What key skills does a web designer need to have in order to build a successful web design business? What are the personal qualities that separate those who enjoy their work and get paid well for it, with those who struggle to get by and have poor relationships with their clients?
Being successful as a web designer requires so much more than simply being able to build awesome websites. I would even argue that your ability to design and develop websites is actually further down the list than most would be comfortable to admit.
I’ve been building websites for clients for 20 years. Over that time pretty much every aspect of my personality has changed and grown, and glancing back over the decades it’s clear to me now which skills have been vital in my development. Using this experience I have isolated 11 core personal traits that I believe every professional web designer needs to have.
#1 Having strong communication skills
This is number 1 for a reason: without a good communication skillset you will find it much harder to win web design work, retain existing clients and deal with the fallout when things go wrong. Strong communication is about knowing when to reach out. It’s about wording and framing things in the best possible way. It’s about connecting with others on a visceral level and understanding where they’re coming from.
Yes, being an effective communicator is the hallmark trait of a great web designer.
#2 Being an active listener
This largely falls under the previous point but I feel it deserves its own mention because frankly, most people don’t listen. And I mean, really listen.
In my younger days I would hear what clients were saying but would instantly filter it through my own perception of a situation. This mismatch in understanding often lead to a breakdown of communication and ultimately, things went wrong.
When speaking with prospects, stop talking and listen with intent to the words they are saying. Note down their feelings and concerns and problems, and take time to dwell on it. Don’t try to have all the answers right away: simply observe and empathise with their situation in a nonjudgemental way.
Website development as a freelancer in particular is really tough. Even the most solid business plan is built on ground that is constantly moving, such is the nature of the tech industry. Therefore, it’s important to accept that there are forces outside of your control, and the most talented web designers deal with this by being resourceful.
Resourcefulness is the trait of being curious and looking for solutions in areas that few have ventured. It’s about overcoming challenges using your creativity, and being open to trial and error. For web developers this means synthesising ideas and partial solutions from StackOverflow answers, development communities and tutorial websites. It’s about bringing order to chaos, and working the chaos down into a solution that works for your client.
Being resourceful in website development is crucial to keeping up with the game and making your clients happy.
#4 Being open to learning
There have been many times in my career when I just want the world to stop. It can be downright disheartening when you see major changes to your core tech stack, and simply have to deal with it. Some days, you just yearn for a simple and peaceful life.
But then I read a great book called Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway which posits the idea that there is no wrong path. See, my reluctance to learn was born out of fear: fear of change, fear of failure… fear of going too far down the wrong path.
What this book taught me is that every situation (even the worst) has positive attributes, and so I adopted this idea into my own mindset. When new frameworks are released, when new plugins become available and when the market changes, I now seek the opportunity to learn and grow, where my instinct was once to hunker down on what I already knew. This has liberated my thinking helped me to become much more confident, provide better solutions to my clients and ultimately earn more money as a web designer.
#5 Being assertive
There are broadly three ways that we as humans react to any given situation:
- Passive: things happen to you and you just accept it
- Aggressive: you strongly, and often negatively, react to things happening to you
- Assertive: you confidently respond to things around you in a healthy and productive way.
As you’ve probably guessed, being assertive as a web designer is the skill we want to cultivate. But what does it look like in practice? Assertiveness is a skillset that enables you to feel comfortable in whatever position you find yourself in. If you don’t know the answer to something, a passive person might blag their way through, where an aggressive person might try to change the question. Being assertive means you can confidently say you don’t have the answer. And that’s okay: you can always find the answer later.
Assertive people ooze confidence and are easy to trust. Their level-headed demeanour is also disarming and makes them easy to like. As a web designer, assertiveness is a personality trait you’ll want to develop.
#6 Not being a web designer
A core quality of a web designer is not being a web designer? What?
When I look back over my years in the web development industry it’s clear to see that all the other skills mentioned here are vital. Admittedly, this point is a little meta, but really understanding that you’re not just a website designer is crucial to building confidence in business, trust in clients and offering more robust solutions that you can charge more money for. Practice the mantra that you are not a web designer.
#7 Being solution-focused
Following on from that last point, I recall many times in my younger days when I would try to figure out a client problem, in my head as they were talking to me. This is not the type of solution-focused behaviour I am talking about here! (In fact, it means I was absent in the conversation and not paying adequate attention – see point #2).
Being solution-focused means that you don’t get bogged down in the detail. It means you’re not being dogmatic about technological solutions and you are instead focusing on the business needs. Being solution-focused is the intention of finding the best solution, almost regardless of everything else. This is a rare quality in web developers, because it means lowering your guard and being open to learning (see point #4). Practice it with care, however, as you want to avoid the dreaded situation of over-promising and under-delivering.
#8 Being friendly! 👋
For many people, being friendly in a professional situation is a skillset that must be learned.
As web designers, our work consists of many moving parts, and it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. With tight budgets and difficult-to-manage clients, being friendly often gets forgotten about. You just want to get the job done.
But being friendly is a hugely positive trait and can add a real sense of optimising and trust to your interactions with clients. It will strengthen your working relationship, and make things much easier to deal with if something goes wrong. Yes, as a website developer you should practice friendliness as a core character of your personality.
#9 Having patience
Building any business takes time, there are no shortcuts. And freelance web design is no different. Yes, there is working smart versus working hard, but ultimately what you are trying to do here is build a sustainable business that will serve you for years to come.
And that requires a level of patience that not many people possess. Successful web design business owners recognise that everything takes longer than you want it to: clients don’t sign contracts quickly enough, projects drag on, unexpected challenges occur that you need to deal with… sometimes it can feel like you’re not making progress.
I have felt like this many times, and often still do. To remind myself that things are still moving forward, I’ve simply to look back over what I’ve achieved over the years. Reminding yourself how far you’ve come can be a great coping mechanism for dealing with impatience.
#10 Being perceptive
Being perceptive brings together a number of the web designer personality traits we’ve discussed here. It involves active listening as you study the face of your client as they talk, and pay attention to their mannerisms. It requires not being a web designer as you connect with them on a human level, sharing their desire to solve their problems. And it requires patience, as you gauge the situation to know when to take your foot off the gas.
Perception is all about intuition. Being able to meet your client where they’re at is a vital tool in the web designer skillset, and one that will enable you to understand your client better and ultimately deliver an improved service.
#11 Having resilience
Resilience – being able to weather the storm – is crucial to the success of any businessperson. In the web development industry, we often get tossed about by stormy seas as clients chop and change their mind, and we struggle to keep hold of the situation.
In part, resilience is about accepting change, and knowing that you can handle it. It is about being able to see through the current situation and look beyond it to brighter times.
I once dropped the ball with a client, and though they had made their fair share of mistakes along the way, ultimately I got the blame. I remember acutely the feeling of being told off. I felt like a shamed dog. This awful feeling stuck with me for weeks, and I couldn’t wait to wrap up the project. It was horrible. I did not have the tools readily available to me to deal with it and it affected me badly. I recognised this after the fact and now practice assertiveness and good communication regularly. This helps to build my resilience, and that is why I strongly believe that resilience is a vital characteristic of the professional web designer.
Practice these skills daily to become a better web developer
Take a handful of the 11 points raised here and consciously attempt to practice them daily. Choose whichever resonate the most with you, and adopt them into your life: in conversations, when writing emails, when conducting research and when coding or designing. Use these skills as an opportunity to grow, and you’ll notice over time how much more confident you feel. This, I guarantee you, will be reflected in stronger client relationships, more referrals, better work and more money.