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Where Form Meets Function: Functional and Artistic Websites

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My background in the world of art, which had me working as an art buyer for a publishing company, a store owner, a gallery intern, and an artist, gives me perspective on the world of art marketing from both sides of the equation. Add to that my experience building and marketing websites and you will find that I know what works, and what doesn’t, for artists’ sites.

I see artists struggling with the issue of websites over and over again. Below I have outlined a few areas that will make your site work better for you and your business.

Often times when artists and craftspeople sit down to create a new website for their art, they set their eyes on a look and feel first and foremost. Who can blame them? That is what they know. Look and feel is the expertise of most artists. However, your web presence is, and should be, very different than a work on the wall of a gallery or a piece on a pedestal in a museum. Artistic websites needs to strike a balance between an interesting design, usability motivated functionality, and search engine friendly elements.

First off, lets talk about the purpose of a website for an artist or anyone else. People often get so caught up in showing their uniqueness and personality with their sites that they forget the end game, which is information dispersal. Artists know what to do with a gallery, but the Internet is more like a library, and websites are like the books that line the shelves. A good artist website is similar to an artist-made book. It is unique and surprising in many ways, but there are certain elements that are included in them, such as a binding and written words that define them as “books” and not paintings or sculptures.

The most important element for any website is navigation. If you want a user-friendly site, the navigation needs to be well organized and clearly defined. If a user ends up on your site and has to struggle to find your navigation, you may have just increased your “bounce rate”, which is the percentage of users that leave your site before they go beyond the homepage. This is not to say your navigation should be boring, however. You can use color, font, layout, and, if done correctly, movement to create a navigation that is inline with your style and personality for the site.

Back to the library and book analogy for a second: Say you were doing research and you picked up a book to find that it had a confusing table of contents or none at all. Would you continue to try to find what you need or move on to a different book?

Many artists are opposed to having a lot of text on their site. They want their work to speak for itself. However, text is still an important aspect of communicating information about who you are and what you have to say. A little information about you as an artist, the way you work, and what inspires you can create a connection with a user. The vast majority of art books out there include written text about the subject. Your site should be no different. The reality is that the written word about art is often times at least as important and valuable to a piece of artwork as the artwork itself. People want to know what you and others have to say about your work.

Make your site more usable by keeping large images to a minimum. That huge background image behind your site may look cool, but if a site takes more than a couple of seconds to load, you just lost more possible users. Using one or a few important images on your homepage, or maybe even a flash image slide show, without having them dominating the entire site will translate better for users.

Think about what you want people to see about your site right away. If you have a certain element that takes priority, be sure it is above the fold on your site so that it is more readily visible to viewers and more predominately ranked with the search engines. Things that appear on the homepage of your site above the fold are the same as a book cover and people really do judge a book by its cover regardless of what they claim.

Let’s talk about search engines. They are the number one way people find online resources. If you create a site the search engines can’t see, you just cut out a whole lot of your audience. I talked earlier about the importance of text on a site and I will reiterate it here: Text will help you get more attention. Images are not visible to search engines, so if someone happens to be searching for work that is exactly like yours, but you have no text on your site that talks about it, they will have a lot harder time finding your site. This goes for navigation as well, so make sure you use text rather than images for the navigation of your site.

If you want a cool site with a lot of movement, you may be considering a flash site. That may not be the best choice, though. Flash is invisible to search engines and is usually difficult and expensive to update. If you want movement on your site, include a small flash piece in your site design, but do not go that route for the whole site.

Many artists might read this post and feel like I am trying to fit their websites into little boxes where everything looks the same. That is not the case at all, in fact I am proposing a problem to artists out there, and we all know artists are good problem solvers. Find a way to make your site interesting, unique, and artistic while still using the basic elements proposed above. This may sound like a daunting task, but it is completely doable and, in the end, will be worth the effort.

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About Jamie Hollier