Categorized | Shoestring Startup

DIY Design for Small Business Owners on a Budget

By Ian Matheson
Creative Director
Tailor Threads
www.tailorthreads.com

1. Building Tailor Threads: Who We Are and What We Needed

Like almost all company’s, our business started with a simple stroke of inspiration. It all began back in 2007, when our CEO, Jeff, was working as a VIP host in Las Vegas. His job was taking care of the high-rollers who stayed at his casino, showing them around town and making sure they got the most out of their visit. Whether they were gambling, enjoying the Vegas night-life or simply lounging in their suites, Jeff was always struck by how impeccably his high-rolling male guests were dressed. After chatting with a few of them about their clothing, he discovered that almost all of them had their clothing tailored made just for them.

As most men know, made-to-measure clothing is quite pricey and not something that everyone can afford. But what if every man could experience the joys of custom clothing at an affordable price? And what if they could get it without leaving their homes? With these simple questions, the idea for Tailor Thread’s was born.

After considering the idea for a while, Jeff approached myself and some mutual friends with the idea of starting our own online clothing business specializing in custom tailored men’s shirts. My partners and I all had some experience working in the apparel industry and so, with the help of a some skilled tailors that we were connect with, we knew we could make outstanding clothing quite easily. But, since our business was only going to exist only on the web, the challenging part for us would be replicating for the online shopper the same experience they could get at a brick-and-mortar tailor.

DIY Design for Small Business Owners on a Budget

A custom dress shirt from Tailor Threads, ready to ship

For any potential online entrepreneurs who might be reading this, take my word that it is incredibly complicated and time-consuming to create an online business that specializes in customizable products. On the Tailor Threads website, for example, we offer more than 100 different fabrics, as well of dozens of different options for collars, cuffs, buttons and thread color to name just a few. Doing a simple mathematical calculation, our customers can create more than 10 trillion different designs – all of which would need to be displayed visually for the shopper to see. And, like all e-commerce businesses, since our website was going to be the only means through which our customers could interface with our company, we had to present our site in an attractive, user-friendly way.

DIY Design for Small Business Owners on a Budget

a screenshot of the Tailor Threads interactive shirt designer.

We tracked down a web design firm to create the basic architecture of our site, to open our payment gateway, create our order forms and design a completely interactive shirt model that could be updated in real-time. Although we really needed the services of a professional team to help us with the heavy lifting needed to craft our web site, we also realized early on that we couldn’t afford to rely on outsider designers to do everything for us. As time went on, more and more of the things we needed were suddenly “falling outside of the project scope” and driving up our start-up costs.

In order to cut down on our expenses and to become more self-sufficient over the long-haul, we decided to give ourselves a six month crash course in as many aspects of the web design process as possible. Although we had almost no previous technical or artist training prior to launching Tailor Threads, we learned an incredible amount of information. So, for the less than tech-savvy entrepreneur who thinks they have to invest a fortune in jump-starting their online startup, we’d like to offer some advice, as well as some of the resources that we found helpful when it came to taking charge of our web needs.

2. Research and Planning

Every business today needs to have some kind of online presents. It doesn’t matter if you’re running a small family-owned restaurant, an accounting agency or selling knitted socks, it’s always in your best interest to have an attractive, easy to locate website.

If you‘re a small business owner who is considering taking a stab at creating all or part of your own website, the first thing you should do is to look critically at other websites for inspiration and ideas. Don’t limit yourself to just sizing up your competitors‘ websites, or just looking exclusively at other online business sites. Look at a variety of different places to get ideas and find out what you like or don’t like and ask yourself what would look right for your business. Try to hammer out as detailed a plan as possible and identify what you’ll need in terms of layout, graphics, content and usability. Even if you decide to hire a professional designer to help you with your site, being able to provide him or her with specifics will save a lot of time and energy – many entrepreneurs are disappointed with the concepts designers come up with, yet only offer vague input and criticism (by the way, telling a designer that you want your website to “pop” is not a detailed request).

When it comes to planning your site, as a general rule the more content you have, the more complicated your layout will need to be. If you compare Tailor Threads with, for example, Amazon.com and also with an artist portfolio page, you can see what we mean. Amazon, with all it’s tens of thousands of products and services has quite a complex layout and design; while an artist promoting his or her works online may only need a minimal homepage with a “gallery”, “about” and “contact” sections.

DIY Design for Small Business Owners on a Budget

A typical layout for an art portfolio website.

Our own site falls somewhere between these two extremes, but we stuck with a quite conservative layout which could be quickly and easily navigated. Ease of navigation was especially important on our interactive designer page. Also, dividing our content into simple, discreet areas has made it much easier for us to modify our images and banners.

DIY Design for Small Business Owners on a Budget

A color-coded overview of the layout for the home page of our website.

Two of the best sites we found to get our creative juices flowing during the planning of our site were:

Smashing Magazine

http://www.smashingmagazine.com

Primarily a resource for professional web designers and developers, Smashing Magazine periodically posts very comprehensive round-ups of creative websites. This is also a great place to get freebies like WordPress themes, fonts and icon sets.

Awwwards

http://www.awwwards.com

A bit trendier than Smashing Magazine, Awwwards celebrates amazing websites. Websites featured here are graded on a number of different criteria by a panel of judges, giving you an important insight into how designers evaluate the look and feel of a website

1. Tools and Resources

Designing and coding

Over the years, the learning curve required to make an outstanding website has decreased dramatically. Now it’s possible for almost anyone with a few dollars a month to pay for hosting and service fees to get a website up and running in a matter of hours.

WordPress

http://wordpress.org/

Although primarily built as a blogging platform, there are a number of WordPress themes (i.e. templates) especially designed for small businesses and e-commerce sites. For any company though that wants to incorporate a blog onto their site – which you should consider in order to increase traffic to your site – WordPress is definitely the way to go. Important note: do not confuse wordpress.org with wordpress.com – if you want complete control over your site, you’ll need to go to the former.

IM Creator

http://imcreator.com

A very simple place to build a great looking website. IM creator offers a number of sleek looking templates which can be modified with simple click-and-dragging. Hosting also provided.

Square Space

http://www.squarespace.com

For the slightly more technically inclined, Square Space is a great place to build your own website. A little confusing once you get started, but a great place to get started once you’re ready to move beyond drag-and-drop designing. Hosting also provided.

For folks who want to start designing from scratch using nothing but HTML, CSS and other coding languages, a few great places to start learning are:

W3 Schools

http://www.w3schools.com/

An incredible resource for beginners, W3 Schools offers hundreds of short and easy to understand tutorials for all your coding needs. We used it all the time to decipher and modify the code used to build our site.

Tuts+

http://tutsplus.com/

An invaluable resource, the Tuts+ Network offers hundreds of in-depth tutorials for everything from photography and video editing to sound design and interactive gaming. There are even step-by-step guides for how to build your own website from scratch, which we found especially valuable once we had learned the basics of coding language.

Youtube

www.youtube.com

Okay, it might seem a little bit obvious, but the amount of instructional materials for would-be web designers on Youtube is really staggering. Of course videos vary quite widely in terms of quality and content, but for every tech question we had we were able to track down someone who had posted a tutorial for how to resolve it.

Equipment and Software

But beyond web coding and programming, if there is one technical/creative skill set that every small business owner should have under their belt, it’s knowing the basics of photography and how to edit digital images. If you can take your own photos and make your own banners and graphics, you can not only save a lot of time and money, but make your business much more self sufficient.

Speaking not only from my own experience, but also from what I’ve heard from other online entrepreneurs, photos often become a very thorny issue between small business owners and web designers.

If you’re hiring a freelance web designer to build your site, note that he or she might not have the time, equipment or skills needed to take your product photos, which could mean outsourcing again to a photographer and/or spending money on stock images. Many design firms though will be able to accommodate your image needs, but you’ll probably find yourself paying a premium for this added service and even then there is no guarantee that they will produce the kind of quality you’re looking for.

From the start we knew that Tailor Threads was really going to rely heavily on images – and we have several hundred pictures of fabrics that we wanted to have on our website. And, since we were selling clothing, it was incredibly important that our customers be able to see photos that accurately depicted the color and texture of our fabrics. At first, our designers scanned the fabrics with a flatbed scanner, which produced really chunky, pixilated results that we weren’t happy with. As tensions mounted and a hefty price-tag loomed, we decided that it would be best to supply our own images, and we were very happy that we did.

With nothing more than a second-hand digital SLR, a $20 tripod and some lamps from a hardware store, we had all of the equipment we needed to take our own photos. We started with just taking photos of our fabrics, but as our skills progressed we even began taking our own “fashion” photos, using a friend as a model in locations like parks and hotel conference rooms, saving us several hundred dollars.

If you’re new to photography, we don’t want to get too much into the how-to aspects of picture taking here (this is where reading your user manual and a trip to the photography section of your local library are going to come in handy) as long as your camera has manual controls for shutter speed, aperture, white balance and the focus of your lens, and you should be ready to start shooting.

DIY Design for Small Business Owners on a Budget

You don’t need professional photographers or models to get amazing images.

Once you know how to operate your equipment, it’s important to remember that you’re almost never going to get professional quality photos straight from your camera. 99.99% of the time you’re going to have to do some kind of “post production” tweaking with the one of the many image editing software programs that are out there.

If you have the money, I would whole-heartedly recommend purchasing a copy of Adobe Photoshop, which is an incredibly powerful and useful program that any small business owner who wants to take charge of his own photos and graphics should definitely consider investing in. Aside from adjusting color and cleaning up defects in your images, you can also use Photoshop to create simple web pages and customizable email templates. Plus there are loads of free scripts, plug-ins and tutorials available materials available for this program, making it one of the most well documented pieces of software around. You may want to consider other Adobe products as well, including Illustrator (2D graphics), Flash (simple animation), Dreamweaver (web coding). We recommend downloading the trial versions of these programs first before buying them just so you can see what they can do and if they are right for you.

DIY Design for Small Business Owners on a Budget

A gift card template which can be modified and inserted into an email in seconds. Designed using Photoshop.

DIY Design for Small Business Owners on a Budget

You can design your own 3D logo in minutes with Blender, a free modeling and animation software.

If you don’t have a few thousand dollars handy to purchase these professional software products, rest assured that there are many free programs out there capable of producing high-quality images and results. For example, in the beginning days of our business, before we saw any kind of profit, we used GIMP, an open-source alternative to Photoshop, as our primary image editor. Although GIMP’s interface is a little quirky, and there isn’t quite as much instructional material out there for how to use it, it can still do many of the things that it’s Adobe rival can do. Other free open-source programs we used and can recommend: InkScape (2D art), Blue Griffon (a wysiwyg or “what you see is what you get” html editor) and Blender (a 3D graphic and simple animation program).

Other Freebies You’ll Need

Fonts

For graphics and logos you can’t be using Times New Roman or Arial for everything. Although many people don’t realize it, fonts make a huge impact on the overall look and feel of a website. There are many places where you can purchase fonts of course, however there are just as many places where you can get them for free.

Keep in mind that that there are only a few fonts that are considered “web safe” for text, meaning that the scrolling cursive or funky wing-ding script that works great as part of your logo most likely will not function as text (which can be highlighted, copied or detected by a search engine) and may have to be limited to use with your images.

Recommended sites with free fonts:

http://www.dafont.com/

http://www.urbanfonts.com/

Icons

Just like with fonts, icons are a subtle way to add an extra layer of detail to your site. Whether you need icons that link to your Facebook or Twitter pages, or just to bring some extra spice to your graphics, great looking free icons are easy to come by. Some places that we recommend:

Icon Archive

http://www.iconarchive.com/

Boasts a large, searchable database of icons.

Iconspedia

http://www.iconspedia.com/

Another large site with thousands of free icons.

Deviant Art

http://www.deviantart.com/

Primarily a place to showcase digital and fine art, a place to find high-quality icons (and fonts) free to download.

Stock Photos

Once again, when it comes to creating an amazing website the importance of great images really can’t be overemphasized. If you’ve already taken all of the photos specific for your business (product photos, portraits of your staff, etc.), but still need some more generic images – say of a city or a forest or clouds – just to break up the monotony of plain text or to spice up a banner, you might want to round up some stock images. There are many great stock photo companies out there (Shutter Stock and iStock for example), which boast huge libraries of high-quality images, but they can be quite pricey. If you have the time to search around though, you may find images suitable for your purposes for free.

Wikimedia Commons

http://commons.wikimedia.org/

Part of Wikipedia, a great place to get high-resolution images for free. Especially useful for urban and nature shots.

Stock Vault

http://www.stockvault.net/

Offers more than 25,000 free images in several different categories.

Morgue File

http://www.morguefile.com/

Billed as an image archive “for creatives by creatives”, and thus the pictures here tend to be more artsy than the other sites listed here.

Free Stock Photography

http://www.adigitaldreamer.com/gallery/index.php

A small but growing image archive with many different categories.

Mayang’s Free Textures

http://mayang.com/textures/

If you need images of textures (paint, brick, metal, tiles, concrete, water, etc) to blend with your graphics, this is the place to go.

Conclusion and Summary:

Although this article is not meant to be a step-by-step guide for how to make your own professional quality website, we at Tailor Threads hope that after reading this you can have a better idea of where and how to get started crafting your own web presents. For any business owner with a limited budget, coming to grips with the creative and technical skills needed to build and update your website will not only save you a great deal of money, but give you more of a sense of pride in your final product.

 

 

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3 Responses to “DIY Design for Small Business Owners on a Budget”

  1. Lee says:

    This is a fantastic article on Web basics! Just having hired a Web designer for a site overhaul, I was introduced to some of this information. It’s great to have a place to refer back to when I take over the site. And, yes, we are using wordpress.ORG for the design.

    I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to write this particular entry. I only hope my own blog will be as helpful to others! So, thank you.

  2. Excellent article both in writing and content. We have a website for Custom Dog Beds and Tote Bags and Ian hit the mark with what needs to be done and where to go for help. We went through some trials and tribulations but this article helps you avoid a lot of it.

    Great Job and best of luck to you all.

    ps – Mistakenly hit the 1 Star when rating. I meant 10.

  3. Great Post I enjoy reading, Agree with it contain on most of it.

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