qmarkNew business owners — or small business owners ready to build their first “real” web site — make up almost as much of our client base as nonprofit organizations. Though these two groups have much in common philosophically, there’s a world of difference between an established nonprofit with even a small staff and a small business trying to get a foothold. Neither have a tremendous amount of money to spend, but the nonprofits in my client base have largely already established a clear mission, some kind of visual identity, and have a board of directors or stable of volunteers on which they can call.

My small business owner clients are not necessarily as lucky. Many of them are beginning with just themselves as full-time staff, and the mission of their business may be clear to them but not articulated in writing anywhere. Some of them have had the good fortune to have had guidance in writing a business plan, and the ones who are luckier still have a marketing plan. I’ve had clients come to me for a web site at several points on this journey and approach me with any of the following statements:

I know I need a web site, but I don’t know what it should really have on it.

Here’s my idea for a design for the site; can you do it?

I like XYZ’s web site — could you do something like that?

I have an outline for what I want to put on my site. What else do you need?

None of these comprise a terrible starting point for a web site. They’re all points on a continuum, and all can lead to a site that will reflect their mission, introduce themselves to their customers, and generate more business for them. I’d like to talk for the next few posts about the first steps a small business can take to prepare themselves for building new web site. This won’t an exhaustive list — and all web developers and consultants will have a slightly different approach — but it will get a new business owner pointed in the right direction no matter who they choose.

We’re going to start today with your visual identity. That’s everything about the way your company’s identity is represented in print, on line, and on collateral materials you might use. Mostly, I’ll focus on the online pieces of this, but there are places where print/collateral and online visual identity depend on each other — so I’ll touch briefly on print, too.

  1. Your logo. You need a logo, and it needs to be good. It needs to work in print and online, and it’s the number one most important part of your visual identity. We don’t do logo design here, largely because there is a psychology and art to logo design that is worthy of expert attention. A quick search for “logo design best practices” reveals a startling 6,000,000+ number of results, more than I could digest or curate for you — which is why, when a client comes to me without a logo, I direct them to some of my favorite design firms. If money is tight, there are also sites that offer “logo design contests” where you describe roughly what you want for a logo, put up a cash prize (usually less than $500), and designers post their logo ideas for you. 99Designs.com is one of the most popular of these types of sites, but there are others out there if you look. Whether you use a logo contest or hire a logo designer, just be sure they’re giving you the following for your money:
  • Your logo in high resolution format for print — at least 300dpi. You may be thinking about using this design on your web site, but what if you want to make a poster someday? What if you want to have it printed on a decal for your car? You need to think about the biggest thing you’ll ever want to do with this logo, and make sure your designer is giving you the digital files for it. It is much easier to shrink a logo size than it is to make it bigger.
  • Your logo — or some component of it — in an itty-bitty, teeny weeny square for your favicon. What’s a favicon? Look up to the address bar of your browser. On this site, the favicon is a little blue forget-me-not flower. It’s part of our logo, and it is just a nice little visual reminder of our brand. You should have one, too. Your designer should be able to provide this for you. Below is an illustration of what I mean.
  • Any specialty fonts used in your logo. The name of my company on my header of my web site is in a font that did not come standard with my computer or software. It’s a special font I downloaded from the web. When I wanted to make a custom cell phone case with my logo, I needed that font. I needed it installed on my computer to put it into my invoices, and I needed to reference it when I had my company name/logo included in some marketing materials for a business association of which I am a member. If the font ended up costing your designer a few bucks, they might ask you to purchase the font for yourself, and you should definitely do that. Most fonts are not terribly expensive.
  • A list of RGB and hexidecimal color codes for the colors in use in your logo. Sorry, those were geeky terms. You probably won’t ever need to use those numbers yourself, but they refer to the combination of numbers and letters that make up the computer’s display of colors. If you need a nap, you can read about RGB colors or hexidecimal color values, but mostly, you might need them later to match colors from your logo to colors for text and background on your web site or in print materials. It’s handy to have them located all in one document somewhere.
  1. Social Media Specific Design. If you look at a business’ Facebook or Twitter accounts, there are platform-specific ways to add to the visual look of their brand. Facebook has the cover photo and profile picture; and Twitter has the header photo, profile photo, and background image. All of these are ways to add to your brand’s visual identity online. As you think through your visual identity, these are all things you’ll want to take into consideration. What can you expand into large images? What would work well as a small image? What looks unique enough to differentiate you from other businesses like yours?
  2. A photo. Or maybe not. This is hotly debated — if you are your business, then it’s a bigger question still. With personal social media being as big a part of our lives as it has become, it’s pretty easy for people who want one to find a photo of you, and if they can’t find it on your web site, they’ll look at your social media. They’ll google you, check your LinkedIn, etc., until they find one. Especially if you are providing a service that requires you to sit right across from them or interact with them physically in any way (yoga instructor? massage therapist? makeup artist?), they will want to see what you look like. If you cannot afford to have a professional photo taken, get yourself out into some nice natural light with someone who has a good camera, and keep getting photos taken until you find one that you like.

    On the other hand, if your business is more product-driven, then you need a great photo of your product. The same rules apply – good lighting, professional photographer or at least a fantastic camera. Get the product from a number of angles and in both landscape and portrait layout. It’s good to have as many options as possible.

If the items above sound totally daunting to you, I always recommend that my clients visit the web sites of their competition or colleagues in the same field. Make notes about what you like and don’t like about each site — from the logo to the layout to the colors to the use of photography or other graphic art. How do you feel about how the vibe of the business compares to the vibe of your business based on the visual identity? Think in terms of emotions — are you aiming for energetic or mellow? Professional or personable? Edgy or traditional? Chatty or understated? If you come up with a list of adjectives to describe your business “vibe,” it will make the job of your logo designer and your web designer much easier, and you’ll get to your vision for the perfect site a lot more quickly.

Next week, I’ll talk about the content of your site and what you can be thinking about before you meet with your web developer for the first time to make the conversation go smoothly.