How To Spot A Great Web Designer From 25,000 Miles Away

How To Spot A Great Web Designer From 25,000 Miles Away

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People are always asking me for the names of web designers who I trust, and to be honest, finding a good web designer is not easy. There’s no shortage of them out there, though. Search “web designer” in Google and you’ll soon be overwhelmed with choices from designers with incredible looking websites and work samples from all over the globe.

But how can you read between the lines and find one that will be right for you?

With that in mind, I’ve decided to share the 5 things I look for when evaluating a web designer. Quite simply, I look at their work and evaluate them based on their past performance, not solely on what they say about themselves on their website.

If you’re in the market for a web designer that really “gets it” when it comes to photography, I hope you find this list helpful.

Finding a Great Web Designer: 5 Things To Look For


1) He/she is an SEO fanatic.
Search Engine Optimization is such a critical concern for websites, that it really needs to be factored into the site’s design right from the very start. When evaluating a designer, I always start by looking at how they approach SEO. The sites they’ve created – do they contain lots of keyword-rich text? Does the site have a URL structure that contains useful keywords? Do images have captions and alt tags? Do the links within the site contain informative keywords?

I also like to see evidence that the designer was deliberately thinking about the keywords that mean the most to a photographer, and has incorporated these keywords throughout the entire site.

It might also be a good idea to see how the sites they’ve already built are doing within Google. Start doing searches for terms that apply for their past customers, and see where the site shows up in the rankings.

2) It’s about your photos, not their design.
A really good designer knows that they are only successful if the website allows the images to play the dominant role in a viewers experience. You don’t want a customer coming to the site, and the first thing that enters their mind is “Wow, look at this website design!” Your pictures should be front and center, and the design of the site should fade into the background.

Too often, I see overly-designed photography websites that detract from the images. A great designer knows that simplicity is the best approach for you and your customers, and isn’t trying to use your website to impress his/her designer friends.

3) He/she doesn’t rely on Flash.
There’s no secret here – I hate Flash. I think it’s yesterday’s gimmick, and it’s going away. I’ve been saying this for years, and it’s becoming quite obvious that sites built entirely in Flash put photographers in a disadvantage.

If you’re looking at a web designer’s portfolio, and it contains mostly Flash-based designs, you should request to see HTML/CSS examples. (Or just find someone else who fully embraces HTML.)

If you are talking to a designer, and they keep trying to push you in the direction of Flash, let serve as a red flag warning for you. If they are only comfortable working in Flash, then they’ve most-likely already failed at point #1 (above.)

Flash is not 100% evil, though. It does have some very legitimate uses, like embedded video, animated/interactive charts and graphs, and slideshows. But you should never build an entire website in Flash. There’s no need for that today.

4) They don’t leave the hard stuff to you.
Here’s a pet peeve of mine: Designers who supply you with a Photoshop file that contains their design, and expects you to go out and find someone else to actually turn it into HTML. Screw that. If a designer tells you that they don’t “do coding,” then don’t bother with them.

I’m not expecting every designer to be a coding genius, but I do expect a web designer to know HTML and CSS at the very least. If they aren’t able to write PHP code or Javascript, or build WordPress templates, then they should have a partner that can do this for them.

The point is – you are a photographer, not a website project development manager. The designer should be able to deliver a fully-functional site, and leave nothing up to you. That’s what you’re paying them for.

5) He/she knows that every photographer is different.
Not all photographers are the same. Every photographer has a different set of customers and a different way of doing business. In the end, your website needs to be built to make life easier for YOUR CUSTOMERS. It’s not built to make your designer happy, and it’s not built for you. It’s a business and marketing tool for your customers.

A great designer realizes this. They aren’t locked into one specific approach for all photographers. They know that wedding photography sites are different than youth sports photography websites.

If your web designer asks you questions about your competitors and your customers (what’s important to them, or to describe their behavior) – that’s a great sign. At the end of the day, it’s how the site performs for your customers that matters. This can be measured through unsolicited praise (“Your website was so easy to use!”) and the amount of money it generates.

When evaluating a designer, do they use the same bag of tricks for every type of photographer? If so, that’s a bad sign. (However, if, for example, you are a photojournalist and you find a web designer that specializes in building websites for photojournalists, that’s fine. I wouldn’t negatively judge a designer with a specialty just because they don’t have examples outside of that specialty.)

With these 5 points in mind, I’ve created a list of designers (many of them are also photographers) who I feel are worthy of consideration. All of these designers are also experienced with PhotoShelter’s advanced customization capabilities, which means they know how to integrate all of PhotoShelter’s tools into a website or blog.

Deb Pang Davis (contact)

Mike Schmidt (contact)

Warren Diggles (contact)

Dan Barham (contact)

Luc Rousseau (contact)

David Moore (contact)

David Brabyn (contact)

Steve Fox (contact)

Todd Owyoung

Mike Cavaroc

Do you know a good web designer? Help to expand this list by posting their names/links below.

(By the way, did you know that the circumference of the Earth is 25,000 miles?)

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There are 15 comments for this article
  1. Tom at 4:34 am

    That’s a really useful post. I particularly like point 4. It’s also a pet peeve of mine (as a web designer myself) when people offer web design services with little to no knowledge of how to actually make a website. You might be walking down the street for example and see a pet shop with a sign in the window saying ‘we also make websites!’ ! What’s that all about!? Having done a computing degree, learnt all this stuff academically and had commercial jobs doing web design, I feel a little irritated by someone who buys a copy of dreamweaver and thinks they can do your job… But anyway, I digress (I’m not bitter). I also agree on the Flash point but that badboy is still not going away – like a baddie in an action movie, it keeps coming back! Thanks for the post anyway, I’d like to suggest myself for that list above, but maybe that’s a little too arrogant to do myself, so I will have to find someone to suggest me instead. Tom

  2. Jonathan at 3:57 am

    I think many of us can relate to Toms pertinent comment above regarding anyone thinking they too can make websites. Just ‘cos someone owns a camera, it doesn’t make them a photographer! Personally I own a pair of scissors….does that make me a hairdresser? I love the digital age but sometimes it has its drawbacks when everyone thinks they can do what you do with no training or technical expertise. J

  3. Freeman at 3:38 pm

    Yawn. Grover again spouting that he hates Flash and yet doesn’t mention that it does make it harder for people to steal pictures. It’s not impossible, of course, but anything that stops that right-click brigade is welcomed. I would have thought a company that works with photographers would have considered that important. Yes, Flash sites can be very good at SEO. Do your research. So, Grover, yawn again.

  4. Grover Sanschagrin at 4:12 pm

    I’ve done my research. I am seeing photographers dump their Flash sites in favor of HTML, only to see huge SEO gains shortly after. Some people are just in love with Flash, and will defend it no matter what the facts are. As for right-clicking prevention, you can do this without resorting to Flash. But that still doesn’t stop a screen grab. Yawn, indeed.

  5. Ten18 Photography at 1:43 pm

    I was extremely pleased with the service we received from Cristian of Maquina Studio. He designed and coded a WordPress theme for our photography business. This was one of the best investments we’ve made and I couldn’t be happier.

  6. marlonrichardson at 5:57 pm

    I think all the designers you mentioned are quite good but Flash isn’t the enemy it’s quite easy to make a highly optimized website completely in flash. Flash is way more stylish and depending on the market you are trying to attract it does seem to work better with clients. I know photo editors and such don’t care for them because they look at so many website per day they just want it plan and simple. But for portrait and wedding studios well designed flash sites seem to capture normal consumers attention quicker and for longer periods of time. On a personal note, I have 2 websites that I’ve created. My wedding website is done using WordPress and I integrate client galleries using Photoshelter. I write tons of articles and do all the usual SEO stuff and get great traffic. I rank very well for my targets but it took a considerable amount of work to do so. 1. http://www.marlonrichardson.com My commercial website is done completely in flash but coded properly so that I generate hundreds of pages. Without even trying I get nearly as much traffic on this site and clients tend to stay on this site for 4-5 minutes whereas on my HTML/CSS site they usually stay for 2 minutes or less. (I created a mobile version of this website that pulls the same XML I use on the main site so it’s not sweat for me when someone uses a device that doesn’t support flash.) 2. http://www.marlonrichardson.net If I tried to build this site using HTML/CSS having similar transition I would likely not be able to optimize it as well. I’d have to kill some of the cool and have pages just load up for every image so I could make it as optimized as possible. I think there is a place for both and there is nothing wrong with building a website completely in flash and it doesn’t make a designer crappy because they do.

  7. Grover Sanschagrin at 6:12 pm

    Thanks for the reply, Marlon. I know some really talented designers who use Flash – so I wasn’t in any way saying all designers who use Flash suck. However, I have heard too many stories of *some* designers pushing people into a Flash website when one wasn’t wanted or needed – the photographer ends up thinking they have no other choice. It’s these types of designers (ones who can only design in Flash) who should be avoided if you’re interested in a non-Flash site.

  8. marlonrichardson at 2:02 pm

    @Grover I agree with you on your point. About 4-5 years ago there was tremendous pressure from designers to photographers to go with flash based websites for photography websites. I think that is no longer the case and most designers don’t know flash well enough to do even a basic website in it so they no longer recommend it. The advancement of javascript libraries has made Flash not as necessary for presentation style delivery and in many cases it can be avoided all together. Personally, I only like to use flash when I can do the whole project in it. It’s is more powerful and more SEO friendly that way. I don’t like using it just as a slideshow on an HTML based website because I can create a nice flash-like slideshow in javascript these days. PS – the designers you mentioned are all excellent!

  9. izmostock at 6:32 pm

    I agree that its important to evaluate them based on their past performance. I would add that it should be recent results, because of all the technical issues. Maybe even just the last one or two projects. Because of this I called Steve Fox, from borndigitalwebdesign.com, who is also one of the recommendations in this post. I was in a bind with integrating a WordPress site and the Photoshelter CMS with minimal down time. Steve understood the goals. He did the cross domain integration fast along with tweaking all the CSS in the Photoshelter templates. And he did all this while putting up with our time zone bouncing around from USA, Belgium, and India. Thats what makes a great web developer ~ talented designer, with rock solid technical skills, and extraordinary service. Steven Poe

  10. Daniel Sircar at 6:42 pm

    I can vouch for Mike Schmidt. He’s the resident graphics/web guru and curator of all that is awesome at my university. He’s a great teacher and is simply a pleasure to work with as a photographer.

  11. Mike D at 2:19 am

    You bash Flash, but don’t explain why! I know a bit about HTML and CSS, it’s actually easier to use than Flash. However, Flash offers Photographers (to the best of my understanding) a level of security to copyright theft (someone stealing your photos). It is much more difficult to pull a photographers work out of Flash, than it is using HTML. So, unless you can explain some trick to securing your work in HTML, then I don’t see why you bash Flash.

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