The 7 Deadly Website Sins


Photograph by Johnny Grim. Used under Creative Commons license

I recently wrote about why there's no excuse for artists not to have websites. If you're still working on yours, here are a few things to avoid like the plague.

1. Overuse of Flash

I'm not a big fan of Flash - it can be useful when used sparingly but it's frequently overdone or used inappropriately. Web designers can start acting like puppies on crack when they get their paws on Flash. You need to smack them firmly with a rolled up newspaper.*

There are other good reasons for avoiding Flash. The web is increasingly moving over to HTML5, so a site that’s designed in Flash now is highly likely to need redesigning in a couple of years. Flash often doesn't work on mobile devices, including iPhones and iPads. Apple have said that they won't integrate Flash into those platforms. Microsoft have also come out in support of HTML5.

Even if your visitors are capable of viewing Flash, it often slows a site down considerably - I do not care how pretty your site is, if it takes several minutes to load, you've lost me.

*Fret not, it's hyperbole. I do not advocate violence against web designers. Or puppies. Or crack addicts.

2. Choosing Form Over Function

Unless your site is an actual art project and a pretentious design is vital part of your evil plan, please resist the urge to overcomplicate things.

I do not want to chase small objects around the screen. I do not want to have to guess what your obscure labels mean. I do not want to search in vain for photographs of your work. You are not a pirate constructing a fiendish puzzle to protect your buried treasure, so knock it off!

Again, this is usually more of a problem with professionally designed sites because the rest of us simply don't have the skills to complicate things in this way. I have a theory that web designers hear the word 'artist' and immediately start cackling like mad scientists thinking about all the crazy things they can get away with.

I don't want to sound as though I'm picking on web designers - most of them do wonderful work - but I have seen a lot of art websites rendered unusable through 'clever' design. Remember: just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. People visiting your website don't care how 'arty' your site looks, they just want to find out about your work quickly and easily. Simple, functional and elegant wins out over complex and difficult to use every single time.

ETA: Artist and web designer iamANT pointed out that it's actually often artist clients who demand bizarre and 'creative' sites. If this is you, stop it, you silly artist! Listen to your designer when they tell you that strangely animated Flash sites are a bad idea. They are trained in their field. You are not.

3. Illegibility

It sounds painfully obvious but if you want people to read your site then you need to make it readable.

Large blocks of text are hard to read, so break it up with paragraphs and photographs.

Do not use colours with too much or too little contrast. In particular, be very careful of white text on a black background. This has been popping up all over the web recently like a bad case of shingles and I think it's appalling. I find it painful to read and 9 times out of 10, I simply click away. If you must use white on black, there are things you can do to make it more legible.

Do not use hard to read fonts or text that's too small. Websites are increasingly being read on mobile phones and small text that won't enlarge is one of the major problems. If you're on WordPress, there are various plugins that will make your site compatible with mobile devices. I'm currently testing out Mobilize by Mippin.

4. Clutter

White space is your friend, people.

Busy backgrounds and animated adverts do not enhance anyone's browsing experience. And you don't need to put hundreds of buttons, banners and widgets on your blog sidebar either.

I understand, I do. We’ve all been there. There are all sorts of cute widgets and plugins out there wriggling provocatively at you and promising to show you a good time if you'll just take them home. The temptation to tell people what you’re reading; what you’re twittering; how many fans you have on Facebook; what the weather is like where you are and when you last ate cornflakes is enormous. You could fill your entire blog with sidebar widgets. Unfortunately many people do.

But the human brain can only parse so much information at once: you need to be selective or none of the information will register. I've visited blogs where it's hard to focus on the actual blog post because it's lost in a sea of visual clutter. You need to prioritise & put the most important stuff at the top, especially things you want your visitors to actually DO. These ‘calls to action’ should be clear. If you want people to sign up to your mailing list, don’t make them hunt for it. If you want people to buy your products, make it easy to do so. If you want them to look at your art, direct them to it. And then get rid of as much else as humanly possible.

If you need further help optimising your website, I highly recommend a coaching session with Catherine Caine from Be Awesome Online.

And if you still feel the need to tell people about your breakfast cereal of choice, write a FAQ page.

5. Music

Apparently some artists think that my appreciation of their art will be deepened by tinny elevator music suddenly erupting from my speakers. They are very wrong.

Look, it could be my favourite piece of music in the whole wide world but I still don't want it to start up when your site loads for the very simple reason that I'm usually already listening to music while browsing.

Nothing will make me leave your site faster than music that starts automatically. It also makes me want to hunt you down and stab you but we won't go there...

6. Lousy Content

Are your photographs good enough? Are they properly labelled and easy to navigate? Do they load quickly enough? Is it obvious what things are? Avoid blurry or badly lit photos wherever possible (I do know that photography conditions in exhibitions are sometimes less than ideal but do your best).

What's your writing like? Unless you know you're speaking to an exclusively art audience, don't use art jargon. Use your spellchecker. Read through your stuff before you hit publish. Make a decent stab at using correct grammar, although you can get away with writing that's technically incorrect on a blog because a more conversational style is common in blogging.

Oh, and don't be boring or no one will read it. You have to sign up to a mailing list to get it but I found this free guide to writing 'non-sucky copy' from Laura Belgray of The Talking Shrimp useful.

7. Being Secretive

Do you belong to a secret spy organisation where your identity must be protected at all costs? No, you (probably) do not!

If you’re trying to promote yourself with a blog and/or a website, then you need to reveal something about yourself. Like, say, your name. You don't have to reveal everything but an 'about me' page is a must. Arts business coach Alyson B. Stanfield recommends having a good photograph of yourself too.

A lot of artists also make it far harder than it needs to be for people to contact them. Claire Platt pointed out in the comments that even simple contact information like an email address is often missing.

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15 thoughts on “The 7 Deadly Website Sins

  1. Good pointers!

    totally agree with the last one and would like to add - put your contact details SOMEWHERE! when sorting 52 I literally could not find some artists email address (despite in some cases them having a flickr, blog, webpage, etsy) I had to resort to sending them messages on one of those! awful!

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  2. Thank you, Thank you, thank you!!!!! Finally an artist who gets it. As a professional web designer it has constantly driven me crazy that most artists make these same mistakes over and over again on their site/blogs. While you have covered most of the standard artist site design issues, I'd like to throw in my two cents:

    1. Flash - Completely pointless to use as part of the design. Flash heavy sites are so 2002-2005. Flash does nothing for SEO, plus like all the widgets you mentioned they ultimately distract from the main point of a site - it's CONTENT.

    2. Form Over Function - Now here I am going to defend my fellow designers a little.A lot of artists have to be talked out of their stupid ideas for how their art/portfolio/blog site should be designed. And as designers, we sometime in cannot convince our artist clients that no, they shouldn't have a "tim burton" flash styled animated site, weird/vague terms for navigation, etc. The min problem as I see it is that a lot of artsits think their site HAS to look super creative, but in reality what they miss is that the visual focus of their site should be on the art/content.

    THe reason I went with a minimalist design of my blog/portfolio is for two reasons:

    1. I want my work to stand out the most and have no other visual distractions. Thats why people come to my site. To see my artwork first and foremost.

    2. Since I'm combining artwork and blog entries into what I call "Blog Art", I need all of the realestate on the page dedicated to the page content I can get (which is Why I don't have sidebar nav)

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  3. You are right of course, IamANT, artists are often just as responsible for the form over function thing - I absolutely agree that many get caught in precisely the trap you describe. I shall add a bit about that.

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  4. Re: Flash. Every time it is mentioned, I feel the need to tell people about the wonders of Flash Block. It's an add-on for Firefox, and it substitutes all Flash by a play button, so you can choose when to play the flash. It makes my browsing experience a lot better.

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  5. Meltemi

    have a look at my simple site perhaps? A simple honest art gallery & all my own work too. I think it exemplifies what this article is all about

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  6. This is an excellent post. As an artist who has been supporting herself as a web designer for 10 years, I've seen a lot of styles come and go, from frames and pop-up windows, to flash and video.

    Unfortunately, I've tended to apply the latest fad I've used at work on my own site, so now need to go and get rid of a lot of the flash and pop-ups. I would advise everyone to follow your very sound advice!

    And also very important_maintenance! Keep your website up to date, google likes updated sites, and "coming soon!" is one of the biggest lies on the web. If the link doesn't have content, leave it out. (Guess I'd better update my site soon....)

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  7. I agree with so much of this, to which I would add:
    *Check your spelling and grammar and proof-read every post for clarity. You may be in visual arts, but good text looks professional and poor text looks ... poor!
    *It's shocking how many people settled for poor layout within their posts, ie when Blogger adds in multiple carriage returns when you put in a photo, there are just too many bloggers who don't adjust the appearance of the post before publishing. Looks awful!

    I too will leave a blog that uses too many side-bar gizmoes and has an overbusy wallpaper conflicting with them. Less is more, guys!

    I sympathise with the CFS as I used to have it. I discovered that, as I had always suspected, it isn't at all incurable, and Mickel Therapy sorted me out quite quickly and permanently, including equipping me to prevent it ever happening again.=)

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  8. Denise

    I get at least two good belly laughs from your writings every time I read your blog. Count them like two thumbs up! Oh, and I learn a bunch of stuff too. Thanks.

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  9. So glad I read this! @reverend_bunnie sent me your way. My site needs tweeking and additional content but based on this I think I am on the right track. You are hilarious by the way.

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