You’re a terrible client

It’s not just me; I’ve asked around: You will probably be your own very worst client. Ever.

Every trade has a similar story to the point where it’s almost cliché: the carpenter’s house is falling apart, the mechanic’s car is a rattling jalopy, and the barber is a balding chatty guy who’s always forcing loved ones into drawn-out awkward small-talk. It only makes sense then that the web designer’s site would be mired in all sorts of miserable problems.

Working on your own site is incredibly hard! You’ve just worked all day on other people’s websites, now you’re going to do yours, on your own time — for free. Ugh! Add to this the pressure of doing your “best work”; you start thinking of incredible ideas and scope-creeping the possibility of it being doable into oblivion.

We’re web designers — this medium is our message, but it’s also where most of our amazing community spends a lot of free time. The pressure to do something outstanding can be pretty crushing. All too often we psych ourselves out, or produce something that doesn’t satisfy.

You’re not alone in this struggle.

I recently refreshed my own personal site into its tenth iteration. That’s right. I’ve done this ten times. The previous nine times have been the dismal and painful worst-case experience I’m talking about. I have been a terrible client. I’ve been demanding, unreasonable, and had vague goals. I never gave this problem much thought until this recent work. These are all symptoms of being unfocused, and not looking at the problem objectively.

If this is something you have gone though, or are in the midst of now it’s time to approach this project different than you would a client’s site. For version 10 for I decided not to compromise anymore. I invented a few ground rules for myself right from step one. This made the project a joy to work on.

Every client is different (especially when the client is you!) Consider reworking these, or making your own rules to fit with your project:


1. Have fun with it

Self explanatory: if I’m not enjoying working on it, I won’t enjoy the end product, and I’ll never update it. This is my free time. I need a personal project to be fun; this can’t be just-another website. I wasn’t working to a goal or deadline, so I had a freedom to make this rule: the instant this work becomes a drudgery I will go and do something else. I’ll come back to this when I’m feeling inspired and pumped about it again.


2. Break your own rules

This goes hand-in-hand with step one. At work I keep best-practices in mind: write clean semantic code, and make a professional product worthy of our client’s money. I relate following rules to work, which isn’t always fun. At home I shouldn’t hold myself to these restrictions. Browser hacks? Sure! Messy code? OK! Doing crazy impractical things? Yup! I’m the boss of this website, so I will break rules if I feel like it.


3. Do something new

If you’re like me there are a few experiments and techniques that you’ve been itching to try. I like to think of my personal site as a production-level sandbox. Your take on some new technique, or trying out something that’s never been done before will make your site fun, and in the end will score you some traffic from your peers. I put a lot of time and thought into different things I wanted to try for my own site. I wrote about ten things I did on my front page on this post. The bonus to this is that it will stretch you and make you better for client projects too.


4. Be simple

The tendency is to over complicate things in the name of awesomeness. Keep in mind that simple olde-timey principle: Release Early, Release Often. You can iterate and add to your site – this isn’t print, you’re not committing this work for posterity. Think about specific problems on your current site that you’re trying to solve, and solve those. Your site doesn’t have to be everything to everyone when it launches. This sound familiar? We create requirements and goals with clients too! There is beauty in simplicity.


5. Go easy on inspiration

With so many amazing galleries out there like Dribbble, Awwwards, Best Whatever, etc. it’s way too easy to get inspiration overload. I actually usually find inspiration counter productive. Sometimes I’ll see work so great that I begin to feel like “it’s all been done”, or “it’s being done better than I can ever achieve”, or some other anti-inspiring counter productive nonsense. For me, inspiration is good to get thinking along the lines of a certain feel or aesthetic that a client is after – but for a personal project I already know what I like, and I usually have a good idea of how I want the site to look, feel and work. Force yourself to close all of those tabs, and get your head down.

These rules aren’t for everyone, but the spirit of them may be worth considering. I know I’m a “Production” guy, but it’s important to remember that for my own site I’m also the Account Manager, Project Manager, Content Coordinator, and client! For any work I ever do for myself in the future I will first write out a set of constraints like this.


Getting started

The first step is key. Have a reasonable to-do list. “ redesign” sat in my Gmail task list as a massive, daunting item for a very long time. Do you have a two word item on your list that represents an incredible amount of time and effort? That’s a terribly unmotivating starting point as I found out. Break that gigantic thing down into actionable steps, preferably tasks that can be done in less than an hour. Once you start making headway on a few of list items, creativity begins to snowball and the work becomes easy.


Keep going

The bad news is you’re never really done working on your site. Think of it as something continually in a state of progress. Regardless of whether you’re a terrible client to yourself, or an amazing one – you will always be your most important client, and as such you deserve regular and consistent attention.

I try to make time every week to look at polishing some detail, or writing blog posts, or simply getting involved in the conversation elsewhere online. My buddy Andy Patrick is really good at keeping his site fresh. His recent personal site redesign got some attention in online galleries, and he’s had a steady respectable amount of traffic. For many people this is the very definition of success, and a site that has reached the goal – but Andy is still tweaking pixels and details. This tiny, but regular attention will keep your site from transforming into that giant unkempt mess that you started with. Don’t be that designer who is constantly scrapping and rebuilding from scratch (trust me, I did it for years!), keep your project alive and evolving with consistent love. Andy’s approach has inspired me, and I have a list of the next three phases for upgrading my site over time.

Are you pumped? Ready to rock this thing now? My last bit of advice is to leave the computer, grab a pencil and pad and go somewhere far away from glowing screens and broadband access. Let the creativity flow and come back with a plan.

  • M.M. Enterprises

    Wow what a great info i like your post, this is very useful post, thanks for sharing informative post.

  • Gerald Sailer

    Great article Arley! My greatest barrier? When i create a site for myself I am real satisfied with a design and start coding it until I get really bored about it (or pick up new ideas and refuse the old ones) and start the whole thing again from scratch. I always have to pull myself together to get a site done. Usually I fail on this selfmade barrier…

  • Alex Coady

    I like the post; I didn’t quite get your new site much. The navigation from the first page was really confusing.. I had to get to it via visiting the contact page. Just a heads up.

    • Arley McBlain

      Point taken! I don’t blog that much, so I was kind of going for the one pager. Now (in keeping with my ‘Keep Going’ section) I am planning on making it a bit easier in my next phase of updates ;)

  • Anonymous

    My site is falling apart and I still can’t decide on what I want my new site to look like.

  • Sarah Evans

    I have the exact same problem. I spent so much time on my own website, constantly tweaking it and adding ideas as I went along. I finally got it live then a month later I’m completely re-doing it. I’m feeling good about the new one ans hopefully that will stick.  I’m keeping it simple whereas the previous one I think I tried to do too much with it.

  • Arley McBlain

    Haha, thanks! Arley Classic. 

  • Andy Hulme

    Inspirational post is inspirational. Great job!

  • Carl Hughes

    cool post. good points. so many ideas, so little “free” time.

  • Anna Robertson

    I seriously needed this. thank you. 

  • SBP Romania

    Sometimes, all we need is the opinion of a friend – who is more objective then us, and can shed some light and help the creative process

  • johnam

    Totally agree with number 5. I get so caught up in drooling over amazing work and it put’s me into that mindset you mentioned that “it’s all already been done”. I try to limit what I view on the web because it holds you back when it comes to your own work. 

  • Arley McBlain

    Wow, that’s a surprising site! At first my brain said “Hey! You can’t have your nav MOVE!” That’s cool. I love seeing rules broken. 

    • Pritesh Desai

      current site design is about ‘pages’. i’ve gone with a clean and minimalistic look. every page is essentially like a ‘page’ with a flip transition during navigation.

  • Web Outsourcing Gateway

    Procrastination- I guess it’s also an enemy to most web designers. Sometimes we tend to procrastinate specially when we’re not in the mood or we felt that we have so much time in our hands. And one solution to this is to focus on what you’re doing and avoid the things that could distract you from what you are doing.

  • Anonymous

    I would like to rephrase the first paragraph which goes on as “the
    carpenter’s house is falling apart, the mechanic’s car is a rattling
    jalopy, and the barber is a balding chatty guy”. I would say that there
    is darkness just beneath the lamp. This is so true. Most designers have a
    horribly designed website.  Also it is very rightly pointed out that
    the thought of doing something incredible makes reflect on ideas
    forever. We get mesmerized and perplexed with the thought that what
    would be the right design…. The truth really is that we are never
    really done on our site. We have to keep going…

    Awesome and informative post…

  • Web Design Mississauga

    If the product you’re selling is new, innovative or just different, images are the best way of highlighting them. A good, clear image showing how the product works, solves problems, answers questions or otherwise will appeal to their target market will sell, and sell well. 

  • Rachel Bowen Designs.

    Great post…I find it much more difficult to design my own images. You become your own worst critic. For me, taking time away from the project and coming back to it helps. I also find that sitting down and just sketching a few things out on paper really helps me to make a start on a project. 

    I loved this post and found myself grinning to the similarities I feel sometimes. 

    I look forward to more posts. 


  • Joel

    I know the struggle
    it took me like 3 months to get my site togheter, but im mostly happy with it now