Ever wondered what happens when web designers re-create their own site? Read on.
By Katie Bridges
If you’ve ever visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in Arizona’s achingly beautiful McDowell Mountains, you’ve probably wondered what it must have been like for the architect to build his own home — to be at once designer and client. For someone as measured as Wright, was it easier? More challenging? Did it take him longer to make decisions or were they innate?
We’ve spent quite a bit of time at Taliesin West — it’s the headquarters for our client the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. We redesigned their website back in 2017, but last year, it was time to redesign our own. And while we still can’t speculate on Wright’s own experience, we can tell you what it’s like to be both designer and client from our perspective. Here’s what we learned during our nearly year-long process — and how it will continue to inform our work moving forward.
Discovery can’t be rushed. When it came time to start designing, we felt confident in our direction. Why? We’d done our research, diving into our analytics, scouting competitor sites and conducting keyword analysis. But we’d also been thinking about what this site needed to be for years. We were intimately familiar with our our programmatic needs, as we’d outgrown the limits of the site we had in place — in short, we knew what we wanted our new site to do, because we knew what our former site could not. In talking through our must-haves for the new site, we realized that design actually begins the moment you start talking about what is needed. Therefore, having a thorough understanding of what those needs are is essential to a well-designed site.
You need to design components, not pages. We knew that this site had to be hard-working and flexible, allowing us to pull in various content types (blog posts, case studies, etc.) on the fly to craft individualized experiences for our various audiences. We also knew, from a staffing perspective, that this process would often fall on our editorial teams (read: not designers). Having built modular sites for a wide range of clients — including the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and Slidell Memorial Hospital — we saw value in designing mix-and-match components, rather than page “types.”
A few months in, we’re still patting ourselves on the back for coming up with a suite of components that makes building new pages a breeze. From a development perspective, it’s efficient, and from a content creation perspective, it’s unlimited. We always told our clients, “We’re just building you a tool. There’s no end to what you can do with it.” It’s nice to be on the receiving end of that tool — and to know that it works.
We always told our clients, “We’re just building you a tool. There’s no end to what you can do with it.” It’s nice to be on the receiving end of that tool — and to know that it works.
Our Takeaway: We’ll continue to think about our clients’ needs in terms of content types, creating systems that can mold and bend to their evolving needs.
It’s all in the (design) details. “Less space, more mid-century NASA.” This directive was tossed out at our initial kickoff meeting, and while it seemed insignificant at first, it soon became the guiding design principle. We say “soon,” because, we’re no different from any of our clients — we’re picky. And hard to pin down. But after a few tries that fell flat, the design solution was simpler than we thought it would be: Our designers found their inspiration in a Blue Note Records album cover from the ’60s. That enabled them to solidify the font choices, and then everything fell into place from there. The resulting site design is minimalist and, indeed, “less space and more mid-century.”
Choosing the right CMS is essential. At C/A, we’re proud to be platform-agnostic. WordPress serves us when needed, but we approach every project with the intention of aligning our CMS choice with the clients’ needs. For Slidell Memorial Hospital, we chose Craft, and valued the fact that we could create a list of categories that integrate site-wide. For our own site, we knew we needed a fraction of that functionality — and, as we mentioned before, we also needed the site to be quick and easy to modify, which is something we came to appreciate about Craft through our work with Slidell. In addition, our old site used WordPress — employing Craft for the new site would allow us to gain experience with using Craft the way our clients do. The verdict? It was the perfect choice — and couldn’t be easier to use, even for the non-designers among us.
Content truly is the foundation. As preachers of the power of content, it was time for our site to grow in terms of blog posts, case studies and more. We’d been busy building the work — an ever-expanding roster of new clients, new industries, new scopes — and we were ready to share that work. Therefore, our website grew the most in terms of content.
The diversity of our work presented a challenge, but a fun one. We knew we needed a river of different page experiences, filled with different types of content. So that’s where we started: with the content. Now, as we go about adding new content each month and the site continues to grow, it’s fun to see it in motion, fueling our various outreach efforts.
Ultimately, being both agency and client exposed us to how overwhelming a website redesign process can feel when it’s your own site. It also proved how important it is to have the right people — designers, developers, content creators, digital experts and project managers — in the right places to bring it all together. Now, we have a thorough understanding of both sides — and a greater appreciation for how we can successfully align ourselves with our website clients.