Looking at 2020 through a crystal ball

So, how are things in your world after 2020?

Wow. It’s hard to believe I’ve been radio silent on my blog approaching 4 years. Such is life with family, employment, business, and all the other endeavors planned and otherwise that fill up one’s days. This is a quick post to update all five of my readers. Thanks for checking in!

How are you doing these days?

Are you as busy as I am? Are you as jumbled, stressed, blessed, distracted, productive, anxious, and hopeful as I am? I hope you are. No, that’s not right…I hope you’re managing better than I am. Today is just as good a day as any to evaluate where you are and how you’re managing things. The one consistent factor running through all of the days of your life is not always obvious — it’s you. No matter how powerless we feel or how untamed the path that life has taken, each individual is the one carving that path. It’s a good idea to take an honest inventory of that person you see in the mirror.

Hindsight is 20/20.

AJ Design was one of the best things to occur in my life, certainly in a professional context. I shied away from following my dad’s footsteps in medicine (even though the joke in my childhood was that I was a chip off the ole’ block or a clone of my dad). Maybe I was lazy, or maybe I just lacked ambition. One of the conscious ideas I held as a teenager and young adult was that I didn’t want to work all the time. I reasoned that I would rather have 40 working hours in a week with an income of $30,000 versus a 60 hour work week and $60,000 (those were late 1990s dollars, mind you). Among the things I didn’t account for are:

  • How tough it is to raise a family on a humble to modest income.
  • How tough it is to unplug from work when you enjoy what you do.
  • How difficult it is to say “no” when there are plenty of rewards dangled in front of you just on the other side of “yes.”

My spotty career path prior to AJ Design was the perfect preparation for a successful self-employment venture. The lack of income and stability equipped me with a solid work ethic that helped my business thrive.

What I’ve been up to lately.

Anyone whose been a client of mine probably already knows this, but let me just state for the benefit of anyone else. I networked into a job opportunity with Savannah Lakes Village in McCormick, SC in the fourth quarter of 2017. I wasn’t really interested in a job. I decided to send in an application and thought I would just take a look. To my surprise, I was called for an interview. It was a series of green lights from there, and the rest is history. I’m marking 4 years of service at Savannah Lakes this week.

Website hosting? Yes. New projects? Maybe.

I’m able to continue offering website hosting and management for my clients. I also have a limited amount of availability for small-scope work. My default posture is that I’m not able to take on anything urgent or large in scope, but I might be able to assist if things line up just right. No matter the changes in my career, one thing hasn’t changed: I’m always up for a chat to learn about what someone needs and point them in the right direction.

The future is bright.

Can you believe it? I didn’t mention ©0?|D to this point (except in the indirect, glancing way found in the second paragraph, and I think that’s about right. The details of our circumstances occasionally have great importance for our lives. More important than the direction the wind blows or the way the circumstances unfold, our lives are guided by our principles and the shape of our character. I am far from confident in my own abilities as “general manager” of the universe, my home, or my individual life. But I know who holds me firmly in his grasp.

Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands!

~ Moses in Psalm 90

continuous improvement cycle

Continuous Improvement: Not an Option

We all like to think that we’re doing the best we can. At the same time, almost all of us can look at work we did 5 years ago and think, “Wow, I am doing things much better now!”

The example that comes to mind is the way I’ve handled contact forms on websites. I was thrilled that my primary website theme developer incorporated a contact form into the theme. That meant I didn’t have to fiddle with third-party contact form plugins. Fewer plugins, less to maintain…it was a win all around. What I found out eventually (as in 5 years later…) is that Gmail and other email providers have evolved and become more secure. Messages fired off using PHP Mail from a web server now have a lot less chance of being successfully delivered. The status quo for email has been, “Email is inherently insecure. Don’t trust it.” But innovators like Google have refused to accept that status quo. Messages that are sent the same way lazy spammers send them are now likely to be considered spam, even if they are legitimate.

This was a fairly complicated problem that I had to solve for a few clients and projects. It was a huge headache, and I was thrilled to arrive at a solution that met their needs. One thing I failed to do, however, was take that knowledge and apply it to my own site and other clients’ sites who likely had the same trouble.

The Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle is not new. Business thought leaders from Seth Godin to Peter Drucker to Kanban Master Josette Russell have written volumes on the subject. In my business, it’s been a lot easier to Do, Check and Act than to Plan. And it’s a whole lot easier to go through Plan, Do, Check, Act one time rather than on a continuous basis.

Here’s to remembering that business is an infinite game. The best solutions a couple of years ago might still be the best. But there might be a better approach available today.

Price vs. Value

Low Price Leader?

In my opinion, one of the worst habits I hear some new business owners express has to do with pricing. When a business owners aspires to lead with low prices, here’s what I hear:

  • I don’t understand what I’m worth.
  • I don’t value my time.
  • I haven’t researched what my service or product actually costs to provide.
  • I don’t expect to be a long-term player in the market.
  • I prefer to be really busy and I don’t really care whether that busyness is productive or profitable.

To be fair, there are circumstances and industries where an established leader has become monopolistic and they are making an excessive profit. It can be a legitimate strategic aim to enter the market at a lower price point when the cost and capital structure allows you to do so while still generating a profit.

Low Pricing Usually Isn’t a Strategic Advantage

The overwhelming majority of small businesses and startups should NOT aspire to lead with deep discounts or enter the market with a lower price point than the competition. You may be inclined to do some sort of grand opening event or have a giveaway. But please don’t succumb to the self-defeating instinct to drop prices drastically to grab attention!

If you don’t want to lead with a lower price, what should you do?

There is more than one way to arrive at a sustainable, profitable price structure. Here are some ideas:

  • Study your competitors’ pricing. If you have a concrete reason why your cost structure or value offering is fundamentally different from theirs, then adjust the pricing accordingly. If not, and especially if your competition has been in business for more than two or three years, consider just mirroring their pricing.
  • Explore data from the Small Business Development Center. The SBDC in Greenwood, SC has a wealth of local industry data. It may not be relevant to all businesses and all industries (this is especially true for emerging industries or specific niche businesses). But industry data from your market can be a clue as to what you should charge.
  • Take advantage of trade association resources. The Graphic Artist Guild publishes their Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines each year. It includes price ranges based on national survey data. It also has guidelines for calculating hourly rates and other price mechanisms. Perhaps there is a similar resource in your industry?

There you go. The next time you feel the itch to drop the price to get the sale, remember this post. Do NOT fall prey to the lure of lower prices! Instead, work to establish fair pricing and fair value for the price.

Dutch Oven catering promo card

Take It and Run With It: What I Want Clients to Do with the Work I Create for Them

My family and I enjoyed a Saturday out at the Abbeville Spring Festival last week. The weather in the morning and afternoon was positively perfect! It was almost nippy when we arrived, and it was comfortable even in the afternoon sun. As the sun dipped into the horizon, a front blew through. We saw a few raindrops as we were trying to decide where to eat. As the weather rolled in, we quickly shifted our preferences from festival fare to any place with a roof. Thankfully, we were a short walk from The Dutch Oven.

We were seated at a table in the back room, and I was thrilled to see that Ivan was still getting use out of the menu layout I did for him. That project was early in my business (it was invoice #4, dated 11/25/2011). The owner has barely even asked for help with his menu since 2011. I think he needed a hand updating prices once, but there has been zero revenue from The Dutch Oven’s menu since I created it. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Major Point #1: I don’t begrudge the fact that my client is fully using what I provided for him. I intended for him to be able to use the design once I was finished with it.

<sales-pitch>The meal was everything we expected. If you haven’t eaten at The Dutch Oven in Abbeville, SC, give it a try sometime soon. Really, make plans soon.</sales-pitch>

During the meal, I noticed a small table-top display next to the napkin dispenser. It was a well-crafted postcard in an acrylic holder:Dutch Oven catering promo card

I noticed the images right away. They were from a shoot I did for Ivan about a year ago in efforts to create some content for his new website. And yes, I ate most of what I shot! Mmmmmm.

So Ivan hired me for some photos and his website. I agreed to provide rights to the photos, and he paid for them. I was happy with the way the website turned out, but I was thrilled to see that Ivan had used the images I captured in a card to promote his catering service.

Major Point #2: When you purchase the rights to use images, use them. That’s why you paid money for them. Put them on your website (if you secured permission for that). Use them in print ads (with permission). Use them on social media (if that’s what your license allows). Use them.

So there you have it. I’m happy when my clients need me. I’m just as happy when they don’t need me and they are extending the life of the things we’ve worked to create for them. Take it and run with it, Ivan.

Of course this “take it and run with it” admonition only applies when you have paid for the taking and the running. If it’s rights-managed photography or some type of single-license software or website, please do NOT take it and run with it outside the bounds of your agreement.

Good Web Hosting Matters

I never aspired to be a web hosting reseller.

It’s true. In fact, I never aimed to design websites for clients. My first commercial WordPress site was something my client had to twist my arm to have me do. It worked out because I had to twist her arm to let me design a logo for her.

This is what the website part of my business felt like then:

That was five years ago this summer. I have learned so much since then. It’s hard to believe how much time has passed and how quickly it has gone by. The world has changed since then. My business has changed. And believe it or not, my clients’ businesses and organizations have changed.

This is what the website part of my business feels like now:

While I didn’t really aspire to be a web designer or a hosting reseller, I have always aspired to do good work. I want the things I do for clients to provide clear value. I even want to provide long-term value. So instead of rolling on with the status quo, I’m starting to rethink the way I’m managing websites to better serve my clients.

Here are a few things I’ve learned in the last few months as the realities of being more or less responsible for 45+ client websites settle in:

  • Websites can be fleeting. As permanent and stable as we wish them to be, they are still temporary. And even when they are static, they are dynamic. WordPress updates are released. There are updates to themes and plugins. It takes a decent amount of work, over time, for a website to remain available — even if the owner of the site never wishes to change it. In addition to that, in fewer than five years, I’ve already seen the business cycle and organizational consolidation result in shutting down websites.
  • Websites can be fragile. This is true because website are, by nature, held out to the public Internet. And the Internet can be a very harsh environment. If the sites of giants like Amazon and Facebook stumble through occasional downtime and problems, be assured that your identity website with a desired reach no bigger than your ZIP code will take a beating. How much more sites with national aspirations? It’s not so much that sites are delicate; the hazards are just relentless.
  • Websites can be frustrating. It’s a challenge to cling the search ranking mountain. It’s hard when you need x amount of traffic and you need to convert y% of those visitors in order to keep the lights on. It’s mind-numbing to find spammy links pop up out of nowhere on your site. It’s a hassle to forget where things are and get locked out of your own site. Yes, it happens!

Websites are still worth the headache.

Despite the challenges, most businesses and organizations find their website to be a critical part of communicating their identity to the world. A site with even a modest amount of traffic can result in thousands of impressions every year. For small businesses in a local market, there usually isn’t a more efficient marketing option.

Since websites are so important to my clients, they have become important to me. Instead of slapping together one or two sites once in a while, website development has grown into a substantial percentage of my business. While it made sense at one time to have a hands-off approach to domain name and hosting, I’m now re-evaluating how I’m doing everything concerning website hosting and management. I expect I’ll be providing clients significantly more value in the area of hosting. Will it cost more? Probably. But it will be worth it.

My clients have been so good to me over the years. They are worth my best efforts and the best solutions I can offer.

I’ll post again as I solidify my plans for a better hosting configuration.

Adobe Creative Cloud 2017 Release Splash Screens Roundup

2017 Adobe Creative Cloud Splash Screens

Adobe Released a Major Update to Most Creative Cloud Apps

Adobe just released major updates for the flagship Creative Cloud apps including Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and others. The apps receiving updates also received new splash screens. Super critical, right? No. But they are almost always good conversation fodder for designers! If you’re curious about the art Adobe selected for the splash screens, scroll on down. But first, let me give you some brief information on what I experienced when I updated.

My Experience Upgrading to the Latest Apps in Adobe Creative Cloud 2017

I’m using a 2015 MacBook Pro with 15″ Retina display. Here is my system information:


My initial upgrade action involved clicking “Update All” in the notification within the Creative Cloud app. I noticed that the progress indicator for Photoshop froze at 84%. I found this article that instructed me on the process to fix my hung-up installation. Before I knew it, I had removed ALL my Creative Cloud applications. Scary!

Thankfully, it wasn’t painful or time-consuming to reinstall the Creative Cloud desktop app and install the new 2017 applications. And everything works so far. The installation process even preserved my saved workspace in InDesign.

And now, here are the new splash screens.

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway…) that these images are the intellectual property of Adobe and the artists who created them. They are provided here as reference and are for review only.

Adobe Photoshop 2017 Splash Screen

Adobe Photoshop 2017 Splash Screen

Adobe Illustrator 2015 Splash Screen

Adobe Illustrator 2015 Splash Screen

Adobe InDesign 2017 Splash Screen

Adobe InDesign 2017 Splash Screen

Adobe Dreamweaver 2017 Splash Screen

Adobe Dreamweaver 2017 Splash Screen

Adobe Audition 2017 Splash Screen

Adobe Audition 2017 Splash Screen

Adobe Premiere Pro 2017 Splash Screen

Adobe Premiere Pro 2017 Splash Screen

Adobe After Effects 2017 Splash Screen

Adobe After Effects 2017 Splash Screen

Adobe Experience Design 2017 Intro Screen

(There is no true splash screen like the rest for xD…it just displays a start panel with a video. Here is a still.)

Adobe Experience Design 2017 Start Screen

Adobe Animate 2017 Splash Screen

Adobe Animate 2017 Splash Screen

Adobe Character Animator 2017 Splash Screen

Adobe Character Animator 2017 Splash Screen

Adobe InCopy 2017 Splash Screen

Adobe InCopy 2017 Splash Screen

A Blog Post About Not Blogging Enough

I’m composing a post about how much I write for my blog. Or how much I don’t write. Yep, I’m blogging about not blogging enough. Okay, I really just got tired of seeing the latest post in the most recent slot, knowing it was old news and knowing that it wasn’t really compelling. So maybe a quick cathartic rant — laced with a little bit of empathy and encouragement — is just the ticket! Need a new blog post? Write one about not writing. That’s a very Jerry Seinfeld thing to say, is it not?

JUST DO IT! MAKE YOUR DREAMS COME TRUE!No, the irony isn’t lost on me.

So what do you do when you know you ought to blog but you can’t find the time? Well for starters, here’s some encouragement from Shia LaBeouf.

How Much Do YOU Need to Blog?

Maybe a better approach is to ask yourself, “Self, do I need to blog all that much?” The metrics on blog frequency and successful lead generation are a ridiculous burden for most small businesses to bear. I recall one article shared on the Fuel Your Photos Facebook group showing through data that  the most successful companies publish more than 16 posts per month on their blog (!). That may be realistic for several types of businesses, especially those with a business-to-consumer mode of operation and those who have someone with a full-time responsibility for marketing. However, in my experience, 16 posts would be a good year in blogging for most small business websites.

By the way, Corey Potter is an amazing wealth of insight and information concerning SEO and marketing. Check out Fuel Your Photos on their website and their Facebook group. It’s geared toward photographers, but I have found the information to be applicable to pretty much any small business.

More Is Better, Right?

Anyone with a website and a blog knows that more content, more traffic, more conversion is always better. It’s the lure of productivity. There is certainly a point at which more web traffic (and more blog posts that give a place to that traffic) is a good thing. But let’s look at a reminder from Sabrina:

More isn’t always better, Linus. Sometimes it’s just more.

But to be honest, from a SEO perspective, it’s better to have more instances of your keywords and your message occurring in the index. SEO algorithms are somewhat unintelligent in that they generally equate quantity to authority. For example, the more I blog about business friendly graphic design, the more the search engine considers me to be an authority on the subject. The organic results from Google, Bing and Yahoo would agree.

Reaching for An Excuse — and Hope

Okay, you got me. I’m not really making a case for blogging less. I’m just reaching for an excuse to justify how I could possibly be content with such an infrequent and irregular blogging frequency. Yep, that’s pretty much it.

But really some businesses do okay not blogging once a week or once every two days. But a target like once a week is a good thing. If you mess up and only do half that much, over the course of the year you’ll have 26 blog posts. And if you do a good job of staying on message while learning just a little bit about SEO, your website will have at least 26 more opportunities for people to find your content and maybe become interested in what you offer. Ah, there’s the hope.

And here’s a little real-world example of how this plays out: I was inspired to create a new post about 9:42 a.m. I said, “I wonder if I can knock this out by 10:00 a.m.?” That didn’t happen. It’s 10:24 a.m. and I’m not quite done yet. But I’m about to hit the Publish button, and I’m only about a half hour over what I aimed at. Not too shabby.

If you strain for a goal that’s beyond what you think possible, you’ll do more than if you simply don’t try.

When you’re ready to “try” but need some direction, contact us. AJ Design can help you get started with a blog, website, or ecommerce platform.

Featured Photo credit: Thom

Three More Reasons to Love Shopify for Small Retailers

We love implementing Shopify for small retailers. It was so good a few years ago that it was a slam dunk for most small-ish retail businesses that want to sell online. It’s still that, but it’s even better today. And AJ Design is a Shopify Partner with a growing base of small retail clients using the system.

Here are three quick new reasons for retailers to love Shopify even more:

1) Amazon.com Integration

Shopify is working on some seamless integrations with Amazon. Users will be able to log in with their Amazon account, and eventually Shopify merchants will be able to sell via Amazon.com. This is big. Amazon is huge, and many small retailers may not feel they have any opportunity to compete with Amazon. Shopify is taking the bull by the horns and enabling their merchants to reach that massive customer base. Don’t try to beat Amazon. Let them do what they do best, and you keep doing what you do best. And when this integration is mature, you will have the opportunity to gain sales within the Amazon market. Read about what Shopify is planning here.

2) TaxJar

Filing sales tax isn’t too tough if you don’t mind working with the month’s order data in a spreadsheet and doing some math. But that’s something not practical for everyone. TaxJar simplifies filing sales tax. You might want to look into it if sales tax is a dread for you. Learn about TaxJar in the Shopify App market.

3) USPS Shipping Integration

If you ship a lot with USPS, the new USPS integration will help you save time and money. Remember when PayPal, eBay and USPS were integrated and you could print shipping labels directly from within eBay? Yeah, it’s that cool. Read more about Shopify’s USPS integration here.

If you are looking for someone to help you establish a Shopify website or POS system — or better yet, bothcontact AJ Design. Implementing Shopify for small retailers is a joy for us, and we are excited for the growth it brings to our clients.

Designer Responds to Apple's Decision to Drop Helvetica for San Francisco in iOS 9

One Designer’s Response to Apple’s Decision to Replace Helvetica in iOS 9

I wasn’t really excited about iOS 9, but I decided to install the update anyway. There are some nice new features, really. And it is pretty cool that my iPhone now matches the Apple Watch. But as soon as it was installed and I was moving in, I knew something wasn’t right. Helvetica was gone.

It took me a while to come around to Helvetica, but I’ve come to count on it. I know it’s used too often and with as little thought to typography as the elementary school teachers and healthcare professionals who use Comic Sans. But once Helvetica was the system font on iOS, it just seemed to fit. I think it worked very well, personally. I will miss it.

As a cathartic tribute to the typographic fixture that is Helvetica, now conspicuously supplanted by San Francisco on iOS 9, I submit this open letter to Apple.

Designer Responds to Apple's Decision to Drop Helvetica for San Francisco in iOS 9