working in Okinawa, Japan.

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