Website design 2019
February 18, 2019 8:48 AM   Subscribe

I haven't done a website in about 10 years, and now I need one for certain projects. No budget to pay a pro, and my technical skills (or ability to update my skills as needed) are fine. What do I need to learn about what's in style for website design for what I'm doing (see below)?

I've been fairly disinterested in my (formerly) public persona for the last 10 years, but now need some public-facing websites for projects I'm doing. I don't know anything nor generally really care about what's fashionable in website design. I know how to do the technical side of making it happen, though I'm probably just starting with Squarespace where I don't have to do much myself to get a pretty slick product.

How would I go about getting caught up to what people think is stylish these days? What should I avoid in order to not be the 2019 version of "eyebleach sites from 1998")?

What should I read so as to understand what people think is elegant/fashionable today?

My needs:
-I do a bunch of "art"/interactive theater projects for an internal community use, (think Burning Man though it's a much smaller community than that). It's for small festivals of 2000-3000 people , which means we all know each other so I don't need to impress strangers with my web design slickness since they've all seen my actual art and the standard by which we all operate is Extreme Low-tech.
-my "art" is not, like, High Art in the sense that I care about people on the other side of the world hearing about me, so I don't really need to impress people with my web design skills
-I sometimes need to be able to apply for internal art grants within this community for specific events, and right now when I do this I put together a tedious package including the text of the grant and links to Google Photos albums for the grant, which is a stupid way to go about it
-I'm planning to use Squarespace to throw up something quick and easy but would like to know if it'd be easy to migrate away to something else in the future since I have the skills to maintain my own site
-there'll be a blog involved- what's fashionable in themes etc these days?
-I'd like to be able to put up tons of photo galleries for each event I do, and I think it'd be good if that were self-hosted rather than up on Google Photos because I don't like how their captions and comments work- I want to be able to caption photos in a more visible way without forcing users to click on the Google Photos caption icon.
posted by twoplussix to Computers & Internet (19 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
one page love might be worth a quick spin through?
posted by specialk420 at 9:09 AM on February 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

I made a decision to use Wordpress and their current theme. With their theme updates every couple of years, I will stay current without much effort on my part. It just became the simplest solution over all. I was totally tired of reinventing the wheel, so I compromised and am totally happy.

(And if you want to brand/stylize your site, the child theme customization is pretty easy as well.)
posted by MountainDaisy at 9:10 AM on February 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

While I do have a Squarespace site, I don’t recommend it.

I used to do everything self hosted and wanted something easier, but i have too little control with Squarespace, and find their drag and drop interface incredibly frustrating.

Wordpress is probably more flexible and easier to customize for someone who knows what they want and can do a little template tweaking. There are lots of tutorials to migrate away from Squarespace to Wordpress, but I suggest starting out on WP if you can swing it.
posted by itesser at 9:29 AM on February 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

OK, I've done Wordpress in the past. I thought it was constantly targeted by hackers- is that still true?
posted by twoplussix at 9:48 AM on February 18, 2019

I was a free-lance web designer for 10 years and finally got out of it, but still needed a website for myself as a musician.

Almost all of what I did towards the end was Wordpress customization and sometimes SquareSpace customization. Of the templated site options, like SquareSpace, Wix, and all of the god-awful in house ones that hosts provide, SquareSpace was by far my favorite.

Wordpress is vastly more customizable than SquareSpace. However, Wordpress needs maintenance and while its gotten better, no matter how secure my hosting, passwords, plugins, and up to date the install was pretty much every Wordpress site got infected at some point in at least a small way - assuming it had decent visibility and traffic. Also, WordPress kind of deprecates itself. If you spend a couple weeks customizing a site, even if you are very careful to only do so with child-themes and not hard coding anything chances are in a few years something is going to break in some way or not work in an ideal way.

I found however that SquareSpace did everything I needed for myself (as a musician) without ever needing to do any updating, coding, or serious work. There are levels to SquareSpace so that a knowledgeable person can actually do a lot of customization and tweaking, either within the settings, style settings. Most importantly, with a paid site, they let you embed code in the header and you can write in custom CSS. With custom CSS you can pretty much alter and personalize any aesthetic aspect of the site. They are also adding features still, maybe not constantly but it is still improving.

File-handling on SquareSpace is fairly weak - using an image more than once means probably re-uploading it again. And you have to trust in their ability to host/serve media efficiently, and take care of the SEO stuff. If you really want control over that or complex functions that aren't offered by SquareSpace you may need to stick with WordPress. And while SquareSpace does go down, its very rare and much less often than any other host I have websites still running on (based on uptimerobot notifications). But for the price point, ease of use, and no maintenance I am more than happy to rely on SquareSpace since I was able to customize it enough based on my CSS knowledge.
posted by alhadro at 9:51 AM on February 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also, for what it worth - Wordpress is moving their interface to a drag and drop style - somewhat emulating SquareSpace's - And its awful compared to SquareSpace's. You can revert to the old interface, but I'm sure they'll improve it eventually. SquareSpace's drag and drop while still somewhat frustrating and quirky is the best out there I've seen.

And to answer your questions, yes, because Wordpress is so prevalent and often hosted on shared servers with separate installations with often outdated plugins and code it is constantly targeted by automated malware and 'hackers'.
posted by alhadro at 9:55 AM on February 18, 2019

I just did kind of the thing recently. I too was making websites 10 years ago with Wordpress etc. but haven't in awhile. I went with Squarespace because I just wanted something that looked modern without having to do any work besides just inputting my content. Squarespace worked great. I hate how much it costs, but such is life. From what I've seen it doesn't look like you can migrate it at all. I could be wrong about that but it's something to find out.
posted by bleep at 9:56 AM on February 18, 2019

I think you're really overcompliating this plate of beans. You've decided to use Square Space so pick a Square Space template and go with that -- they are all clean and modern and any one would be fine.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:08 AM on February 18, 2019 [6 favorites]

Squarespace is absolutely fine for this. They're in the business - if their sites were "eyebleach" they wouldn't last long.

If/when you get to the point where you cant do what you want with Squarespace then worry about moving elsewhere (Wordpress or whatnot) but cross that bridge when you get there. Squarespace will probably get 90% of what you need with only 10% of the stress. When the other 10% of functionality becomes worth that 90% stress, there might be an easier solution that's emerged.
posted by cgg at 10:22 AM on February 18, 2019

Im actually mostly asking about how to learn about what's considered stylish/modern design, not which service to use (though I do really appreciate the advice so far).
posted by twoplussix at 10:23 AM on February 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Another vote for Squarespace. Agree with bleep that I dont like the cost, but I think it is worth cost for what you get. I just started building a site a few weeks ago in my spare time, and I'm finding it incredibly fast and easy. Yeah, theres a learning curve, but less than others. I had a robust blog site about 10 years ago with Wordpress (self hosted) and it was hacked and destroyed twice. I gave up because I just didnt have the patience to rebuild even though I had a backup. Learning Squarespace right now is so much easier, and actually fun, the designs are beautiful.
posted by j810c at 10:25 AM on February 18, 2019

Service to use and design are closely connected. Squarespace design templates are very clean and modern, great for creative sites.
posted by j810c at 10:27 AM on February 18, 2019

I'm looking at a friend's personal site, which is similar to what kinds of things I'd want to do if I did an all-in-one personal site for all my different projects. She's a professional designer and this seems pretty basic for what she's trying to communicate- different kinds of projects grouped into a menu up top, some photos are linkable and lead to more text that describes the project. Does anything about this stand out as a better or worse way of doing things?
posted by twoplussix at 10:30 AM on February 18, 2019

What I think of as a super slick site (without gimmicks) for presenting different kinds of projects is the super pro site of my former employer:

What if anything stands out about that type of design business site (leaving aside the fact that I might not be able to accomplish all this behavior in Squarespace)?
posted by twoplussix at 10:36 AM on February 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

For both the sites homepages that you list the thing that makes them look modern to my eyes is the lack of whitespace on the image layouts. That plus the fact that their actual images are really good, and well curated (which is presumably because they are good at what they do).

The thing that doesn't work well as well on your friend's site for me is that each page has a different way of laying out images. I'm also not keen on centred text (but that may just be my preference). On your former employers site, I can take or leave the way that the images appear - it adds some value but not enough to justify actual effort in recreating that effect.

The other difference between the two is that the company has a more pro looking logo. But the more straightforward approach might be right for you as an individual.

You may need to think about whether you're expecting people to view on mobile or on desktops. It does need to look good on both, but you might need/want to prioritise one over the other.
posted by plonkee at 11:18 AM on February 18, 2019

If you’ve got some basic HTML skills, even from 10 years back, I’d suggest grabbing the bootstrap library and using it as a grid system, and then hosting on amazon s3 / cloudfront CDN. It’s dirt cheap, and you can take advantage of a bunch of great other tech as you go along.

Just make sure you check your work on a phone as well as your desktop- the biggest change since coding 10 years ago is definitely the rise of mobile. Most websites see twice as much mobile as desktop traffic these days. Bootstrap makes this kind of responsive design pretty easy.
posted by jenkinsEar at 3:43 PM on February 18, 2019 [4 favorites]

Hi, I am very familiar with the super slick site of your former employer. It’s a wordpress template called Uncode with image carousels added on top, and a few other customizations. I believe those are JavaScript plugins you can download. You should be able to get most of the way there with the template itself tho. If your site will be image heavy, it is vital that you optimize your images (there are free online services for this) so you are loading the most relevant dimensions for the device and not trying to make a phone load a giant photo when a smaller one would do. Don’t forget to check the auto layout of the mobile site and tweak it if needed so it looks good.

What makes a website stylish and modern is that it takes the focus off the website design as such and puts all its focus on to the user experience — clean (ie lots of white space), easy to navigate, and having the information people are looking for at the front and center, so you’re not hunting around trying to find out the things you need.

One Hat One Hand’s website does this by having clear navigation to who they are, where they are, and what they do, with a big splashy image series on top to draw you in. All specifics, like their services and projects are linked through the menu, with the high-level information being showcased and more detailed stuff being nested in with it.
posted by ananci at 6:11 PM on February 18, 2019

To elaborate on what ananci said -- think WAY more about the information architecture than the way the site looks. Once you know exactly what your goals are, and what paths you anticipate people will take through the site, then find a template that can easily accomplish those goals without any major alterations, throw some awesome photos in the spaces where photos are supposed to go, and bam!

Whatever service you use doesn't matter much given your goals, although I personally think WordPress is the best balance of customization capability vs. ease of use. If you do go WordPress, shell out for a managed hosting platform like WP Engine so you don't have to worry much about security. A WP Engine site w/ a Studiopress/Genesis child theme will treat you right, and it should be really easy to set up.
posted by nosila at 6:15 AM on February 19, 2019

Thank you, everyone- I got a tremendous amount out of this Ask.
posted by twoplussix at 1:27 AM on February 20, 2019

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