Thoughts On Closing My Freelance Business

Ever since I made the transition from being a freelance designer developer to a full time writer I’ve been wanting to build another website, specifically for topics about writing and other creative pursuits. I purchased a domain a few years ago, set up a newsletter signup form, and I’ve regularly written and sent an essay every month or so, but I keep putting off launching a full site year after year.

Created by Rico Shen for Wikipedia

In large part it’s because a site will require another commitment to writing that I haven’t been sure I had time for, but it’s not the only reason.

The month or so I’ve been following a conversation via some CSS-Tricks linked articles and thoughts from Chris Coyier about the current complexity of front-end development requirements (see the Resources section below). The conversation reminded me that some of my hesitancy and procrastination in building the new site is due to this growing complexity among other changes in the industry.

Need has pushed me to develop the site whether I want to or not so at the start of the year, I opened the files from my previous attempt to build the site and, unsurprisingly, hesitated for a few days to do much else. At some point I realized I the procrastination had to stop and I needed to dive in and start working.

And then a funny thing happened. As I was working I realized I was enjoying myself more than I expected and I felt a little of the passion I used to have for web design and development work. I had fun experimenting with code to see what would happen and I’ve enjoyed learning a few new things.

I thought I’d offer a short series to share why my excited for building websites faded and why it’s coming back. I’ll begin with some of the things that led to my loss of desire for designing and developing sites and then I’ll share why I think some of the passion has been coming back as I’ve been working on the site again, though it’s coming back in a different way than before.

Why I Stopped Taking on Clients

There were a number of reasons why I decided I no longer wanted to be a freelancer web designer and developer and instead wanted to focus on writing full time. The biggest reason was simply that I enjoyed writing more and received more requests to write for others than to design or develop for them.

However, there were a few other things that all seemed to happen around the same time and made me want move away from front-end development work.

A few years ago I thought the industry started to change and I suspected the part of the market in which I competed was going to be affected adversely and probably go away. Let me make clear I had and have no data backing any of this up. What I had was more a sense from what I observed in my own business and what I was hearing about from others both offline and online. Hardly proof of anything I realize, but still it made me think maybe I it was time for a change.

I was also losing my passion for the work itself. Web development is an industry that naturally changes and quickly at times due to its reliance on technology that can quickly change.

In the end there were four main reasons why I was ready to make the change, at least when it came to the desire to move away from the design and development work I was doing.

  • The Smiling Curve
  • Responsive and flat design
  • The growing complexity of web development
  • Improvements in site builders

Let me walk through each of these and offer a little more explanation.

The Smiling Curve

I started 2015 with a series or articles here that talked about why I was making the transition from designer/developer to writer. I made a business case for the change over the course of four articles.

The idea for the series came from something written by Ben Thompson who analyzes the business strategies of tech and media companies at his site Stratechery. He introduced me to the concept of the smiling curve, which is about the middle dropping out of an industry and the profits moving to the endpoints. The curve looks like a smile, hence the name smiling curve.

As profit moves from the center to edges it moves towards companies and individuals who can take advantage of scale at one end and scarcity at the other.

I extrapolated the example to my kind of freelance business and surmised that scale meant learning how to work with services like Squarespace, Wix, and WordPress.com and that scarcity meant having the aesthetic or programming chops to stand out and do things no one but you could do. You and your particular skills would be what’s scarce.

I figured freelancers like myself (those serving micro-businesses of one to five people) would either need to show off their aesthetic skills (while also being able to deliver user-friendly, functional designs) or learn how to work with the site builder services.

I had no interest in the latter and didn’t feel I had the ability to become good enough at the former, certainly not fast enough to maintain and attract clients. I didn’t think my business had a future at either end of the curve, which suggested another line of work.

Responsive and Flat Design

When it comes to the “standing out through your aesthetic brilliance” end of the smiling curve, I have to take a detour and talk about responsive and flat design. Both were common topics of conversation within web design and development circles at the time of my decision.

The most common topics were whether or not responsive and/or flat design were ruining the web by removing design aesthetics and leading to boring copies of boring designs. To me it was part of a cycle of back and forth between aesthetics and functionality that continues to occur.

With so many new and different sized screens in existence, responsive design (or something very much like it) was inevitable. It’s now a new standard for what’s minimum and viable in websites. Your site needs to work across devices first. The aesthetics can come later so the thinking goes.

Similarly flat design stripped away a lot of aesthetic details in favor of something more minimalist that make use of design fundamentals instead of ornamentation. The shift is a fairly common one through design history and new technology initially leads to skeuomorphic representation of the old in the new to help people adjust until such a time as it’s no longer necessary and is replaced by something less skeuomorphic.

Both lessen the immediate importance of design aesthetics, that thing I said where we can profit through the scarcity of our skills. They also elevate the development side of websites. Developers may not have felt like they had the skills to come up with enticing illustrations and the like, but they could certainly organize information in a grid and add background colors to rectangles and similar.

The shift back to design fundamentals opened up who could design a site. Graphic design fundamentals aren’t hard to grasp and even with a few guidelines your designs can look professional.

I suspected then that for a time the industry was going to be solving more development problems instead of design problems in part because those were the more pressing problems of the moment and in part because more reliance on developers meant developers would have greater influence over the design side of things. Nothing wrong with that, but since I’m more interested in the design side, it was another push for me to transition away.

It’s very likely that in time things will reverse. In time people with limited design skills will wonder why their sites don’t stand out or are difficult to use or can’t deliver a consistent message and all the other things quality design can do, but I think for the foreseeable future there’s still going to be a greater need to solve development problems.

Resources

Here are some of the articles that led me to think about all of this again.

Closing Thoughts

Let me stop here and pick this up again next week. There are two more reasons for why I moved away from a freelance design and development business that are probably having a greater impact now than a few years ago, namely the growing complexity of requirements for entry into the field and the continued improvements of site builders.

I’ll close the series the week after by talking about the positive side and how I’m regaining some passion as I’ve at last been working on a site again.

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