It Ain’t Always that Pretty: Designing for Real Content

I have a confession to make. I love looking at other people’s homes and decor. Not the creepy, spy camera stuff — I mean I love looking at real estate sites, interior design magazines, home furnishing catalogs, lighting shops, bins of architectural thingees — you name it! I get the Crate and Barrel catalog and put little post-it flags on stuff I like and then go to the store to visit them. I sit at tables I like, lie on sofas, recline on chairs, and pretend I’m hosting an outdoor event at an expansive patio dining set. Of course, I live in a tiny Manhattan studio so I can never have any of these things. When I’m feeling particularly devil-may-care I’ll get a set of napkin rings and then spend an afternoon figuring out where to store them. The fact of the matter is that I have the tastes of someone with a big home and money, and the budget and square-footage of, well, someone who doesn’t.

Why am I telling you all this? It’s because I really do understand it when I see designers doing website comps with only the most gorgeous photography and perfectly edited placement copy. Like how I imagine my dream house, they see the design as what it could be if the content and budget were right. Chances are, though, the photography isn’t going to be of lush tropical plants — it’s going to be a snapshot of the CEO taken with a cheap digital camera by his assistant. That succinct copy that looks great with the little thumbnail (of something that looks fabulous as a 80px x 60px postage stamp) is going to be a 400 word mission statement and another grainy photo taken at the annual shareholder meeting. How well does the design hold up now? If you take into account before you start designing the pitfalls of ugly content, it may still work.

Gorgeous Content Can Look Great Even in a Burlap Sack

In a perfect world, you would have the budget to hire photographers and writers to make the site really work. I’ve worked on projects like that and that is the way to go. If you are really lucky, the material you work with is already spectacular. This makes doing design work for museums, artists, and entertainment and fashion clients a thrill. I often get really envious looking at sites that win awards where it’s basically a gallery of amazing artwork with very little design. It’s easy to look at those sites and say “wow, what a great design” when in reality it’s just great looking content. Unfortunately, the world still needs sites for products that help with skin rashes and, well, sites that promote some fairly dull stuff. In other words, everyone doesn’t get to live in the penthouse suite of web design.

Many projects I’ve worked on end up with content creation being the domain of the client. I make the case for hiring writers, photographers and illustrators but often there just isn’t much of a budget. As a project manager, I will spend the time coaching them and giving them templates they can fill in to try and guide them (“short 30 character blurb here with link to read more”). This mitigates some of the worst content problems (like those 400 word mission statements on the home page), and I can do a lot with Photoshop to make their photos look decent. Finally, I can usually convince them to spend a little on stock photography. If I’m lucky it will be from a premium site with shots that are not so overused.

Future—proof the Design for Ugly Content Mishaps

As a designer, I have to think about the REAL content while I’m working. If my design relies entirely on beautiful photos, rich content, or animation and videos — the whole thing is going to fall apart when this isn’t what the content really looks like. Even if you can get the site to look exactly as you want to on launch — what happens when the client is entering in content on their own someday? If they have a designer and a good writer on staff, then there’s a chance it will still look great. Often, though, it’s someone without any training making design decisions. As a designer, it’s my job to make the design unbreakable for future updates.

It’s not just designers who aren’t thinking realistically about their content. I’ve had plenty of clients send me links to sites that are panel after panel of exciting photography and tons of great articles and say “I want something that looks like that”. When we get down to it, we discover that what they like is all the content, not the design. I can show them exactly the same design as the site they love, but with their actual content it looks just terrible.

Design for the Worst Case Scenario

Look, I’m not saying that if you can’t have a big content budget or great material to start with, you can’t have a great looking site. What I’m saying, to both designers and clients alike, is that you need to think about how to design with what you’ve got and embellish where you can. Tackling a design issue now with imperfect content is better than delivering something that will fall apart on the first update.

As for all those sites with beautiful art and photos, we have bookmarks so we can visit them regularly. Maybe you’ll get lucky and get to work on one of those someday. Now I need to go deal with this request to make a toenail fungus website look like

Having it Your Way: The Price of Customization

If you want something made to your own specifications, it’s going to cost more. This is known as something being “custom”. I know this seems really, really obvious but I can’t tell you how much this has come up in my professional life. Clients can seem routinely baffled when faced with proposed costs for something that they have requested be built custom, whether it’s a software solution or design.

Years ago, I worked at a little frame shop while I put myself through art school. I can remember customers coming in with odd sized artwork that didn’t quite fit in, say, a stock 11” x 14” frame. They would take ages making selections and very, very carefully picking out the exact wood, glass type, and mattes that they wanted for their masterpiece. They would then get upset when they saw the estimated bill. It, naturally, would always cost significantly more than the stock 11” x 14” frame they had chosen not to use. I would try to be helpful and say “well, you could add an uneven matte around it to make it fit, you could trim it down”. Each idea was rejected as they would stress that they really wanted what they had picked out – they just wanted to pay the stock price for it.

Ah, the conundrum of having specific wants and needs and having to pay for them!

Off-The-Shelf means taking it as it is, pretty much…

Years later, I see this drama unfolding regularly with web projects. Clients approach me with a project that, even before the proposal is written, they have firmly decided that they want to go with a specific open source CMS (content managment system). Usually the reason they want to do this is because the software is free or very inexpensive to license. They’ve probably also read good things and gotten some advice from friends and colleagues. Once they begin to outline what they want to do, many times we discover that the CMS they’ve picked doesn’t do quite a bit of what they want it to do. Before long, we’ve generated a laundry list of custom programming. The custom bits end up getting priced out and the client becomes incredulous — “but we are using an off-the-shelf system that’s free!”. Yes, but you wanted every part of it customized and masses of new features that need to be built from scratch. Just like the frame shop, I make suggestions: “You can use the built in image management feature in the CMS instead of the custom one you imagined”. I tell them that we can remove some of the custom functionality. We can have certain features work in the off-the-shelf way that the CMS they chose works. Just like the frame shop story – many suggestions get rejected because the client wants exactly what they want: they just want it cheaper.

Look — there are some great, inexpensive stock solutions out there. There are stock photos, illustrations, web templates, scripts, heck, there are even stock logos out there (which I strongly do not recommend, given that branding by it’s very nature is about creating a unique identity). We work in an age where there are great inexpensive or free content management solutions like Joomla, Drupal, and WordPress that we would have loved to have had back in the early days of web publishing when you had to fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars for a Vignette system. Of course the problem with any stock or off-the-shelf solution is that you have to work with what IT does or how IT looks. Once you start making changes and customizing it, then people have to work on it. It starts to cost money. What many people forget is that someone spent a lot of time on the stock solution too. They make their money by having lots of people buy it as is (and often having people pay them to customize it for them too). Just because you paid $10 for that stock Flash script does NOT mean that the programmer spent 5 minutes on it. If you paid them for the amount of time they actually spent on it, you would see a custom price.

Lessons learned

So, basically it’s a simple lesson that we should all remember. If you want it exactly the way you want it and someone else hasn’t already built it exactly that way — you are going to pay more for it. If you can live with not having everything you want and can find a stock solution that works for you — then it will cost less. If you can remember this simple rule, it can really help you prioritize when deciding between features and budget realities for your next project, whether it’s a website, app or just framing your kid’s latest art project.

What Your Website Can’t Do For You

If you own a business, having a website is about as standard practice as having a business card made or putting your name in the phone book. I’ve found that are a lot of misconceptions about exactly what a website does for businesses out there and, more importantly what it doesn’t. The web allows us to do a lot of things that we used to do in the real world in an efficient, fast, and usually cost effective way. Although it gives us new tools for doing a lot of things, it doesn’t necessarily change the reality of the mechanics of what we are doing.

For example, when someone goes shopping, they still look over merchandise, maybe try it out, make a decision, and give the merchant some form of currency in exchange for the goods. It still happens this way online. What it can’t do is force someone into your store and make them buy something. Your merchandise still needs to be good, your store appealing, and you need to let people know where it is by advertising.

Calling in Don Draper and Darren Stevens

Thinking that the web replaces good old-fashioned advertising and PR is one of the biggest misunderstandings about what the web can do that I’ve run into. I have had clients really, truly believe that putting their company information online will result in tons of revenue as search engines magically drive new business their way within days of launch. They’ve read all about SEO (search engine optmization) and they believe that if they put the right keywords in, build it in a search-engine friendly way, and list their URL with search engines – that visitors would just start going to their site.

It isn’t just advertising and PR that they don’t think is necessary. They also forget about content. I sometimes ask them “what is it about the site that you want to have that you think will make people want to visit”? This either stumps them or they answer with “it will have all sorts of great content” and then follow it up with a list of the types of content they’ll have that basically reads like a list of every type of content ever put out there: videos, games, forums, chat rooms, articles — and the latest thing is always some variation on a social networking theme.

A type of content is not the content itself. The content is what makes up the video, article, podcast, whatever and it has to be produced by someone… and it has to be appropriate to your site. A podcast about sneaker inserts isn’t going to interest many people, and I doubt there would be enough interesting material to make doing a daily/weekly/monthly episodic-style content like this viable.

Build it and they will come.. NOT

Just because you put a forum up to let people talk about your site, product, or topic doesn’t mean the community will just form. I can tell you from experience that “build it and they will come” is definitely not true. Maintaining a network or community still requires real people, an interesting place to go, and a lot of promotion. I can say the same is true for clients out there who think they replace their entire customer service infrastructure by putting some FAQs online and a contact form (or worse — no contact information at all). You still need a real person to communicate with your users and customers, whether in person, on the phone, or online.

The web is the place where people go today to make sure you are a legitimate business. It’s also the first place they will look if they want to get in touch with you or find out more about you or your product/service. There are a lot of things the web can help you do, but these are the most basic. What it can’t do is wave a magic wand and make you popular, rich and fabulous. If you want people to come to your site to get info, buy your services or stuff, or come to your place or event — first figure out what your goals are. Then get yourself a great looking site, fill it with the content or information you need to achieve your goal, and then go promote the hell out of it in as many ways as you can… and stop sitting by the side of the road like a jilted prom date waiting for Google to notice you. I promise you will be a lot happier.