Dear Small Businesses: Some Advice

by Jonathan Longnecker

I would wager that the majority of web designers end up doing work for small to medium-sized businesses. And I’m sure we all have a fantastic story of how ludicrous they can be sometimes. After a few “interesting” experiences, I’ve had this one rolling around in me for a while. Small business people; we love you, but pay attention, alright?

We Understand it’s Your Baby

If anyone can sympathize with a small business owner it’s a small web design shop. We know you busted your tail, working night and day to get this off the ground. So did we. We know you’ve had to wear so many hats it’s not even funny. Salesman, bookkeeper, account manager, marketing guy, the list goes on and on. We do it all, too. It’s exhausting. And so when you bring someone else in to help you visually define what you are; it’s like we’re messing with a part of you. Here’s the thing, though. You’re too close. You need someone with a neutral perspective to help you make decisions for the better. My favorite saying goes, “You can’t read the label when you’re inside the bottle.” You’re so close to the details and emotional attachments that it’s hard to see the big picture.

We Are Professionals Who Love What We Do

So obviously if a small business hires us they know somewhere deep inside that they need help. But I can’t tell you how many times we’re asked to do a project and then just get design details dictated to us. I don’t quite understand this. I mean, if you hired a plumber would you tell him he used the wrong fittings or should have used different pipe? Do you go to the doctor and say, “I appreciate your advice, but that medicine you prescribed is all wrong. I like pills better.” Do you tell your accountant he used the wrong form? Of course not! You went to these people because they are professionals and they’re good at what they do. Good designers know what they’re doing and will fight for the best design. Speaking of designers…

“You can’t read the label when you’re inside the bottle.”

Not Everyone is a Designer

I know, I know. You studied marketing in college. Or you’re great with interior decorating. You can put an outfit together like no one’s business! Maybe you really like the color purple. Those are all fantastic things, but it doesn’t mean you understand design. So while we’re absolutely open to discussing your ideas, we can’t take them to heart if they make the design less effective. We don’t just throw stuff on a page to make it pretty. We take the time to guide the viewers eye through the page, communicate effectively, choose just the right typography, and call on years of experience to make the right decision. I generally go through multiple ideas and versions to get to the one I show you. I’ve usually already tried your idea and it wasn’t the best solution.

This Isn’t What You Expected

People are often surprised when a design isn’t like what they thought it would be. This goes back to our whole “Label inside the bottle” analogy. While sometimes a small business person has a clear vision of what they should look like; often it’s tainted by their emotions and insider knowledge of what they do. For example, an icon of a house because you provide cleaning services. That house doesn’t have to represent the 1200 square foot rancher you usually clean. It’s just a house. Really, I promise. Small business people get so hung up on these kinds of details it’s maddening. Big picture, guys. The label looks and feels totally different than the inside of the bottle.

Kumbaya With Me!

Alright, I know this probably sounded a bit negative, but it’s just because we love you. We need you as much as you need us. Honestly, some of the most innovative and interesting things we’ve ever worked on came from small businesses because you’re nimble and not bogged down in processes and bureaucracy. It would just be nice if we could work together a little easier sometimes, you know? So remember, good designers will make what they truly believe is best for you. We’re not trying to stroke our ego or build our portfolio; we genuinely want to make your business better. Let us do that; it’s what we love to do!

October 02, 2009

Design, Business, Personal


  1. Good comments, I’ve had it go the other way though too.
    The business owner pushes and pushes for something say “plain vanilla” finally after giving in and giving up on some design trend I was trying to work, read “designer bias”, I finally end up “getting” what the business owner is trying to convey, and it works for them.
    Two way street.
    Great write up, be flexible.

  2. This article explains exactly what I go through with my clients. For most part, a lot of clients have design ideas that no longer work or don’t deliver the best results. Some don’t really pay attention until the last minute when you think you’re wrapping up your work. Thanks for the article.

  3. This is really true and important to keep in mind.  I’m a self-employed small-business owner with no employees and I have found it helpful to constantly ask my wife to look at different things and give me her impression.  Often I find I’m over thinking things or things are not clear to her that seem obvious to me.

  4. @Ty What’s up, friend! Been a while since we heard from you. Very much agreed. I’m not talking so much about the style as the functionality. Like requests to take out section headers which I know improve readability and scanning, but they may not like the font. Frustrating smile

  5. Reading your post made me have flashbacks to every small business client I’ve ever had- not just in the web design world, but also the video/commercial world. No, that’s not quite true- once in a while you get a small business client who’s a joy in every way. But soooo often, you’re hired and then dictated to in a way that makes it really hard to do your job in the best way possible. Most creatives don’t push back, and the work becomes mediocre as a result. I think it’s not only important for clients to remember that they hired you because you’re a professional, but also for us, as creatives, to remember this at every turn. Keeping the client’s needs, not our egos, foremost in mind at all times, of course.

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