Ask A Freelancer #2: Coding Designs That Are Not Your Own

From time to time I get emails asking for advice about freelance matters. I hope that by publishing these inquiries and my response I can do a better service to my blog readers than just responding one email at a time. Plus, those of you who may have input on the matter that I didn’t think of can chime in with a comment!

I’d like to make this a regular part of the blog — so if there’s a question you have or a subject you’d like to get an opinion on, please contact me!

Question

Liz,

I am a web designer who is trying to get my freelance business built up. I really enjoy the creative/problem-solving part of design and sometimes I also really enjoy the coding part (it also feels creative at times to me!)

The problem is that most of the freelance work that comes to me is from designers who have already completed the website design and ONLY are looking for someone to code it for them. I take most of these jobs, because – it’s a paycheck — but I usually find myself getting really frustrated with the process when designers hand off website designs that use bad web design practices or aren’t put together with the Content Management System we are using in mind at all.

I feel bad saying that what they’ve designed sucks or that I ”can’t” do something or give them what they want. But this usually ends up in development taking WAY longer than it should and the end result being sub-par and not something I even want to include in my portfolio!

Have you ever had this problem? How do you handle it?

– Will Code for Food

Answer

WCFF,

I love web design. I love the whole process, really. Everything from client meetings about target audience and content to choosing HEX colors and Photoshop layouts to defining CSS classes. Every step of it generally makes me giddy. It’s the entire process as a whole that is very rewarding and after working through each step, your final result is something that you can really be proud of.

Of course, not all clients will be looking to hire you for that whole process – some may have completed their own information architecture and just want you to design the site and create a theme… they may have the full design and just need you to turn it into a functioning website. These projects aren’t as exciting to me as those that allow me and my client to create something together. There has been some “development only” jobs that I really regretted taking.

For a time I thought this was because I didn’t really love development, but then I realized it was the restrictive aspect of simply coding another persons design, especially in situations when those doing the design didn’t have a solid knowledge of code or the CMS being used. I’ve found that the best solution for this can be to add a collaboration stage into the process where the designer agrees to be open to layout modifications based on my knowledge of web design.

This added step will make development run smoother, quicker and your end product will be something you, the designer and your client will be much more pleased with! Don’t be afraid to bring this up to the designer you’re working with — they WANT to create the best work possible, so as long as you approach it from that angle (and don’t say ”your design sucks!”) they will be grateful to have your expertise at their disposal!

What’s your advice?

Am I missing something? Do you have experience with a similar situation and would like to share how you handled things? Leave a comment and tell us about it!


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5 Comments

  1. I definitely had this issue in the earlier days of my freelancing…

    As a general rule, I don’t code things that other people design, unless they are willing to pay a premium for it, and I specifically tell them why:

    print designers don’t have the experience to know what can/can’t be done on the web
    things take infinitely longer when web-based sizes/grids/dpi are not taken into account
    its boring coding work that you didn’t design

    In the early days, i took everything I could get my hands on, because I had no idea if being a freelancer was going to pay the bills or not. I would say, if you need the money REALLY badly, do it. Otherwise, your time could better be spent on work that will actually contribute to your portfolio.

    For the first few months of freelancing, I realize that I didn’t really have anything new to contribute to my portfolio, because everything was coding jobs! So I implemented new rates for technical-only projects, which were nearly double my usual rate. That way, if someone was hiring me to do code work only, they would pay double. If they allowed me to take on the create, the rate would remain as before. Incentive to get them to hire you for the whole job ;) And it actually worked. Now I don’t mind the odd code job because it pays quite a bit, which leaves me a cushion for the more creatively inspiring jobs.

    Some of the best advice that I think is really really true:
    You’ll always get more of the same work that you do. If you keep coding, you’re going to keep getting coding work. If you show logos/identities in your portfolio, you’re probably going to get more of that kind of work. Take on the kind of work that you want to do more of, and you’ll get known for that.

    Good luck!

  2. This is a great post! A great question and a great response. I recently completed 2 projects that were designed by a very talented graphic designer. She is a print designer, and she’s great. She is smart and creative, and produces some very stunning print work.

    But she’s not a web designer. Working with her has been quite a learning process for me, because I naturally just want to please the client, and do it like they want. But what I didn’t realize at first is that she doesn’t really know what she wants in terms of functionality – and so much about the web is exactly that, the functionality. Also usability, accessibility, etc etc.

    So I definitely second Liz’s advice to include a collaboration stage of the design/development so that the designer can express what he/she wants visually, and you two can discuss how to make that come to life.

    I would also add that when developing someone else’s design, wireframes and mockups are absolutely essential. Not just that they need to simply be in existence, but that they need to be signed off on, approved, carved in stone. Otherwise, the developer ends up pixel-pushing to the designer’s heart’s content. And that is absolutely no fun for the developer.

    /2 cents

  3. Marie and Meredith both make some great points!

    I really do think it is smart to define special rates for different kinds of work. If there is some part of the work that is an extra headache to you, charge more. If it detours people from having you do it, you win. If you get paid enough that the headache is worth it, you win.

    + we started our own businesses so that we could follow our passion, if you’re not happy – don’t do it.

  4. Very funny, I do like to code websites wich are designed by other people very much! But, the design has to be “nice”. I only work with designers who have (basic) knowledge of markup.

  5. I don’t care if your design is crap! As long as I have some free time I’ll code just about anything a designer throws at me, because it’s a really easy way to make $4-600 bucks in like 5 hours. Why turn that down. I have worked on tons of stuff I would never put in my portfolio, but I did it cause I could make some easy quick cash. Don’t run from money and the experience of coding other peoples designs just cause they suck. learn from them in some way and get more coding time under your belt.

    Who knows you might accidentally meet a contact that refers you to someone else who happens to own a huge company that will pay you lots of money to build websites.

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