Web Strategy 101 for Creatives (Part 3) – Website Design Options

We look at ways to develop your website, whether for photography, digital art, your business or whatever.

Website

One of the hardest things for people to realize, and especially photographers, artists and designers, is that their website should not be designed to suit them. Yes, that is what I said. Your website needs to be designed with your typical and intended viewer or customer in mind. Sure, you site needs to reflect you tastes and branding, but this should not get in the way of the customer or viewer. I see many sites which are over designed, have form fair outweighing function and in fact do the owner’s business harm by turning people away. I design websites for people and generally find photographer to be the hardest to work with, since we tend to think we know it all and they are often far to over concerned with looks and not enough with the user experience.

The first step is working out what you need the site to do for you. Is it an online portfolio? Is it your major way of communicating with your existing clients? Is it purely to satisfy your ego? Do you intend it to be a major entry for new business?

Then you need to determine who your primary target user is. What equipment will they use to browse you site? How long will they stay? Are they visually sophisticated? What will they be looking for? How strongly motivated will they be to find it?

Once you understand these first two points only then can you start sketching out a design for the site. The design is not just how it looks but, most importantly, where the information will go and how people will move around the site. Don’t get stuck on the first design you come up with. Explore several and then fine tune from there. Even if someone else is designing your website for you it is worth doing this step yourself initially as it will help you to crystallize your thoughts and refine your ideas of how the website might work for you. Then if someone else is building the site, present your ideas but also listen to theirs. If you have hired someone for their experience rather than their low cost, listen to them. Still in the end you know your own business better than them and so you should not always go with what they say. But always listen to them and be prepared to adjust your ideas accordingly, where appropriate.

Look for creative ways to get the functionality that you need. For example there are two types of web sites: static and dynamic. In a static site each page is designed and its content put in place before it is uploaded to the site host. Making changes to the site means editing the page files on your computer with a program like Dreamweaver and then uploading them again. For a simple site or one where the information does not need to change frequently, a static approach works well.

In a dynamic site the pages are created on the fly from information you provide in some other way than a set design, such as from a database. Such a site might use what is called a content management system. For complex sites and especially ones where you need to upload and change content yourself without having to use web site design software, like Dreamweaver, a content management system (CMS) is the way to go.

The CMS approach works like this. The site is still designed to create a look (often called a theme, which is defined in a set of files, which are uploaded from Dreamweaver or the like), but no real information is placed in it. Instead the information content of your site is stored in a database. When you access a page, such as index.php, program code runs on the server to extract appropriate information from the database and merge it with the layout of the theme. The result is then sent to your web browser to be displayed as html, the language of web pages. So the page can change (be dynamic) as the information in the database is changed. What this does is decouple the information from how it is displayed. This means that you can change or add to the information using a web browser and a special login rather than needing to use Dreamweaver. Likewise multiple people can add content to the site with no fear they can screw up how it looks or functions. This approach is perfect for sites where the information changes frequently or where you want multiple people to be contributing content. It is also ideal for sites with massive amounts of information. Most major sites are designed this way.

Dynamic sites can use a custom CMS, such as DIMi’s, which I developed, or a standard, usually open source one, such as that used for the galleries on www.cosshall.com or www.dimagemaker.net, or the blog on www.digitalimagemakerworld.com, which can be modified to suit your needs if necessary. Sites can even mix static and dynamic components, such as cosshall.com where the home page and a couple of the others are plain, static html pages while the gallery of work uses a CMS, or combine several different CMS components, as Digital ImageMaker World does, one for the blog and another for the galleries.

Many of the open source content management systems work on a Linux website server, so if you have this type of hosting you are right. This is one reason why I highly recommend Linux hosting for creative clients.

Should you design the site yourself or pay someone else to do it? This is a tough question to answer but let’s have a go. The short version is ‘it depends’. Photographers and artists, since we work visually, are often tempted to do it yourself. This can work. However, web design is a complete discipline in itself as there are usability, interaction and technical aspects that are outside of the normal photography or art skill set. So the big question is do you want to learn all this and more? When starting from scratch you will find that your first website is probably rubbish, just like your first photograph or painting. But they get better with time and experience. Paying someone to do it costs you money but if you value your time in any reasonable way then if you consider all the time you will spend learning to do it yourself, you just might find that your time is better spend elsewhere.

Finding a web designer is tricky. Cost should not be the main determinant. Rather look for someone with an understanding of your business area, experience there and a good, all round understanding of web design. Listen carefully to what they say and get them to clearly explain the way they like to work. Most issues between web designers and clients come about through lack of communication. Be realistic about what a website is going to cost. A website that will handle thousands of images and offer shopping cart facilities, etc is not going to cost you $200, or even $500. Even when someone uses an open source CMS as the basis, there is still configuration, customization and client training work to consider. A smart web designer understands that they will have to support the client in getting the most from the site and a smart client understands that they have to pay for this.

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