Signs, packaging design and more.
Signs, packaging design and more.
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.
I’m really enjoying the graphic design of Domus Magazine, out of Italy. Or more accurately, I’m enjoying its web design: large, handsome photos and just two type families on a very clean grid. With the selective use of color and scale, there’s typographic contrast that expresses style and energy. Fanciful and functional.
Long texts on the web doesn’t have mean that the text has to be tiny or spread across several pages. Domus sets type huge, with a comfortable column width; they break the text flow often with the liberal use of photos. Domus’ designers didn’t fret that there’d be too much “under the fold” or too much scrolling. Good for them. The daring design is well worth it.
There’s also some good art reporting from around the world. Here’s three of my favorite things together: a review of Dan Graham’s exhibition at Eastside Projects (Birmingham, UK) in Domus Magazine. I love that there’s a Google Map at the end of the review for viewers’ convenience.
I am often told that my art work is about design, which surprises me. I rarely think about design as I’m making my work, and further, I couldn’t make work in a design-free vacuum. Design is the matrix of material forms in our lives. Typography is the very medium of visual-textual communication. As one would apply formal and conceptual considerations to materials, so too should typography be thoughtfully selected. Materials provide visual, textual, material content, as well as design meaning.
The importance of design ought be self-evident. This week, the New York Times provided positive and negative reminders to appreciate design.
“Leslie Buck, Designer of Iconic Coffee Cup, Dies at 87”
Margalit Fox NYTimes.com, April 29, 2010
“We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint”
Elisabeth Bumiller, NYTimes.com, April 26, 2010
Above: An epic fail of an infographic. (Unless the point was to convey “quagmire.”)
Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style is a fantastic treatise on marrying typographic form and content. It’s also a great reference, sort of like a Chicago Manual of Style for graphic designers. Pragmatic, thorough and gorgeously designed, it’s a significant contribution to the field of graphic design.
For most mere mortals, that is enough of an acheivement. I just learned that Bringhurst is also a poet, essayist and linguist, with several published books. I’m giddy with excitement. Language, meaning, cognition, type and form: a nexus of thought that’s concrete enough for me to grasp, and theoretical enough to allow speculative experimentation.
This title sounds lovely: The Solid Form of Language. It explains “a new way of classifying and understanding the relationship between script and meaning. Beginning with the original relationship between a language and its written script, Bringhurst takes us on a history of reading and writing that begins with the interpretation of animal tracks and fast-forwards up to the typographical abundance of more recent times.” (Typotheque)
In my early twenties, I suffered from too many interests, so I decided to let my non-art activities fall to the wayside. This meant accepting that my musical development would slow: I’m never going to shred. It’s OK. I just didn’t have the capacity to be great at everything I was interested in.
Now, in my early thirties, I’m re-thinking this all-or-one-thing model. I think it’s entirely possible to excel and find fulfillment in more than one arena. (Excuse the pun.) Not to be a generalist, but to be a specialist in related realms like art, criticism and design…. Bringhurst provides a neat example.
Like: H&FJ, type designers extraordinaire
Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones are lecturing at Cooper Union next Tuesday night. If only I lived in New York…
H&FJ are among the country’s best and most influential living type designers. Years ago, I parlayed my art skills into illustration and graphic design; in the past year or two, I’ve focused my attention on typography — thanks to books by Robert Bringhurst and Ellen Lupton. I think you can see the effect on both my design and art work.
I admire H&FJ for the consistency of the excellence of their output, which is always considered and gimmick-free. Their type families are remarkably thorough and usable; they manage to both timeless and modern. I know my praises sound like platitudes, but you can see their skill with the ubiquity of the typeface Gotham. More recently, Archer has been catching my eye with more regularity. It’s cute, fresh and a little cheeky.
LIKE: Conceptualism and Identity Art, neither compromised
I DON’T WANT TO BRAND something called “Black Conceptual Art.” It’s less a question about who produced the work than of the object’s material history. If you can get to that history, and if that can take you to a very specific place, culturally and racially, then that’s where you locate the blackness. It becomes a secondary discovery rather than a necessary attribute of the work itself.
“30 Seconds Off an Inch” does not look at the conceptualisms that followed Minimalism. Instead, it investigates the kind of art that asks the viewer to think about something beyond the sheer materiality of the object, beyond formalism and formal practice. The works ask you to wonder where the trash originated, for instance, and about the history of a specific cloth and clothing, or whether the work is appropriated. There is a history and a lineage to all the works in the show that lend themselves to conceptual thought beyond the objects.
The viewer should have a sense of recognition when walking through the exhibition. There is not a lot of tape around the objects—I want visitors to be able to put their noses up to the works. The objects in the show are not to be seen as metaphors, but very literally, and you don’t need an advanced degree in art history to read them.
—Naomi Beckwith, “500 Words,” Artforum, 11/25/2009
Beckwith is the assistant curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where she organized “the exhibition ’30 Seconds Off an Inch,’ which explores the intersection of identity politics and dominant tendencies of the 1960s, from conceptual practices to Arte Povera.”
Wowee. I like this. It’s plain language on how to look at conceptual art, and how material can have content relating to identity. It challenges the ideas that conceptual art is too élite to be easily appreciated or too hermetic to have meaningful content, and that art relates to identity has to be populist/symbolist/representational. Well done.
This morning, in my dream, I found myself in a bare room: white walls, unpainted wood floors. I was sitting at cheap melamine dinette table. To my left was a the kind of kitchen you’d find in economy apartments — cream colored, with a small fridge and low fluorescent tubes. A cutout in the wall from which a cook might engage guests while attending the electric stovetop. But ahead of me was an expansive room, maybe 75 feet long. One side was all old industrial windows. The space was empty, unlit and dusty. It was my studio, and the sense of potential surged in me. It was so much space that I could work on a project, walk away from it, start a new project, and so on, for a long time before running out of space. I wouldn’t have to re-organize whenever I changed projects. To the side of the kitchen, I found a walk-in closet: my painting and flat work storage. The place was a bit drafty and quiet, but I was overjoyed. I was in New York. My job was to make art. The studio was mine.
Pretty awesome. And all it is a Moleskin, pens and confident hands.