Life As An Itinerant Artist

Stories and anecdotes from fifteen years on the art show circuit. 

Web site construction 101

design tools

Many artists don’t have the time or the inclination to put together a decent Web site, but a well-organized site is perhaps one of the best marketing tools you can have. The following comment is representative of many artists’ feelings:

If my frustration (read hysteria LOL) is showing…sorry…I thought I
was close to getting a site up by registering, then hosting my domain,
but am CLUELESS as to what comes next. In desperation for a place to
point people, I put a “shop” up on eBay, but would like a site where
people can pick an image, choose size, mounting, finishes,
etc..probably asking too much at this point. As a starving artist
trying to get a million things together for my first art fair I
already feel frazzled but it seems counterproductive NOT to be able to
point people to a website at the same time….it should look decent tho’.

Has anyone got an opinion on adding PayPal to a site?? So many
questions, so little time :o)

Your best solution is to break it down into manageable parts.You probably won’t get to the point where you have a site where folks can choose as many variables as you suggest and add to a cart, without much learning and experimentation. Most hosting companies offer simple site builders, but they aren’t great, for a number of reasons. Design flexibility in the templates, number of pages you can reasonably build and manage, features like a gallery or shopping cart — these are all limited by site building engines, by design.

So, break the project down into phases.

Start with a basic, “this is who I am” site. The key elements might be your artist’s statement, a little about how you got to where you are, how to get in contact with you and a few static images of your work.

GoDaddy’s “Website Tonight” will get you there quickly as will most template style web builders, but its main limitation is that you pay a lot for a few pages. This isn’t a very sustainable model, but it will teach you a little about site building, and it will get some content online quickly. You could also use this to link to photo albums on Flickr!, Photobucket or an eBay store, although you are then really building 2 sites, using two different interfaces on two different hosts. It’s usually better to keep your visitors on one site if you can.

You might also consider using a blog format instead of a traditional site format. A blog will allow you to create, add and edit content and build a small user interface without any real code knowledge. You can build this on GoDaddy, for example, by setting up a database and then installing WordPress, both of which are available from the hosting interface control panel. A little more intimidating, but still not as hard as learning HTML, CSS and JavaScript from the ground up. WordPress has a huge user base, and there are lots and lots of templates available, for free. The software is free, but it does require that you setup a SQL database, which is not as hard as it seems — most hosting companies have automated the process for you. Blogger and TypePad are two other common blogging platforms.

Both of these methods will get you online quickly and allow you put some information online without knowing a lot of code. Keep it simple, keep it consistent.

Shopping carts are tougher. The easiest way to add commerce for a few items is with a PayPal shopping cart. You don’t need a merchant account or a gateway — PayPal handles all the heavy lifting. And the best thing is that it’s free. You do need to sign up for a business account to use the shopping cart feature. The downside to this is that you do need to know a little code, but not much. Paypal has button generators on their site which will let you paste the code into any site’s HTML. WebAssist also offers a free button building plug-in that works well with Dreamweaver to generate the basic code, which you can then customize. Bigger commerce sections may require a full-on shopping cart. I’ve done a lot of research on carts, and finally came to the conclusion that most of them don’t work well for artists — they are designed for mass merchandising, not one-offs. You may find that it’s simpler not to add buying functions at all, but feature your studio phone number prominently. That lets your customers call you to discuss their needs personally. Unless you’re selling many items a day, that may be more effective in the long run.

Galleries are another thing that can be tough to build from scratch. You can use an online service such as smugmug or photobucket to host them, you can use Lightroom or Aperture to build them and upload them to your site, or you can use any number of open-source applications to build them, such as JAlbum or Slideshow Pro (uses Flash).

But, before you start building anything…

There are several things that are important to consider in building sites, none of which are directly related to the software you use to build it. You can start on paper, and then figure out exactly how to go about making it.

First, and most important, is a list of software requirements — what you want the site to DO and SAY. Start by making a list of everything you can think of that you want on the site, now, and in the future. Then categorize each item in the list as important, nice to have or unimportant. Go back again and prioritize the list — are the important items the ones that you and your audience simply must have? If so, that gives you a starting point for the next step, the user interface.

Take your list and break it down into groups, by content — examples of your work and the artist statement might go together in a “who” section, your show schedule and gallery openings might be in a section on “when”, and so forth. Organize it so that it will make sense to someone who doesn’t know you. Again, you can use paper — an outline (called a site map) or post-it notes that you can push around on a table work well. Write each page name and the content the page contains, on a separate post-it (summarize!), put the category headings at the top, and the less important pages below, as if you were clicking through to each page. Modeling a site in this way can help you visualize it more easily.

Once armed with your list and a diagram of how you want the site organized, you will have a better idea of what you want and what you need. The key thing is to try to plan ahead for those things that are nice to have, but you don’t have the time or patience to implement now. Planning for them now will help later when you do get around to building those features into the site. The requirements will also help you to determine what software you may need to add to the site — there are scripts and applications to do just about anything you might want to do.

No matter what you decide to build, it will involve a learning curve. If you’ve never done it before, it is daunting. Books or online resources can help. Here are a few:

http://www.csszengarden.com — Free, and highly recommended if you want to learn CSS. Buy the book, too

https://www.wpbeginner — An excellent guide to Word Press

http://www.wpdfd.com — Web Page Design for Designers

http://www.veen.com/jeff — Jeffrey Veen’s site

Project Seven — widgets, and menu-driven interface plug-ins for Dreamweaver.

Jakob Neilsen — Mr. Usability, simple, yet effective. Some say too simple.

http://lynda.com — Subscription based, but still one of the best teaching tools. $25 monthly.

June 7, 2008

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3 Comments

  1. Jim…
    Thanks so much for this mountain of information! It certainly is on point and is exactly what I needed. I realized as I read your post that I really hadn’t taken the time to visualize EXACTLY what I wanted the site to look like…a very important first step! I will go through the article item by item and check it all out and hopefully something will start to make sense in my poor tired/frustrated/overwhelmed brain :o)

    I don’t even know how to access the “guts” of the the minimal page that my brother put up for me but I think that I’ll get the add on from Go Daddy (web site tonight), get something up for now with pics, artist statement and contact info then let it rest for awhile and ponder where I want it to go. I think I’ve just built it into such a monumental task in my mind that it has me totally freaked out….so thanks for the voice of reason!

    Debbie
    http://www.barefootdreamers.com

  2. The visual look of the site is important, sure, but it’s much more important to determine function before you address form and content. Often, content is driven by function.

    For example, if you want to provide for a mechanism for visitors to contact you (requirement), you can provide different functions to handle input. A form for email signup, or a blog for two-way communication would be two similar functions that both handle visitor input. How these functions are presented in the context of the site has no real bearing on the functions themselves, other than usability and style concerns. The functions themselves may dictate layout — a form always requires a submit button, at the very least.

    That’s why it’s important that you address function — user interface and requirements — first, and not layout.

  3. This is a phenomenal amount of information! Thanks for putting this here. Your advice makes so much sense, I will be sitting down and making the lists you suggested and starting to visualize the site that I want. I have been depending on friends, but that isn’t working at all well. I am taking courses at a local community college to learn website design, but I don’t want to wait that long to get something up. Thanks for posting the link in the art show photo group!

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