Bespoke. Specifically, bespoke websites.

Each year I build a number of websites. These are typically brochure or portfolio websites for creative businesses, which function as their main ‘shop window’. Quite naturally, businesses have strong opinions on how they present their company, so getting exactly what they want often requires some degree of bespoke work. This is in comparison to building a site using a template.

Bespoke does tend to cost more in the short term – both time and money – but the return on investment can be clear and prompt if the choice is made strategically. Here I’m speaking of websites, but the same is true of any customised piece of work. Below is an overview of how I help clients get the websites they want, and why I approach making websites as I do. Examples of these bespoke sites can be seen at /cms.

TL;DR = 1300 words, 7 minutes

last updated: 6 December 2019

Setting the scene

Let’s start with a few questions. I put this to you, the reader, in the role of a client:

  • Why do you want a website at all?
  • What will be on your site (ie. the content) and can you show it to me right now?
  • Can you list the words in the navigation?
  • Who will be involved in creating and maintaining the site? There are lots of decisions to be made – who will make them?
  • When will new content be added and who will do this? Will you want to edit the site directly yourself?
  • Do you have a visual identity? Is it being used on the web anywhere yet? Do you have a graphic designer in mind that we could work with?
  • When do you want it? And have you considered launching the site in stages, with a basic version followed weeks or months (or even years) later by a more elaborate version?
  • Have you already considered using a hosted CMS such as Squarespace, Wix or Cargo with their pre-designed themes?

Design, Make, Time & Money

Most web projects I work on typically last between 2 – 4 months and cost in the region of £1.5k – £5k. I charge a monthly fee that is set out in my proposal at the start of the project. This proposal outlines the scope of work to be done, an expected working pace and the monthly rate, along with my standard business terms and conditions. In this way I give an estimate for the total cost (my monthly rate times estimated number of months), because at this stage we can only estimate what the project will entail. Much of the work to figure out the final cost of a project is the work of the project itself. Plus, most of my web projects blur into the strategic business development and admin processes work that I do so it’s good to keep our arrangement flexible. To keep everyone abreast of timelines and budgets as we progress, we keep this part of the conversation open and on-going to ensure good decisions can be made (and to avoid surprises).

As pricing is such a large part of running a business, I’ll take a moment to address the topic. I feel strongly that fixed prices are only applicable to fixed specifications. Too often makers of things undervalue their design contributions and designers-of-things undervalue their input on making. Design and making are two sides of the same coin and aren’t necessarily chronological, but rather they are inherently intertwined along with cost and time. The test of whether a design is fixed is: are all the remaining decisions and effort completely in the control of the maker. If they are, the maker should be reasonably capable of putting a price to it.

Under this monthly fee arrangement, the site’s development is able to evolve naturally without undue risk for either myself or the client. Some projects finish early and the cost for the client is less, but others take longer – most of the time this is due to decisions not being made in a timely manner. To be more specific, delays are caused by content not being ready – be that during development of the site or ahead of launch.

Websites are truly a collaborative effort between a set of roles, skills and people. There are three roles in simplest terms and each role might be achieved by individual or groups:
– client: aims, money, content (text, images, etc)
– designer: visual style, branding, artwork, layout, typography
– developer: code, servers, performance, optimisation

Websites are best created iteratively. I think that’s a fact. That’s true both for building up to a particular launched version of a site by working through a series of prototypes, and for the lifetime of what is shown on a particular domain. Allowing sites to evolve easily and efficiently is a key piece of value that all businesses should be looking for.

A “simple” site

Too often an enquiry about a web project will start with a phrase like, “we just need a simple website”. Simple and just are painfully loaded words. However, they are the words someone is using so we will start from there and that’s ok.

In simple terms, websites are all about decisions. If we can make decisions quickly and clearly, things can be made quickly and cheaply. But it’s not always clear from the outset which decisions will be difficult or protracted. And though a web project might initially appear to sit solely in the realm of marketing, in reality it confronts a business with their thoughts on strategic direction, personal preferences of the leading individuals, and ultimately the raison d’être of the organisation.

I find it best to kick off projects by creating a simple one page website. This is especially true if it will be the business’s first website, or if the current site is desperately unfit for purpose. We aim to do this in a single day or within two weeks (depending on the expediency of the decision makers) and this short period of time serves a few purposes:
– It gives the business a new website as soon as possible.
– It gives answers to many of the questions that will later be detailed on the proper site. It is a distilled version of that bigger website.
– The realms of a website are distinct but interrelated: content, visual design, technical function, and personal preference. These all require decisions, and decisions require thought.
– The process of creating this temporary site is freer and less pressured, as it will likely be replaced. It allows us all to get familiar with each other’s ways of working.

A selection of these simple sites can be seen at /simple.

Making a “proper” site

Another loaded phase that is sometimes used is that someone wants a proper website. By this they typically mean that they want it to have lots of pages and for it to have a control panel where the site can be easily edited. That’s great but it does come with a cost – see above about complexity in the creating process but that complexity also results in more ongoing maintenance for both content and tech.

This control panel (the content management system or CMS) allows website owners to update their site independent of writing code. It also provides efficiencies and consistencies when sites have multiple pages. There could be up-front saving and that may be valuable, but I think the greatest benefit of a site built with a CMS is the agility that editors will have as they grow and develop the site. They can try things out, make versions, test it out with colleagues or friends, and generally allow the site to evolve more naturally.

I have a fairly strong opinion on the CMS I use and it’s called Statamic. I find it fits with my clients’ short and long-term needs as well as being a nice experience for me. If you’re interested in my specific choice, I’ll soon be publishing a companion piece for that. In the meantime, have a look at some of the things I’ve made with it.