Build me a website for £500

Freelancing, Guest Posts

17 November, 2011

Posted by Dan Edwards


I'm going to say right now that I do not plan on giving any tips for designing a website for £500. So, if you are here for that you may as well leave, or visit 1&1, your choice.

Recently I posted on Twitter about having to decline a recent client project because they had no budget and wanted to use a purchased theme and customize it with their logo and colour scheme. Not so bad right? The budget was ok and it probably wouldn’t take long… WRONG. Let me tell you why I turned this project down.

What’s wrong with using a theme if the client is happy?

I started out in web design as a part time freelancer, while working in-house for a design agency and studying at Chichester College. At the time if I’d been given £500 to use a theme and simply customise it I’d have jumped at the chance. Not because I was desperate for money but as a designer I could not build websites, nor could I afford to hire a developer. Also, I had no office, no car or bills to pay and heck it would be a good portfolio piece. In fact I even did this for a couple of sites when I started off, they went live, the client was happy and I got paid. #WINNING #NOT

3 years down the line and I’m re-designing my site; I take a look through my projects over time and choose what I feel best shows off my ability as a designer, and amongst the various sites I did at that time sit a couple of theme-based sites, they look fine, work fine, still live 3 years later. But I chose not to feature them, not because I don’t want to admit I used a theme but because I’m not PROUD of them, they don’t get me excited and they do not represent the business I run today.

Standards & ethics have to be in place for any business, that’s not to say that ‘one price fits all’ or that low-budget work should be rejected but why should any designer feel that just because a client has a low budget that his standards and ethics should suddenly become compromised? You wouldn’t expect to ask a plumber to fix your central heating but suggest buying all the piping and bolts yourself to make it cheaper, would you? The plumber has standards, more importantly he has standards that he has to abide to by law.

We’re lucky that we can set our own standards and run our business how we want, but we should definitely stick to them.

Unlike almost any other industry web design has no government law in place to ensure that certain standards must be met. Ok, that’s probably a good thing, there is no way I’d want to be in that industry. We’re lucky that we can set our own standards and run our business how we want, but we should definitely stick to them.

There will be many designers ready to argue that “we’re not all lucky enough to turn away client work”. I totally get that, I’m not sitting here running a mega successful design agency with time to kill and no worries. November is a quiet month, heck, I even have time to write this blog post. I should be worried right? Maybe I should have taken that project?

In my honest opinion – No –  It’s not about ‘design arrogance’ or being too proud to build on someone else’s work. But I set standards for a reason, I believe in my skill and want to be respected for that. Where does that respect for you as a designer go when you deliver that theme-based site, it goes to the guy that built it and sold it to me on ThemeForest. Yeah I’ve got good feedback from my client for being a great service provider, but will he be telling his friends that I’m a super talented designer delivering results or  “Hey, if you need a website speak to Dan, he built me a site for £500 and it’s great” BANG there went the respect as a designer again, yet another project is now coming my way with no budget and I’m not growing as a business, gaining or learning anything.

I am a firm believer in that if you produce good work and are reliable, you’ll get the projects come in and then be lucky enough to be able to turn down the low budget projects that let’s be honest, you never really wanted anyway.

Of course, there is no point in arguing that the large majority of themes are bad, and that they shouldn’t be used for client work. Some themes out there look great and serve their purpose fine, in fact for many blog based sites they do the job very well. It’s using one just because the client has no budget, no understanding of how much design costs and the work involved. They want a quick and cheap solution ‘to get online’.

No one really wants these clients, but many websites actively encourage it (perhaps unknowingly), I even saw a website template package offering a template with ‘space for your logo’. Seriously, that is the least I would expect from a website I’m buying. So how do you avoid falling into this trap?

A few things that I’d recommend avoiding

Price Lists / Tables
Why are these needed? No 2 clients are the same, no 2 projects are the same. Get rid of them. They also devalue our industry, when a client compares 2 companies with no idea of the vastly different quality each will provide, they’ll naturally go with the cheaper option. This might be good for their budget, but it’s not good for the web as a whole and likely not good for the users of their new £500 site.

Website Packages
I’m talking about your Silver, Gold & Platinum offers. Nasty, nasty things. No matter how much flexibility you put in your offers, you’re never going to satisfy everyone, so why try?

Don’t Lie
Sounds simple but if you use WordPress for your clients, be proud and tell them don’t cover it up with jargon like “We’ve developed a system, based upon a solid foundation by an open-source CMS” WTF!? All this does is confuse your client and make you look like a dishonest person. The last thing you want is to be called a liar!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, and welcome any questions just add your comment below.


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  • Joanna Eyre


    Really interesting Dan. I previously had the misfortune of taking on a project which was ‘just to install a pre-built theme and change a couple of things’ which turned into a 6 month nightmare of basically re-coding and re-doing everything about the theme that the client didn’t like. Not to mention the coding was absolutely horrific. How anyone can take WordPress and make it un-user friendly is beyond me.

    Anyway, I totally agree… not everyone has the luxury of turning down projects, but I guess just weigh up the pro’s and con’s, and if you are going to take on the project check out the coding first so you know what you’re getting into!

  • Steven Piper


    Nicely put Dan.

    It is difficult for some younger start ups to decline *any* offer of paid work, but in this industry you have to have your morals and your standards, otherwise you have nothing. By simply taking on any work not only do you devalue yourself but you also tie up your time which you could spend looking for a paying customer.

    And yes, this is from experience. The first website I designed and built I charged £100 for – not a lot of profit in that one.

  • Carl Robinson


    Interesting theory and had you not balanced it out well, I think it could have been mistaken for design arrogance.

    But what you have here is a compelling ‘business case’ for declining these types of roles; as you say, if your objective were to be the tiptop purveyor of such projects then you probably could move into this area. However, yours is about creating bespoke websites because it’s what you’ve come to be most skilled at and ultimately from where you want your income.

    In actual fact, I should imagine that as a developer (I’m not but I think I can understand the workflow in theory) that if you do cook your staple diet from lean, lowcost websites, then your evolution as a developer is stagnated; the desire for enhancement, improvement, the pushing yourself into realms unknown will never be there. I should imagine most successful developers are such because they’ve continually ‘pushed boundaries’ within their capabilities. With each brand new bespoke solution, comes another skillset.

  • Author

    Dan Edwards


    @Carl Robinson – You are totally right, it’s in no way about design arrogance but simply that for my business to grow in the way I want it to I need to set standards.

    This should apply to any business. Whether you are a developer, designer, copywriter or social media guru, your standards need to be in place to ensure a level of quality work that you are happy to share and be proud of.

  • Shane Hudson


    You have hit the nail on the head with this one! If you are doing work for cheap, it will hurt in the long time. I still get emails every few days asking for some work done… and sure, a few pound here and there would help, but it is not worth it!

    As you know, I cannot stand working from themes… because not only does it not make you as proud, but also everybody has their own way of doing things. Their way might be perfectly fine, but if you cannot adapt to it.. then the final product will be at a much lower standard.

    Well done for this article Dan! I actually have one planned that will probably work perfectly alongside this one… but I have work to do first!

  • Sam


    Fair enough, but not everyone who builds websites sees them as ‘works of art’ – sometimes they are just functional, content rich and simple websites which perform well in the main measurable areas such as conversions, usability etc.

  • Rich


    Great article, great responses…

    The power of the web is "sharing".

    The only reason WordPress, Joomla and the other open source CMS exist is their dedication to sharing. In 2003 I had a design agency and we used propriety purpose built CMS for our clients with large license fees. The license fees covered the cost of version updates and general maintenance on the CMS.

    In just a few short years open source CMS providers have become so fantastic that they have become the default choice over paid for CMS. There is still a requirement for paid for CMS but the majority of the market now goes to the open source CMS due to price (or lack of) and quality of product.

    You are right, there are no qualifications for a designer… Everyone ‘thinks’ they can design… Or they have a "mate" or "friend of a friend" or family member that might have Photoshop on their laptop… This is true for small businesses and massive PLC’s in my experience (just different amounts of money involved). The fact is a lot of people have a good eye… But it takes experience and past knowledge to know what is right for a particular situation, system or process.

    Even by using an open source CMS like WordPress you have lumped yourself in with the masses that are "working from a template" – but that is not an insult… That is the power of the Internet… The power of sharing!!! That’s why Facebook has just been valued at $66bn… Sharing!

    At some point apple or another bright spark will bring out FREE easy to use adobe creative suite and it will bring design to the masses… The world will still need designers but it will allow everyone to design…

    From ratatouille "anyone can cook" – a cook can come from anywhere, but not everyone can become a great cook.

    In summary, do what you do best, don’t reinvent the wheel but make your wheel better…

    Don’t make clients pay for things twice and don’t miss lead them either…

    You are right the cheap jobs become the most time consuming and loathed but that Is down to expectation levels and it’s our job as designers/consultants to educate our clients. Not upsell but educate them.

    Good luck and best wishes :)

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