How to run a one-person web design agency

One of the reasons the aesthetics stage lasts so long is because it's where the detailed decisions happen and so it's logical for the design to go back and forth between client and designer, undergoing a number of refinements in the process.

How many design variations you show the client during this phase is an important consideration, and although clients often like to see as many variations as possible, many designers believe it pays to be more conservative.

Ian Coyle says: "I only show one design that's best suited to a project's goals: in my opinion, the client should never be given multiple options – a designer focused on creating the best work should only show the best one."

Whenever I present a new mockup to the client, I always present it in the browser, setting it as the background and ensuring that the height matches the height of the image itself.

There are two reasons for this: first, it's better for clients to see the mockup in a browser so that they can get a clear idea of how big the design appears on certain resolutions, and with parts of the screen taken up by things such as browser chrome (which is impossible to gauge if the image is presented as an email attachment).

The second reason is that it makes a lot more sense psychologically for clients to see the design in what will be its final context. It forces them to think about the design as a website and not just a static image.

Typically, this mockup approval process will end when the client is satisfied enough for the site to be built. In recent times, I've tried to stop myself from making 'final' decisions in the Photoshop stage and instead I complete the design process in the browser, where elements such as typography will never match their Photoshop approximations.

Asserting your rights

When handing over your designs to a client, it's worth considering the level of copyright you give them, says Ian Coyle. "In my contract, I retain all intellectual property rights; the client only receives a licence to use what I've created."

Matthew Smith feels the same: "What if I designed a unique way to display a calendar for a client?" he says. "Should I be able to utilise and continue to develop that style, or does the client own it? These are the questions that you need to ask as you determine which rights to offer your clients and which rights you'd like to retain."

Matthew smith

MATTHEW SMITH: Matthew Smith trades under the name Squared Eye, which also acts as an umbrella for additional freelance talent

Although the build process can be painful at times – think of Internet Explorer compatibility and weird "why won't it do that?" moments with CSS – in general I find it to be the most straight forward part of the whole creative process. There are very few decisions that need making at this point (as long as you've paid attention to the details in the previous stages) and really it's just a case of delivering a working version of the design you alluded to in the mockup phase.

You can also save yourself a great deal of time during the build stage by using frameworks. These can be pre-existing – such as Blueprint for CSS or jQuery for JavaScript – or ones you create yourself. I have an HTML/CSS framework that's essentially just several files with common code that I frequently reuse, such as header snippets, div nestings for certain layouts and essential hooks for CSS.

You could also view a content management system as a type of framework, because it provides you with a working skeleton on which to build your bespoke projects. WordPress, for instance, is a highly adaptable CMS that has a very small learning curve – and several sub-frameworks exist for it, such as Thematic or even my supersimple Starkers, both of which are intended to provide the starting blocks for a WordPress-powered site.

Learn to network

For more complex development work, in which you need to achieve something outside your knowledge base or skillset, it's worth bringing in some extra help on a project-to-project basis.

Matthew Smith explains, "More and more, I'm working with teams of freelancers as a network of service providers. Through the networked approach, I'm able to do more of what I love and what I'm good at, and leave the parts of the work that I'm less skilled at to the folks who are best at this portion of the project."

Once a site is completed and set live, it would seem like a logical place for the project to end, but there's more to the story. If possible, encourage the client to partake in usability testing so that you can see if the appropriate solution has been reached. It's difficult for clients to find the time and budget for this additional work, but it can be done cheaply and easily, as Paul Boag explains.

With the web, we have the freedom to tweak, polish and perfect. Projects can be revisited and an extra bit of TLC – when your client's budget allows for it – dropped in at any time.

The key to being successful when working on your own is to "stay ahead of the game, keep up to date on all the latest techniques, only work on projects you absolutely believe in, never sell yourself short and continue to pump out great projects that you've spent your time making," says Sam Brown. "Most importantly, love what you do."

Matthew Smith sums up the life of the solo web designer: "Yes, we have to watch out for our rights, be careful about money, and attract the best clients. But, in the end, what we're here for is using our expertise and creativity."

To keep yourself satisfied and happy, concludes Ian Coyle, "work exclusively on projects that you're passionate about, with clients that trust and respect you and on brands you want to be associated with."