Design 101 for Entrepreneurs

In one of my most recent blog posts “How to add proof to your startup homepage when you are starting from scratch“, I discussed ways in which you can add proof to your startup website to establish trust. One of the key criteria to achieving this is having a great design. From the layout and look and feel of your website through to branding considerations such as whether to have a logo, every aspect of your design needs to be carefully considered to reflect the brand quality you aspire to.

First impressions are crucial, and your customers will compare your site to the best in the world. That’s why you should to.

Design is something that I feel not enough entrepreneurs take seriously. They treat it as an afterthought, get advice from the wrong people, opt for the cheapest option and as a result, fail to build a respectable brand.

In this article I will drill down further and discuss ways in which you can ensure your design elements, such as your website and in particular your logo, can help you deliver a great brand image. Let’s kick it off with one of my favorite quotes:

[ctt tweet=”Every Entrepreneur is first and foremost a designer – Peter Thiel http://ctt.ec/radvo+” coverup=”radvo”]

Avoid a custom web design where possible

As someone who spent 7 years making a living from custom designing websites, this one is close to home. In the early days of the web this was really the standard for every new website. Get a completely custom design, convert the Photoshop file into HTML / CSS, build it into a custom WordPress theme and then you have your own custom site.

Times have changed.

These days if you want to do that, it’s going to take you forever, cost you a fortune and the chances of you finding someone who can consider all of the things modern websites need to consider, are slim. Things like mobile responsiveness, SEO, page speed, design hierarchy, conversions, retina images and many more factors go into an effective website.

The good thing is there are already thousands of excellent themes on the market that have already factored in all of these things. With a bit of design know-how it’s not difficult at all to visualize your own elements in those themes, and put together a site that looks and feels fully custom, but costs next to nothing.

RelatedBest 7 Day Startup WordPress Themes (2016 Edition)

Spending thousands of dollars hoping that someone can do a better job than something that is already world class, is a big risk. There is a time and place for a custom design (I will get to that), but gone are the days where every business needs one. I have been designing websites for a decade and only 1 of my current businesses has a custom theme and it’s turning over $1m USD / year. For everything else I use a very simple, foolproof combination:

  1. A world class theme with a few tweaks, and
  2. Professional custom images.

With those 2 things you can have a site that is world class in every way, costs less than $100 and looks virtually completely custom.

I could almost guarantee that with an understanding of design, the results you can get with this combo will be better than 95% of custom designed websites. Again the problem is, a lot of entrepreneurs don’t put in the time to really appreciate and understand design.

Here’s a very simple example from a site I am helping The Merrymaker Sisters with (not yet live). They were quoted $14,000 for a custom design. We are building one that I think will be better, for $64.

The way you do it is find a good theme and start to visualize how your elements would fit into it with minimal changes. If you need to change a lot to make your content fit in there, it will become harder and harder so the theme choice is critical.

Here are some specific examples:

X Theme has loads of incredible demos to showcase how it can be used.

 

So we looked through the demos and vizualized elements of the site in place.

This is the Agency, layout. Not particularly sexy but that’s a nice structure for a top Call to Action.

 

So we imagined doing this with a few minor colour tweaks and a different image.

Another one of their demos displayed a really nice little counter and an example of an online community.

 

The Merrymaker Sisters have an online community so with a tiny text change, one button added and new more relevant background image, it’s looking perfect. The background image was from a stock site called Unsplash, as was the featured image in this blog post and the images on the WP Curve homepage.

 

X Theme has so many different ways of presenting information with the drag and drop editor, it’s getting to the point now where you can pretty much do anything you want, you just have to have the eye for it.

Trying too hard to be a designer yourself, will almost always end badly. But if you can use elements that other world class designers have put there for you, without much modification, you can get a great result.

Look to keep the look and feel of your website simple and consistent. Try and use large and striking images but not cheesy stock photos, and not too many. Leave plenty of clear space and don’t clutter up your pages with unnecessary content. Less is more is never more true when it comes to effective website layout. When in doubt, leave stuff out!

The visual aesthetics of your website is also important, so make sure your alignment, padding and spacing between borders and content is consistent and even. This is a really common thing to stuff up and once it’s all out of whack it kills the whole design.

The devil is in the detail so don’t be afraid to drill right down to single pixel level when nailing down your layout and design. Little things matter. If you don’t know the exact number of pixels either side of an element then you aren’t looking closely enough at it.

[ctt tweet=”If you don’t know the exact number of pixels, then you aren’t looking closely enough at it. http://ctt.ec/x75Kw+” coverup=”x75Kw”]

Look at who is doing this the best in the world, and use that as your benchmark.

Recognize that some design problems are easier to resolve than others

Here’s a pertinent question..how hard is your design issue going to be to resolve?

Some brands lead themselves pretty well to executing a nice simple design. Some, are much harder and I’ve experienced both.

When I wrote The 7 Day Startup, I launched the book very quickly with virtually zero budget. But the idea lent itself to a pretty simple design execution. I had a friend do it for me for free and what he came up with worked pretty well (and I still use it).

 

In other projects, it hasn’t been anywhere near as easy.

WP Curve for example, was always a hard thing to get my head around design wise. We didn’t want to use anything too literal (some sort of curve), and we didn’t want to use the letters which is what most people do (WP or WPC etc). I really had no idea how we would execute a great brand for WP Curve, so we went for 1-2 years without having one (more on that below).

When we were turning over enough money to really invest heavily in design, we spent the money on a really nice brand, but it cost us $10,000+.

Black Hops was the same. The brand was great but our big challenge was our military-style play-on-words name didn’t lend itself too well to most of our products (Beach House Ale, Gold Coast Pale Ale etc). The full military angle in the branding wouldn’t work. We needed something craft and something classy that would stand up to fierce competition on bottle shop shelves and bars, but we also didn’t want to completely ignore our military roots.

This was a very hard design problem to resolve. I tried my own logo which we used for a while but didn’t do the job. We tried a local agency and they couldn’t deliver what we needed. We paid them and scrapped the design a few weeks later. It was a stressful time. Sometimes the design process isn’t rewarding (which is part of the reason I don’t mind avoiding it early on).

We then found Matt from Verg Advertising, a local lettering artist and designer and went through a rigorous design process. We ended up with a logo comprised of hand drawn lettering for Black Hops, a custom font for ‘Brewery’ and a custom-drawn monogram that hints at our military-inspired name. Here’s the print file for one of our bottle labels.

 

The reality is that some design problems are easier than others. It’s worth thinking about this early, you could save yourself a lot of headache later on. If you aren’t set on your name, you can hack this by choosing a name and brand that is easy to execute. If you are set on your name, brand and domain then it’s more complicated.

Avoid a custom logo wherever possible

I’ll start out here by being upfront and quoting myself from the earlier 7 Day Startup blog post mentioned above; “don’t have a logo at all unless it’s going to be a really good one.”

In my opinion logos are a minefield of potential disaster that rarely go well for new entrepreneurs. People compromise on price and process, and designers in general aren’t up to the task of designing an epic brand. Of course the world is filled with epic designers who are, but they come at a price, and paying that price is out of reach for a lot of new entrepreneurs. On top of that, most don’t value design highly enough to want to pay the price. Then on top of that, there are still a minefield of amateur designers who still charge a lot, and don’t do great work. Every entrepreneur I know has a design horror story.

So entrepreneurs do silly things like running logo competitions (compromising on process), or hiring cheap designers (compromising on quality) or doing logos themselves (compromising on skills), or trying to follow the crowd or being too literal with the design (compromising on creativity).

In the end, they get a shit looking logo when the whole time they could have had an epic looking site with no logo and not wasted the time and money.

There will probably come a time when you do need a logo, depending on your business and when that time comes, going through a full design process can be a rewarding experience and can set your brand on a whole new level. But to do it properly I think you are looking at $10,000+, so to me it makes sense to not even have one until you get to that point.

Or maybe never have one? Etsy, $3.5b listed company. No logo.

 

Obviously you need to consider here, how hard the design problem is to execute. If you are confident you can execute a nice logo, within budget that won’t harm the brand then it’s worth doing that. But in a lot of cases, you will do more hard than good.

If you do decide to go down the path of a fully custom design, you need to make sure you respect the process.

Have a solid design process

One of the big reasons, design projects fail is because entrepreneurs don’t understand the process. Design is not a matter of randomly making something pretty to look at. The best designers don’t even start thinking about what something will look like until they’ve been through a long and often challenging process.

Companies like 99 Designs and Fiverr will generally deliver you a literal interpretation of your logo. For example:

  1. 7 Day Startup might have a logo of the number 7, or a rocketship to signify launch (very literal and very overused).
  2. Black Hops might have a Black Hop and the letters BH.
  3. WP Curve might have some sort of curve as a logo or the letters WP or WPC.

This literal approach to design is amateurish and usually sells your brand short. Design should be more interpretive and subtle (I got that tip from my mate Jon Myers).

For example when we started with the re-design of Black Hops we knew we wanted some sort of logo to represent us but coming to the result was not easy. We liked the lettering early on but the monogram wasn’t hitting the mark. It didn’t really say enough about us and while we didn’t want ‘full military’, we did want something that preserved our heritage.

Matt worked on a bunch of ideas, drawing them out and coming back to us at various points. We met in person, we went into a bottle shop and looked at other products. We talked a lot on Skype and gradually worked towards what we wanted.

In the end, Matt delivered the Black Hops Monogram which is only a small part of the overall design and is loosely inspired by a military Chevron. This resolved the design for us, gave us a small token of our heritage and worked perfectly well with the lettering he had already done.

We didn’t go with something really obvious or cheesy and we ended up with something very unique and recognizable that works well in certain contexts (on coasters, as social media profile pics, on bottle caps etc).

I went through the same process with WP Curve. The designer had us do mood boards for the design and we did a number of discovery calls to figure out what we were about. He dug through our site and company values and strategy materials. We went back and forth on elements from other brands that we liked and didn’t like and only when he was comfortable he really knew what we were about and what we stood for, was he ready to make a start on some concepts for us.

The first few missed the mark and we went back and forth regularly in an often-painful process of the designer teasing the concept out of us. And eventually he came back with a simple, elegant shape based around a bridge which represented stability and strength and taking people from where they are now, to a better place, which fitted in well with our service.

It also helped that we are a Californian company and the icon loosely resembles the Golden Gate Bridge.

That really resolved the design for us and the long and painful process was worth it.

Quality designers will look for a story, mood or angle behind the product or brand. This may involve delving into the story of your brand or the journey that you took to get there, to tap into the ethos of what you are looking to represent and those you wish to be affiliated with.

This will bring about emotional connections with those that come into contact with it and will also establish your unique identity. Because let’s face it, there are a lot of bog-standard logos and designs out there that say nothing about the brand whatsoever.

Literal logo interpretations, such as the initials of your business in a trendy font, rarely result in effective brand representations in my experience, and only a solid process is going to get you anything other than that.

Don’t get too obsessed with your logo

If you do go down the path of having a custom logo, it’s easy to get obsessed about it, plastering huge logos on everything you do. The logo on your website shouldn’t stand out at all, in fact a lot of brands don’t even put their logo on their website. Other elements on pages are more important (for example calls to action on sales pages, or content on content pages). The logo should really disappear into the background.

For inspiration here, I look at what the big brands do.

Tesla, for example, do have a logo but it’s only used in the Favicon on their site. It doesn’t appear in the site itself (other than on the car).

 

Uber do the same thing. They do have a logo but it’s not on the site.

 

A lot of other big brands will use very simple logos on their site, so they don’t interfere with the main point of the page which is the specific content on the page.

I cringe when I see sites where the entrepreneur is all excited by their massive colourful logo and it takes up half the screen on every page. Huge mistake.

A few more design tips

Design is a massive topic and one I love to dig into. But I can’t cover it all in one blog post. Here are a few final tips to consider when working on your brand.

  1. When choosing a designer, look at their past work and use this as your primary guide for assessing their merits. Don’t let them talk their way into working with you, let their previous actual results speak for their abilities to get the job done. They won’t deliver anything significantly better or different to what they have previously delivered. This is a useful way to think about any services you engage.
  2. Placing the design within the context of how people will see it is vital. Good designers will know this. Simply delivering a standalone design on a blank canvas doesn’t cut it. That’s why posting a design competition on Facebook with 5 logos to choose from won’t work. None of them will look good in isolation and if they do they probably won’t look good in context with other stuff around them. As part of the design selection process for Black Hops we actually placed the labels on beer bottles and taps so we could see how they displayed in real life. We still do this and we make changes after we see it in the flesh. When the designer presents the concept they shouldn’t be presenting a stand alone logo, they should be presenting a full concept for how the new brand works in various contexts (website, products, social media etc).
  3. Be careful when asking your friends for design advice or opinions on potential designs. If you do it at all, do it for fun, not as a serious consideration. Most people don’t really understand good design and most don’t value it highly. Don’t be mistaken though, everyone is influenced by design, they just have not spent the time to dig into the field and appreciate the complexities of it, so they can’t really predict what will influence them.
  4. Let the designer justify their work. You may not like a design or concept initially, but at least give the designer the opportunity to explain the concept and reasoning behind choices such as colour and size. After all, they are the experts and they may just paint things in a different light. There are probably reasons why they made every single decision, so you simply asking them to change colours, or increase this or decrease that is naive and not respecting their years of training and taste. This all assumes you have a great designer and even great designers do need to be challenged, but you have to be careful and give them the chance to justify their work first.

Stay tuned for the next podcast

I recorded a podcast yesterday with Chad from Rialba Photography where we talked design and images which is all very relevant for this topic (Chad is a designer and a photographer). Subscribe to the 7 Day Startup Podcast to listen to that one when we release it.

The next 7 Day Startup Challenge

We’ve set the date for the next 7 Day Startup Challenge which will be 12 July. If you are keen to launch your project or just have a week of hustle, join us.

  • A fantastic article and one that in the main I whole heartedly agree with.

    As a brand designer, i would much rather a client wait and see where their business is going before starting to build their brand identity. As you have said, too many go for this right at the beginning without doing any research or knowing their WHY.

    • Thanks Col I’m glad you liked it mate. And yep for sure, your story and who you are is an important part of the brand and design.