Saturday, 31 January 2015


A little over a decade ago, British competitive cycling was nowhere. With a couple of notable exceptions — Tom Simpson in the ‘60s and Chris Boardman in the ‘90s — no British cyclist had made a significant impact on a sport dominated by France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, and Australia.

Then, in 2003, British cycling appointed Dave Brailsford as performance director, who introduced marginal gains. Marginal gains is a philosophy that — rather than focus on sweeping change — identifies small improvements which when aggregated, result in significant progress.

Subsequently, at Beijing in 2008 the team took 17 Paralympic, and 8 Olympic golds. Four years later in London they took 8 Paralympic, and 8 Olympic golds. The achievement was capped by back-to-back victories in the 2012 and 2013 Tour de France, the first British victories in the history of road cycling’s premier event.

“If you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by one percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.” — Dave Brailsford

Marginal gains in web design

Since the British cycling team shocked the nation by not falling off their bikes, marginal gains has become something of a rallying cry for business. But whereas businesses typically need to restructure, and drive this change from the boardroom, it’s a philosophy that dovetails neatly into existing web design practice.

Marginal gains is an iterative approach to problem solving, as favored by lean startups. Through the use of design patterns, most websites perform broadly similarly to their competitors; that being the case, even a minute improvement is sufficient to make a website stand out.

1% is, of course, not a literal figure. It’s impossible to quantify a design improvement in terms of a percentage. And even when a percentage can be found by measuring conversions, or performance, it’s not always desirable to do so. The key point, is that marginal gains focuses on small improvements.

Finding 1%

Adopt the mindset that there is a 1% improvement to be found in every element of your website. The benefit of 1% is that it’s an attainable target.

Naturally some elements of a project have greater scope for improvement than others. Areas that tend to lend themselves to marginal gains, are the elements that are often ignored by a traditional waterfall process.

For example, error messages are commonly not copy written, and rarely designed, because they’re invented by the development team during coding. That tends to result in human-friendly messages such as Error 427: Expected data.

To find 1% improvements, teams need to adopt a multi-disciplinary approach. Every element needs to be planned, designed, and engineered. And processes must not be put into silos. That’s not to say that every designer needs to understand OOP, or that every developer needs to be able to adjust tracking. But a collaborative effort, in which roles overlap, will prevent elements falling down the cracks.

Copy that is generated by code; UI elements that aren’t predicted in style tiles; interactions that are added post-build; these are all areas rife for improvement.

The easy 1%

The key to a marginal gains approach is that everything can be improved, and that every incremental step is worthwhile when viewed as part of a whole.

we want the 1%, but we don’t want to pay for it

When optimizing an image, there is a tendency to save in accordance with default application settings: commonly we’ll save a JPG at 60%, then try and drop it to 40%. If the resulting quality is too low we revert to 60%. But we only need to find 1% so try saving your JPG at 59% quality. In a few quick tests I found that dropping 1% off the quality resulted in an average 3% reduction in filesize — the benefit is disproportionate to the cost.

Never use a webfont that you can’t subset. Minify CSS and JavaScript. If you’ve got a 2 minute video on your site that’s 2880 frames, cut 29 of them, just over a second, and you’ve found your 1%.

There are substantial improvements to be found if we invest time and effort. For example, replacing JavaScript libraries with vanilla JavaScript will reduce your site’s footprint. However libraries such as jQuery bring benefits like simplicity, and maintainability, that outweigh their cost.

The key to success with marginal gains is that the cost of implementation is negligible: we want the 1%, but we don’t want to pay for it.

The essential 1%

We’ve known for a long time that users don’t read websites. Whilst we carefully craft content, our users are extracting everything they need to know from a couple of button labels. Whether they scan in an ‘F’ pattern or click around until they hit something that looks interesting, users focus on extreme details.

That’s why micro-copy is such a big deal. It may be a hint, or an error message, a score we share on Twitter, or the labels on our menu; users spend more time with micro-copy than anything else on our sites. However, micro-copy is also the copy that is least likely to be designed, or provided by a client. Micro-copy is too often an afterthought that exists in the cracks.

We all create passwords, most of us create them daily. So most of us have experienced the red asterisk that lets us know that our suggested password has not met with approval: we submit an account creation form only to find that we needed 8 characters; try again and we need less than 12; try again and we need a number; once more, we need uppercase and lowercase; try again and we need punctuation; try again, and we need different punctuation. It usually takes me about three attempts before I start to wonder if I really want the account after all.

We have to write the error message to tell the user they’re wrong anyway, micro-copy alongside the form, clearly stating the rules, helps them get it right first time and has a negligible implementation cost.

The perfect 1%

If there’s one area that fully embraces marginal gains, it’s typography. Finding the correct measure, the optimal leading, and making use of advanced features such as smart quotes, ligatures and small caps provides a measurable improvement in readability.

There is no downside to good typography

Typography is as much science as art, with precedents created by the way the human eye and brain, process written language. As such, there are rules that define how we use it, meaning sweeping changes are rarely desirable. Typography is all about finding multiple 1%s to improve the whole.

If you’re looking for 1% in your design work, focus on typography. Not only is it 95% of web design, it’s also a discipline that’s perfectly aligned with marginal gains. There is no downside to good typography.

The value of 1%

1% is an easy figure to bear in mind, but it‘s plucked from the air. What matters is making small improvements that carry a negligible cost.

Any improvement to an already refined website is incrementally harder. Finding a 10% performance boost will introduce unwanted side-effects such as loss of quality. If we can find 1% in ten different areas we can make the same 10% performance boost with no pay off.

1% improvements have little benefit on their own, but taken as a whole marginal gains is a process that will make your websites stand out.


Friday, 30 January 2015


How many times have you asked yourself this question?

A potential client wants your proposal for a design project. You’re sitting in front of your computer, scratching your head. You ask Google, your friends in Facebook, your Linkedin groups. You browse designers’ forums. You’ve found some price lists. Are they relevant for you? Are they relevant for this particular project? Can you use it as is?

You then think of your former projects. You charged x for a website design, and y for creating those restaurant menus. What can you deduce from this? You’re not sure. And indeed, how much should you charge? This must be the single most frequent question creative freelancers ask; and it seems like no one out there is sure what to do.

What’s wrong with price lists?

I used to have my own fixed price list:

  1. A logo design = $xx

  2. A wordpress website design with 5 templates = $yy

  3. Mobile design for an app =$zz

and so on… (It’s more detailed of course, but you get the point.)

My price list was based on what I charged for my former projects, and on data my colleagues shared with me. Once in a while I updated it. Many freelancers and design studios I know use such a price list, so I thought I should too.

One day, sitting at my favourite cafe, Shelly the waitress approached me…

“You’re building websites, right?”, she asked.

“Sure”, I said.

“So… I’m in a band. We need a simple website. How much would you charge for building us one?”

She put on her cutest face.

“Well, I usually take…”

I couldn’t finish that sentence. I knew exactly how much a waitress earned in this cafe. So I knew she couldn’t afford my services.

“Listen, let’s sit together for an hour or two. I’ll show you how you can build your own website for free. There are a few platforms for just what you need.”

I felt bad asking her for money.

Walking out the cafe that day, I understood something about pricing. I couldn’t ask hipster-musician Shelly for her money. But if the manager of a large company would ask me to build him a website, I should charge him twice my usual rates. Why? because he has the money. Just like Shelly doesn’t.

These are values I have – and they are not included in my pricing as a factor. I do not consider myself a socialist or something, I just want money from whoever has it.

There are many factors we forget to include in our pricing.

“I wouldn’t do it for a million bucks”

We all have red lines. Things we’d never do – not even for a million bucks. Well… as Demi Moore showed us in Indecent Proposal, that is arguable.

What do you do when you need to write a proposal for a project that will make you hate yourself? I’ll tell you what I do. I give it a sky-high price.

For example, I have a personal problem with dating websites. I think they are awful. So if someone asks me to build one, I would price it really high. So high, that I would probably not get the job. I don’t feel bad if I lose this project, because I didn’t want to do it anyway. And what if the client wants to pay me that much? Well, then I might be able to quiet my inner voice. Just to be honest, I do have a real red line. It’s gambling websites. Those make me puke, and not even a million dollars will change my mind. I mean, not even half a million. Or is it $100K?

This principle goes the other way, too. When someone offers me a project that could change my life – I price it not-so-high. In order to work with people I admire, I’m willing to use my lowest rates. It’s worth more than the money. Though, I’d still ask for what I need to survive. I can’t be creative when I imagine my landlord’s face in front of me.

Money can motivate me get out of bed

Sometimes I need to send a proposal for a super boring project. I can’t imagine waking up in the morning to this boredom. Like when I had to build a news website for some old guys in Washington. They were nice people, but the website wasn’t anything cool or funky. Quite the opposite.

Should I turn it down just because it’s boring? Not at all. If I get enough money, I’ll have the motivation to get up in the morning and start working. And vice versa: if this is an awesome project, I can live with less. My motivation is then built from loving what I’m doing.

And what about my reputation? Don’t forget that the projects you’re working on are the ones you’ll have in your portfolio. Those projects will attract the same type of clients. As they say: “shitty projects attract shitty clients”. So I’m charging more to work on a project that I won’t put in my portfolio. I have to compensate myself for not doing something that can push my career forward.

I mean, it’s not like I’m telling the client, “Your project bores me, hence I want twice the money.” Instead, I’m just taking a risk by putting a higher price. If I lose it – maybe it’s for the best. At least now I’m free to hear about other opportunities. And if I get the project, I’m paid well enough to give up other potential projects.

“How much should I charge?”

So I’m not using price lists anymore. How do I calculate my prices then? With three simple steps:

  1. I have calculated my hourly rate. This is the rate I need to get in order to maintain my lifestyle.

  2. I then estimate the amount of hours I need to work on this project. I add extra hours for meetings, emails, change requests, etc. In my case I use 30% extra for the overhead.

  3. Then I add the rest of the factors, just like I described before. Is it a boring project or a dreamy one? Will I use it in my portfolio, or would I hate myself for doing this?

“You should take yourself more seriously”, a Zen monk once told me. The biggest problem with using a price list is that it doesn’t include you in the picture. You are not a robot. Don’t price your work without including factors that take into account your feelings, motivation, and the value of your future.

It’s high time you started pricing like a pro.


Wednesday, 28 January 2015


Perception is everything! Many famous creatives grew to fame because people knew about them, more than their work. Should you create a persona of yourself that’s bigger than life? Does it lead to higher fees or fear that you command higher fees? How do you deal with clients who have elevated you to heights higher than you have elevated your own self worth?

I had a boss who told me that when she started her million-dollar business, she made sure her stationery, cards, etc. were the best stock, printing and design she could get. She said it sold her company to prospects before she had ever opened her office. Without sounding cocky, you must sell yourself to a prospective client so they feel they are lucky to have you as their designer.

Don’t stand for being beaten up

We all know the type of client who wants everything for nothing. They make lame promises, threats, and insults to put designers in their place. They want to make the designer feel as low as dirt, hoping the designer will work for free, or very little. We complain about these types of clients but do little to correct their behavior. It’s time to nut up, or shut up!

The first thing you must understand is that there is a difference between having the confidence to elevate yourself in the eyes of the client, and being a douche-bag to others around you. Too often, designers beat on each other. Most designers, if not all, carry a fear that their peers won’t respect their work. The truth is: it only matters what the client and you think of your work.

In art school, where teachers post your work on the wall for critiques, allowing every member of the class to enjoy the sound of their own voices, the lesson is not to see what you did wrong… or right. Class critiques are to teach you how to hear criticism of your work from others. We know not every student in your class will make it in the creative field. In some schools, the rate of graduates who find work in their area of study is as low as 12%, so why would 88% of the critiques mean anything to you?

The art school critiques are misplaced lessons. They should not be for you learning to take criticism, but for you to learn how defend your design decisions and how to convince clients you made the right ones.

I’ve always been amazed at the amount of working professionals who ask other designers what they think of their design ability. My quick and pointed answer when I’m asked to look at someone’s portfolio, is to ask them what they think of their work. If they say they don’t know or aren’t confident about their decisions, they’ll never make it in the creative field until they grow a pair and find confidence in their ability to love their own design decisions.

Other designers are not your partners

There are numerous self-congratulatory groups on Facebook, LinkedIn and sites like Dribbble where such “designers” go for affirmation – usually from other designers who have time on their hands because they’re not busy with work of their own.

If you ask ten designers what they think of your design, you will get ten different opinions of what you did wrong. The only thing you did wrong was ask other designers for their subjective opinions. It’s not that they’re wrong, they just aren’t right. They weren’t there with the client, they didn’t hear the creative brief and they weren’t privy to the changes the client wanted. They also aren’t the ones who sign your checks. So perk up, because you’ll never know what the client will think until you show it to them.

If you are busy seeking the approval of other designers, how can you be confident enough to seek the approval of a client?

I love retelling the story of a local designer who specialized in real estate design. He created templates for real estate agents to order sales sheets for each new property listing and he made a large, six-figure salary. His family enjoyed a good life, he put money away and saved for his kid’s college fund. He also felt like he wasn’t a “true designer” because other designers made fun of his work.

Those designers who passed judgement on his specialty were always unemployed, complained about the lack of work, but somehow felt they were better than this man; and their opinions drove him insane. He shouldn’t have cared that others had some weird standard of what a designer should be. Part of their standard was to not be able to find work or pay their bills.

Pluck up your courage and confidence

If you aren’t confident with your own design ability, you have to discover why. Are you just not happy with the final design when you are left to your own decisions? Do client changes send you into an indecisive depression?

When you are going to present preliminary sketches to a client, do you obsess over the worst one, hoping it won’t be picked? Then get rid of it! If only two sketches are exciting to you out of three, then present two sketches. If the client asks why there aren’t more, say these two are the strongest concepts that will solve the design solution. If they want to see more, make them tell you why the presented solutions don’t solve the problem. Assert your professionalism and don’t position yourself as a design slave.

When you let go of the part of you that is more concerned about what other designers think and concentrate on what you like about your work, you will find your creative juices flowing freely. That will end up pleasing your clients. Project approved, check received, design successful! That’s all you need to be a great designer.

Be big in your own mind

Getting back to perception, it’s odd how some clients think. At one of my corporate jobs, the head of the creative department told all freelancers that they had to brand themselves as a large studio, and not just as Jane Doe Design. They needed to have a studio name that made it seem like the company was dealing with large, multi-designer studios. Yes, it was ridiculous because that would leave out Milton Glaser Design and other well-known design firms, but the perception was what won out.

Now you need to think big. As odd as it may sound, bull honky makes the world go around. Well, maybe it’s not that odd, so why not join society and hype yourself? I’m not telling you to lie and cheat. I’m telling you to start focusing on the positive things about yourself, and not the negative things that keep you down.

Like the lesson from my former boss who set herself up as a professional before she even started work, you need to ooze success. This goes for networking and how you present yourself and your brand, to how you speak to people. Humble-but-confident is the key. Almost, as my old boss used to say, as if you don’t care if they become your customer or not.

My old boss would actually kick people out of her office, and I was always amazed that they would come back, begging to deal with her. She was very talented and it showed. There is also the human response to want what you can’t have.

Some of my biggest clients were people who approached me with offers for me to do freebies or work cheap. It was my polite manners and insistence that I could not work cheaply that made me one of the highest paid freelancers among my peers. When the higher pay wasn’t available, I negotiated less work, such as one concept presentation, and limited changes. All the time, having a cool exterior, I was falling apart in one big panic attack inside. When that doesn’t show on the outside, people, as hard-arsed as they may be, decide your poker face is enough to convince them that you can’t be pushed around.

It is true that there are some people who only offer free work opportunities to freelancers, but there are those who decide they will pay a fair wage when confronted professionally and convinced that you are worth the payment.


I was impressed with an art student I met at a Phoenix, Arizona art school where I was a guest speaker. She had the swagger, but without the attitude. Her portfolio was expensive and professional, well put together, like a book and not a mish-mash of sloppy samples just thrown in. Her outfits were always well put-together, her cards, stationery and website were clean and beautiful, and she spoke with a confidence that made me think she was an older student and not someone right out of high school. She was set apart from the other students and she obviously didn’t care. She had her target of success in sight. She is a very rare example of an art student who has it so together, but doesn’t step on others to elevate herself.

We’ve remained friends and I’m fascinated by her quick rise to success. I wasn’t the same way in art school. It took me years and plenty of hard and painful lessons to find the right balance of ego and attitude. If I could summarize the lessons I’ve learned to ooze success, even when times are tough, as they can be for all of us, they are these:

  1. Don’t get cheap with your brand! Your brand is the first impression of your professional standing.

  2. What matters is a satisfied client and your opinion of yourself and your abilities. Ignore what other designers think. They don’t pay your bills.

  3. Negativity is a drain of valuable energy. Worry about your career, and not the careers of others.

  4. Don’t brag, but don’t shrug and talk your work down either.

  5. Always smile at a client and never take an insult of a bad offer personally.

  6. Never lose your cool! Look at every situation as a test of your ability to solve a negotiation in your favor.

  7. It’s artwork not artplay! Don’t let clients get that mixed up.

  8. Stand your ground. Walking away from a non-paying, or low-paying project costs you nothing.

  9. Start your first fee offer high. If you agree to a discount, then you won’t lose income and the client will appreciate your flexibility, without losing respect for your professionalism.

  10. Your career is your life! Take it seriously and don’t let your peers sabotage it with their opinions or standards. Misery loves company. Quit that company!


Monday, 26 January 2015


All designers need a little inspiration from time to time. So it’s lucky for us that there are thousands of designers, educators, philosophers, writers, and business people willing to hand out advice for free. What is more, the Web is packed with designers and illustrators who’ve put pen to paper (or finger to trackpad) to render these thoughts as posters, t-shirts, and murals.

From James Victore’s “There are no shortcuts”, to Bill and Ted’s “Be excellent to each other”, there is a wealth of good advice ready to help you out. Today I’ve put together 101 inspirational quotes for designers, covering everything from dealing with clients to getting your priorities straight. There are even a few life lessons thrown in that apply to almost everyone. Even if the quote in question doesn’t ring true for you, the variety of different lettering and typography styles on display is an inspiration in itself. Enjoy!