Generally, Issue 237 of A List Apart, for people who make websites, is all about education. Specifically, it’s about educating bosses and clients to approve good design and make better strategic decisions.
You’ve got thirty seconds to sell your work to the well dressed nemesis who’s paying you. Handle the next few moments gracefully, and the project will be one you can be proud of. Flub an answer, and you can kiss excellence goodbye. Are you prepared? Can you deliver?
David Sleight is the Deputy Creative Director of BusinessWeek.com, and writes about design, the web, and anything else that strikes his fancy at Stuntbox. When he’s not pushing pixels or punching code he can be found exploring the wilds of New York.
Who decides what’s best for a website? Highly skilled professionals who work with the site’s users and serve as their advocates? Or schmucks with money? Most often, it’s the latter. That’s why a web designer’s first job is to educate the people who hold the purse strings.
Shane Diffily is author of The Website Manager’s Handbook and webmaster with one of Ireland’s largest companies. He also publishes regular features about the challenges of website administration on www.diffily.com.
A List Apart explores the design, development, and meaning of web content, with a special focus on web standards and best practices. Explore our articles or find out more about the magazine.
A few days back, we remarked on the strange absence of real data about web design and the designers, developers, IAs, writers, project managers, and other specialists and hybrids who do this work. In all the years people have been creating websites, nobody bothered to gather statistics about who does this work, using what skills, under what conditions, and for what kinds of compensation.
In the absence of statistics specific to our field, commissioning research got us only so far. It was time to take the next step.
Presenting A List Apart’s first annual web design survey. The information it collects will help us form a long overdue picture of the ways web design is really practiced around the globe. The more people who complete the survey, the richer and more detailed the picture will become.
Depending on how you answer it, the survey has up to 37 questions, nearly all of them multiple choice. A fluent English speaker should be able to complete the survey in ten minutes or less.
In structuring the sections on employment, we patterned certain questions along the lines established by previous surveys undertaken by AIGA and The Information Architecture Institute. The similarity will afford easier comparisons across the three surveys. This comparability will be useful because some “web designers” are also (or primarily) designers, and thus also fall under AIGA’s umbrella, while other “web designers” are primarily information architects.
Hosted by An Event Apart, the survey will remain open until 22 May, 2007. After we close it, we’ll slice and dice the data and present our findings in a future issue of A List Apart.
Help us increase accurate knowledge about—and deepen respect for—the profession of web design. Take the survey and spread the word. (You might even win a free ticket to An Event Apart, a 30GB video iPod, an Event Apart jump drive, or a funky A List Apart T-shirt.)
Also in this issue of A List Apart, for people who make websites:
In the virtual conference room, no one can hear you scream. Social networking enables knowledge workers like us to build virtual companies with no office space and little overhead. But can we make them succeed? Follett dissects the skills required to create, manage, and grow the virtual firm.
Yes, Virginia, design does matter. Better web page layouts aren’t only about aesthetics. A layout with clear hierarchies can turn scanners to readers, and readers to members. Learn how visual contrast can turn lifeless web pages into sizzling calls to action.
As Web 2.0 Buying Season winds down, it is pleasant to consider what was different about it. This time, for the most part, the buyers have been farmers, not butchers. They bought to nurture, not to kill.
The merger years
Before the web, I worked in advertising. I survived the Merger Years. Charles and Maurice Saatchi, the art collectors, were among several groups scooping up ad agencies as investments. Not infrequently, incompatible shops were jammed together to see what stuck. My first New York ad job was at one of these misbegotten unions; I started on the very day more than half the staff got canned as a direct result of the merger.
The new owners had performed unholy matrimony, forcing a dewy-eyed little shop in Minneapolis to love and cherish a dull, aging cash cow in New York. They probably imagined that the cold New York joint would warm to the creative touch of its young spouse, while the Minneapolis branch would somehow grow as lucrative as the boring but high-earning Gotham shop. It wasn’t meant to be. Clients ran screaming; staff were kicked out after them.
Behind the iron doors
“Oh, boy, my first New York job!” I said aloud as I approached the iron doors.
I walked into a tragedy. Women wept, carrying boxes. Ashen-faced middle-aged copywriters with bad portfolios—parents of young children—suddenly realized that they were unemployable.
The floor on which I was to work was being frantically redecorated to match the corporate colors of Minneapolis as almost everyone who worked there was laid off within a space of hours. “Pardon Our Appearance, We Are Redecorating” proclaimed a happy illustrated painter on a large sign. His was the only grin to be seen. Someone eventually drew an executioner’s hood over the happy painter’s head, and replaced his brush with an axe. Okay, that was me.
Over the next few years, the Saatchis brought in one brilliant outside creative director after another to try to make the merger work. I learned from all of them. The place was great for me in that way. It was also a fine source of drinking buddies. Almost nobody could handle the daily surrealism sober.
I worked at other places over the years. The great ones were small and created their own cultures. The not-so-great ones had almost always been good until they got too big.
Web for sale
Years later, I was a web designer doing independent content on the side. Some of my friends were also doing independent content. Some of them sold their sites to corporate buyers.
I was glad to see creative people get a paycheck, but suspicious because of what I had seen of mergers in my previous career. I feared that the buyers might not understand what they had bought, and might try to make it something it was not. And that indeed is what happened, every time.
In one instance, a married couple and their friend built up one of the first great educational sites for web developers. Everybody who knew the acronym HTML read this site in the mid- to late 1990s. It was informative, opinionated, and leading-edge. The writers were front-line web developers. They weren’t just ahead of the curve, they were helping to shape it. And they weren’t just technology writers, they were personalities. Huge personalities.
They also knew how to keep readers coming back, and and how to turn readers into a community. One way they did both these things was by honoring a different website every weekday. Hundreds of thousands of web professionals tuned in Monday through Friday to find out what site was being put forward as cool, and to argue passionately about whether it deserved such kudos.
It all changed the moment a traditional publisher bought the site, for what, by later standards, was surely a mere chest of shells and beads.
What the publishers got for their investment, after destroying everything else about it, was residual search engine juice. Maybe that was enough for them.
When a famous old-school stock photography concern bought iStockphoto, some of us feared that it spelled the end for that independent photo community. Not so. iStockphoto is still iStockphoto, only now it has money. Likewise, Yahoo! bought flickr as flickr—not as a list of users to exploit or a URL to slap ads on. It bought del.icio.us as del.icio.us; all the purchase did (besides generate paychecks) was integrate the social bookmarking tool into other Yahoo! properties (like flickr). Similarly, Dodgeball is still Dodgeball despite its purchase by Google.
One could list these buyouts all day, but it would soon grow tedious. The point is, buyers now buy to own, not to run (and ruin).
Are today’s buyers smarter? Or are they just too busy to meddle? What do you think?
[tags]web2.0, buyouts, mergers, saatchi[/tags]
Happy Cog redesigns, 2/7/2007
Mr Mancini, my high school science teacher, grew a mustache when he began to dye his grey hair black. The dye job progressed by degrees. He was a little grey, then less grey. Nobody noticed; his mustache mesmerized us.
On the day Mr Mancini went all black, he shaved his mustache. All we noticed when he bounced into the classroom was his big, smooth-shaven face. He had to tell us that he’d changed his hair. As a man, he wanted to protect the secret of his vanity, but as a science teacher he felt morally obliged to explain the psychological trick he’d played on us.
Good redesigns work like my teacher’s hair. They are always an opportunity to fix or change a lot of things that aren’t obvious on the pretty new surface. Happy Cog has just redesigned.
It started with a sentence
The new version of Happy Cog’s website had to better convey how our agency’s business has diversified. We are first and always designers for hire. We are also publishers, whose micro-empire is expanding. And we have lately co-founded a high-profile event series.
The old site told the “design for hire” story. The redesign had to tell all three stories.
Usually this would be done by creating a navigation bar with labels like “We design,” “We publish,” and “We present.” But labels don’t connect; they separate. Navigation labels could point to three separate story-lines, but they would not make the case that ours was a holistic enterprise—that our conference, our publications, and our client services business were one.
For some time, I’ve been thinking about the primacy of words in the user interface. A sentence, I felt, could present our three businesses, and by its very nature, connect them in the reader’s mind.
The primary navigation interface had to be a sentence. And so it is.
The drawing board
One sentence led to another. I found it easy to write the new Happy Cog and easy to spin an organic architecture out of the opening sentence. But hell if I could design the thing.
I’d always designed Happy Cog; it was my baby; but every time I opened Photoshop or took crayon to paper, the results were a muddle. Maybe it was because my brain was barreling along on architecture and copy. Or maybe there are only so many times a single designer can take a new look at the same site.
I tapped Jason Santa Maria (or maybe he tapped me). Jason has one of the keenest minds and two of the freshest eyes in the business. He makes legibility beautiful. What the Ramones did with three chords, he does with two system fonts. His designs always spring from the user and the brand proposition.
His first effort sucked. (I was secretly relieved.)
A month later, Jason came back with pretty much the design you now see at happycog.com. (I rejoiced.) The painting at the top, which makes the design, is by A List Apart illustrator Kevin Cornell.
Dan is as good as anyone I’ve worked with. He is super-fast yet also deeply thoughtful. We spent many a mini-session debating such things as whether the About page and its subsidiaries should include microformats. We decided not.
Mark Huot migrated the new site, a job that involved considerable strategy as well as expertise. Rob Weychert contributed additional art direction and Jon Aldinger offered additional programming.
The redesign tells our story and gives us room to breathe and grow. It is also (I think) quite pretty and thoroughly appropriate. We hope you like it, and we invite you to subscribe to Happy Cog’s RSS feed to stay abreast of all matters Coggish.
Jason Santa Maria and Daniel Mall have written their perspectives on the Happy Cog redesign. They’re swell! Jason’s writeup includes information about the Happy Cog Philadelphia Open House, featuring the live music of Comhaltas. If you’re around, please visit.
Registration is now open for An Event Apart Boston 2007. Enjoy two amazing days of design and code plus meals, a party, and a bag of swag for a mere $795 (reg. $895) while early bird savings last. Attend for as little as $745 with a discount code exclusively for zeldman.com readers.
Learn by day, party by night
On An Event Apart’s website, you’ll now find a detailed schedule describing the presentations with which our superstar speakers hope to entertain and enlighten you. From “Web Standards Stole My Truck!” to “Redesigning Your Way out of a Paper Bag,” it’s two stimulating days of best practices and fresh ideas in design, usability, accessibility, markup and code.
Lest you be overwhelmed by learning too much too soon, we’ll help you unwind (and do a little networking) at the Opening Night Party sponsored by Media Temple. You might even win a prize, courtesy of Adobe, New Riders, or Media Temple.
Our Boston Events page also includes notes to help you book your hotel room at a specially negotiated discount price.
Located in beautiful and historic Back Bay, the Boston Marriott Copley Place provides in-room, high-speed internet access; laptop safes and coolers; 27-inch color TV with cable movies; luxurious bedding and linens, and more. Best of all, it’s the site of the conference. You can walk out of your room and into the show!
Save more with discount code
During the early bird period, the price for this two-day event is $795. But you can nab an extra $50 off with this discount code exclusively for zeldman.com readers:
Just enter AEAZELD in An Event Apart’s shopping cart to enjoy those savings immediately. During our early bird period, you’ll pay just $745 for the two days and everything that comes with them.
After February 26, 2007, when the early bird savings ends, the price goes up to $895, and you’ll pay $845 with the discount. Still pretty good for two days with some of the sharpest minds and greatest talents in web design. But why pay more? Book An Event Apart Boston as soon as you can.
Unlimited creativity, limited seating
An Event Apart Boston will be the best conference Eric Meyer and I have yet put together. It will also be this year’s only East Coast Event Apart. Don’t miss it.
Join Eric and me, along with Steve Krug, Andrew Kirkpatrick, Molly Holzschlag, Cameron Moll, Dan Cederholm, Ethan Marcotte, and Jason Santa Maria, for what we modestly believe may be the most exciting and enlightening show in modern web design.
Hurry! Seating is limited and early bird savings end Feb. 26, 2007.