A site in a nite? Is it possible? It was a super-tempting offer: The email read: “At this hands-on workshop, we’ll teach you how to use the Squarespace platform to build the functional, beautiful, easy-to-update website you’ve always wanted. Squarespace is a website platform and hosting service that offers beautiful modern aesthetics with easy HTML-based editing and loads of tools to help you with marketing, e-commerce, shipping, and so much more, at a super-affordable cost and low bar of entry.” I mean, who wouldn’t want that? I did.
And I knew the guys running it, Ryan Doran and Jonathan Manierre, two talented, multitasking entrepreneurs who simultaneously head a full-service design/ photography/ video studio, Turkois, which serves top brands, and KOI Creative Space, a well-designed co-working space in the center of White Plains, NY. They host informative, fun events there, everything from yoga classes to AIGA Brand Central gatherings. Having spent months and months on my own portfolio site, built on a blank WordPress template, and knowing firsthand what’s involved in getting assets lined up to post on various WordPress sites (including this one, printmag.com), I signed up. I’d admired the clean, fresh look of Squarespace and thought it could be a good platform to showcase my essays, magazine articles, and posts—and maybe even attract some freelance writing gigs.
At KOI Creative Space, ten workshop attendees are ready to build a website in a night
But there was something deeper going on. In 1993, when it seemed like desktop publishers—armed with their new PCs and Aldus PageMaker floppy disks—would take business away from qualified graphic designers—with our T-squares and type specimen books—I wrote an article entitled “Certification for Graphic Designers—a Hypothetical Proposal” that was published in Communication Arts magazine. It might have been the most talked-about (both revered and reviled) article in C.A. history. Rebuttals, events, debates and suggestions for everything from feasibility studies to test-prep courses followed. Among influential graphic designers, the concept was far from popular. As Michael Bierut countered at a debate in Washington, D.C., (possibly the lowest point of my career): “Here’s the sure way to convince the business community of the value of graphic design: Do a really great job for your best client. If all of us did this every day, we’d win the battle the only way it can be won, one job at a time, one client at a time, one day at a time. Certification of our competence will never be enough. Quit longing for respectability and start doing great work.”
History has taken its course, and as Ellen Lupton, author of D.I.Y. Design It Yourself, has said, “Graphic design is a tool and a mindset that anyone can use to build relationships and share ideas. Design is open to everyone!” It’s true. New apps like Adobe Spark are intended to help everyone make web pages and graphics for social media on their iPads, “effortlessly.”
Never mind that Michael is one of world’s most extraordinary creative talents; that all the cool examples in Ellen Lupton’s book were designed by her MFA students at MICA, Maryland Institute College of Art, an elite institution with high admission standards; and that the examples on the Adobe Spark page were created by a leading ad agency.
What is ‘everyone’ capable of? And even if the results don’t measure up to design-award-winning standards, would they be good enough to meet the marketing needs of a typical entrepreneur? I hoped so. I attended to learn how to make my own writing site on a platform new to me. But I also wanted to see how small business owners, freelancers, and consultants who don’t have the budget to hire a web designer would do.
The day before, attendees completed the pre-launch prep kit, a questionnaire that had us defining our markets and goals. At the workshop, Ryan began the session by introducing the features and benefits of the Squarespace platform and reiterating what an effective website should accomplish. “Every home page must have a call to action!” he stated. Good point. Then we opened the “Bedford” template on our laptops and followed along as we learned how to delete Squarespace’s dummy copy and lovely stock images and insert our own text and photos.
It was not as easy as I’d hoped. Ah, certain things can be changed—like type sizes, fonts and colors—and others are immutable (or at least very difficult to override)—like the position of type on a picture. I’d planned to use a certain photo of myself in my design library on the home page, and no matter what I tried, the type went right over my face. Time to change templates. Then I had to start all over again. Hmm. After a while, I walked around to see how everybody else was doing.
The first thing I noticed is that people can write pretty well. They know what they want to promote and can describe it effectively. But they might not be so facile with images. For example, my deskmate, Joan Bogin, an expert in market research and brand strategy, was trying to fit a vertical picture into a horizontal space. Ryan and Jon, going from desk to desk, explained why that wouldn’t work. I helped Joan out by increasing the canvas size and rubber-stamping in background to make it fit. Her site—she chose stock photos with a subtle black-and-white vibe—is still a work in progress, she reported later: “I will continue to evolve it over the next week or so and then publish it. And wait for the business to flow in!”
Another hopeful attendee, Karen Lennon, is starting a business called Place Lifts, specializing in home staging. “Hiring a web designer is way beyond me right now,” she told me. “This is a quick, non-threatening, budget-friendly way to get started.” Next to her, Luke Doran, a high school history teacher, was successfully adding images of paintings like The Death of Socrates and Guernica to his educational site, History in Plain Sight, which he hopes will have readership, and value, way beyond his own classroom.
The Smiths, three family members, all realtors at Better Holmes Rand Realty in White Plains, want not only to be on one page on the corporate site, but have their own unique web presence. “We do a lot for clients,” Jovonna Smith says, “virtual and real professional staging, floor plans, videos. Our new site, The Smith Portfolio of Homes, will showcase the properties we offer and to grab the client.” Happy with what her team was able to accomplish in a few hours, she said, “We just have to tweak it some more.”
Joe Ferraro, who was setting up his One Percent Better Podcast, a self-help site, summed up the workshop like this: “Ryan and Jon distilled years of valuable insight into a single evening. I left emboldened and a bit dizzy at the possibilities. While I am not naive enough to think I can master the template after one session, I now believe that I can save the lion’s share of the expense a designer would charge. There are limitations to the Squarespace template model, but none that make me feel that the cost-to-value ratio is not in favor of my current marketing budget.”
For myself, when I have some time, I’ll choose and size my images, write the text, and send Ryan a folder with the ingredients. I think I know when to hire a professional.