Unsolicited advice and unapologetic opinions for creating or updating your artist’s website.
I’ve been thinking about this lately, as I will be taking advantage of the holiday season to make headway on a new website design. The notes are based on working as a graphic designer, designing and coding HTML/CSS sites, being married to an interface designer and noticing sites I like or don’t, and informally polling curators and artists.
Preparation, preparation, preparation.
A lot of artists are overwhelmed by the process of creating a site. It’s a lot of work, so take it step by step. The first step is to prepare a site map and wireframe. This way, you’ll document what content you want to feature. Artists are so close to their art, it’s helpful to consider the audiences’ perspective in how the art is presented. Should the work be organized by year or theme? Creating a site map will help you decide what content you’ll need, which you’ll prepare next.
Edit text content, such as a statement, CV and captions, in Word or Google docs. Ask a friend to copyedit. It’s much easier to do this in a word processing app and import quality content, than fiddle around later after you’ve uploaded it. By the time your content is online, you should be focusing on making sure the site works, not what the dimensions of this piece was, or what the name of that review author was, etc.
Re-touch and color-correct your images. Again, doing this all at once, instead of piecemeal as you’re trying to populate your site, is much less headache-inducing. Compile and save them using good file management practices.
Notice graphic and interface design.
Before you determine what you want your site to look like, visit a lot of web pages—artists’ and non-art related.
Pay attention to typefaces, colors, and layouts—but don’t forget to consider user experience. A lot of artists mistake great design for visual panache, but it’s not just about catching the eye with cute elements or a fancy logo. Great design is also—if not more—about functionality. When the design functions in an intuitive way, users don’t notice it, and that’s a good thing; the point is to showcase your art!
Notice what works and what doesn’t. Is it hard to navigate? Or is it intuitive, and the experience flows effortlessly from page to page? Which ones are hard to read? Which ones aren’t? Which artists’ websites encourage you to stay and click around? Which ones don’t? Why?
Look at sites on your desktop or laptop. Then look at them again on a mobile device. What makes a responsive (mobile-adaptive) site easy to navigate, read and view?
Bookmark great sites with your browser or Delicious. Write a list of criteria you want in a design. Refer back to this list and your inspiration sites when you start browsing content management system (CMS) templates, so you can stay true to your vision.
Gallery directors, curators, and critics are short on time. They just want to see your images and get information. Don’t make it hard for them with splash pages, games, or too much rigamarole. Keep it direct and simple.
A note about typography: Less is more. Generally, the less design experience you have, the crazier the font you tend to choose. Some artists are afraid that a boring design equals a boring website. If your work is interesting, there’s no need to jazz up typefaces, for the same reason you wouldn’t put 15 colored mats on a good drawing. Imbalanced, too-splashy logos achieve nothing. When in doubt, err in favor of simple and classic. Typefaces that have been used for hundreds of years or several decades have survived because they’re well designed, highly legible workhorses. One-off novelty fonts are harder to use well. Remember that you want to keep your art front and center.
Research Content Management Systems (CMS).
In the past, I felt that artists could manage their own sites with a little bit of HTML and Dreamweaver, but these days, it’s important to have a responsive site, which is much trickier to code. Recent CMSes offer beautiful, responsive templates, so I’ll review some options.
A note about selecting a CMS: Don’t be cheap! You get what you pay for. Think about it this way: most artists will spend 10–50 hours preparing content and creating a website, and 0–3 hours/month updating it for a few years. Relative to the amount of time you’ll invest, and the amount of visibility and utility you want from the site (it showcases your work, conveys your professionalism, and can help garner opportunities), the actual cost of the CMS ($8-16/month) is modest.
Cargo Collective and Squarespace. I think these are the best bets [still do, as of 12/23/14]. These are recent, visually-oriented portfolio sites with attractive, responsive templates. Cargo Collective is free or $9/month; Squarespace is $8–16/month, depending on the features. Click around their templates, as you’ll start to recognize them on other artist’s sites. Get a free trial and start uploading test content—gauge the learning curve and template limitations.
[Updated 12/23/14] Other People’s Pixels. This was great when it came out, about seven years ago. Given the recent competition, this option is less appealing. I dislike the textual navigation, where you click on a project name or year, then sometimes another sub-menu, before getting to the images. These function like doors you can’t see through; it’s clunky. Though they’ve added responsiveness and changed the tiny “previous/next” text to slightly larger arrows anchored to the base of the viewport, I still find it a bit pinched. And I don’t love that the CV is a PDF.
Indexhibit. This was also a very good option for many years. I like the minimal design, but I’m favoring more visually-oriented templates now.
[Updated 12/23/14] icompendium. Some artists vouch for the ease of use of icompendium. It’s now responsive. There are exceptions, but many of the featured example sites use a left column with text I find too small/light.
WordPress. A great, flexible platform (this blog is a WP site). WP has endless amounts of templates and options for customization, many of them fee-based. So though a WP site can be free, the upgrades (such as preventing WP from including ads on your site, or domain mapping, so you can use your own URL) can start to add up. It’s primarily a blogging platform, so you’ll have to disable commenting features left and right. Use it if you’re familiar with the interface and feel like you can hammer it into a shape you want; if not, consider the first two options.
Me? I’m going to build my new site with Bootstrap and PHP with help from a friend. I’m taking design cues from Squarespace (I love how their sites behave on mobile devices) and Cargo Collective (I love the main project image stream at the end of project pages; you don’t have to go back to the home page, only ever forward), but I need more flexibility. I want a site with a few more interstitial project index pages, and to be able to use narrower column widths on text pages.
Building a site expands your abilities, so it can be painful. Without a plan that breaks up the labor into manageable parts, artists can get overwhelmed, procrastinating for years on their websites. The key is to be prepared, systematic, patient, and realistic about time management. You’ll make a lot of progress if you work in small, organized chunks, dedicating a few hours or one day/week for 2–3 months. I know that sounds like a lot, but if you’re thorough, you’ll end up with a site that will serve you for years.