redberetdesign.com v.3.0

Image of the Red Beret Design website redesign on a computer screenTwelve days ago, I launched my New and Improved website. It’s been a long time coming. I have a new design, new content, and a great new webhost. I started on this project a couple of years ago, and worked on it in dribs and drabs whenever things slowed down. Like the barefoot cobbler, I had a few blisters on my metaphorical feet before my final push to publish.

The biggest change is the official announcement of the Start-up Brand Identity Package. Even before announcing it on the website, I had booked two packages with start-up companies. One was so successful, they were bought out before the logo design was even finished!

Some of the changes in my website reflect a shift in my business model—incorporating more branding and marketing, and focusing on start-up companies. It reflects a maturing in how I brand my own company as it approaches its tenth anniversary. It also incorporates better techniques for lead generation, of the sort I might recommend should you hire me to design your website:

  1. Design for your audience, not your colleagues
    When I designed the first (2004) and second (2010) versions of the Red Beret Design website, in the back of my mind was how it would be perceived by other graphic designers. I was torn between designing something that looked cool and designing something that was an effective business channel. With this design, I ditched the cool factor entirely, and focused entirely on a clean, clear design of the sort that makes for effective business communication.
  2. It’s about them, not you
    The first Red Beret Design website was basically a portfolio with a contact form. The second had a montage of designs front and center on the home page. The new home page focuses first and foremost on what I can do to help your business. The portfolio links are at the bottom of the page.

    This was another step away from designing for designers. For a graphic designer, the portfolio is the center of the universe. When you are graduating design school, a degree is not enough: your focus is to build a portfolio to demonstrate what you’ve learned. And when you apply for jobs, creative directors and art directors and marketing managers are more interested in viewing your portfolio than they are in reading your resumé.

    Of course I still have a portfolio as a major section of the website. But it’s no longer front and center. It’s there as a demonstration of what I have done for other clients, of the quality and professionalism of my work. But what is more important to convey is what I am able to provide for you, not what I provided for someone else at some point in the last 10 years.

  3. Take expert advice with a grain of salt
    Putting together the Start-up Brand Identity Package—and stating a specific price for it—flies in the face of most of the advice I have received in nearly ten years of running a design business. The expert wisdom is that if you state a price, you are competing on price. And that you need to compete on value. And that you never talk money until the potential customer is so convinced of your value that they will pay anything to work with you, because you are so awesome.

    It is the rare client who says to me “Spend however much time you need, money is no object”. Oh, did I say rare? That’s the wrong word. Nonexistent is more accurate. Everyone is concerned about their budget. Whether the budget is big or small, it’s not unlimited. Clearly stating what I provide for a certain price saves everybody time. If someone has only $500, they know they can’t afford my start-up package. If someone wants a team of designers coming up with hundreds of logo concepts, and months of brand research and focus group testing, they can tell that my process is more limited. But if a start-up company needs a professional brand launch, they can budget under $5k and be up and running.

    I still compete on value. I just do so at a stated price.

  4. Have prominent Calls to Action
    My previous website had a contact form, and had a phone number and email link at the bottom of each page. Now I have a contact form in the sidebar of every page, and a different contact form in the sidebars of the pages devoted to the Start-up Brand Identity Package. This makes it easy for people to initiate contact the moment they decide, but it also makes it easier for me to track my conversions using Google Analytics.
  5. Have lots of search engine optimized content
    One of the nuggets of wisdom I’ve learned about search engine optimization (SEO) is that the best SEO is also good communication for humans. By having a separate page for each service that I offer, I am able to optimize that page for specific keywords. But it also enables me to tell you in greater depth how I can help you with direct mail design, or advertising design, or more about my web design process.

    Keeping a blog, by the way, is one of the best ways to add search-engine-optimized content to your website. Considering that this is my first blog post in eight months, this is another case of the barefoot cobbler.

  6. Don’t use a content slider
    I actually designed this site originally to have a content slider on the home page (a content slider is one of those popular website gizmos where the main image changes every few seconds). As someone who used to do motion design, I guess I just didn’t want my page to be so static. In the back of my mind, I knew it was a bad idea. I’d learned as much when I was art director at a company in the 1990s that tested rotating content in our usability lab. About a week before launch, my husband—not knowing that I was redesigning my website to feature a content slider—railed against content sliders after reading an article about how they don’t work. So I did my own research, and found plenty of evidence from respected usability experts about the awfulness of content sliders (according to leading user experience expert Jakob Nielsen, they “Annoy Users and Reduce Visibility”.

    So I ditched two of the three slides and launched with just the one promoting the Start-up Brand Identity Package. Of course, having a big graphic may just lead to “banner blindness”. I suppose that, being a graphic designer, I just had to have a graphic somewhere on the page. Maybe I need to go back and re-read #1 on this list…

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Use caution when selecting your WordPress theme

I read an eye-opening article today about the hazards of (some) free WordPress themes. The article, entitled “Why you should never search for free WordPress themes” analyzes the code in WordPress themes downloaded from the top 10 Google results for the search query “free WordPress themes”. MOST of the themes the author, Siobhan McKeown, examines are problematic: from the most benign (e.g., not being updated to the current version of WordPress) to the sneaky (links hidden way off screen using CSS) to dangerous…most of the free themes downloaded included base64, an encoding scheme often used to hide malicious code, which can mess up your site big time.

This is not to say that all free WordPress themes are bad. But be cautious about how you find them. The one link in her top 10 Google results that was worthwhile was the link to WordPress themes on WordPress.org. Even here (or anywhere—even with commercial themes), you need to check to see how up-to-date the theme is with the current version of WordPress. But at least you won’t have to worry about infecting your website with malware.

I’m a loyal user of Thesis, which is not a free theme, but I well-designed, well-supported theme framework. Although you could use the Thesis design right out of the box, as a framework it is intended as a launching pad for developing your own, unique, branded designs. Unlike many themes, you are not limited to a set layout, and absolutely not limited in terms of color or typography. In addition, there are tools for enhancing your on-page search engine optimization.

As of today, DIY Themes has release Thesis 2.0. I’ll be updating the design of this website in the near future, and am looking forward to the opportunity to test drive Thesis 2.0.

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new designs in the portfolio

I added some new work to all three portfolios today. These are just a few of the projects I’ve been working on in the last few months:

A pro bono project for the Chapel Hill Breast Cancer Foundation

Chapel Hill Breast Cancer Foundation logo

In the last year, breast cancer has become a personal issue for me. I wouldn’t be around to write this blog post if it weren’t for the research done by scientists in the years before my diagnosis. The Chapel Hill Breast Cancer Foundation helps fund research at Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, and Wake Forest Universities in North Carolina. They are helping to raise funds for research through a golf tournament at Croasdaile Country Club in Durham, NC. Their main need was a poster, but as I worked on the poster I realized that the foundation did not have a logo. I designed a logo they can use for the golf tournament, that can also be adapted post-tournament by simply replacing the golf ball with a white circle. In addition to the requisite breast cancer pink, I added a band of Carolina blue to echo the foundation’s roots at UNC Chapel Hill.

Chapel Hill Breast Cancer Foundation golf tournament poster

Croasdaile Country Club was generous in providing some great photos of their golf course, so finding a good-looking image that would work at poster size was easy. In addition to the big poster, other advertising collateral included a smaller poster for posting in locker rooms, a save-the-date postcard, and a trifold brochure, all using a similar motif. I worked on this project alongside More Than Marketing, who developed the marketing plan and wrote the copy.

Blog masthead for a fun teacher

Ms. Computer Teacher is the pseudonym of a school teacher here in Durham NC, who teaches technology to middle school students. Her blog includes how-to posts such as how to build a digital portfolio, informs kids of technology news of interest to them, and generates lively discussions about how technology is affects their lives. She wanted a logo and masthead that would be fun, sassy, a little bit sexy, but also convey her knowledge and authority. We went through several iterations of silhouettes before refining the illustration to fit her vision. The colorful masthead behind the logo includes shapes that echo the layout of a circuit board, and also include a ghosted image of the html code from the blog itself. The project was finished just before the start of classes…I can’t wait to hear what her students think of the design!
Ms. Computer Teacher blog masthead

Website design for BECOMING Durham

BECOMING Durham website designBECOMING is a program in Durham County which addresses the clinical, developmental and social needs of youth ages 16-21 who need support negotiating a successful transition to adulthood. The masthead was designed with a youthful edge, and highlights the familiar skyline of downtown Durham. The biggest challenge I faced was in developing a site that seamlessly transitioned between the English and Spanish versions of the site. Thanks to the ease of use of WordPress, the website is updated regularly by BECOMING staff, who make blog posts, upload videos and presentations, change the home page promos, and add events to the calendar.

Website design for a General Contractor

CWB Holdings Website DesignCWB Holdings, LLC, is a new business founded by Curtis Brookshire, a general contractor based in Creedmoor, NC. He needed a website for his new business that would inform potential clients of his services. Working with Trisecta, who wrote the copy for the website, we developed a threefold approach to his services. He offers similar services to real estate agents and property managers, yet the reasons they would call him are very different, so we broke those audiences out into two separate pages. In a third section, we broke out a third, unique market of quality management consulting. What sets Mr. Brookshire apart from other general contractors is that he has a degree in engineering, Six Sigma certification, and years of experience working as a military contractor. That also led to the home page headline of “Engineering Expertise, Business Acumen, Military Efficiency”. The red, white and blue color scheme was used as a subtle nod to his goverment experience.

Reformatting a previous brochure design

photo of the Phillips Ambassador gatefold brochureI’m not sure why I had not added my design for the Phillips Ambassadors brochure to my portfolio in the past. My guess is that I had waited on it with the intention of taking a photograph rather than just uploading an image of the digital file. The front of  the original brochure has the Phillips logo embossed, an a line of gold foil along the open edge. It looks quite elegant; not sure that my photo does it justice.

Phillips Ambassadors is a study abroad program at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, focused on sending U.S. students to study in Asia.

The original brochure is a five panel gatefold. For this fall, however, the Phillips Ambassadors program wanted to make some changes and update the content. The new brochure is taller, but is redesigned as a trifold. As you can see below, the new brochure is much more streamlined, owing in large part to the deletion of a long list of programs that was on the two beige panels in the original. A greater variety of usable photos also enabled me to use three photos for a more symmetrical layout (although I will miss the young woman with her elephant!). I am guessing that improved digital camera (and mobile phone camera) technology has enabled the young ambassadors to take snapshots that are high enough resolution to print at a reasonable size.
Comparison of two brochure layouts, a 5-panel gatefold and a trifold

Another part of the redesign involved a photograph that appears on the inside of the cover. The client was concerned that the photograph, of the Shanghai skyline, looked uninviting due to it having been taken on a very overcast day. A bit of color manipulation in Adobe Photoshop was able to brighten the sky, water, and skyline so that the city looks a bit more cheerful. Now the students will be treated to a photo of Shanghai with a Carolina blue sky.

Before and after of photo of Shanghai skyline

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Open Source Web Development Platforms

Several of the most popular web development platforms, including WordPress, Drupal and Joomla, are “open source” software. What does that mean? Why should you care?

Open source software is developed in a very different way than proprietary software. Proprietary software is developed along the same lines any commercial product is developed, under the control and direction of the decision makers in a corporation. Open source software is developed by volunteers who work on everything from the source code to bug testing to documentation.

The open source software movement dates back to the 1980s. The Linux operating system, which is now one of the main operating systems used for web hosting servers, was one of the first major open source software efforts. Open source software is available for free to anyone who wants to use it; the source code is available to engineers who wish to change, improve or adapt it.

The philosophy behind open source software is well stated in this mission statement from the Open Source Initiative:

The basic idea behind open source is very simple: When programmers can read, redistribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software, the software evolves. People improve it, people adapt it, people fix bugs. And this can happen at a speed that, if one is used to the slow pace of conventional software development, seems astonishing.

We in the open source community have learned that this rapid evolutionary process produces better software than the traditional closed model, in which only a very few programmers can see the source and everybody else must blindly use an opaque block of bits.

So how does this work in the real world, without descending into chaos? These pages can give you a glimpse into the process:

Although open source projects generally begin as the brainchild of a small group of people, the larger open source web development platforms have spawned nonprofit associations dedicated to advancing the development of the software. The WordPress Foundation, Drupal Association and OpenSourceMatters (for Joomla) are nonprofits backing these three popular web development platforms.

Although WordPress, Drupal and Joomla are the most popular, they are far from the only options. As of this writing, there are 141 different content management systems listed at opensourcecms.com. And that is just content management systems. Virtually every type of software can be found in an open source version.

In addition to contributing to the core software, programmers can expand the capabilities of a web development platform by writing add-ons for specific purposes. These are called modules in Drupal, extensions in Joomla, and plugins in WordPress, but they all serve the same purpose of expanding the functionality of the platform for specific applications.

As of this writing, there are 15,614 plugins available for WordPress. Plugins (and their Drupal and Joomla counterparts) add specific functionality to a website: a photo gallery, social media integration, ratings systems, events management—you name it, there is probably a plugin available. The advantage of plugins is that a non-programmer can easily add advanced functionality to a website. On this website, WordPress plugins are the basis for the portfolio, the home page animation, and the contact form; they protect comments, forms and email addresses from spammers and display my twitter feed on the blog pages.

Open source web development platforms are free, and make it easy for a non-programmer to build a sophisticated website. There’s a lot to like about them. But they do have their pitfalls. In a subsequent post, I’ll dig a little deeper into the pros and cons of open source web development platforms.

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