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Today in business (especially web based business) it’s a challenge to stay on top of quickly-changing markets. Businesses can easily get lost in the mix. You’re forced to keep up, competing on every level (i.e., Social Media Marketing, Website Search Engine results, Networking, Advertising, E-mail Campaigns, etc.). If you’re not doing anything, or showing up in these areas, your competition is. To add to the challenge, consumers are absolutely inundated with information today, especially on the internet. Mobile devices have only increased marketing chaos and it’s on the verge of consumer hysteria. This is increasing every day. How does a business stand out when everyone is standing out? This brings competition beyond the respective industry ring. Businesses not only compete with competitors, but with every single company in existence!

Yet another fact to consider is that consumers are becoming more and more concerned with privacy, and learning how to filter unwanted solicitation. Finding the right balance of how to keep up, stay on top of current marketing strategies, but - not going too far, has become an art form.

A smart approach is not to hunt people down and add to the chaos, but be visible when someone is looking for services. Social Media Networking, Advertising and E-mail Campaigning, should be done on a very consumer-conscious level. We can help.

Web Design Common Mistakes

If you’re a small business owner, your web site is the central hub of your company, and it’s a pivotal part of your marketing and branding.Potential customers visit your web site specifically for its content, meaning its appearance and usability are critical to its success and how those users view your company. However, getting your web design wrong can have a negative impact on your business.

Here are 5 common web design mistakes you must avoid to create a great user experience and grow your bottom line.

1. Poor Web Design Navigation

Many small businesses fail to make navigation a priority, but without careful attention to how people navigate your site, you could unintentionally be creating a frustrating experience for any potential visitor. People visit your site for specific information, and if they cannot find it they will quickly go elsewhere, leaving with the impression that your business is disorganized in more than just its website.

A good navigation structure should be seamless and will keep visitors on your site longer, which means potentially more readers, subscribers, sales or leads — whichever is your primary objective.

Website navigation affects both usability and accessibility, so it’s important to make it a primary concern. Most websites and blogs use common navigational techniques that are expected by the average visitor. The pages and sections of the site should be easy and logical for visitors to maneuver. Don’t make your visitors think about how to navigate your site; it should be effortless and natural.

There are several principles you can follow to create an effective navigation structure:

Use icons to aid navigation. They’re both visually appealing and easy to use and understand. Create logical groups of related links, with the most important links on the top-level navigation bar and functional (dashboard, account, settings, etc.) and legal (copyright, privacy, terms) located elsewhere.

Provide location information so users know where they are on any given page and how to proceed to another area of the website. This can be achieved by using Breadcrumb navigation.

.2. No Clear Calls To Action on a Web Page

The fundamental error of many small business web sites is the lack of a clear call to action. We’ve all seen bland small-business brochure websites with nothing but endless descriptive paragraphs. If you aren’t leading users to commit to an action (buy a product, contact you or subscribe, for example), then you are losing them.

Driving traffic to your website is important, but that traffic is useless if your primary call to action is a plain “click here” link buried in a sea of text. Call-to-action buttons are a great way to grab the user’s attention, and these buttons can be the key to higher conversions. Investing time and consideration into creating successful calls to action can help guide users and address their needs while achieving your own business goals.

It’s important to keep the following best practices in mind when creating an optimal call to action: The design of a call to action can be broken down into 4 simple elements — size, shape, color, and position. Each plays a vital part in determining how effective the call to action is in directing the user.

Don’t make your users work or think, or they’ll leave. It’s not that they aren’t smart, it’s that they want access to information quickly without spending unnecessary time searching for it.

Don’t overdo it with multiple, competing calls to action on every page. Decide what your primary target is and then define a clear objective per page. Your content should have answered, “What’s in it for me?” and your call to action should now answer, “What do I do now?”

People visit your web site for its content, and how that is structured is a huge factor in its success or failure. Unfortunately, an overwhelming number of small businesses get so caught up in overloading the user with information that they overlook how that information is presented.

Most people do not read unless it’s absolutely necessary, and they prefer to scan through information quickly to get to the points of interest. This is why it’s so important to establish a strong visual content hierarchy so users can quickly scan your site and sifting through relevant information. A logical content hierarchy also acts as a guide through each page and creates a more enjoyable user experience.

So when focusing on your content, it’s best to keep in mind these three tips:

White space is possibly the most important factor to consider. It will allow the user to focus on the meaningful content within each section.

Break up lengthy pieces of information into digestible blocks of text, utilizing headings, sub-headings, bullets, blockquotes and paragraphs.

Readable content is important, so use a good line height that is large enough to make content scannable. Margins and letter spacing also need to be taken into consideration.

When talking about content, spelling and grammar cannot be underestimated.

We all know at least one small business web site that seems to include everything but the proverbial kitchen sink. Many small business owners tend to cram as much as they can onto a single page — the end result is a busy, cluttered and unreadable web page.

The more extraneous items there are on a web page, the more unprofessional it looks, and it becomes overwhelming, confusing and distracting for the user. A cluttered website will also affect traffic because visitors won’t return if they can’t understand or follow the content, which leads to low traffic, a high bounce rate and possibly a poor Page Rank.

Clutter also applies to images. Too many can be a huge distraction and just plain annoying. Images should be used to illustrate, capture attention and guide the user where required.

Follow these guidelines for a more streamlined visitor experience:

Challenge every item on each web page and ask, “Does it really need to be there? Does it serve a specific purpose? Can I live without it?”

The key is to aid the visitor in finding the information they’re looking for, so make sure to differentiate between areas of content, advertisements and promotions.

Prioritize your content and decide what is the most important to your visitor and potential customer — and sell it well.

Even the greatest content can become lost in a mess of words and graphics, so de-cluttering is essential.

These are just five web design mistakes that many small businesses make. What other mistakes have you noticed on small business websites?

Color & Contrast in Web Design

Color and contrast aren’t usually high up on the list of priorities for a small business owner when it comes to creating a website. But it should be, because if your web site text does not have sufficient contrast compared to its background, people will have difficulty reading your content, especially people with poor vision or color-blindness.

Aside from plain readability, color and contrast are important because they can be used to create visual interest and direct the attention of the user. It can equally be effective in organizing and defining the flow and hierarchy of a page, and it’s therefore an essential principle to pay attention to during the design process. Here are some tips:

Using a free a Color Contrast tool (which conforms to accepted standards) you can easily check to see how the contrast on your website measures up.

Research how major sites use color and contrast to improve readability and highlight specific sections, and use this knowledge to experiment with color schemes.

One of best ways to enhance contrast is by creating size differences between elements, making some things appear larger than others. This works especially well within a minimal color scheme, and it means you don’t have to necessarily rely on color.

This post originally appeared on the American Express OPEN Forum, where Mashable regularly contributes articles about leveraging social media and technology in small business. http://mashable.com/2011/04/10/5-web-design-mistakes/

Web Design for Non Web Designers

Web Design Fundamentals using XHTML & CSS Mark-up

If you’re reading this, chances are you decided to take on the feat of designing your own website with either a template based application or some type of web design software. Before you get started, here are a few things you may want to consider to help you understand the process.


Everything on a web page is organized in boxes. Without putting content in boxes, text and images would follow a web page’s natural “document flow”. In other words, your content would read from left to right and would expand to fit the width of a given browser size. So it would look like lines and lines of content on the screen. The content would expand or contract based on the browser window size.

An HTML web page is different than working in something like Adobe InDesign or Photoshop. It just doesn’t work the same way, and you need to know this to avoid frustration. You have to set up boxes (commonly known and used as a “div” tag in XHTML) to lay out your web page so it knows where to put content on the page. How you position your boxes (or “div” tags) on the web page will determine your web page layout.Using a combination of XHTML and CSS - the boxes containing your content are formatted onto a webpage. Let me explain…

The content (text and/or images) on your site should be set up in HTML or rather, HTML5. The STYLING AND FORMATTING of how that XHTML content appears, is determined by the CSS markup. The HTML tags give structure to your web page content. Structure should not be confused with styling or formatting which is done using CSS.

Web Design Long Island

Now that the XHTML content is set up in boxes (in this case, “div” tags), we can now position those boxes with CSS mark-up. To better explain CSS mark-up, just think of it as a side-kick of XHTML. The two are used hand in hand. Both compliment eachother to deliver a Web Page Layout.

In order to position each box (div), first, we have to give each div an identity. By giving the box an identity, we can then tell the CSS which box to address.

What we would do first in the CSS, is tell the box/div with the id of “container” to be a certain width, and give it a background color. The CSS would be written in a separate style sheet (external style sheet) and then be “Linked” to the XHTML web page. The purpose of explaining this is not to teach you CSS or XHTML mark-up or best practices– but rather to help you understand how CSS contributes to the style and organization of your XHTML Web Page Design so you are better prepared when working within a template based layout or web software program. Some templates let you edit and/or customize the HTML5 and/or CSS. We hope this has given you a foundation for how the two work and interact.

Long Island - Business Building

Long Island - Business

Long Island, NY is known for it’s beautiful beaches and summer activities. With a population of over 7 million, it makes it the most populated island in the USA. From New York Harbor to Montauk Point, Long Island, NY is also one of the most popular islands in the country. Nassau County and Suffolk County have one of the highest median household incomes in the nation. Historically, Nassau County and Suffolk County have been known for their affluent business and economy. Long Island is also where Hauppauge Industrial Park is, one of the largest industrial parks in the US – employing over 55,000 Long Island residents. Despite this, residents and business owners of Long Island struggle financially. Many younger residents have moved, others commute to work in Manhattan.

The Long Island Association (LIA) Monthly Economic Report, May 2011 by Dr. Pearl M. Kamer – Chief Economist wrote the following:

The Long Island Economy

Long Island is slowly generating private-sector jobs but growth remains confined to industries with a preponderance of low-wage jobs. Regional consumer prices are rising, sales tax revenues have been flat and both home sales and home prices are continuing to decline.

Long Island, NY - Labor Market

Nassau and Suffolk Counties gained only 8,000 payroll jobs in the twelve months ending in March. Job growth was confined almost entirely to health services and restaurants and eating places, a component of the leisure and hospitality sector. These industries contain relatively large numbers of low wage jobs. The government sector is continuing to shed jobs. Long Island’s leading goods-producing industries – manufacturing and construction – are also losing jobs. Relatively high-paying industries like information technology, finance and professional and business services have shown virtually no job growth in the twelve months ending in March.

Unemployment remains a problem on Long Island. Although Nassau-Suffolk’s March unemployment rate was only 7.1% as compared with 7.8% last March, it nevertheless exceeds the current unemployment rate in the northern New York suburbs of Westchester, Rockland and Putnam Counties, 6.6%. An estimated 103,100 Long Islanders were officially designated as “unemployed” in March, which is relatively close to the peak level of unemployment, 121,100, reached in February 2010.

Long Island, NY - Consumers

March sales tax revenues increased by 2.4% in Nassau and by 1.0% in Suffolk when compared with March of last year. Increases in sales taxes barely kept pace with the March regional inflation rate of 2.3%. For the first quarter as a whole, sales tax revenues declined by 1.0% in Nassau, rose by 1.0% in Suffolk and were completely flat for the bi-county area as a whole when compared with sales tax revenues during the first quarter of 2010. Clearly, consumer spending is no longer an “economic driver” for Long Island.

Personal Income on Long Island

Newly-released data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis shows that Nassau ranked third and Suffolk ranked sixth in New York State in terms of per capita personal income as of 2009, which was a recessionary year. Nassau’s 2009 per capita personal income was $61,871 and Suffolk’s was $48,691.

The aggregate 2009 personal income of Nassau County residents was almost $84 billion and the aggregate personal income of Suffolk County residents was almost $74 billion. This puts aggregate bi-county personal income at almost $157 billion in 2009. Nassau and Suffolk Counties, with 14.7% of New York State’s 2009 population, accounted for 17.4% of New York State’s aggregate personal income of almost $909 billion.

Two-thirds of the aggregate personal income of Nassau-Suffolk residents consisted of earned income. Interest, dividends, rents and transfer payments accounted for the remainder of this income stream. Earned income by Long Islanders from employment outside of Nassau and Suffolk Counties contributed substantially to the Long Island economy in 2009. This category includes earned income from jobs in New York City and elsewhere. Such earnings accounted for half of the earned income of Nassau County residents and for one-third of the earned income of Suffolk County residents in 2009. This underscores the importance of well-paid commuters to New York City.

Long Island, NY - Housing Market

Home prices and home sales on Long Island are continuing to decline. The March median price of newly closed homes was $402,500 in Nassau and $305,000 in Suffolk. In the twelve months ending in March, median home prices were down by 3.1% in Nassau and by 1.6% in Suffolk. The number of homes sold declined by 11.5% in Nassau and by 14.2% in Suffolk between March 2010 and March 2011. Home sales peaked in June 2010 as a result of federal tax incentives for first-time buyers. Sales numbers fell dramatically when those incentives expired. It is apparent that the incentives merely postponed inevitable adjustments in the housing market.

The number of Long Island homes entering the foreclosure process, getting auction notices or being repossessed fell 28% in the first quarter of this year when compared with the fourth quarter of last year. Some distressed homeowners may have been able to refinance their mortgages. However, it is equally likely that a backlog of paperwork and problems with foreclosure documentation postponed some foreclosures. Until the foreclosure crisis abates, home prices and sales are unlikely to recover.

Long Island Economic Outlook

In the first quarter of 2011, the Long Island economy was characterized by weak employment growth, flat consumer spending, and declining home sales and prices. These statistics make it apparent that the economic recovery has yet to gain a foothold on Long Island. High gasoline prices act as a tax on the entire economy. If high energy prices persist, the economic recovery will be further delayed. *Information above is an excerpt from LIA Monthy Economic Report, May 2011 by Dr. Pearl M. Kamer, LIA Chief Economist.

Reference: http://www.longislandassociation.org/economic_development.cfm

While the forecast looks bleak, there is still hope for the striving business owner on Long Island. There is still an abundance of money to be made, and plenty of business transactions to close. It’s just a matter of finding it – or rather, letting it find you!

How to Increase Business – Low Costs, High Returns

The web has become a necessary and powerful tool in promoting business everywhere. Knowing how to use the web as a tool for marketing is key. Where to start and what to do is outlined in the 5 steps below.

Web Design

Every business needs a website. It’s your virtual store-front. There are a numerous options available to business owners. The right option for your business will depend on the type of product or service you sell, how big your company is, what your budget is, and the type of functionality you need within your site. For example, ABC Plumber may need just one, two or three pages with an overview, and contact information. The online clothing retailer on the other hand, will be looking to sell a variety of products, and would need a more comprehensive web site with 30+ pages, products, a shopping cart, payment processing, etc.

Pricing for a website can range anywhere from $0 - $100,000+ depending on the complexity and functionality within a site. There are website providers that let you create a template-based website for free. Hosting fees in these cases is minimal (approximately $10 per month) along with a minimal domain registration fee (approximately $15 per year). However, these inexpensive sites usually look that way— inexpensive/cheap.

On the other end of the spectrum, sites for large corporations like Target.com for example – have teams and teams of people managing the security and functionality of their website. Designers, programmers, marketing consultants, among many other specialists are constantly updating and maintaining all the content on the website. Some of these specialists are “in-house” and other aspects of the website are outsourced to a web specialization firm.

For the small to medium size business owner, it makes sense to invest a reasonable amount of money into a website. You can find out more about pricing, and what is considered “reasonable” by visiting - http://www.designquote.net/html/dq_estimate_wizard.cfm

Working with a local company helps so businesses can meet face-to-face.

SEO (Search Engine Optimization)

Ok, so everyone wants to show up first in a Google search. Everyone. And “everyone” is doing “everything” they can to come up in an organic (non-paid) spot.

There are both white-hat and black hat techniques for doing this. Black-hat techniques provide very short-term results and over time, cause more harm than good. If you are serious about long-term search visibility, using white-hat strategies will pay off.

Black-Hat SEO Techniques

  • Creating separate websites just to cross-link
  • Doorway pages (pages viewable to the search engine – but not the user/viewer)
  • Seeking, exchanging or paying for links from other sites, just to increase the number of links back to your site

Using black-hat techniques can eventually lead to a website being banned from search engines all together

White-Hat SEO Techniques

  • Develop good content. That is, content that is authentically useful and relevant for the end-user (not the search engine). This is the most important strategy and should be creatively thought out. There are professionals who “write” specifically for SEO – knowing how to write for the user, as well as the search engine.
  • Set up websites to have the best page architecture, proper XHTML structure using CSS for presentational content
  • Include specific page titles
  • Name links descriptively
  • Include image “alt” attributes
  • A website with truly good content and a great user experience will naturally gather links back to it’s site and increase in search results over time. The goal is to have a site that people genuinely find useful and want to revisit and recommend to others!

A good website designer usually includes the option to set up some type of analytics account to monitor visitor traffic and evaluate website performance.

Social Media Marketing

Social Media Marketing (SMM) is sometimes thought of along the same lines as Search Engine Marketing (SEO) - in the sense that you are trying to increase traffic to your site, and gain web exposure. But in fact, they are complete opposites in how they work. With SEO, you are setting yourself up to be found when someone performs a search. With SMM, you are the one doing the searching and pursuing networks or virtual communities. Both are important.

Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Linked-in, YouTube (among many others) offer an informal way to connect to your market. Developing a plan to connect to your market can provide a powerful way to reach them.

Bulk E-mail Marketing

Many small to medium sized businesses are not aware that sending out promotional e-mails to a large distribution list is not very eas at first. Some think it’s as simple as setting up an e-mail in Outlook and hitting send. There are numerous reasons why this isn’t the route to take. Here are just a few:

1, The “CAN-SPAM Act” prohibits commercial promotions to be sent without explicit permission from the recipient. You must also include a physical address or PO Box somewhere in the message, and you MUST have an easy way for recipients to “Opt-out” of your list. Visit the Bureau of Consumer Protection to find out all the laws in detail.

2. If a recipient doesn’t want to receive an e-mail from you, they could classify your message as “junk”. This process is as easy as clicking the “junk” icon within an email interface. Eventually, e-mail providers such as yahoo, gmail, aol, etc., will start identifying your email address as SPAM. This could result in your email address being blacklisted. In this case, you would not be able to send email to anyone without it being automatically sent to a SPAM folder, if delievered at all.

3. Using an external bulk-email provider, such as: Constant Contact, Info USA or our favorite, MailChimp, is the way to deliver successful bulk-email. External bulk-email providers are pros at sending out high-distribution email. They have established relationships with email providers such as yahoo, gmail, aol and more. They know all the anti-spam laws and set you up to be in full compliance with them. In addition, they provide advanced tracking tools so you can monitor your campaign success. Most providers have features to see how many recipients opened your message, clicked your website url, which messages bounced, etc.

Costs to use an external provider typically range from $0 - $300 per month, depending on how big your list is, and how often you send email. Using an external provider makes e-mail marketing a highly effective way to promote your business.

Building a “List”

Building a legitimate e-mail list takes time! Social media marketing can speed up the process, but the first step is to be sure you have a form on your website (typically found on the “Contact Us” page) that includes a field for the user to submit their email address. There also needs to be a clear statement inviting the user to opt-in to your promotional-based list. Your site should also include a privacy policy. Once the form is set up, you can start your quest to get e-mail address’ through social media promotions (incentives to get users to give them your e-mail address.)

Web Design and Graphic Design 101

Graphic Design 101 - For Small Businesses

We see it all the time. The do-it-yourself ad with text that is bold, red and ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Not to mention underlined with everything on the page being emphasized this way.

This seems to be everywhere. ABC Gutter Cleaning may very well be true professionals at gutter cleaning – but they are not professionals at communicating it… visually or verbally.

Here’s the point… when it comes to marketing and designing communications, it’s worth outsourcing. It’s a long term investment and will greatly impact your reputation and impact on consumers. If you are serious about your business, and competing for the long haul, you’ll do it right from the beginning. However, if you absolutely must do-it-yourself, you may want to consider the following tips when designing your communication materials:

  1. First and foremost, figure out what you need to say – and who you are saying it to.
  2. Emphasis – Give your message structure (NOT chaos) through emphasis.
  3. Contrast – Using the right contrast can really impact your message and add interest. Contrast can be accomplished through size, color, bold to thin lettering, etc.
  4. Balance – A balanced design has equal visual weight throughout the elements on a page.
  5. Alignment – Keep your elements lined up (type, graphics, photos, etc.)
  6. Flow- This is the order that the eye follows throughout the page. Your reader will read through your page in the pattern you have designed.
  7. Repitition! – Repeating an element in your design gives it unity and ties it together.
  8. Images – invest in professional photography. Even if they are stock photos. Images play a key role in your message and have a big impact.
  9. Color – Color choices should enhance and compliment your message. They should reflect the industry your are in, and follow the tone of your message.
  10. Typography – Stick to 2 fonts only. Don’t add any more than this. Typically, your two fonts should contrast (don’t pick fonts that look too similar!) As a rule of thumb, if your header font is a bold sans serif font, then body text should be a non-bold, serif font.

While there are always exceptions to the rules - it’s best to stick to them as closely as possible.

Sources: Tips 1. - 10. : Basics of Design - Layout & Typography for Beginners by Lisa Graham