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Randa Clay On Breaking Barriers

Randa Clay is a 39-year old mother of two noisy boys. She used to be an opera singer too! However, she took a sharp career turn when she left her cozy marketing job six years ago to build a name for herself in the design industry. Now, as a successful designer and web marketer, Randa shares some pro tips in this insightful interview about her passions: web designing and motherhood.

After obtaining degrees in music, you turn to graphic design and marketing, fields which you’ve never studied in college. What gives? How did you get into these fields and more importantly, why?
After attempting to have a career in music for a couple of years, I realized I would be much happier getting a “day job” and pursuing music locally. I ended up getting an entry level job in a marketing department that became my career for the next 10 years. I learned so much during that time about effective branding, marketing, customer service, etc. which have been incredibly helpful as I’ve moved into doing freelance work. I made that move after I had my first child, in order to be at home with him. I’ve always been interested in web and graphic design and have been blessed to be able to turn that into a thriving business.

How did you cultivate your design skills? Did you take classes or was it purely self-studied?
I’m completely self-taught. I have several design books that were really helpful in learning the basic design principles. I learned Illustrator and Photoshop through online tutorials and trial and error mostly.

Marketing. What are the kinds of products you usually work on and what do you usually do? How did you acquire your marketing skills?
I don’t do as much marketing consulting as I would like. Mostly, it’s working with clients to tune their message to appeal to their customers. I acquired my skills by working with large retail brands who were very good at marketing their products, as well as attending conferences and seminars as part of my role at the company I worked for.

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How did you get clients when you were just starting out? How do you keep them?
When I was starting out, I offered to do work for friends and acquaintances for free or very cheap, just to build my portfolio. Then as I began working more with WordPress specifically, networking with other designers, blogging and creating free WordPress themes were all key to building my client base.

Keeping clients is purely a matter of exceeding their expectations. I just try to be great to work with and I try to only work with clients who are good to work with as well.

What is your design philosophy? Is it difficult to live by it, say, when clients demand something you honestly think is a bad idea?

It’s my goal to make my clients’ sites as attractive and user-friendly as possible. I believe it’s my job to help them make good decisions. I will tell them if I think something they want is not the best choice and try to persuade, but in the end, it’s their site. I don’t believe I’m here to uphold some high ground of good design. If clients want to make bad choices and insist on them, I’ll do it, but I’m probably not going to work with them a second time because it’s just no fun.

What’s your design process? That is, how do you usually go about creating a website?

After determining the needs of the client and the look and feel they’re going for, I spend some time gathering inspiration and looking through the the sites of their competition if the situation warrants. Sometimes I will sketch or do a wireframe. Then I create a Photoshop mockup and get feedback from the client, tweaking until they’re pleased. Then I slice and dice the mockup and begin coding!

How would you describe your designs? Who is your market?

Describing my design style is surprisingly difficult. Clarity is something I strive for in all aspects. Clarity of message, typography, image – when the visitor arrives they know as quickly as possible what the site is about and they grasp the brand image/message the site is meant to convey. My designs are clean and sharp, with bold use of color as much as possible. My market? Anyone really! I’ve worked on such a variety of sites and enjoy creating things in a variety of styles.

You profess to have a love affair with WordPress. How did it start? Why WordPress?

I started out with WordPress when I moved my old personal blog from Blogger to WP. I already had my main domain, randaclay.com, and was a little frustrated with Blogger’s limitations. I had a great time playing around with the look of that blog, and loved how easy it was to customize. The more sites I create with WP, the more I love it. It will do just about anything, and the range of plugins available that extend it’s functionality further is amazing. I love that it makes it so easy for a non-techie user to run their own site. WordPress is just so user-friendly and well-designed- I love working with it.

What are your pet peeves as a developer?

I hate it when I’m doing modifications to a theme originally created by a real tech-head who put in complexity for complexity’s sake to show how smart they were. It then takes someone like me twice as long to modify it.  It’s sort of annoying to do a project with a client who says at the beginning “I don’t know what would be best. You’re the designer, and I trust your judgment.” Then when I create something for them, suddenly they have all kinds of ideas about what they want, and I have to start over. I understand that for some it’s hard to know what they want until they see it, but it’s still really frustrating.

What do you think is the measure of a good web designer/developer? Is it money, fame, or quietly producing aesthetic yet functional results for happy clients? Would you say you’re a good designer?

A good designer produces creative, aesthetic and functional sites for clients that meet the goal the client is trying to achieve with the site. A site can look great and work great, but if it doesn’t sell anything, it’s not a good design. I think a really good designer is also good to work with. They’re flexible, positive, helpful, and responsive. I’m confident in the designs I create, and feel I’m a good designer, but it’s something that’s a process and is always improving I hope.

People starting out in the field you’re in tend to make a lot of mistakes. What mistakes have you made in the past and how have you overcome them?

Yes, I’ve definitely made my share of mistakes. Early on, I created a couple of sites in Illustrator and used the built-in tool for slicing them up and spitting out the HTML for the site. It works, but creates such ugly code. I waited too long to really learn CSS well. I didn’t realize the importance of validating your code and being thorough in cross-testing sites in multiple browsers. I’ve made the mistake of getting too friendly with some clients and doing lots of freebies until they came to expect MOST things to be free. I’ve learned to discern whether people really have a respect for my time, and avoid time-sucking clients like the plague.

Any tips and tricks you’d like to share with noobs?

Start a blog. It’s the best tool for networking and allowing potential clients to get to know you as a designer and as a person. People like to work with people they feel they know. Don’t spin your wheels a lot with spec work like on 99Designs or other places.

How do you juggle work and motherhood? Does everything beautifully fit in, or is it always a compromise between work and family? I know a lot of developers who spend many a sleepless night and precious weekends slaving over a project. Do you ever get like this?

Juggling everything is a challenge for sure. I’ve learned not to overload myself (for the most part) and that includes learning to say “no” which I have always had a hard time doing. I often work on things in very small increments – whatever time I can steal between the myriad of other things going on. Nap time is great for client calls. I regularly stay up too late, which is not a good thing of course. Like anything you spend time on what’s most important and I have to remind myself not to compromise time with my children for the less important stuff.