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tips: Choosing a web designer
Matthew de Gale,
August 23, 2006
decided you need a website. Or you've got one and you realize it's
just not up to scratch. Suddenly you've got lots of decisions to
make decisions that involve a whole new set of technical terms
that don't mean very much to you.
You start doing
a little bit of research and you're even more confused; are you
going to have a static site, or a dynamic one; will your website
use a database - and if so which one? Will you be using flash animation
all over the place, or keeping things nice and simple? Unless you've
got an in-house web manager, most of these technical decisions will
be taken by - or at least on the advice of - your contracted web
designer. But how do you decide who that's going to be?
Note: Web design
vs Web Development
What's the difference between design and development? A
designer will often come from a graphic design background and may
also work with print publications . A developer typically spends
more time programming a website, and often the database behind it.
Most reasonably sophisticated websites require both sets of skills.
The categories are not fixed; many people are competent in both
skills, but more often a solution is created by two people in a
design firm. In this article, web design is used to refer to both
parts of the website creation process.
Web design and
by this term I mean the whole process of putting together a website
(see note above) - has a fairly low entry level. Until recently
anyone with a PC and an (often pirated) copy of Dreamweaver could
set themselves up as a web designer.
are a little more complicated now, with programming and database
skills increasingly required, but there are still not many professional
or even academic hurdles to get into the business. In many respects
this is useful there is plenty of competition and therefore plenty
of options are available for every budget and organisation. Many
NGO websites started as - and may still successfully remain - a
project of an intern or volunteer with a technical bent.
But with this
comes increased risk such as poorly conceived solutions; a lack
of professionalism; difficulty in making changes at a later stage;
or even having whole projects abandoned halfway through!
risks are not as obvious as contracting a fly-by-night web designer;
you may contract a perfectly competent web designer, who has no
understanding of the NGO sector and, as a result, risk ending up
with an inappropriate and perhaps, overly expensive solution.
So what are the
requirements of a good web designer? Below are some criteria to
large extent the size, scope and ambition of a particular project
will determine how much effort is required in getting the right
designer. A simple, static website consisting of an organisational
profile, contact details and a small collection of news and reports
doesn't carry too much risk of failure. However, an ambitious project,
with collaboration tools, lots of regularly updated content, perhaps
some basic e-commerce (or e-giving/ online donations) facilities
can be far more risky if left in the hands of an amateur.
question to ask yourself when deciding on a suitable web designer
is: Do they have both the design and development skills that all
but the simplest websites require?
do not have to be undertaken by the same person or company. For
example, you may already have a corporate image that you're happy
with. In this case, the web-designers may just need to adapt this
to a web format. Still, it is easier if your web developer can work
closely with your graphic designer. On the other hand, if you are
intending to coincide launching a new website with a corporate image
revamp, it will help tremendously if there's a significant degree
of collaboration between these roles. Collaboration between a print
publication designer and your web designer is also useful when it
comes to simultaneous print and electronic publishing; if you do
a lot of this you need to make sure that you have some sort of a
workflow arrangement designed to facilitate both activities in order
to avoid duplication of effort.
look and feel is very subjective and really requires a good understanding
of the nature of the organisation and indeed the sector. One tip
is that you get a sense of the designer by looking at their portfolio
(if they are serious about web design, this information should be
available on their website).
the complexity of programming is usually conducted behind the scenes
this aspect is difficult to assess and also requires a level of
technical knowledge many people lack. A key indicator here is to
investigate whether that the designer has successfully undertaken
projects of a similar size and scope previously. You may also want
to involve another expert service provider in helping you to evaluate
the candidate's previous work. A trusted IT or network support firm,
for example, whilst not directly involved in web design work, may
have the relevant knowledge to assist you. You can invite them to
advise you to scope the work or at least weed out inappropriate
in Content Management Systems
option that anyone requiring a full-featured website should look
at is basing the site on one of the many a content management systems
available (see sidebar). Again it's likely to be your web design
consultant who is in a position to assess whether this is an appropriate
solution for you - and indeed which of them to use. Nonetheless
there are few things to be aware of, even before they've had a chance
to pitch to you.
of Content Management Systems:
systems such as Joomla, Drupal, Wordpress & DotNetNuke and are
aimed at sites that change their content regularly and are collaborative
First of all,
what is a content management system? A CMS is an online application
that removes the responsibility of updating complex website away
from technical web designers and into the hands of editors, writers
and information creators so that information is made almost immediately
available online. It also means that your web designer doesn't have
to re-engineer a new site; a CMS tends to have pretty good coding
and standards-based formats behind it. There are also often many
add-on components or modules, which that means you can enhance your
website with new functionality as you require it (examples include
online polls; ecommerce-systems; photogalleries etc).
are some downsides. Some web experts argues that CMS sites often
seem too homogenous in other words, a simple installation is very
cookie-cutter-ish. Also, many CMS solutions are really more like
blogs; which is great if you are creating a very collaborative website
but less so if you're doing your own publishing.
A CMS gives a
defined structure to a site (this can be a downside too a CMS
can make it surprisingly difficult to "just put up" something new
on the front page of a website without a bit of foresight and planning).
Most of the disadvantages
can be overcome by using a developer who is familiar with using
and modifying a CMS; at minimum, this means creating visual templates
that give the site your "look", (what many commercial organizations
might refer to as a unique branding identity) rather than that
of the original application. But you may also require ignificant
behind-the-scenes customization; even developing modules to fit
your individual needs.
Tip: If you decide
to go the CMS route, your web designer should, at a minimum, have
implemented an installation in that CMS before and ideally be able
to demonstrate sufficient skills in customising both the look and
functionality of the system.
Knowledge and Experience
your site is going to be content-rich; that is if you're planning
to disseminate research and activity reports, or perhaps use the
site as a tool for advocacy work and so need features like newsletters
and collaborative tools, it'll be easier if your designer knows
a little about the sector. He or she may not end up writing your
material but it helps to have someone one board who has some sectoral
experience, when they are figuring how to structure the site.
The more sophisticated
features you require, the more important this is; the web is a fantastic
networking and collaboration tool and there are lots of pieces of
software to facilitate this. Getting these to work successfully
requires experience in both the technical side of things (which
Blog or wiki software do you use), but also advising how to successfully
implement this (Should you require users to login? What can you
do to generate participation; and which great-sounding features
almost never work?).
getting your site noticed is another key area where a combination
of both web and content skills are required. Any decent web designer
should be able to help with Search Engine optimisation. A really
good one, who understands the sector you are in, should be able
to go beyond his and help with finding appropriate networks and
similar organisations to link to.
Tools like RSS
means that content can be borrowed or shared amongst partners and
networks again very specific to the sector your are in, but you
web designer needs to help you make the connections between what's
technically possible and the goals and ambitions of your organisation.
the web designer you chose going to be around to support your site,
and make technical changes to the structure when necessary? Depending
on the complexity of the system, regular training of new staff may
The life cycle
of a website can be anything from 18 months to four years, so you
need to make sure that you designer is going to be around for that
time. Here is where for a complex site at least there are advantages
to using a well-known CMS or development framework. If your developer
ups and leaves or you have a falling out, it shouldn't be too
hard to find someone else able to get up to speed with your site.
If you have a custom solution designed for you, then you may find
yourself tied to that designer for longer than you'd prefer.
financial outlay is one of the most critical factors that require
consideration for any NGO. The pay-off for having a web site needs
to be very carefully assessed. Depending in the type of work that
your organization undertakes, it may be appropriate to use this
platform as a very basic way of creating a virtual "signpost" to
your organization. Alternately, if your organization generates a
great deal of policy-shaping research and thought leadership material,
it may be one of the most critical platforms that you ever invest
in! Years of online interaction at a global level means that the
academic snobbery of the past is rapidly giving way to a more accessible,
free flowing exchange of ideas. The sooner NGOs from the South jump
on board, the easier it will become for us to shape the discourse
Given this view,
a website is beyond doubt one of the most important investments
a development- focused NGO can make. It should, therefore, receive
adequate budgetary resources. Furthermore, the need for a simple,
easy-to-maintain solution must dominate the selection process. In
this regard, there are many Open Source CMS solutions that are ore
than adequate for any novice user.
the old adage goes "build it and they will come". Unfortunately,
this has never held true in the online environment, where a large
amount of effort must be dedicated to keeping your website fresh
and well-informed, so that visitors find some benefit in using it
(and returning to it!) However, if there is enough passion and dedication
for a project of this nature, the rewards can far exceed any initial
Gale, incoming ICT Manager of SANGONeT
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