Interview with WordPress Web Designer Brian Balla

Brian Balla a WordPress Web DesignerRecently, I had the opportunity to interview Brian Balla. Brian is a WordPress Web Designer located in Portland, Oregon.

In 2009, Brian Balla left a 9 to 5 corporate design position to embark on a career as a freelance web designer and WordPress specialist. Since then, Brian has been able to retain a client roster of over 55 small to medium sized businesses in five states and two continents. With a background in small business, Brian is passionate about helping business owners and scrappy start-ups make their websites work harder for them. From one-page informational websites to complex enterprise level applications, Brian offers his clients expertise in a variety of areas including web design, WordPress development, standards compliance, analytics interpretation, and search engine marketing and optimization.

How did you get introduced to WordPress?

During high school and college, most of my free time was spent either writing or building websites.

After college, my web design hobby went to the “back burner” and laid dormant for several years as I immersed myself in suits and ties and 8 o’clock meetings. Fast forward to the fall of 2006. As I was searching for a restaurant for dinner later that evening, I came across a website with the link “Powered by WordPress = Code is Poetry”. This reminded me of my days designing and developing. I skipped the menu and I followed that link. Fast forward again to several weeks after that. I had fully immersed myself in the world of WordPress and began building and breaking things faster than I could keep track.

After a year of spending time mastering the WordPress system and self-learning PHP, Javascript , improving my design and HTML/CSS skills, I felt I was ready to pursue web design work as a full time career. Through a network of contacts, I was able to attract the interest of a local design firm and was brought on board to serve as a chief designer and SEO specialist. Several years later, and with a wealth of experience, I left to begin my career as an independent freelancer.

What do you like or dislike about WordPress?

From a client perspective, WordPress can pretty much do it all; manage content and media, while providing a relatively easy to use back-end Dashboard. In my opinion, the on-board features included in and out-of-the box WordPress install can meet 90% of a client’s project needs, from well-monied Pearl District philanthropists to gruff Foster Road bar owners. I’ve seen CEO’s and small business underdogs alike get downright excited about the amount of control WordPress allows its users to have over content.

I really like using the WordPress “actions” and “filters” hooks for extendability and advanced customization, and I think WordPress has really done a great job improving on their most used features while retiring the “bloat”.

The template development flow (despite some clutter which arises in documentation from time to time), use of actions and filters, and child themes are some of my favorite, most used go-to features.

My main dislikes are occasional lapses or errors in documentation, but that’s been less of an issue for me as WordPress has made an effort to streamline their library. Needless to say, after you download a free WordPress theme or two, you’ll find yourself thinking that it would be nice to see an official “rule book” for handling the WordPress development process. Sometimes it can seem there are as many ways of structuring your WordPress builds as there are WordPress developers.

How would you compare WordPress to other software in the market place today?

In my opinion, WordPress stacks up really well against similar systems like Joomla and Drupal, but it all depends on what you’re looking for

WordPress allows users to rapidly develop simple blogs or small to mid-tier e-commerce builds, but some find that its disadvantages arise in security (debatable) and a back-end that can get disorganized when publishing a lot of content or hosting large community platforms. When stability is key, some may recommend Drupal or Joomla. Personally, I’ve found WordPress to be as flexible and scalable as I’ve needed.

The bottom line is, whether your goal is to work for a studio or as a freelancer, you’ll want to make sure you fully understand your client’s project requirements and future plans for the website so you can help them decide as to which CMS platform best serves their needs.

What types of Themes and Plugins do you use for WordPress? Is there any particular themes you would recommend verses the others that are available?

I use a custom development framework built from Underscores, Bones, and my own code library. The theme is light-weight, responsive, and enables rapid development for child themes. The three Plugins I install on each fresh WordPress build: Yoast SEO, Better WP Security, and DB Backup.

All themes are not created equal. With the enormous popularity of WordPress comes a groundswell of developers and designers selling their themes in online marketplaces and on their own personal websites. While you can find solid, well-built themes at popular marketplaces like ThemeForest or Mojo Themes, there is the caveat, buyer beware.

Before directing a client towards a pre-build theme, take the time to research reviews, developer feedback, and any support documentation you can access. This can tell you a lot about the reliability of the theme and other users’ satisfaction with it.

Would WordPress be your first recommendation to a client, or is there one you prefer more than WordPress?

The technology depends on the end goal. Is ease of use and flexability a must (usually it is)? If so, then WordPress is a solid choice and my #1 preference for most clients.

As a student at Clark College, do you have advice that you would give to students who are looking to become web designers?

Learn more than just web design. Take business classes and hone your written and public speaking skills. Find ways to divesify your skill set, such as photography, copy writing, search engine marketing, etc.

Set aside time each week to read industry news and articles from professional designers and online magazines. Brush up on a tool or two in Illustrator or Photoshop and get comfortable with typography and user experience fundamentals. Network frequently (both online and offline) and genuinely ask for criticism from your peers and others you respect.

What type of feedback do you receive from your clients when designing a website for their company?

While it’s important to me to ensure that each client is happy with the end product, during the design and development process, there’s a lot of give and take. Sometimes clients are thrilled with every comp and color I come up with. Other times, there’s a lot of back and forth collaboration: deciding on final color schemes, tweaking user experience aesthetics, etc.

In my experience, I’ve found that most clients are concerned with three things, and these three areas provide the crux of most feedback.

  1. Ease of use for website visitors, including straight forward navigation and information that is clear and easy to find.
  2. An aesthetic that is true to their brand and compliments their on and off line messaging.
  3. Ease of website maintenance and the ability to self-manage content blocks without having to look at a piece of code (updating pages/posts are one thing, but take it a step further: clients loves it when you tell them they can update small details such as tagline, graphics placement, and other on-page graphics and calls-to action).

Always build with your client’s goals and requirements in mind. Keep reviewing the proposal to make sure you’re staying on track and within your limitations. Remember, you design for the client, not for yourself.

How long does it usually take to complete a website from start to finish?

It really depends. For a well-organized project with content in place, a good flow of communication, and well defined design and usability objectives, the average build takes me about 50 hours over the course of several weeks. This time frame is for simple, out-of-the-box builds with minimal requirements (no complex forms or features), and this time can vary greatly.

Typically, I’ve found that, from first contact to finished product, it generally takes two months to take an “average project” from concept to “live”. While I may move slower than other designers, you can ask my clients: I’m a stickler for details, both on the front and back end.

Would you like to add any comments or provide further information?

Some say “life is short”. In reality, life is actually pretty long. Stay hungry for growth and learn how to keep ahead of the technology curve by developing new skills and refreshing current ones. Remember to pace yourself; burn out can be a career killer.

Figure out your own way of managing time, stress, and mitigating the responsibilities of your personal life against your professional aspirations.

Web design and development can be an incredibly fulfilling career. Plan your path carefully, stick to it, and be tenacious. The harder you work, the more luck you’ll have.

I would like to thank Brian for taking the time to discuss WordPress with me and taking the time to answer my questions.

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