Saturday02 August 2014

Craft your practice’s website as carefully as your next building

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Richard Frankland of FKDA, which designs both buildings and websites, on how architects can achieve a striking online presence

Our practice’s website design department came about somewhat accidently when we first set up. When people learn of these two diverse services, they don’t understand how thy relate — even our insurers couldn’t pigeonhole us.

But the web design process is really no different to an architectural project, and although we need additional technical skills, we still listen to our clients, interpret their brief, and aim to create projects that reflect an informed and original interpretation of their organisation. As with a well designed building, it’s good to improve on your previous work and explore new technologies, but it shouldn’t deviate too much from what simply works.

We’re certainly not opposed to unconventional or experimental website design, but like architecture, this approach has its risks.

Many architects’ websites we look at are far too complicated and difficult to negotiate. Anybody who decides they need a website — and these days it should really be every business — must first identify its purpose and who it is aimed at. Most architects’ websites will be used primarily to help to find new business, attract potential clients and encourage them to pick up the phone and arrange a meeting. They’ll also be used to source staff, present the practice portfolio as an online monograph, and simply provide the office contact details.

Unnavigable sites

The size and complexity of the site can vary dramatically, yet still achieve its key objectives. For some reason, architects tend to include everything on their websites. The profession seems obsessed with the idea that the larger you are, the more you can do, the better you are. This may be the best approach if your potential clients have this same view, but it is worth asking whether the full extent of your abilities can be communicated in a simple, more immediate manner.

Architects often want to make their websites experimental and innovative as well, but this easily ends up as an unnavigable site that just frustrates the visitor. Animated Flash introductions can be tedious when a visitor simply wants the office phone number. Keep it simple — concentrate on clarity of information and ease in finding it.

Once you have established the brief for the site and chosen a designer, give them some freedom. So many designers from all sorts of disciplines complain about being too restricted by the client, particularly when the client is also in a creative industry. The result is often a compromise of two or three ideas rather than a clear solution. Instead, find a web designer whose work you like, whose style could reflect your own, and who you feel comfortable working with, then allow them to do what they’re good at.

You often hear the phrase “content is king”. This is true with any publication, but remember also that “a photo speaks a 1,000 words”. Since what you’re selling is largely image-driven, the way you present your projects is vital.

The quality of the photography is probably the most important aspect of your website, so it is worth spending money hiring a good professional architectural photographer. Images can also then be used in your portfolio and presentations — just check you have the full licence rights to use the photographer’s work. Keep text brief and relevant.

Search engines rate your site by who links to it, so it’s important to have good quality links

Sitting on the server

Be aware that you’ll have to set aside time to organise the site’s content. We quite often find that clients will commission a website, we’ll design the layout and complete its functionality, only for it to sit on our server for months or even years while the client prepares and collates the content. The sooner a site is published, the sooner the search engines can start indexing it. You can always add or replace images later on.

As well as choosing and collating photographs and text, you need to decide how you’ll manage it. There are essentially two means of adding to a website. If you expect to be adding content regularly, it may be worth spending more at the commissioning stage to include a content management system, where you or anyone with access can log in and add content to the site at any time. The alternative is to ask your site designer to do it for you, for which they’ll probably charge an hourly rate.

So now to the really practical bits, and this is often where a professional web designer will excel. To ensure your site is well ranked on search engines, there are a number of techniques, but the process is becoming much more complex, and most search engines don’t share their ranking philosophy. One obvious rule is to ensure your page titles contain key words so search engines can easily see what your page is about. Search engines have also moved beyond simply calculating keyword density and link relevance. More and more, they are mastering the ability to identify natural human language and evaluate a web page on how the content is written.

Reciprocal links are also a good way to promote your site and help achieve good rankings since search engines will rate your site by who is linking to it. These sites should not be in competition with yours, but be similarly themed or related to architecture or design.

Once the website is up and running, you should monitor visitors to it and how they use it. This will determine whether the site is working, and if you need to change anything. If your site doesn’t have a statistics feature, Google provides web analytic tools. You just create an account and add a tracking code to each of your web pages. The statistics are extremely clear and easy to understand.

Another very useful tool to see how your website is being ranked is GoogleAlert. It’s an automated search system that monitors your professional interests online. We use it to see when our practice name is ranked, or when a page from another site that contains our name is ranked on Google.

And just as many modernist architects live in poorly maintained Victorian houses, we should take another look at our own websites and get that content updated. With the downturn, this is a good moment for practices to make sure their work is being properly promoted.

Richard Frankland is the director of FKDA, a small architectural practice based in Manchester, which has designed and developed a number of websites including www.oube.co.uk , a site that aims to engage as wide an audience as possible in observing, exploring and discussing architecture.

Architects’ top crimes against web design

BD web editor Emily Cadman names and shames some of the worst websites

For reasons unknown, Flash possesses a stranglehold over architecture online. While it has its place, notably in displaying movies or images that you prefer others not to copy easily, it sabotages the most important function of the web: making information easy to find.

Text displayed within a Flash animation is almost invisible to Google, meaning key information about a firm is only accessible by manually hunting through site sub-menus. How many visitors simply give up?

Plus displaying text as an animation means users cannot copy it from your site, which is potentially frustrating if they want to copy and paste a phone number or email address.

Hard-to-read text
After a long day in front of the computer, visitors may want to resize the text on a website to make it easier to read, and for the partially sighted, this is a necessity.
Spoiling otherwise solid efforts, this was true of Fosters & Partners and Dublin-based FKL.

No internal search function
This is a common offence. Visitors to your site want
to find information quickly, perhaps about old projects, without having to hunt through sub-menus.
Two of the worst offenders I found were Stock Woolstencroft and Gehry Partners.

Popping out all over
Use of pop-ups and requiring pages to launch in a new window just clutters up visitors’ computers — witness websites from Grimshaw and Foreign Office Architects.

Animation Frustration
Another particular annoyance is being forced to watch an animation before entering a site. How many visitors simply surf away to a less time-consuming one? Glenn Howells and CZWG spring to mind.

Missing in action
Worst of all, perhaps, in our digital age is not to have a website at all, the prime offender being one of the world’s greatest practices, Herzog & de Meuron.

Getting it right
On the positive side, two firms which, on very different budgets, score a hit with their websites are global giant Hopkins and Isle of Skye-based Dualchas Building Design.
Hopkins’ homepage has a great slideshow of recent projects, delivered with JavaScript under a navigation that is clear and simple. A nice touch is the A-Z index, which makes finding information a breeze. And Dualchas could teach larger firms a thing or two about web design.

Built on a tight budget, its site is clean and simple, provides
a flavour of the practice’s work and its staff, and makes contacting them easy.


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