To blog or not to blog: a guide to blogs and writers’ websites
When RICHARD WEBSTER took over the running of the Writers in Oxford website four years ago it carried links to six members’ websites. Today there are 43 and barely a month passes without a new one being added. Here he offers his own ‘Which guide’ to websites and blogs and suggests ‘best buys’ ranging in price from £600 to £35.
A shorter version of this article appeared in
The Oxford Writer, no 44, November 2007
Blogging | Traditional websites | Readability | Updatability |
Line length | Mr Site & archive sites | An integrated blog |
Ling’s philosophy | Children’s sites | Colours & Quotes |
Undeclared interests | Changing colours | Justification
IN APRIL 2007 The Writers Guild of Great Britain held a special ‘Websites for writers’ evening. By the end, according to the report which subsequently appeared, it was clear that they’d got the title wrong; it should have been called ‘Blogs for writers’. ‘The web,’ said Tom Smith the opening speaker, ‘is not a publication – it’s a conversation.’ While websites tend to be static and one-sided, he argued, ‘blogs are the perfect medium for online interaction’.
Writers in Oxford’s Nigel Warburton, who teaches philosophy at the Open University, agrees. Nigel has developed his own weblog virtual philosopher, into a formidable presence on the internet. Not only does he write there regularly, he also creates his own podcasts and makes these available free via iTunes. As he noted recently in an article in The Author, his series Philosophy: The Classics is currently in the top 20 of all iTunes podcasts in the UK. This results in several thousand downloads a day. Although many writers might resist the idea of giving their work away free, Nigel finds that such open-handedness pays dividends in terms of ‘increased sales of books, paid invitations to speak or teach, media appearances and general profile-raising.’
With listeners spread over most of the known globe Nigel has in effect created his own one-man international broadcasting service. Not everyone is so ambitious. WiO’s Lorna Fergusson has yet to cast her first pod but when it came to choosing between a website and a blog, she too opted for the latter. Websites, she observes, can all too easily end up ‘costing a fortune’. Her blog, however, was free. The other great advantage was that it was surprisingly easy to set up. Half an hour after she sat down at her computer, her very own blog, literascribe, an engaging journal about books and the business of writing, was up and running. ‘I take the view,’ says Lorna, a self-confessed technophobe, that if I can do it, anyone can do it.’
The economic argument for blogging is uncontestable. Lorna uses Blogspot, which is now owned by Google, includes hosting, and is completely free. Nigel has opted for Typepad which is also a hosted service but which costs between £25 and £75 a year depending on which level you use. There are a number of other free blogging platforms where you have to find and pay for your own hosting service. These include Blogger, Movable Type and WordPress.
In a recent article published in The Author, Shoo Rayner (whose own remarkable website features later in this article), advises all authors who haven’t got a website to ‘get real’ by following his simple tips. He goes on to recommend Blogspot and, with even more enthusiasm, WordPress:
This is another free blog, but more powerful because it has an extra function called Pages which allows you to list extra information, e.g. book lists or your biography or a photo gallery. With Wordpress you can quickly make a great website which is perfect for the average author . . . visit my sample site at http://writertest.wordpress.com .
Blogs, then, are free or inexpensive, easy to use, and encourage online debate and interaction. At the same time they organise your postings automatically into Google-friendly chunks. But they do demand something which not all writers possess – time and regular habits. Running a blog is rather like running a shop. If you don’t open regularly you will end up with no customers. Of course you don’t have to be there from 9 to 5. But unless you post at least every couple of weeks (and preferably every two or three days) your readers may desert you. Many people start blogging with noble intentions but find they simply cannot find time to continue. As a result cyberspace is littered with forgotten blogs which orbit the earth like abandoned spacecraft whose last log entry reads more like a fading note from history than a recent update.
So, although blogging platforms are popular, there is still something to be said for the static website. If your principal need is to advertise your continued existence as a writer, create a showcase for your books (with extracts from those glowing reviews), provide fans, radio producers and others with your contact details and news about forthcoming public appearances, then it may be that a traditional website is the right choice for you.
It is at this point, most writers fear, that they are going to have to reach for their cheque books. When Lorna Fergusson was considering a web presence she did what many writers do – she consulted the advertisements in The Author, the house magazine of the Society of Authors. The most prominent of these is for Pedalo who seem to be market leaders in the field
of authors’ websites. Already in their fold are big names like Ian Rankin, Jeanette Winterson, Lynne Truss, Alain de Botton, Susan Hill and, indeed, WiO’s own Philip Pullman.
The Pedalo designs are often elegant, attractive and well-executed. But Lorna backed away from this option because it looked expensive. She was perhaps right to do so. Together with their corporate-speak (they refer without embarrassment to Ian Rankin as a ‘brand’ they have set out to ‘enhance’), Pedalo have a corporate price sheet. This starts at around £2000 for a small website.
Readers of The Author may at this point look to another prominent website design advertiser, Word Pool. Their own site contains a page entitled ‘Design hints and tips’ which sets out some basic principles clearly and is well worth reading.
In contrast to Pedalo, prices here start more modestly at £220. But for this you get only a ‘3 page standard site’ with up to six pictures. Extra pages and extra pictures cost extra money and so do hosting, domain names and any form of updating. Rather surprisingly, Word Pool will charge you three separate fees for the ability to update your text, your links and your pictures.
They do this for what sometimes seem rather blandly designed websites. Here, for example, is the website of Anne Mustoe, the bicycling ex-headmistress of St Felix School in Southwold, who, since her retirement, has pursued an extremely successful career as an adventurer and travel writer:
And here is is the website of an even better known writer, the feminist novelist and journalist, Zoë Fairbairns:
These sites may be set alongside that of Alan Wilkinson, script writer, ghost writer and a graduate – along with Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro – of UEA’s MA in creative writing:
All three of these writers have enjoyed remarkable, successful and distinctive careers. Yet, perhaps because they have underestimated the power of the image to override and almost render superfluous the much more important content of their sites, they are now presented to the world as if they were all but identical.
Given the particular qualities of the design in question perhaps the most apt comment is that of one of my fellow members of Writers in Oxford. ‘It does not take a lot,’ she noted (without reference to any particular designer), ‘for a website to make a writer look dreary.’
The Word Pool sites illustrated above are examples of their ‘standard’ site. But even their non-standard sites tend to resemble one another rather than convey the individual author’s character.
It was partly because she felt she noticed a similar sameishness in the sleeker, more modish and much more attractive designs of Pedalo that WiO founder member Jane Robinson thought she would look further afield. She eventually discovered David Hill of Storm Design in London. His overriding design principal is that first of all you must meet your client. Having done so, he then built one of the most distinctive and attractive sites in the entire WiO stable. The site, jane-robinson.com, reflects both the historical nature of Jane’s subject matter and its occasional quirkiness. At £500 it has proved to be an excellent investment.
As she points out, you can refer other people to it, so that a website is rather like a complex, multi-layered business card. In the year or so it has been up and running she has found it ‘invaluable’.
The credit for the design which eventually emerged, however, should not go solely to the designer. Building an author’s website is (or should be) a co-operative enterprise; getting output as good as this requires good input on the part of the author.
Not every author has a good visual sense but Jane evidently does. ‘My background is in antiquarian books and fine printing, so presentation and a good visual impression on the page (including the webpage) are very important to me. I wanted continuity and clear links between my work and the site, so I provided David with a portfolio of artwork, and he chose which to use, and how to use it. The row of ladies on the opening page (drawn by me) are from catchpenny prints, and appear on my stationery and business cards. I was also choosy about the font used, and the discreet colouring. I think David presented me with three or four different mock-ups, and I chose the “look” I preferred.’
Another Oxford writer (not a member of WiO) who considered Pedalo but was put off by the price was Robert Louis Stevenson’s biographer Claire Harman. Claire eventually found her way to Jon Soffe, a designer who works for Oxford Designers and Illustrators. For £650 he built her an extremely attractive and original site – claireharman.com – with which Claire was delighted.
One of the many excellent features of Claire’s site is its typography – something to which too many website designers give insufficient attention. Perhaps because Claire herself has an interest in book design, the text on her site, like the text on the main pages of Jane Robinson’s site, is particularly well presented.
Rather than using sans-serif fonts like Arial or Verdana, which most commercial website designers favour, or Times New Roman (which is used by Word Pool and on the general pages of this site), Claire and Jonathan opted to use Georgia.
This font, which I am also using for this article, was specifically designed by Microsoft for maximum legibility on computer screens. Like Times Roman, Georgia has traditional serifs – the tiny pointed strokes on the tops and tails of letters, one of whose effects is to make printed characters easier to distinguish from one another and therefore easier to read. In Microsoft’s Georgia font these serifs have been specially redesigned to ‘work’ on screen.
One of the problems with using Georgia on websites, however, is that the default setting on most website software doesn’t place sufficient ‘leading’ (space) between the lines – in other words the lines are squeezed too closely together, thus decreasing their legibility. Where Georgia is used successfully, as it is, for example, both on the New York Times website and on the website of the London Review of Books, it
is used only after the line height has been increased. This makes it much easier to read than the same text would be if it were set in Georgia on Microsoft’s standard setting:
Claire’s site has a line height which is almost as generous as the LRB’s. It also uses the font in dark grey rather than black, thus rendering it less harsh and more subtle than it otherwise would be. At the same time the site avoids two typographical faults which are particularly common in home-grown websites and which are also sometimes found in sites designed by professionals.
In the first place it does not create a visual clash and confuse the eye by running text hard up against the edge of images; instead it leaves sufficient white space for the text to remain a visual entity, distinct from the image which accompanies it.
In the second place, and perhaps even more importantly, the line-length of the text is kept suitably short. Conventional
typographic wisdom suggest that a column width that allows between 60 and 70 characters per line (around ten to twelve words) is comfortable and most books have lines of around this length.
Longer lines affect readability – the greater the distance from the right margin to the left, the more difficult it is for the eye to find the beginning of the the next line when reading. This is why, if you read, say, the Guardian newspaper online you will find that the text of a news story or feature is arranged in a single relatively narrow column about the same width as the main column on this page, which is around 70 characters wide. A similar convention for line length is followed by nearly all the ‘main’ websites such as the BBC and and, indeed, by most blogging platforms.
Displaying text at a reasonable line length, however, has become increasingly problematic for the simple reason that, over the last ten years, computer screens have become wider and wider. Ten years ago most computer screens displayed images which were 800 pixels wide. Today only a very small proportion of computers in developed countries have 800 pixel screens. The most common screen resolution is now 1024 and many new computers display at 1280 pixels. What this means in practice is that many website designers are tending to design much wider pages.
Some designers prefer to create flexible or ‘floating’ websites in which lines of text automatically stretch to fill the entire breadth of the screen but can, in theory, be easily re-sized by users. Most users, however, do not habitually re-size either their browser windows or the fonts on the page they are reading, so the theory does not necessarily work in practice. The effect of building ‘fluid’ or ‘floating’ websites is very often to inflict bad typographical design in the form of sprawling, over-long lines of text on unsuspecting website users.
By resisting the modish pressures which drive some web designers towards floating sites so that they can fill people’s increasingly wide computer screens, John Soffe has created a website which attempts to preserve traditional design values. It is one in which the designer (rather than the user or the size of their computer screen) seks to remain in control of the design and to determine the proportions at which it is seen.
What Soffe’s design illustrates is that one of the ways of dealing with the problem of over-large computer screens is not to fill the screen with the design by stretching it. Rather it is to treat the ‘spare’ space on the screen in the same way that a traditional picture-framer would, using it to form a ‘mount’ which frames and enhances the image it surrounds.
It must be said though that even Soffe’s solution works well only up to a screen width of 1024. If you view the site at 1280 pixels – the screen width which is common in the latest generation of laptops and PCs – what you see will resemble this screenshot:
Here we find that the ‘picture’ is drowned by its ‘mount’, whose proportions the designer cannot ultimately control.
Those who believe that the basic conventions of good design should be abandoned in order to conform to a new and more flexible medium, will no doubt use this example to continue to argue for floating as opposed to fixed websites. But perhaps all it illustrates is that all website design solutions are, almost by their nature, temporary and likely to need revision over time.
It should be noted that David Hill, in his site for Jane Robinson, has adopted a very similar solution and that this too works well on 1024 screens.
Whereas Soffe has used a subtle hatched grey background for his ‘mount’, Hill uses a dark brown background which been ‘tiled’ so that it will expand to fill the screen however big it becomes. The background may appear uniform in the thumbnail, but it is in fact watermarked with a detail from the same wonderful line drawing of the eccentrically ridden camel which appears on the ‘interior’ of Jane’s books page and, in its entirety, on the contact page.
(The drawing in question was, it turns out, another of the pieces of artwork which Jane provided to David Hill in the portfolio she left with him after their first meeting. It comes from Lispings from Low Latitudes: Extracts from the Journal of the Hon. Impulsia Gushington (1863), which Jane describes as ‘a wonderful spoof of the worst sort of travel book by a woman’. It was in fact written by Helen Sheridan – Lady Dufferin – who was a noted society beauty, poet and wit as well as being the grandaughter of the dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Jane used her book in her Wayward Women: A Guide to Women Travellers (OUP 1990) and says that ‘a (rare!) copy is one of my proudest possessions’. )
David Hill, as might be expected, has produced several other striking designs for authors, including a site for Nobody Told Us We Are Defeated, Rory McCarthy’s book about the Iraq war. This is undoubtedly an elegant site, though whether its designer elegance is entirely appropriate to a book which is engaged with the bloody realities of war is a question which some may find themselves asking.
DAVID HILL AND JOHN SOFFE are not the only professional designers who have created websites for Oxford-based writers. What is unusual about Lisa Taylor of CSS Web Design is that she has managed to build websites for four members of Writers in Oxford while being based all the time near Banff, north of Aberdeen. The connection came about when Felicity Bryan, a longtime member of Writers in Oxford and one of the few leading literary agents to be based outside London, was looking for a new website designer. One of her authors suggested Lisa and, partly because her fees seemed so reasonable, the first Scottish WiO site was commissioned:
At this point biographer Julie Summers, who is represented by Catherine Clarke, one of Felicity’s partners, was also wanting to set up a website. Catherine recommended Lisa who then built sites not only for Julie but also for writer and publisher Edward Fenton and for philosopher Donna Dickenson.
Of the three sites which grew out of the Felicity Bryan connection perhaps the most impressive and attractive is the one that Lisa built for Edward Fenton, whose firm Day Books specialises in unearthing and publishing forgotten diaries.
Edward had an existing website but all was not going well with this and he was finding it particularly difficult – and expensive – to keep the website updated. This side of his business had indeed, as he now recalls, become a ‘complete nightmare’ and he sometimes found himself having to pay £50 for his local designer to make relatively small changes to his site.
He wanted now to have a new site which would actually allow him to sell his books online and one which he could easily update. He decided to approach Lisa partly because of Julie’s recommendation that she was exceptionally easy to work with, partly because her prices seemed very reasonable (Julie’s site cost £300), and partly because she had already successfully designed e-commerce sites for other customers.
One of the pitfalls Edward wanted to avoid was, as he put it to me, ‘the danger of a web designer with too many ideas. You want the web content to come first rather than the designer’s ideas.’ Edward felt that Lisa had struck just the right balance and that she was very receptive to his suggestions. In fact he gave her quite a detailed brief. What he wanted to avoid was the conventional publisher’s website in which the first thing you see is rows of book jackets. One site which had impressed him in this respect was that of Macmillan and the idea of using a thematic header was one he borrowed from it, introducing colour in order to make the site more attractive.
So far as the question of updating the site was concerned, Lisa’s very reasonable fee of £600 included not only the website design and shopping software but also the software that Edward needed in order to take control of his own updates. Lisa recommended that he use Adobe Contribute, which allows the users of websites to update the content of a page without changing its structure or its underlying code. The idea is that updating your website (in minor respects at least) becomes as simple as blogging. Edward is certainly a convert to the system. ‘I’ve been really pleased with Contribute,’ he says, ‘it’s been a godsend.’ Although he thought he would be updating his site even more frequently than he does in practice, at least he finds that he is now free to add new material whenever he wants (so long as it doesn’t involve changes to the site structure). ‘It’s fantastic,’ he says.
Claire Harman, who was also introduced to Contribute by her designer John Soffe, is another author who speaks well of it. If she is not quite as enthusiastic as Edward it is perhaps because she has less occasion to use it than he has.
Lisa Taylor meanwhile has built sites for a number of other authors who have no connection with Writers in Oxford. The jewel in the crown of her current portfolio must without question be the site she has built for the Scottish novelist A. L. Kennedy. To find oneself commissioned to build a website for one of Britain’s most interesting novelists, who also happens to have recently embarked on a new career as a stand-up comedian, is not something that happens to every web-designer. The site Lisa Taylor has built is certainly an original one which has a number of striking features.
It is the content of the site, however, which places it head-and-shoulders above the common run of authors’ websites. Whatever judgment is passed about her new career as a stand-up, A. L. Kennedy is widely acknowledged for her ability to write a mean one-liner. When she turns this skill to the production of an FAQ page the result is one of the sharpest and most entertaining author’s web pages ever.
There is a problem with this page, however. It is the same kind of problem you get if you download one of the recordings made of the author’s Edinburgh fringe show which is available on her stand-up page. Here Kennedy herself warns visitors to her website that ‘The sound quality isn’t the finest you’ll hear’. If you keep listening it is not because this is easy to do, but because you think the quality of the next joke will make the ordeal worthwhile. You are likely to keep reading the FAQ page for similar reasons, though here it is the typography rather than the sound quality which gives rise to the problems.
Set in a small font with a length that averages around 26 words (on a 1024 screen), each new line of text stretches before the reader like an over-long tightrope pulled taut across a visual abyss. What makes the reader’s ordeal even more uncomfortable is that the ‘primary’ left-hand margin inside the light green box, which should afford the eye a necessary turning space, and whose breadth should correspond to the length of line, has been reduced practically to zero. Then, to confuse matters further, a grey line has been added to the left of the immediate margin:
In this particular case the over-long line has been placed on a fixed page-width. The disadvantage of this is that re-sizing the browser window will do nothing to reduce the length of the line. The advantage is that it cannot be stretched by a wide screen to even more unmanageable dimensions. Unfortunately this is not the case when it comes to the site which Lisa Taylor has designed for the novelist Jenny Diski.
The beautifully subdued colours of this site and its excellent content seem sometimes to risk complete defeat by the typography. Here the line length, when viewed on a 1024 pixel screen, averages out at around 32 words, which is three times
times the length generally held to be best for readabililty. Of course it is still possible to get through the text in this form. But it makes for considerable visual discomfort. In this case it is true that visitors can re-size both the text and their browser window. But, as noted already, not every reader is likely to take this course and one suspects that many will unconsciously decide to give up altogether.
For some readers with wider screens the task will be even more forbidding. Very few visitors to the site will have screens set to 1680 pixels. But the numbers who do may well increase in future years. Such visitors would find that, unless they take avoiding action, the same passage of text which is displayed above would be compressed into many fewer lines with an average length of 42 words (click on the image to view full-size):
When I talked to Lisa about the line length, she seemed unconcerned about the problem of readability. She explained the rationale behind her floating or fluid design for Jenny Diski’s site by pointing out that the lines of text do not only expand to fill wide-screens but will also contract to suit small hand-held devices.
‘Every website design is a compromise,’ she said. Interestingly she did not necessarily expect visitors to her flexible sites to re-size their browser windows, adding that one of the things she tried hard to avoid was ending up with ‘a whole heap of white space’ on the page. The argument is a familiar one and the screen shot of Claire Harman’s site on a 1280 screen (see above) is a good illustration of the real problem which Lisa is trying to deal with. But the solution she has chosen is one that seems to disregard the problem of line length and readability altogether.
It also seems somewhat mysterious that Jenny Diski should have a site which contracts easily almost to hand-held dimensions while A. L. Kennedy is denied such flexibility. Since very few visitors to authors’ websites are likely even to try to read long sections of prose on a handheld device, the attempt to accommodate them seems in any case ill-conceived.
Nearly all the website designers I talked to endorsed this view and, with the exception of Lisa Taylor, all favoured fixed designs over floating ones. As Jonathan Soffe put it to me: ‘I don’t like fluid sites because you lose control over your design. Everything just flows around and you lose control of the look and feel of it.’
This does not mean, however, that floating sites do not have their supporters outside the very small sample of designers I talked to. Many will continue to argue fervently that the flexibility of the internet should be reflected in the websites which people build. From the point of view of good graphic design (which includes good typography) this view is, I believe, mistaken. But it will not be easily relinquished by those who hold it.
NEARLY ALL THE SITES considered thus far are modest in size, with Jane Robinson’s and Claire Harman’s running only to six and five pages respectively. Some writers, of course, may want to build more ambitious sites. The best solution, if you just happen to be a writer who also has a flair for design, a brilliant sense of colour, and a ready understanding of web design software such as Dreamweaver, is to design and build your entire website yourself. Not every writer is gifted in this manner but one of Writers in Oxford’s newest members, Megan Kerr, undoubtedly is. The website which she recently completed for herself is a glorious feast of colour. It is also technically ingenious, including a free database for writers, which is designed to write your letters, suggest publishers and calculate your tax (together with much else). Among its many other riches it also contains Megan’s very own recipes for finding ideas and for dealing with writers' block as well as a page of writers widgets.
Megan’s site is much more ambitious in its scale and scope than many writers’ websites. But, with some exceptions, it deliberately offers only brief samples of her own work.
Her site is also interesting in another respect. For, working as she does on a laptop with a 1280 screen, she is acutely aware of the problems with which wide screens confront the unwary web-designer. Her own solution is to create ‘semi-flexible’ webpages which do expand to fill wide screens but which cannot be squeezed beyond a certain point and which thus manage to preserve a fixed line-length. A good example of this technique in action can be seen if you go to her writing page and then reduce the size of the window in your browser. (Do this by clicking on the ‘Restore down’ symbol beside the red cross at the top right of your screen. Then drag the right edge of the window across the screen as though you are drawing a curtain.) As the window for Megan’s site narrows the web page will contract while leaving the line-length intact. Given that websites are now commonly viewed on screen widths varying between 800 and 1280 pixels, this is an ingenious solution to a real problem – and a much better one than many others.
Archive sites and Mr Site
Some writers, of course, will want to create even more extensive sites. If you have spent a decade or two between books writing articles or reviews for newspapers or magazines, you may want to produce an archive of your work. If you’re a little disorganised and have your old articles scattered in forgotten files, desk drawers, old floppy discs and back numbers of the TLS, then building a website archive is a wonderful way of organising your work so that you can find it yourself. If millions of other people can simultaneously find it (and you) on the World Wide Web then that’s a bonus.
Those who do want to create an archive site are probably best advised to build it themselves, adding to it gradually over a period of months and years. In the old days this would have meant buying expensive software and learning how to write arcane code. This is no longer so. One possible way ahead has been discovered by another Writers in Oxford member, Joanna Kenrick. For £35 she bought a product called Mr Site which advertises itself as ‘the takeaway website in a box’. The box contains a card with a password which allows you to choose your own domain name – in this case joannakenrick.com. You can then build your own 50-page website using Mr Site’s templates and online editing software and have the result hosted for a full year. The price to renew for a second year is currently the same as the initial cost - £35. It was all such good value that when Faber recently published Red Tears, Joanna’s teenage novel about self-harm, she simply bought a second Mr Site website and dedicated this – red-tears.com – to the book. Joanna admits that having sites she has built entirely herself appeals
to the control-freak in her: ‘I love the fact that I can go on the site every day and update it, though of course I don’t have the time to do this in practice,’ she says. Her site may not look as elegant as those designed by professionals but she doesn’t mind about this. ‘I don’t need it to be fancy,’ she says, ‘I just need it to work.’
The Mr Site approach to building authors’ websites seemed to offer such good value that, together with two WiO friends who wanted websites of their own, Middle East specialist Trevor Mostyn and science writer Rita Carter, I decided to road-test it. Both sites are still under construction but the interim results can be seen at trevormostyn.com and ritacarter.co.uk.
The total outlay for Trevor’s site was £24.99 since PC World had Mr Site on special offer. And Rita’s site cost £17.50 thanks to a half-price offer at Amazon. These prices, of course, don’t include hours of work, a few tears of frustration and some torn-out hair.
It should also be noted that there is no way of ‘locking’ a particular design into a Mr Site website. A design which starts off with some degree of uniformity or co-ordination can very easily be pulled out of shape as authors revise or add to it. And, unlike blog templates, which come close to ruling out the very possibility of bad design and bad typography, Mr Site provides few boundaries. It therefore makes it just as easy to produce badly designed websites as well-designed ones.
Even when the the limitations, glitches and shortcomings of Mr Site are factored into the equation, however, many people would take the view their websites still provide excellent value.
The main health-warning which should be added is that the real threat to the integrity of Mr Site’s designs would appear to come not so much from over-enthusiastic authors as from Mr Site itself. Shortly after the first draft of this article was completed, the company undertook a major revision of its design templates. It did this without notifying its customers and without warning them that some elements in the structure of sites they had already built were about to be changed.
One victim of the change was the basic template used in ritacarter.co.uk. The original template, illustrated above, was in effect a gray frame which surrounded the black page on four sides. The frame had a bevelled inside edge so that the page looked as though it was recessed. In the new version the top and bottom of the frame have disappeared without trace as has the bevelled edge.
Perhaps even more importantly, changes were made to the proportions of pages in a number of templates, and in some cases the entire layout of the site was affected. At the same time, when sites were republished, borders began appearing round images even where none had been specified. It took at least five hours to restore Rita’s and Trevor’s sites to something approaching their original form and all this happened without any prior warning from Mr Site or, indeed, without any subsequent notification or apology . As Paul Campbell put it on the New Mr Site Forum: ‘I don’t think Mr Site as a company appreciates the time, energy and above all pride that goes into their customers websites, otherwise they wouldn’t go playing around behind our backs in such an amateur fashion.’
The conclusion would seem to be that, if you have a limited budget, a reasonable sense of graphic design, spare time, and don’t mind wrestling with somebody’s online software, the Mr Site approach to website building may be worth trying. But only if you feel you can cope with a company who appear to have very little understanding of how to treat their customers.
(In his article in The Author, Shoo Rayner recommends a different template-based solution: ‘If you are up for a bit more hands-on tinkering, try www.e-noise.com. For just under twenty [-five] quid you get a domain name and a whopping webhosting package with a brilliant control panel that lets you set up your own copy of WordPress, and many other web packages, with one click of a button. (No I don't have shares in them, but of the many ISPs I’ve used over the years, I've not found anyone who makes things as easy for the wesbite owner.)’
It should be borne in mind, however, as David Hill points out, that the problem with template-based sites is that you may get all dressed up for the party and find, when you arrive, that somebody is wearing the same outfit as you. Creating a striking and unusual header may partly solve this problem. But if you want a website whose original and imaginative design reflects the character and quality of your own writing, you may be well-advised to stay with the professionals.
An integrated blog
One final observation would seem to be in order here. For it is necessary to note that the the choice presented in the title of this article, and the implication in the body of the piece that authors must choose between creating a blog and maintaining a static website, is in some respects misleading. It is entirely possible for authors to have the best of both worlds. Jenny Diski (to cite but one example) maintains a lively and engaging blog, Biology of the Worst Kind, to which her website menu offers a link.
The transport journalist Christian Wolmar has gone one better than this. In the first place his simple but elegantly designed archive site contains a rich store of his published articles stretching back almost a decade. For anyone who shares Christian’s interest in railways and public transport the site is a goldmine.
In fact the whole site came about by chance. It was originally designed by a student, Michael Pead, who wanted to launch a career as a web designer. Sharing Christian’s interest in the history and politics of public transport, he approached him and offered to create a site for him as a favour so that he could use it as a showcase for his design talents. The huge labour of transferring Christian’s own archive from his computer to the new website was one which he both suggested and cheerfully undertook. The site was then re-designed with the help of Jing Dong, a freelance web-designer.
The result is one of the best archive websites on the internet. It should be noted here that the main reason which prompts people to pay repeated visits to websites is because they have found them to be a useful or valuable resource. The economy of the internet is in this respect an unusual one, in that it flourishes not because of people’s thriftiness but because of their generosity.
As Google’s own business model demonstrates (like that of Myspace or Yahoo or Facebook), what you get on the internet often depends crucially on how much you are prepared to give away. That this applies to authors is well-illustrated by Nigel Warburton, who (as noted at the beginning of this article) has found that it is by giving away his podcasts free, at the rate of several thousand downloads a day, that he can most effectively use the web in order to maximise his income (and influence) as a writer.
It is for this reason it is sometimes said that the first thing you have to decide when you set up a website is ‘how high you are going to lift your skirt’. Perhaps the best advice to give to any author is ‘the higher the better’. A poet who sets up a website but who offers his visitors no poems to sample, should not complain if he or she continues to starve in their garret. Novelists who set up websites but make no sample of their fiction (or of their journalism) available should not be surprised if their sites attract few links or visitors. Christian Wolmar has certainly found that the generosity of his site has paid dividends.
When Michael Pead suggested to him that he should add a blog to his site he reacted once again with scepticism. But he now finds that his blog, powered by blogger.com, but seamlessly integrated into the design of the site by Pead, has greatly increased his traffic.
He now has about 150 unique visitors a day which adds up to between three and four thousand visits a month. As an added bonus, visitors to the site can subscribe free of charge to a monthly newsletter.
From being a complete sceptic about his own need for a site, Christian is now a total convert. ‘My website,’ he says, ‘is my opening to the rest of the world.’ He finds that most of the people who ask him to speak at public meetings (for which he is paid a fee) approach him through his website, and indeed that most of his new commissions come by this means. He doesn’t update the site himself but is happy to pay freelance designer Jing Dong around £60 to £70 a month to do so because of the amount of new work the site brings in.
Largely because Christian’s site is updated regularly it has something of the attractive, busy and welcoming air of a frequently visited house. Above all, unlike most authors’ websites (including, for the last year or so, my own), his site is alive.
A philosophy of websites
On this subject, perhaps the last word should go not to an author, but to Ling Valentine, the Chinese car saleswoman who is based near Gateshead and has been described as ‘contract hire’s Ryanair’. Ling’s greatest business asset, apart from her native wit and her trademark cry of ‘Wah!’, is her website:
Most people who sell cars use their forecourt to display their wares and attract customers; Ling uses her website. She uses it so successfully that she has developed a philosophy of websites:
I am so pleased that most people like website. Recently, I have many questions asked about how to make own site that works like my site. Here are Ling thoughts...
Most people and business look at website wrong way. Try plugging head into 240v mains electric to clear brain.
Website is like an extension of you, person behind business. Are you alive? Then website should be alive. Do you change, have emotion, get angry, get happy? Then website should do all these things. Here is how (in Ling humble opinion):
Learn how to do basic editing on website. Use program like Macromedia Dreamweaver and sit with clever druggy student who show you some basic skill. It is actually quite easy. Learn to do things in source code. This is trick. Then you UNDERSTAND. Suddenly you say WAH! Then easy. You are capable adult, you can learn this stuff if you have interest. You can view source code of pages, and copy and paste something to duplicate an idea from someone else’s site. Or to do same thing again on your own site. Every time I do something like this window, I just copy paste and then change text and pictures. Not do it from scratch. So easy!
. . . . . . .
And that’s it! Now just extend your life into your webpage. You get an idea, put it up! You get a letter, just post it up! You want a picture, google image search, fanny to size, then post! So quick, so easy, so alive. Avoid mistake of writing like you are doing PR booklet. Talk normally, express emotions. DO NOT get someone else to write your stuff!!! Visitors are normal people, they like ‘feeling’. Best TV programs have emotion and feeling. Website same!... Do you read and understand this, or are you stupid dumb dumb who goes down boring ‘professional’ route? All you do there is throw money. I am talking about throwing your feelings. Gettit?
Most business make mistake of paying a company to build page, without learning. Learn! Modify, change. Don’t pay the idiots to do this, do it yourself. Treat webpage like business office or shop. If you want to move a desk in office you move it. Put calendar on wall, you put. Do the same on website. Do every day. So simple. All your customers can see this. They get ‘feeling’ from it.
Just make sure pages load right. Test each page all the time. Be your website’s best visitor. Keep an eye on stats. Make sure up, up, up.
Make sure website can do everything normal person can do if they visit your shop in real life. Avoid long forms, think like customer. So easy all this. Now promote website by every means, fax shot, letter, find an advertising site bring you traffic.
Last, don't let 1 day go by without changing or feeding or petting website, even tiny thing. If you don’t feed website it will die. Like pet. This is all emotion, not fact. You think I’m wrong? Look at your website, look at my website. When last time you even visit, never mind change? In real life you tell jokes, eat, drink, shout etc; do all this on website! Wah, this is so simple but most people consume in ‘professionalism’. Visitor just want website to work well for them.
That’s it. Sorry if this is too long. Sorry if you expect more. Hope this helps you, please let me know! - Ling
‘This site may be fun,’ writes Ling. ‘but I am really quite professional and I sell over £1,000,000 of new cars and vans
every month.’ Most authors, who by necessity are also involved in the business of gentle self-promotion, could learn a great deal from her.
Postscript on the Society of Authors ‘Website designers recommended by members’ page (with digressions)
JANE ROBINSON was so pleased with her site that she took the trouble to recommend David Hill of Storm Design to her fellow writers on the Society of Authors website. The page in the members’ area on which she does so is a mixture of genuinely helpful
recommendations with a number of rather indifferent ones and one or two which seem to smack rather too much of self-promotion.
Children’s authors’ sites
Apart from Jane Robinson’s site (see the main article above), the two sites which are perhaps the most original and impressive both belong to children’s writers. One is that of Kelly McKain, who writes books for children and teenagers. This was built by Matt Keogh, who can be found at loungepenguin .co.uk. In recommending him she writes that
‘Matt did a very creative, user-friendly and great value job on my site. He is also very easy to work with as a person.’ When I spoke to Matt Keogh he couldn’t recall the exact price he had charged but felt that it was in the region of £500. The price, he explained, was lower than it might have been for a commercial client simply because the project was such a creative and rewarding one – a point which had also been made by David Hill.
The other site which stands out as a work of art in itself, and which is also enormously entertaining, is that of author and illustrator Colin West. Colin has been described by the Times Educational Supplement as ‘one of our most consistently witty children’s poets’. The poetry page of his website bears this description out and should certainly not be missed.
His site was built by Denis O’Regan of www.easykey.net whom Colin also credits with introducing him to computers. Colin’s recalls that his brief to him was that he wanted a site ‘which had a hand-made quality and which shouldn’t be too slick’. Curiously Denis remembers things being the other way around and believes that he said to Colin ‘My suggestion is that we should make the website look like you've drawn it.’ Whichever version comes closest to the truth it would seem that in practice Denis O’Regan brilliantly built a site which was designed by Colin. Or, as Colin puts it, ‘I did all the drawings and he made them move.’
During their preparations they explored the website of Roald Dahl which had recently been built using the full range of bells and whistles available with Macromedia Flash.
They both came to the conclusion that Dahl’s site was too complicated and too sophisticated. Not only this but they felt they didn’t want to exclude children whose computers weren’t loaded with the necessary advanced software. They therefore decided that they would make a low-tech site, but one in which they could still animate the images.
At around £2000 the site was towards the higher end of the price spectrum. But, given the care and skill with which his drawings have been brought to life, Colin feels, understandably, that it was money well spent.
It would be wrong to move on from Colin West’s own site without relaying another of his recommendations – that of the website of his fellow children’s author Shoo Rayner. The home page gives very little
idea of the cornucopia which will be found within in a site which is entirely home-grown and which, on any view, must count as an extraordinary achievement.
There is just one more website which must be included here – that of the children’s author and illustrator John Wallace. The site is not in fact mentioned in the current recommendations page but it did feature on the Society of Authors website back in 2003 when it was first created. I have long thought that if authors’ websites were eligible for Oscars then John Wallace’s ought at the very least to receive a nomination. The site needs loudspeakers and flash; when it opens there is more than immediately meets the eye – or ear.
John Wallace himself proved to be elusive. When, after a bounced email, a wrong number in Brighton, and several false trails, I eventually tracked him down to a phone number in Kent, it turned out that his wonderfully original site had also been something of a bargain. He recalls that it was done for him about five years ago ‘as a kind of favour’ for about £300 by Richard Hooper, who was then a 22-year-old undergraduate studying art history at York University. The favour paid off for the young designer who, with the newly completed website in his small portfolio, got his first job as a web assistant with BBC Radio 4 – where he is now an assistant producer on You and Yours.
Richard Hooper reveals that all the noises in the website’s ‘soundtrack’, including the boy’s shouts for help, were produced by him; the sound of the rattling skeleton, which assiduous explorers of the site will eventually discover, was actually made with a set of measuring spoons. He also observes that, because of the way computers have speeded up over the last few years, the ship now travels faster across the ocean than it used to do. He goes on to sound a note of warning, pointing out that sophisticated flash sites like this are all very well but that they tend to lack one essential quality all authors’ websites should have – easy updatability. ‘I’m the only person now who could possibly update it,’ he says.
This issue of updatability is clearly a very important one and may hide substantial expenses for authors over and above the initial fee for designing their site. If every update must be referred back to the designer and paid for pro-rata, then the more prolific an author you are, the more expensive it is going to be to keep your website abreast of your own output. The solution, of course, is to make sure that your website is one you can update yourself. Some designers try hard to make this possible and the usefulness of Adobe Contributor for adding items such as news and links has already been noted. Adding an entirely new book to a site, however, is another matter and many authors will hold back from attempting to do so. This is one of the advantages of the Mr Site approach which is appreciated by Joanna Kenrick . For, if you have built the site from scratch yourself, updatability is simply not a problem. John Wallace has never been in this position and the problem which results is illustrated by the fact that the site appears not to have been updated for at least two years.
Since Richard Hooper himself raises the problem of the site’s updatability – or lack of it – he perhaps will not mind if I point out another drawback. This is that the wonderful originality of the design means that the author is almost in danger of being overshadowed by the ingenuity of the showcase which has been created for his works. The medium is, in short, in danger of becoming the message.
The website remains a triumph. But it is almost too much of a triumph. The shop-front is majestic and ornate; what is really needed is more work on the interior and the wares which are displayed there. I remain a devoted fan for all this – both of Richard Hooper and of John Wallace who was, after all, entirely responsible for the drawing which Richard has brought to life.
Of colours and quotes
Back on the Society of Authors page it perhaps should be noted that one designer already has no fewer than eight different bouquets at her feet thrown to her by eight different admirers, all of whom are members of the Society of Authors. Joseph Connolly, Patrick Curry, Roberta J Dewa, Maureen Duffy, Clive Couldwell, Trevor Homer, Malcolm Rose, and Dione Venables all recommend Annie Pennington who can be found through her website www.digitalplot.co.uk .
One can’t help but wonder whether a little gentle herding may not have gone on here, something which Annie herself eventually confirms. But when I speak to Trevor Homer about the simple but very effective three-page site Annie designed to promote his The Book of Origins, his enthusiasm is clearly genuine. Indeed, he seems to have no reservations at all about Annie Pennington’s services. Given that his entire site was built for less than £300 this is perhaps not surprising.
The larger and more ambitious site Annie has built for the novelist Joseph Connolly is also successful on a number of levels. Very few authors are honoured by their publisher by having all ten of their novels reissued in a uniform cover design. Joseph Connolly has been and the website which Annie Pennington has designed for him has used an approximation to the typography of these jackets to create her own design.
One might well question the colour scheme whereby the very bright colour of the header changes with each
different page and where the contact page is a rather
violent shade of pink. It turns out, however, that these colours were actually specified by the author.
What is also questionable is the decision to use ten jacket covers in the header without linking them individually to the descriptions of the books to which they relate. This may well have saved a small amount of time and money but it results in a rather unappetising sea of red links on the home page and seems a missed opportunity.
In this website the dimensions of the page are blessedly fixed but once again the left-hand margin, whose width is crucial to the readability of the text, has been reduced practically to zero inside the grey box.
One of the results of the cramped left-hand margin (which fails to balance a generous right-hand margin) is that the width of the text on the screen is inevitably increased. Although the 22-word line which results may be just about bearable, it still exceeds the optimum length for readability by a factor of two and will almost inevitably unconsciously deter some visitors from reading the longer passages at all.
Other features of the site which prompt questions are the way in which material which could have filled a dozen pages (with correspondingly greater visibility on search engines by virtue of the different page titles), has been packed into four main pages, and the way in which extracts from reviews are set out. Ordinary typographical conventions are disregarded so that (à la Guardian) italics are not used for book titles (except, inconsistently, for Connolly’s most recent novel), but are used for quotations. In the serried ranks of quotations which appear for Connolly’s latest book, Jack the Lad and Bloody Mary, there are no line-spaces, so that it becomes difficult to tell where one quote ends and another begins.
In a decision which seems likely to have been taken by the author rather than the designer, reviewers in most cases are not named at all. Apart from the fact that this seems discourteous it is also poor strategy so far as search engines are concerned. Proper names are grist to Google’s mill; every reviewer’s name omitted from your website is a search engine opportunity needlessly sacrificed.
One extract from a Telegraph review is particularly tantalising: ‘Why isn’t Joseph Connolly more famous? It is one of the imponderables of modern British fiction. His literary pedigree is impeccable ...’ This unattributed extract has been written by somebody who has a voice of his or her own and who speaks with natural authority. I find myself wanting to know who it is. A Google search for the passage, however, returns only the website from which it has been culled. There seems to be no way of tracing its author. But then, nestling almost invisibly in the undifferentiated lines of quotations beneath this passage, I discover a link to what appears to be a different Telegraph review. It turns out that it is the same review and that the answer to my query has been under my nose all the time on the very website that has prompted it, but has escaped notice because the link to it (which could so easily have been a thumbnail as below) is practically invisible.
The reviewer turns out to be Elena Seymenliyska, a former editor with Hodder Arnold, who now reviews regularly both for the Telegraph and the Guardian. Her review is a wonderful tribute to Joseph Connolly’s powers as a novelist. So long as it remains in its present form, however, as an under-sized image, very few people are likely ever to find it, let alone read it.
In this case it turns out that several reviews have been supplied as scanned images by the author. Yet a search of the Telegraph’s website reveals that Seymenliyska’s gem of a piece is already online (though somehow not fully registered by Google). This means it could easily have been posted on the site in a form that Google and other search engines could read. Even Google, however, cannot read text which is presented in the form of an image.
The various points made here should not be taken to indicate that Annie Pennington has not produced a website for Joseph Connolly which is much better than many authors’ websites. It is simply that, with different input from the author and the designer, the site could so easily have been much more effective and attractive.
It is quite clear, however, that Annie has an exceptionally high number of satisfied clients among the authors for whom she has built sites. The fact that she has attracted many more recommendations than any other designer who is featured on the Society of Authors website page may not be quite as significant as it appears. But it clearly means something.
One of the other recommendations on the Society of Authors page which would seem to belong to the ‘genuinely helpful’ category comes from Michael Schmidt. A poet himself, Schmidt is best known as the editorial and managing director of the Carcanet Press, which is sometimes described as the UK’s leading poetry publisher.
As well as running Carcanet, Schmidt is Professor of Poetry at the University of Glasgow, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was awarded an OBE in 2006 for services to poetry. In view of all this his endorsement of a firm called WebGuild carries considerable weight.
Carcanet’s own website has for some time been repeating this recommendation, dedicating an entire page to promoting WebGuild:
The website on which this page appears bears a prominent acknowledgment to the Arts Council, from whom Carcanet has received subsidies totalling a third of a million pounds in the last three years alone. That a publicly funded poetry publisher’s website should devote an entire page to promoting the services of a private website design company seems curious. It was therefore a little disconcerting to discover that Michael Schmidt is actually one of the directors of WebGuild, in whom he is also a shareholder. At the time the first draft of this postscript was completed (15 November 2007) no mention of this connection was made either on the Society of Authors recommendations page or on Carcanet’s website. After I raised the matter in a telephone conversation with Michael Schmidt on the evening of 15 November the Carcanet page was changed and by the end of the next day his directorship was acknowledged. At the same time the Web Guild contact page was also changed. It had previously named three directors. It was now revised in order to make mention of the fourth director, Michael Schmidt.
These commendably (or perhaps just prudently) rapid changes should not be taken to indicate that some great financial scandal had been uncovered. WebGuild is a tiny company and Michael Schmidt’s current financial interest in it is extremely small. When I talked to him about this it seemed fairly clear that his involvement with the company had grown out of a genuine regard for the excellent service which they had provided to Carcanet in the years before he joined them as a director in January 2005. His relationship with WebGuild appeared to be a reasonably benign exercise in reciprocal back-scratching. In return for a discount on their services he would promote them through Carcanet – which he did both by including the page on the website and by writing a letter to all Carcanet authors commending WebGuild to them.
His misjudgment was to accept an invitation to be a director of the company and to become a (very small) shareholder without making this clear when he recommended the firm to others – including his fellow members of the Society of Authors.
Perhaps, though it seems unlikely, Schmidt permitted himself to imagine, in moments of non-poetic reverie, that WebGuild might become another Body Shop and that his tiny shareholding would grow proportionately. If he did he is likely to be disappointed. This is because the claim made until recently on Carcanet’s website that WebGuild allows its users to build websites ‘at a fraction of the cost of other web-design solutions’ is – in some respects at least – misleading
The main reason for saying this is that the system which WebGuild most resembles is that offered by Mr Site.
In both cases what is provided is a web-based solution which dispenses with the need for would-be web-designers to buy and run their own software and allows websites to be built online. But whereas Mr Site’s charge of £35 per year includes 50 pages and any domain name of your choice, WebGuild offers a service which costs £99 a year, charges extra for US-based domain names (eg .com and .net), and includes only 10 general pages. If you already have your own .com domain name and wish to ‘import’ it into the WebGuild system you will be charged £35.25 extra, which is more than the cost of a year’s subscription to Mr Site. Fifteen additional general pages will further increase the price by £50 and still leave your WebGuild site some twenty pages short of the allowance which comes automatically with Mr Site for a fifth of this price. (On the day after the telephone conversation in which I drew Michael Schmidt’s attention to some of these points, the claim about WebGuild allowing people to build websites ‘at a fraction of the cost of other web-design solutions’ disappeared from the Carcanet website and was replaced by the more modest claim that websites are provided ‘at a surprisingly reasonable cost.’)
As well as their standard website system, WebGuild also market a product called Solo which is specifically aimed at those who want a small website. Solo promises unlimited news pages, several menu pages, but only five ‘linked info pages’. Once again extra pages can be purchased for extra money. The fee of £40 for an ‘expansion kit’ containing one menu page and five ‘info pages’ may seem modest but it should be borne in mind that this fee, like the initial fee of £105, will recur annually for as long as the website is active.
The results of WebGuild’s rather strict regime of page-rationing are perhaps visible in the Solo site run by Grevel Lindop, a Carcanet poet. Here, presumably because webspace is, quite literally, at a premium, an interview with the reclusive and rather ascetic poet,
the late R. S. Thomas, finds itself, bizarrely, sharing the same web page with a remarkable account of Lindop’s visit to a strip club near Shoreditch.
After some detailed and finely observed scene-setting, Lindop describes the beginning of one of the pole-dancing acts, eventually relating how Leonie, a young blonde woman, ‘wearing a pale blue halter-top and a short gauzy skirt of the same colour, split to the waist’, slides her ‘diaphanous skirt up over her buttocks to reveal a minimal white thong’.
At a critical moment in his account, however, the poet interrupts his narrative in order to develop, at considerable length, the speculative thesis that our cultural fascination with the art of striptease ‘developed as part of the new way of looking which came with the discovery of linear perspective, usually dated from Brunelleschi’s demonstration at Florence in 1425’.
Whether or not we are convinced by this argument, it must be said that the juxtaposition of R. S. Thomas with the pole-dancer Leonie, who, later, during a private dance with Lindop in a curtained area behind the bar, is observed to ‘undulate three feet or so from me, naked except for a pair of perspex stilettos’ is, beyond any question, unusual.
Perspex stilettos from www.grevel.co.uk
Poetry was not always so exciting. In that this unusual juxtaposition appears to be a product of the rather cramped approach to website design which WebGuild’s pricing structure inevitably encourages, perhaps we should be grateful to Michael Schmidt.
It should also be said that price and page-count comparisons are not everything. Mr Site is a large business with thousands of customers. Its approach to customer service and technical advice is, as has already been noted, remote, impersonal and somewhat patchy. WebGuild is evidently a much smaller business and it is entirely possible that the back-up service it provides to its customers is infinitely better. In these respects Michael Schmidt’s recommendation may actually be well-founded. His commendable, though rather belated straightforwardness in now declaring his interest in the services he recommends, will, I am sure, be appreciated by his fellow members of the Society of Authors – and indeed by authors in general.
Except . . . Except that when I return to visit the Society of Authors webpage which gave rise to this postscript the recommendation from Michael Schmidt
is still there, and there is still no acknowledgment that it is not quite the disinterested suggestion it might appear to be. Patience, one hopes, will eventually be rewarded with transparency even here, but a full month has passed since I spoke to Schmidt on the phone and it hasn’t happened yet.
What evidently has happened since I spoke to Anna Pattison at the Society of Authors to let her know that I was working on this piece is that the page in question has been comprehensively reorganised and tidied up as if in the expectation of visitors.
At first glance the recommendations themselves do not appear to have been changed. Which is just as well, since, if the content of web pages is going to change every time I re-visit them, there may never be an end to this ever-lengthening postscript.
But wait. What’s this?
It’s an entirely new recommendation for Wordpool, whom we have already encountered once on this page. The recommendation is from Nicola Morgan who is evidently a successful author of children’s books – including some non-fiction books about the brain.
One thing which is immediately clear is that there is nothing bland about this Wordpool site. Instead of the insipid yellows and greens of the standard design, this site is bright red:
But no. It seems in fact to be orange:
Or is it really pink?
In fact the website actually changes colour before one’s eyes like an overheated and slightly psychotic chameleon. The home page does at least. The other pages are each a different bright and somewhat violent colour. Rather like Joseph Connolly’s site in fact, as though there is some process of digital contagion at work.
Whatever the reasons may be, the effect is highly distracting. The focus of the page should be on the book jackets which it features. And each different page should be distinguished by its content rather than by the strikingly different colour of its frame. But instead it is the surround which commands all the attention. In the case of the home page with its ever-changing colours it is rather as if somebody has placed a flashing neon frame around a Rembrandt; the frame becomes all-important and the painting almost disappears from view.
Trusting in her sense of colour, I send an email to Megan. Carefully avoiding giving her any hint of my own feelings, I ask her what she thinks. She is much kinder than I am. But even she remarks that the changing colour on the home page is ‘a bit eye-watering’. She goes on to write:
The different colours for the different pages don’t seem to make much sense. The ‘news’ page in particular suddenly looks like a dentist’s website - I think it’s that particular shade of turquoise combined with so much white, and then the woman’s white blouse suddenly looks a bit medical.
Our associations between colours and products / mood are very powerful (eg. red & yellow = cheap). The colours on the different pages need to work together more, and to make more sense in and of themselves.
To my eye, this Wordpool website does a disservice to an author who deserves much better. Its multi-coloured approach is not only distracting but, as Megan herself comes close to suggesting, entirely gratuitous. It calls to mind some very sensible words of advice given to authors by one website design company:
It’s a good idea to give your site an overall feel which is reflected in all its pages. One way to do this is with a consistent colour scheme – the availability of millions of colours at no extra cost doesn’t mean you have to use them all. Choose a combination that reflects the feel of your work. Barbara Cartland would probably have wanted pink but you may prefer bright primary colours or a restful mix of creams and browns.
This wise advice might have been followed with advantage by whichever Wordpool designer created the site for Nicola Morgan. One of the reasons one might have expected this to happen is that the quotation above actually comes from Wordpool’s own website.
The typography of the Nicola Morgan site is also unusual. All the text is justified. Because words cannot be hyphenated on a website as they are in print this means that rivers of white space sometimes flow between words, particularly when they are set out in narrow columns. It is perhaps worth noting here that, although there is not complete agreement about the issue, some studies suggest that setting text without fully justifying it – with a ‘ragged right’ edge – actually improves readability because of the way it renders consistent the spacing between words.
What is beyond question is that the word-spacing on Nicola Morgan’s site is uneven in the extreme. At the same time we sometimes find the exact opposite of the text/image spacing noted on Claire Harman’s site. Unevenly spaced words, set without sufficient leading, actually collide with the left-hand edge of images, like dodgems at a fairground:
The effect of this typography is that the text becomes entangled with the images and readability suffers. At the same time the entire page becomes visually unattractive.
None of this, of course, reflects badly on Nicola Morgan herself, who, as an author, is not supposed to be a judge of good graphic design. But it does reflect badly on Wordpool, who, while offering their services as professionals, have created a website which might almost serve as a model of bad design.
One is left to ponder on the overall wisdom of the Society of Authors inviting their members to nominate good web designers and then accepting their recommendations and broadcasting them without any editorial intervention. As I hope I have made clear here, the page in question does contain some excellent recommendations. But it also contains a number which, for a variety of reasons reasons, are highly questionable.
The more general problem which is brought into focus here is that the business of designing websites remains largely uncharted. It is a craft without a tradition or a thriving critical culture; it is one which practically anyone can enter without qualifications, training or even very much knowledge. Because a necessary attribute is technical competence, this seems all too often to be treated as a sufficient qualification. As a result there are a significant number of professional website designers who have, at best, a very imperfect grasp of what will always be the essential skills of the job – namely graphic design and typography.
||Richard Webster’s archive site (which is long overdue for a re-design) will be found at www.richardwebster.net