Blog posts

WordPress web design fundamentals: tips for Brighton organisations

Effective and attractive web design will help your organisation communicate its key messages and stand out from the crowd. WordPress offers a wide range of ready-made themes for Brighton businesses wishing to build their own site.

If you’re on a tight budget or just starting out, these ready made WordPress themes will get you up and running. But if your website is the cornerstone of your business – and that applies to most of us now – you really need to think a bit harder about what you want your web design to do for you.

I specialise in designing custom websites, based on the requirements and aspirations of my clients, using WordPress and other platforms as needed.

Here are some of things I think about when designing a site:

Clear messaging

This is the starting point for any web design. A website must clearly communicate what an organisation does, what the site does and what users can do. Is it easy for users to find what they need. Do they even know what they are supposed to be looking for? And if they have found it do they know what to do next? If a web design can’t answer these questions it’s time to start over.

Look and feel

This is sometimes harder to judge than the previous point. Good web design uses colour, typography, content and imagery to convey an emotional message that will resonate with users and align with the aims and ethos of the client.

Form follows function

A design should relate to its intended purpose. This is sometimes forgotten in web design, when features or design elements are introduced because they are fashionable or used by a competitor. A fine example is the award-winning UK government website.

Familiar but unique

A website should be easy to use. For most sites that means things like its navigation and structure ought to feel at least partly familiar to users. But a great website design will build a unique experience around that familiar structure. Users must be able to differentiate your site from the competition and have reason to return.

Quality content

The content should not be an afterthought but should be built into the design from the earliest possible point. Great design starts with content and addresses the problem of how best to convey it to the end user.

Great imagery

Everyone wants great images on their site. While striking imagery can really lift a site, drab or cliched imagery can really bring it down. Custom photography, graphics or illustration can really help your site stand out. The imagery on the Insurtech Gateway site I recently worked on transformed the design.

White space

Organisations are often understandably keen to use their website to communicate as much information as they can. But this can be counterproductive. Too much information and too many messages can overwhelm the reader. White space is there to provide balance to your site and allow the most important messages and calls to action to stand out.

Web design in Brighton and surrounding area: I can help

I can help your organisation improve its web presence and generate more business as a result. Just drop me an email or call me on 07810 828359.

 

Photo by Jase Ess on Unsplash

Improving the performance of your WordPress site in Brighton

As a WordPress developer, there are a number of strategies I could take to improve the performance of WordPress sites operated by businesses in Brighton. There are also many things you can do yourself, which should help your site load faster. And a faster site means more conversions and better SEO for your site.

Here are my suggestions.

Audit your site

The best place to start when improving the performance of your WordPress site is to gather the evidence. Find out what your site does well and where it could benefit from a bit of optimisation.

There are a number of great, free tools out there which will scan your site, find elements that are slowing it down and make recommendations to improve things.

The first tool I would recommend is the Pingdom Website Speed Test. Just add our site’s url and it will break down which elements are slowing the site down most. It will provide a score, show your page size and load time.

The KeyCDN Website Speed Test is also useful. It will break down all the elements needed to load your site’s home page and how long they take to load.

I would recommend Google’s PageSpeed Insights as well, although it’s recommendations seem more aimed at developers and are therefore more technical. If you need help auditing your site or implementing the recommendations, do get in touch.

Optimise images

Once you’ve audited your site, I can predict that your biggest overhead is your images.

Those beautiful product shots, team photos or intricate backgrounds are likely to be placing the heaviest load on your WordPress site load time. You should try to keep your image sizes below 100k if you can. Large unoptimised images can run to several megabytes, which will have a big impact on your site loading time.

The best time to optimise your images is before you load them, using photo editing software like Affinity Photo, which is great value at £50.

If you already have lots of photos on your site, then you can use a WordPress plugin, such as reSmush.it, to compress the size of your images.

Faster WordPress hosting

I’ve mentioned the importance of good quality WordPress hosting in relation to site security. The same logic applies here. You get what you pay for in hosting and a quality host will have optimised their server setup to load your site quicker. WordPress hosts I can recommend include WP Engine, 34SP and SiteGround.

Remove unused plugins

Unused plugins could be slowing your site down by loading resources that you don’t need. Deactivate and remove them and you save yourself the headache of keeping them updated too.

Use a faster WordPress theme

Sometimes themes purchased from theme stores can be bloated and slow. This is because they are designed to cater for a wide range of requirements and could be offering lots of functionality you never use.

I build custom themes for clients that simply do what they need and not a lot of extra stuff that they don’t. They will be easy to use and quick to load. Contact me to discuss upgrading your WordPress theme.

Site cacheing

Cacheing speeds up your site by storing copies of your site pages for easy access and without requiring calls to the database. Learn more about cacheing on this nice site. Some WordPress hosting companies offer their own cacheing services. There are also a lot of WordPress cacheing plugins. WP Rocket and WP Super Cache are often recommended.

Perhaps you don’t need WordPress

WordPress is a fantastic tool. It offers so many options in terms of functionality and design. And it has an interface that many people are familiar with and find easy to use.

WordPress stores your posts, pages and products in a database, which allows for tremendous flexibility in how they are used. It’s perfect to people who regularly produce blogs or news stories, sell products or offer complex interaction with users.

However, if your website is primarily about presenting promotional information to your users then the constant calls to a separate database might not be necessary. And they might be slowing your site down.

Static sites, which serve information from files on the server, without recourse to a database, can be incredibly quick to load. I’ve used static site generators such as Jekyll to build attractive and blazing fast sites. And while Jekyll requires a bit of technical knowledge to set up, there are a number of add-ons which allow for easy updating of content by non-technical users. It’s always worth thinking about for your project.

I can help you

If you want help with optimising your site or any of the issue above then do get in touch. I offer a full web design and development service, including WordPress development, to organisations in Brighton and beyond. Email me or call me on 07810 828359.

Latest WordPress development project: German medical product site

One of the benefits of a being a freelance WordPress developer is the range of interesting projects I get to work on. So, although I’m Brighton based, which I love, I get to work for organisations from across the UK and beyond.

One of my recent projects was the build of German medical product site happystoma.de. I built a custom WordPress theme, based on the stripped down Underscores theme and incorporating the powerful Bootstrap library of styling and user experience components.

This allowed me to develop a site that adhered to the innovative designs produced by Scott at Spitfire Creative while ensuring the site was mobile-friendly, user-friendly and responsive. That’s how I generally work – I produce custom sites, based on the unique requirements and vision of each customer, while maintaining the highest web standards and useability. That can really make a big difference to the performance of a site, in terms of lead generation, customer buy-in and user experience.

One of the elements I’m most pleased with on is the slider, which fits seamlessly into the structure of the rest of the home page. Also, the sample request form, which contains conditional logic, adapting to the answers providers by the user. And it integrates with an external marketing database.

Why it’s great being a Brighton based WordPress creative developer

Still basking in the glow of the 2018  WordCamp Brighton WordPress conference, I can reflect on how good it is to be a WordPress web designer and developer in this wonderful city.

The second biggest WordPress conference in the country (after London), WordCamp Brighton brought together over 200 WordPress experts and enthusiasts from across the country. We talked about web design, development techniques, mental health, accessibility and lots more. I even shared my experiences of being a designer and developer, or ‘creative developer’.

But it’s not really the wide-ranging knowledge and expertise of the delegates that made WordCamp Brighton stand out. It was the participants friendliness, openness and willingness to share and collaborate. The WordPress community is quite unique in the way that people who might consider themselves competitors are willing to share their knowledge and experiences and just generally get along.

And veterans of WordCamps held across the world told me that the Brighton event had a particularly strong sense of community and inclusivity – a testament to the spirit of our city and the fantastic team of event organisers.

But it’s not just the annual WordCamps that bring people together. The monthly WordUp Brighton meetings regularly attract 30+ attendees and some great speakers to discuss some of the pressing WordPress issues of the day, eat pizza and drink a beer or two.

We’re also lucky enough to have a number of co-working spaces in Brighton, where freelancers can find a desk space, decent wifi and strong coffee. I work from The Skiff, which houses a great community of fellow freelancers and remote workers, and is a short walk from Brighton station and the North Laine. Skiff members often collaborate with each other on projects and I know I have unique access to experts in a wide range of professional fields.

Add to all that the beach and loads of cool cafes and bars and you’ve got to feel pretty lucky to be here.

Photo by Nabil Aiman on Unsplash

Web designer/developers – you are greater than the sum of your parts.

I’m going to hold my hands up and make a confession. I’m not a specialist. I work across web design and development and have been doing for several years. I sometimes design sites, for other people to build. I sometimes build sites other people have designed. And sometimes I do both design and development. I call it a confession because sometimes in the web industry it feels like those who are able to apply their skills to multiple fields are not applauded for their many skills but viewed with suspicion.

I went to a freelance recruitment event run by a digital agency a year or so ago where the person running the meeting specifically said that although he wanted to hear from developers and designers there was no place in their plans for people who did both.

And openings for developer/designers, whether freelance or full-time seen very rare. While most of my work with direct clients encompasses both design and development, my work with agencies is wholly one or the other.

Design & development skills combined

But it’s not just the web industry that needs to change it’s mind. I sometimes view myself with suspicion too. I worry that I don’t have the knowledge or expertise of a ‘real’ developer. My designs are not going to be as beautiful as those of a ‘proper’ designer. But that’s just insecurity. There are always going to be developers who know more and designers who have greater skills than me.  But that would be true if I were a standalone designer or developer.

And crucially, as a combined developer and designer there are skills and insights that I bring that most specialists would not have:

  • I can offer a combined service either for smaller clients or as part of a larger team
  • If I worked in a larger team, I could utilise my design or development skills wherever there was a current need
  • I understand the perspective of the other side – what works for them and what their frustrations are.
  • I design sites that are easy to build
  • I understand that design is important and will think of creative ways to bring a design to life, rather than trying to fit it into a template

And designer/developers can still specialise. I can specialise in JavaScript animation or Bootstrap or eCommerce sites or WordPress, of course, which is beautifully set up for people who design and develop because it allows for a development or design flying start, if you want it.

Perhaps most importantly I believe that working across distinct fields helps develop mental flexibility and more creative ways of thinking. Using your brain in different ways stretches it and gives it a great workout.

It makes me wonder whether the web industry has got too specialised, when some job adverts are targeted at for example “React developers” – someone to work within a single framework of a single language? Perhaps a mixture of specialists and all rounders is ideal. But that is an argument for another day.

What’s in a name?

I sometimes wonder if perhaps my own insecurities about my role and the scepticism of some on the web world arises from the fact we designer/developers haven’t claimed a real name for ourselves. Saying you are a designer/developer is almost admitting you are a bit of one thing and a bit of another and not a unified whole, with your own unique set of skills.

So, I’m going to propose the term “creative developer”. This is not to suggest people who do only development are not creative – but it’s the best I can come up with right now. You may well have better suggestions.

How to maximise your skills

Having decided on a name, it’s time to make sure that we justify it – staying creative and keeping our development practices up-to-date.

I suggest the following, which I try to do:

  • Remember to specialise – your field of expertise may be broad but you can still bring specific design and development skills to your projects. You can specialise in areas that combine the two, eg tyography or animation, or ones that don’t – a particular JavaScript library or design style
  • Get all the tools – you are covering a wide field, so you need all the help you can get. It’s worth paying for those premium tools – whether it’s setting up your development or design environment, syncing your WordPress databases, or it’s a plugin that you’ll use again and again.
  • Best practice & training – keep your skills up to date. And not just in development. And make sure you’re working methods embrace best practice, such as planning and version control – you need to meet the standards of a professional developer and designer
  • Collaborate – working in both design and development gives you an unprecedented opportunity to collaborate with a range of other professionals. Take advantage of it – it will keep your skills fresh. Don’t always work on your own, just because you can.

And that’s it for now. I hope reading this has been as helpful to you as thinking about it was for me.

This is a version of a presentation I have just given at WordCamp Brighton.

I’ll be speaking about being a web designer and developer at upcoming Brighton WordPress meeting

Do you design and develop websites or apps? Are you really proud that you have mastered two distinct disciplines? Or do you feel a bit insecure that neither your design or development skills match those of a ‘specialist’?

If you’re anything like me, you sometimes feel a bit of both and wonder how to pitch yourself for potential work or where your skills fit as part of a wider team.

I’m going to be speaking at Brighton’s upcoming WordUp WordPress meetup about just this topic. I will argue that we should not undervalue our skills, I’ll share some ideas about ways of working and make a plea to the wider web world to take us more seriously.

You can find out more about the meeting here.

Latest WordPress custom theme build: Insurtech Gateway

One of my recent WordPress builds was this custom theme for insurance technology company Insurtech Gateway. It’s an interesting and unique design and the artwork is particularly striking.

It was built using the barebones Understrap theme, which combines the WordPress starter theme Underscores with the power of Bootstrap 4.

I built a couple of interesting bits of customisation, using JavaScript. The first converts a calendar datepicker into a dropdown list. It customises the Appointment Booking Calendar plugin. The second opens a closed tab on another page, and takes the user to that tab, when a link is clicked. Amazingly, I couldn’t find a single WordPress plugin that provided the appointment booking functionality the client needed with a dropdown list format.

If you need a website that looks a bit different from all the identikit sites around at the moment, do get in touch, and you want it built in WordPress or as a static site, do get in touch.

© 2018 Sim Brody