Friday, February 03, 2006

Web Designer Interview: Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys on the Redesign of www.cynthialeitichsmith.com

It is my pleasure to announce the redesign and relaunch of my award-winning website, www.cynthialeitichsmith.com, and an interview with the design guru behind it, Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys.

I would like to invite Cynsational readers to surf by and check out the redesign. [If you don't see a major difference from original yellow design, hit reload]. You can learn about me, my books, forthcoming titles, awards and honors, anthologies and journals, essays and articles, in-person and online events, check out the media kit, peek into my writing life, and study the teacher guides.

Another major focus is the children's/YA literature resources. This section includes bibliographies, author and illustrator interviews, a celebration of the Texas youth literature community, writer resources, state and national award listings and more. Don't miss the search engine!

According to SmarterStats, my site attracts 40,000 to 60,000 unique visitors monthly. Read more about the site. And now let's hear from Lisa...!

What inspired you to accept the daunting task of redesigning www.cynthialeitichsmith.com?

I was very pleased and flattered to be asked to work on it. I've been visiting the site for years, and have always admired it.

How vast of a job was it? Did you feel it was a big responsibility?

Some telling statistics:

Total size, in megabytes: 75
Growth during development, in pages: 31
Number of finished HTML pages: 265
Number of image files: 1,108
Number of external links: 13,496
Number of internal links: 47,071
Number of "FONT" tags removed from the old markup in favor of a one-time style sheet declaration: 155,376
Ranking in Google among sites found using the search terms "children's YA lit": 1

Gulp.

How would you describe the site today?

"Cynsational."

In what way is it aesthetically and logistically more pleasing to visitors?

I’ll let some of our "beta-testers" speak to that:

“Really nice—I love the color palette.”

“What a feast for the eyes...it is gorgeous....”

“It works easily—even for me, typing with one hand (the other was broken at the time).”

“You have created a crisp, clean, more sophisticated look, yet very warm and inviting.”

“There is a much better balance of text/visuals/white-space.”

“The language is smart, hip and fun in the navigation bar and other areas.”

“You have made a ton of information appear much more digestible and it is all awesome.”

“What a resource for teachers!”

“It has prompted us to add all of the author’s books to our school library. We’re also looking into bringing her to campus to speak.”

What was the timeline from contract to relaunch, and what were the major events along the way?

I hesitate to admit it was over a year. This is not typical, however. For a small to medium site—say 3-25 pages—it takes between two and four months.

We began by discussing what you wanted for the site and drew up an agreement and a detailed spec. I then spent some time getting familiar with the contents and sketching designs.

After you approved the prototype, an interval of rumination followed, as logistical aspects of the site were refined and tested. During this time both of us went through life events that forced us to put the work down for weeks at a time, and I started over from scratch at least twice.

Just about when we both thought it would never be done, enough of the site was roughed out for you to preview, and we entered into what I feel was a remarkable collaboration. My arrangements of your content let you see it in some new ways, and you came back with new content and arrangements... It was quite exciting.

After several massive rounds of proofing and having outside "beta testers" sample the site, everything—HTML pages, images, style sheets, javascripts, etc—were moved from my web server to yours.

That may be the scariest, most exciting moment of a redesign: everything old gets erased and the new material takes its place…without a hitch. Phew. Woohoo!

What were the challenges (technical, logistical, psychological) in bringing the site new life?

Every job has its exciting bits (color schemes! logos!) and it's tedious bits (converting old pages). I knew going in that you had amassed a great deal of content, but I didn't realize how active you are about adding to it. Trying to hit a moving target was new for me, but it taught me a lot.

How did you conceive of the redesign concept? What special considerations did you have to factor in?

It was crucial to develop a navigation menu that would be straightforward to use, but encompass all the complexity and the sheer quantity of the site’s contents. I also wanted to update the HTML code and employ cascading style sheets, which gives you the ability to change the look completely in the future should you want to.

As for how the site looks now, I tried to listen well. You wanted something fresh and fun, but not something that would quickly go out of style or rely on cliched symbols of the southwest, or native culture, or children’s and teen’s interests.

So, as I created the graphics and color scheme for the site, I was imagining fresh prairie grass and worn blue jeans and the rich tones of canyon rocks and precious turquoise, trying to evoke these things without being trite.

Could you give us an idea of your design and other services? What other sites have you designed?

“Hit Those Keys” began as a writer’s resource site—it’s best-known feature is the “blockbusters” http://www.hitthosekeys.com/block.html section—that evolved into a consultancy. I mentor fellow writers and artists and make websites for them.

Two of my designs have been for authors you’ve featured here on CYALR: Nancy Werlin http://www.nancywerlin.com (author interview) and Dorian Cirrone http://www.doriancirrone.com (author interview). I’ve also designed galleries for artists and photographers, a portal for a comedian, professional pages for university professors, e-learning sites, and blogs.

What do you think makes a good author site? What elements are essential? Optional?

Perhaps the most important thing is something the average site visitor never sees—the underlying markup and coding. (The most engaging content in the world won't be appreciated if it shows up mangled or not at all.)

Second, the purpose of the site should be clear from the first glance. It's about a person, an author, and that author's work. It should look particular and unique and it should suit the person it's about.

Third, a site shouldn't be too fancy for its own good. Links should look like links, and sections of the site should have clear labels. Think of it this way: as a writer you work hard to make your meanings clear and valuable. Your website should reflect the same kind of care.

As for whether you should have teacher's guides or a blog, or whatever, the specific elements of a site really should be decided on a site-to-site basis. Chances are you don't need Flash animation or a shopping cart, but you should display the covers of your books and link to reviews and bookstores. It also helps bring people back to the site if you share something you know about your subject matter, or what it's like to be an author or illustrator.

What considerations do you recommend to authors in selecting a designer?

Start with personal preference: Do you like the designer's other work? (Check for credits on sites you like to locate designers). Sound out the designer. Do you feel comfortable describing what you want and asking questions about how things are done? Hire someone you can talk to, whose taste and judgment you trust.

Look to hire someone who is at ease with HTML and CSS and who can tell the difference between the “golden section” (a design principle) and the “golden arches” (the ugly but well-known branding of a fast food chain).

Consider the practical: what can you afford? Think about this carefully. What’s cheapest up front might not be best. A poorly-made, cookie-cutter site won’t serve you well. Budget carefully, but avoid stinting on costs. Fees vary widely, but a professional will give you an estimate up front.

What mistakes do you see in author sites as you're surfing the Web?

A lot of author sites fall into this tricky abyss where the site looks both mass-produced and amateurish—certainly not what you want.

Pitfalls include:

Problems with type: text that’s too large or too small for comfortable reading; too many different font styles; large blocks of italic or all-capped text.

Problems with color and/or graphics: jaggy images; jarring color combinations; busy backgrounds; unnecessary or distracting animated effects; “school picture”-ish author head shots.

Problems with performance: slow-loading pages; confusing navigation; content that’s inaccessible to visitors with disabilities.

Problems with copy: gross spelling or grammatical errors; or key information falls “below the fold” (the first span of the screen before it becomes necessary to scroll down).

What advice do you have for do-it-yourself-ers?

Take your time and keep it simple. If you’re not intimidated by technology, it can be fun. Invest in a few good tools and references and learn to use them. Some references for do-it-yourself-ers are going up on my site (http://www.hitthosekeys.com) soon, so check back often.

What do you do when you're not working Web magic?

Lately, it seems like I mainly play the straight-man to my family's jokes and antics. We have some stock bits of comedy we enact over and over, and my job is to roll my eyes and pretend it's not funny. When they're all at school (http://www.latinschool.org/)--husband too, since he runs it--I write and make art, as much as I can. And walk the dogs.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

Yes: you have been a fabulous (and patient!) client and someone I respect very much for what you give back to the children's book world. Thanks for entrusting me with your magnum opus.

Cynsational Notes

Thank you, Lisa, for sharing your thoughts and for your superhuman design efforts--for your tremendous skill, insight, passion, and appreciation of the site's mission!

Cynsational readers, I highly recommend Lisa to anyone seeking design services. I also ask that after you surf by my site, you drop her a note of much-deserved praise.

I'm interested to hear what you think about the site and its redesign. Live Journal subscribers are welcome to comment via that service. Any Cynsational reader is welcome to write me directly with feedback (if you elect to do so, please let me know whether I have your permission to quote you).

Finally, if you think that this blog, the site, and its redesign are worth highlighting, I'd greatly appreciate your spreading the word via links from your own sites or blogs, on list servs, at meetings of writers, in classrooms, or within any other venue that may be appropriate.

www.cynthialeitichsmith.com became the site that it is because this community inspired me. I only hope that it offers something positive in return.

Thank you!

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