What makes a great WordPress web designer?

March 26, 2018

I run an extended team of WordPress web designers and developers in the UK. We're always on the lookout for new WordPress experts to join the team. But what exactly makes a great WordPress web designer?

Qualities needed in a great WordPress web designer

WordPress expertise

This goes without saying - to be a top WordPress web designer, you need to be a true expert in your field.

It's fine to specialise in one particular area of WordPress design and development, as long as you have mastered your area. There are plenty of options for a WordPress web designer to choose from:

Custom designed WordPress websites

Custom designed WordPress sites require high levels of design skills and knowledge of the latest web design trends. Your eye for design should be coupled with the technical expertise to convert your designs into fully functional, standards-compliant WordPress themes. This is a tricky combination as most WordPress web designers are either designers or developers, but not both. However I do know a few people who excel in both areas, and this is a rare find.

Custom WordPress themes, based on someone else's designs

Often referred to as PSD to WordPress, there's lots of demand for WordPress web designers who can build a robust and solid theme based on an existing design. We are often commissioned by web designers who have produced the Photoshop files for a website and need us to build the complete website in WordPress.

Although you don't need to be a designer to build a high quality WordPress theme, you do need good attention to detail. For this sort of WordPress web design project, it's vital that the theme matches the original designs exactly. It's surprisingly hard to find someone with this eye for detail, and if you have this skill then you can be one of the best.

To be an expert WordPress theme developer, you need to fully understand how WordPress works under the covers. We don't work with WordPress web designers who produce themes by hacking around with the default WordPress theme and copying and pasting other people's code. There's nothing wrong with using a framework to get started - in fact, this is often the most efficient way to develop a responsive WordPress theme. However you need to understand everything from a technical perspective, and how it all fits together.

Designing WordPress websites using a theme

Off-the-shelf themes are a huge part of WordPress web design. Creating a website using an existing theme is a surprisingly skilled task - we're often contacted by people who have been let down by other WordPress web designers who haven't managed to make a theme-based website look professional enough.

To excel at this type of project, a WordPress web designer needs the skills to analyse the theme they are using and apply it to the client's business. The website won't be identical to the theme demo site, as the structure and layouts will be designed around the client's content. However the website should be as effective as the theme demo site, and most people aren't capable of achieving this.

When you look at the demo site for a WordPress theme, there are lots of elements working together to make it look effective:

  • Use of images (these often make or break a theme-based website)
  • Formatting the content in an effective way using the shortcodes and layouts built into the theme, rather than just pasting basic content onto the page
  • Consistent spacing, with effective vertical rhythm
  • Everything is lined up nicely. For example if you have 3 images with text underneath, each area of text should be the same number of lines; and the footer widgets should all be the same height

If you can create a website that genuinely looks as good as the theme demo site then I would love to hear from you! Just send me some examples of WordPress websites you have designed using a theme, along with a link to the theme demo site.

WordPress development

Custom WordPress development is a big area and involves using WordPress to achieve bespoke requirements. This might be a custom WordPress plugin, complete bespoke system built on WordPress, customisations to existing themes or plugins, or integrating WordPress with other third party applications.

In my experience, top WordPress developers often have a software development and programming background. Although this isn't essential, it does form a sound basis for developing robust systems in WordPress. These skills can be self-taught, as long as you have the commitment to learn the underlying principles and apply them to your work.

Over the years, I have seen many WordPress web designers who take on more than they're really qualified for. The fact that WordPress, the themes and plugins are open source doesn't mean that you SHOULD change them! We don't work with people who play around with code and make changes without understanding the bigger picture - there are often wider implications of changing something, which will inadvertently break another part of the website.

There are lots of mistakes to make if you don't understand the wider context. Inexperienced WordPress developers might do things like modify the WordPress core (NO NO NO!!!), modify the theme rather than creating a child theme, modify a major plugin rather than hooking into it, add functionality to a theme - the list goes on.

A great WordPress web designer will work in a planned way, applying the latest WordPress standards and best practices to achieve the client's requirements in the best possible way.

WordPress website maintenance and support

Inexperienced WordPress web designers often think that maintenance and support are easy options. I think they couldn't be more wrong!

Maintaining a simple WordPress website that you designed yourself can be fairly straightforward. However taking over the maintenance and support of an existing site can be a complex task. You need to analyse the website and get a good understanding of its various components and how they interrelate. This should give you an instinctive sense of what to test after each update, or where to look if there is a problem.

The best WordPress web designers in terms of ongoing maintenance and support have a wider knowledge of the WordPress industry, and can apply this to individual websites. For example, they will keep up to date with the latest WordPress news and hear about any potential issues or security vulnerabilities that might affect the websites they're maintaining. They will keep abreast of the latest WordPress plugins and install, remove or replace plugins as appropriate.

WordPress troubleshooting

To troubleshoot websites effectively, a WordPress web designer needs experience of a wide range of issues that affect WordPress websites, as well as an overall understanding of how WordPress websites work. By combining these two skills, you can troubleshoot problems with WordPress websites quickly and effectively.

For example when faced with the common "Uploads directory is not writable" error that often afflicts WordPress sites, an inexperienced WordPress web designer might start by Googling the issue. This particular problem can be caused by many different issues, so it's easy to get lost in a huge range of potential solutions. In contrast, a more experienced WordPress web designer will look at the problem in the context of this specific website and other websites they have worked on. This will help them to narrow down the problem and to find the correct solution that applies to this specific website. (Note: There's nothing wrong with Googling problems with WordPress websites, and there's tons of useful information out there - I'm just saying that the best WordPress web designers have the skills to view this information in conjunction with their own experience, which gives better results.)

Professional and prompt communication

Speedy response times are the single most important element of good communication.

The type of communication is also important in a good WordPress web designer. The best WordPress web designers in the Barn2 Media team are prepared to communicate using a variety of methods. Some projects work best by email, others have a need for regular conference calls with the client, others need more phone calls - the list goes on.

There's a stereotype that IT professionals can be geeky and aren't great communicators. I know lots of WordPress web designers and developers who break the mould and have fantastic communication skills. They come across as true professionals on the phone, with all the qualities you would want - professional, calm, reasonable, clear and upfront. It's not good enough to put your head down and work hard to design a fantastic website - you need to keep other people updated with progress and think about the journey from their perspective.

Some of our WordPress web designers are more limited in their communication, for example preferring to stick to email. If they always reply quickly and professionally then I find that they can still be a great WordPress web designer and an asset to the team. However, being limited in this way can be an issue - for example, I can't allocate an email-only developer to a project that requires team conference calls with the client, so fewer opportunities are available to them. The best WordPress web designers are flexible and adapt their communication to each project.

Read, read, read!

As you will have gathered already, I think it's vital for WordPress web designers to keep on top of the latest developments.They truly understand their field and can talk knowledgeably about it - not just their direct work, but the wider issues facing WordPress web designers, new technologies, key players in the WordPress industry and what direction the industry is headed.

Our technical director Andy aims to spend 1/3 to 1/2 of his working week reading and learning about WordPress and the web development world. He firmly believes that this is an essential part of being a web professional. Anyone who doesn't do this is working blind.

Business skills

If your company employs WordPress web designers then this point may not apply. However I run an extended team of self-employed WordPress professionals, and each one has to have reasonable business skills.

For example:

  • The ability to quote accurately for work and predict how long each project will take
  • The ability to manage scope creep in a positive way - previous WordPress web designers I have worked with have got annoyed if I asked for something that wasn't in the original brief, rather than working positively to achieve the best outcome (even if it means increasing the budget)
  • The ability to manage their workload, invoices etc.

The WordPress web designers in our team don't have to be experts in running a WordPress business - after all, that's my job! Joining the Barn2 Media team works well for some people because it relieves them from the boring business and admin tasks - winning new projects, project admin, project management, etc. This allows them focus on the technical work they enjoy. However to be a good WordPress web designer, you do need some business skills.

Time management

As with any profession, a good WordPress web designer needs the ability to manage their own workload. In this industry, it's common to be working on multiple projects at once - you're unlikely to ever spend a full day focussing on a single website. It's therefore vital to be able to schedule work in a flexible but realistic way and manage your time accordingly.

This is even more important in remote teams that are dispersed across the country. No one will be micro-managing your time, so you need to be able to do this. Not having this skill means letting people down, which no good WordPress web designer should ever do.

Do you have what it takes?

WordPress web designers have a complex role - especially if they're self-employed and working remotely. It's not easy - as well as advanced technical knowledge in an ever-changing industry, you need a wide range of personal skills and qualities that will help you to manage your work.

If you're the sort of WordPress professional that I have described above, I'd love to hear from you to discuss how we can work together. Please drop me a line at katie@barn2.com. (Note: If you have read this article then this should be obvious - but please don't contact me if you're an offshore outsourcing company!)

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