While your bridges soar your website snores.
What happens when an architecture or engineering partnership’s commitment to strength, utility and beauty falls short digitally—adequate but hardly excellent? There are still many who could care less: “Our reputation speaks for itself”, “It’s only a portfolio”, “It looks on a par with our competition”, or “We’re not in the business of creating the meaningless jabber characteristic of the web.”
“Unless you have twelve months of signed business, profit margins that allow you to do your best work, and are satisfied with your current client relationships, investing in your firm’s ability to do business is not only important, but essential,” says Brent Robertson, an expert on creating and maintaining a digital presence.
Robertson’s a partner in Fathom, the West Hartford company that developed the architecture firm Svigals + Partners website, a fast-growing mid-sized shop with 35 employees with outstanding projects like the new Sandy Hook school. In addition, Fathom recently completed the very unboring site of the construction firm Fuss & O’Neill with 280 employees, ninety years in the business, and seven locations nationwide.
“Even if your reach is small and local, and you are very specialized, the ever-growing capacity of full-service firms and the increasing reach of competing specialty firms makes for a landscape that puts a lot of pressure on firms to differentiate themselves. Add to this, the fact that more and more of the decision-making for acquiring professional services happens online before a potential client ever reaches out, makes a digital presence more important than ever,” says Robertson.
OK, we’re convinced, but how does one go about creating such a presence, especially when former efforts have resulted in essentially nothing? For one thing, one has to go deep, as in Robertson’s Fathom’s philosophy. “Sites need to be a vehicle where the whole organization can communicate and share,” he adds. “So the first thing we did was interview everyone in the company from top to bottom, along with its key stakeholders and vendors.”
I get that but when I click on Svigals or Fuss & O’Neill, or even your Fathom site, I can’t tell what anyone actually does. Svigals home page headline asks ‘What is the nature of community?’ With an invitation right up front to ‘Join the Conversation’, Fuss & O’Neill’s says ‘Creating works of life’, and Fathom’s reads ‘We work with leaders to design futures worth fighting for.’
Meanwhile, I can find barely a word on any of these three home pages that mentions the practice architecture, construction, or branding and web design and isn’t that the point? I ask.
“Nothing shuts down a conversation more quickly than just saying what you do right away,” replied Robertson over a barking lab. “If I as the potential client land on your home page and I understand right away it’s about architecture, then I’ll assume it’s just a matter of nuance differentiating you from other architecture firms. The message behind Svigals home page questioning as to the nature of community says ‘We want to enroll you in a club, an idea and the way that club or idea expresses itself is through the language of architecture.’”
“Isn’t what you call enrolling someone in a club or an idea what’s normally called a Mission and Vision statement?” I ask.“Mission and vision are confusing terms full of all kinds of BS and soundbites,” says Robertson. “Whose mission, whose vision one wonders. Before we go there we first ask ourselves and our clients, ‘What is it we would like the world to be like if we had a say? What do we have to do or provide to make sure that world comes to exist?”
Jason Weamer co-founded the Visual Identity Group fifteen years ago in Southern California. Nominated for a coveted Webby Award for his Bugaboo Creek restaurant chain website, Weamer’s recent revamp of the PJHM Architects site -see, deserves equal recognition for innovative, stunning design. I especially liked the Sex Pistols-like black stripes Weamer centered across the large portfolio shots, allowing white to type to show easily over busy photos and renderings.
“Currently flooded with RFP’s, PJHM is an outstanding firm of about thirty in the educational and civic sector here in Laguna Hills. Unfortunately, their site wasn’t performing the way it needed to on the mobile devices which have become so dominant,” said Weamer. ‘In fact, Google now ranks sites with emphasizing their responsiveness, how fast images load above the fold on the home page.
“Fortunately, anyone can use a new, free-of-charge Google tool called PageSpeed Insights. You just enter your site into the form and Google will analyze your site’s speed from one to one hundred for both desktop and mobile. You would be surprised how many great sites are in the fifties — which means they have little chance of being seen by potential clients unless someone actually passes along a link, or spells it out.” A quick check with web-use analyst Kissmetrics estimates that most mobile users will abandon a page if they are forced to wait longer than six to ten very boring seconds.
“Our goal for PJHM was to score one hundred. I’d never actually seen a one hundred score on PageSpeed, but that’s what we wanted and that’s what we ultimately achieved,” says Weamer, adding an asterisk, “though lately our perfect score’s gone down to a 97 through no fault of our own, (We chose Vimeo’s quality over YouTube’s to run video on the PJHM site, and Vimeo uses a Google tracking tool. The use of that tool cost us three points Google’s PageSpeed.” Go figure.
While Vimeo gets penalized a few points for slowness, Adobe’s Flash program found itself penalized out of existence last year for similar reasons. Ironically, it was Flash that turned Weamer on to the potential of web design in the first place. “I stopped in someone’s office and saw, this animation going on their computer screen, twirling and whizzing things all built with Flash. This revolutionary-at-the-time, vector-based animation system allowed developers to move pictures and objects in ways they couldn’t dream of doing with HTML,” says Weamer.
But Steve Jobs was the first to recognize a major flaw in Flash: too many dependencies, too many plugins needed to run on Apple and its iPhones and therefore banned Flash in early 2010. Read Jobs remarks here. Weamer sites an additional flaw, perhaps even more fatal to Flash: “Google can’t index the contents because in Google’s spider vision a Flash program is just a movie. Sites just weren’t showing up and a lot of wonderful portfolios were just not showing up.”
Nevertheless, if you look at the PJHM site Weamer’s designed in a lot of the feeling and energy of animation testing the limits of CSS, or Cascading Style Sheets. The use transitional 3-D boxes and other interactive features represent quite a feat given the site’s 97 PageSpeed score. For example, check out the social media mashup at the bottom of PJHM’s home page stacking and re-sorting like masonry blocks. Especially challenging was engineering the firm’s Twitter feed.
“Twitter,” says Weamer, “doesn’t just want you to take their text. They want the text in their own typography, which is also their branding.” Trouble was Twitter’s typography didn’t work with the layout developed by Weamer’s Visual Identity Group. The solution was to come up with a hack that in developer terms “scraped-off” the Twitter content while remaining within Twitter’s guidelines. Another challenge Weamer sees especially for the design community is the proliferation of-the-shelf, easily-downloaded site templates and WordPress themes. “Just because some are indeed so beautifully designed and architects respond to that. But, look, the problem with such themes are two-fold,” says Weamer.
“For one thing, theme developers often could care less about how they perform, just how they look. Which means that on PageSpeed your site can end up ranking in the fifties and that’s not good if you care about clients visiting organically, having found you on the first pages of their Google search. And two, know that if that theme is for sale someone else has bought it too and you run the risk of looking like everyone else. Who, for that matter, would want to build a building that looks like everyone else’s?”
In other words, if your bridge design soars, but your website bores, try Robertson’s notion of enrolling folks in your own uniqueness, your special club while encouraging ongoing conversations in the language of architecture. But whatever you do, don’t forget to check your PageSpeed.