Pushing Boundaries with Website Design, Going Against the Grain & Making your Visitors Work a Little Harder…

Confession: I’ve been trying to write this article for a while, in fact ever since we launched The Green Room at the beginning of the month. However I keep putting it off because it’s a difficult subject for me to actually to get my head around, and an even more taxing matter to try and explain my jumbled up thought process to you…In fact I’m 99% sure I will come across as a bit of a douche – hence the article-writing-hesitation.

I basically want to talk a little bit about web design, and specifically about making your website design different, but more than that – a challenge to the people visiting it and why I think this is a positive thing. This is probably a subject that, on first inspection, the majority of you will decide that I’m clearly mental, and be of the opinion that it’s best to make our websites as clear and easy for visitors (and potential clients) to navigate as possible. Well maybe yes, however let me explain why I’m teetering on the other side of the fence right now…

Image Credit: Braid Creative

When we came up with the The Green Room concept, specifically the sliiiide function, I was initially dubious. I’d never seen another blog using a horizontal navigation within a relatively standard blog format and I was worried that people wouldn’t ‘get it’.

Within the first week or so of the launch I was being asked the same questions over and over by people struggling to figure out the functionality of the sliding tab. Whilst I could have easily got annoyed and/or spent 23 hours a day explaining and re-explaining how to make the damn thing slide to everyone that asked, for the most part, I decided to let people figure it out for themselves.

Weirdly I was actually kind of pleased that some people couldn’t work the slide function out. It sounds very unorthodox, but I liked the fact that entering The Green Room was a challenge to some people and it really didn’t bother me if some people gave up and couldn’t get it. Why? Well first of all, it was an experiment. We didn’t know if people would even like the concept of a wedding blog simultaneously blogging about business stuff, and if it did fail, I was actually OK with it (I’d just go back to having much less writing to do!)

Also, the people that didn’t ‘get in the room’ failed a pretty simple intelligence test (and one that only really required people to take a little time and have a play around if they couldn’t figure it out right away) and in many ways I think the people who couldn’t be bothered to make that little effort don’t deserve all the amazing free business advice that’s hidden within this secret room of ours!

I spoke to a number of my industry friends about this matter, in particular wedding photographer Lisa Devlin who went through a similar thing when she re-branded her website two years ago. She purposely wanted to make the design different to all the other wedding photographers out there, not only to make her stand out from her competitors and make her website memorable to brides who will potentially looking at a whole bunch of wedding photographers at the same time, but also in order to set up a bit of a filter. She explains,

“Two years ago, I decided to overhaul my business including re-branding to a look that I felt reflected both me and my work. I also set out to change the website. I’ve have had a website for my wedding photography business since 2000 and apart from some tweaks along the way and a colour change, it had remained in its original format since then. By 2008 it was doing nothing to help me stand out from the crowd.”

“After meeting with some web developers who said my initial ideas wouldn’t be possible, I found Michael at This is Deliberate whose portfolio was really creative. My big idea was that when you arrived at the site, it was a collection of squares with no visible text apart from the logo. My previous site had a fair amount of text but from the questions I was getting, it was obvious it wasn’t getting read much. I wanted the images to do the talking but was told that you needed an obvious navigation bar. However Michael ran with the idea that it could be done away with. I also wanted the blog to be an integral part of the site. The blog is the bit which gets updated the most and I’m not sure if going forward people will have static sites now that blogging has progressed so much. It was obvious after looking at some existing templates, that my site was going to have to be built from scratch but as I was after something innovative, this was a cost I was prepared to pay. Sadly there is so much blatant copying that goes on in our industry that I thought it would be no bad thing to create a site that would be difficult to emulate and obvious if someone had done so.”

“Just before I launched the site, I did have a last minute panic that it was going to be too out there. What appears to be a random collection of images, start to make sense when you scroll over them and the text pops up. The static pages that are the website remain in fixed positions so the image of an old phone is my contact details, the cash register is the pricing etc. Some of the squares are blog posts, so there is a permanent one for weddings, another for engagements etc. These squares have different images every time you refresh the page as will the remaining squares that are made up of rotating random blog posts. You never hit the home page to the same set of images so it remains fresh. In essence it is a simple idea but it might take a while for a brand new visitor to ‘get it’. However this was really what I wanted – for people to actually engage with the site and see it as something unique. It’s not to everyone’s taste but enough people seem to enjoy getting lost in the site and the images so it’s been a big success for me.”

“New visitors and potential clients do have to do a little bit of work to find their way around and to work out how to get a quote. However frankly if they can’t be bothered to locate the pricing form and fill out their details then I can’t be bothered to shoot their wedding! It sounds harsh but I do get at least 50 enquiries a week and obviously I can’t shoot that many weddings so I see it as the first filter to make sure I’m getting the kind of clients that I will connect with. The kind of couples that I really love to work with will usually not only fill out the form but also put a lot of details about their wedding in the comment box – if they make the effort, I want to make the effort!”

Another wedding photographer who’s website certainly stands out from the crowd is that of Jasmine Star. Not only is her branding impecaible and a perfect representaion of her business, but her blog navigation has been designed to be intregral to that branding – like a glossy fashion magazine. However it wasn’t always like that, and when she first launched it it wasn’t 100% smooth sailing either, as she explained to me over email,

“Something happened for my business in 2009: It exploded. Now, please forgive me if this comes off as arrogant…that’s so far from the sentiment, truly. It’s just that it felt like someone slipped a grenade into my business and the remnants of what was once organized, neat, and tidy, were left plastered on nearby walls. My blog started as an online journal set to document my failed attempts at starting a photography business in Los Angeles. What resulted, however, was an online journal documenting the adventures, minor successes, and tips on what to avoid when following your dreams.”

“Once the business grew, the blog posts became multi-faceted and the audience became larger. In addition to stories of my daily life (I’m sure there were those who were tired of hearing about my dog, Polo), I began posting images from recent shoots. Over the years, the mixing of posts created an ebb and flow, but in 2009, I realized that while loyal readers knew there was a semblance of continuity, a new reader would be completely lost. Like, am I reading about Jasmine Star’s obsession with canned tomato sauce…or, wait…I’m reading about eating too much chocolate…err, no…she’s a professional wedding photographer? To be honest, it was a hot mess.”

“When I first launched my blog’s splash page (a directory of sorts where readers could easily access the main page, or just highlighted categorical work), the feedback wasn’t that great. Okay, it was awful. While people appreciated the aesthetic appeal, they felt it was too much of a departure of what they knew. They, essentially, had to view and navigate things in a new way and it bothered them.

So I did was any normal petulant girl would do: I ignored them.”

“Implicitly, I knew that over time loyal readers would discover how to read it in a way that made sense to them, but–moreso–new readers would be able to get a better sense of who I was quickly and with ease. At the end of the day, that’s where the value lies: new readers connecting with loyal readers to connect on the web.”

“If you’re at a point in your business or blog writing endeavors and you realize there’s a weakness in how people are connecting with you (and each other), then do whatever you must to address this issue. Sure, there may be those who oppose the changes, but if they’re true friends/readers, they’ll stick around and support you along the way.”

However it’s not just wedding photographers who want to use their websites to stand out from their competitors, create a strong sense of a brand and to challenge their visitors. Just last week I went to visit the incredible David Fielden in his studio, and in between swooning over the glorious dresses we got chatting about his website. What I love about David’s site is that unlike a lot of the bridal designers out there his style and branding is clear, concise and obvious as soon as you hit the site. As soon as you land on the page you’re presented with full page video. It’s gritty, it’s fashion forward and it straight away gives you a sense of what David wants to portray with his work. There’s concrete and fire for goodness sake, that’s not very ‘classic bridal’ at all is it?! People are either going to love it or hate it, but it is a genius way to immediately showcase what he and his work are all about. At the same time he will attract the very specific and fashion forward bride and repel the more conservative customer.

“My company has been in existence for 35 years and Its strength has always come from the creativity and my desire to constantly change and develop,” David told me. “My background is in theatre design and dance/choreography and I have an insatiable appetite for all the arts. This obviously comes into play not only in my design inspiration but also in the way I brand my company. The advertisement and website for my collection 2012 started with the presentation of my Milan show last June. I wanted to contrast the fragile and romantic quality of my dresses with a gritty urban quality. The idea stemmed from a video I saw by Buster Rhymes which depicted a bleak city landscape with a child on a swing. Music of all kind has always inspired my work and for my show I used Islamic music because it brought the fantasy and romance straight back into the 21st century. Although I don’t fee my website is difficult to navigate it is certainly not like other designers! I want my costumers to be inspired when they go to the site and to have an emotional engagement with the brand this I have tried to achieved by the use the sound and films.”

So what do you think? Do you agree that well designed but more complicated websites have a place within our industry? Do you think you should challenge your visitors when they first visit your homepage or do you think it’s foolish to maybe put off potential clients? Should we be using our websites to filter out potential time wasters like Lisa, to establish a strong sense of self like Jasmine or to push the industry forward like David?

Comments please!

30 comments

  1. Hiya :)

    Love this article and the fact that you’re questioning user experience and what makes a good website. Working in digital / web design has definitely made me question this over and over again and the best answer I can come up with is “it depends on what you want the user to do.”

    For RnR Bride, you have people who come back on a daily, and even hourly basis so it’s ok for people to learn how to use your site because they will remember the next time. This is much different to a campaign site or even a photographer’s site from the point of view of a bride.

    If the bride arrives at a site and can’t get the information they need with in a few seconds, in my opinion, you’ve lost a potential customer. When the internet was quite young, flash sites with intros and splash pages and animations were exciting and experimental, now, there are so many sites out there, you only have a few split seconds to make a last impression before he or she closes the tab or browser. People expect content and information almost immediately as they’re used to having it at their fingertips wether it’s via their phones or on tablets etc. Why make things more difficult for them?

    I guess it’s a fine balance between creating an engaging experience that reflects your brand personality and losing people along the way. Just my 2 cents xx

    *all of this said with the knowledge that my blog could very well do with some sprucing

  2. Fab article Kat! Although sometimes it can be frustrating to navigate more complicated sites, it’s worth persevering and I always feel reassured looking at beautifully designed and innovative websites because if the photographer/designer etc has spent that much time and trouble coming up with such a creative site, imagine what they are going to do for you with your photos/dress/stationary etc!

  3. Post author

    totally agree that a badly designed harder to navigate site can be a pain in the ass but there is something to be said for challenging people i think!

    in the green room, for example i really do believe that if people cant be bothered to figure out the slide function, i cant be bothered to give them all this free business advice! harsh but true…

  4. This is a really interesting area of discussion and one that I’m constantly in two minds about. I’m having a serious re-think over at Grant-Riley HQ right now and for 2 main reasons. 1) I’ve built a load of more advanced web stuff since building the present incarnation of the site and have a lot of new ideas and skills and 2) I’m always wondering whether people actually read the text we lose sleep over to word ‘accordingly’ and if busting our ass to make the site obvious to everyone is in fact the correct approach. Everyone uses the internet now all the time. Fact. Years ago I used to build sites that said ‘click here to do this’ an awful lot. Now I think if people need to be told that, they’re highly unlikely to be prospective clients anyway. (We hope anyway). It’s just a classic situation of trying to know your audience/market. I’ve certainly got some ideas lined up for the nearish future and I’m not (too) scared to try them!

  5. @Kat Fair point, and don’t want to knock all the free biz advice that I’m loving and finding immensely useful ;) This could be my favourite part of your site now!

    I just think as a blogger / publication the content you publish should be the challenging bit (which you already cover), not necessarily the way people find it. Unless you are intentionally creating a “treasure hunt” situation where the user knows they have to look for something. Anyway, maybe I’m a bit too conservative on the subject ;) x

  6. Faith Caton-Barber

    This could not have come at a better time for me, I am in the midst of re-branding and getting a website that truly reflects me and what I do. In fact, I was just quickly (ha! as if) checking out the Green Room before settling down to write an email to a web designer….

    I love all things wedding and yet what I do not like is how everything looks so same-y and safe. I’m not saying everyone needs to go crazy on their websites but oh my gosh it would be such a relief to see a bit more creativity out there! I too have a theatre background and love a bit of drama and colour and things that surprise me and it is so good to see those boundaries getting pushed back. If people are too challenged by an unusual website then maybe the decision making required in a bespoke dress may be too much for them too! I have really liked Lisa’s website since I first saw it and I still think it is one of the best at showing a sense of unique style while still including plenty of substance. I shall have to have a closer look at Jamine Star and David Fielden when I’ve got my to do list a bit shorter.

    Once again Kat, your blog has really helped me to remember that what is unique about me is what will make me successful in my business, not in being the same as everyone else. I look forward to many more inspirational Green Room posts! :)

  7. Such an interesting debate. I think it really depends on your brand and how strong it is. When I worked in my previous marketing role, there was no way we could have had a ‘conceptual’ website design because it wouldn’t have suited our staid brand and product (financial services).

    The amount of seminars I sat in about web ‘best practice’ was untrue. But I did wonder, if a cookie-cutter solution was really appropriate for all companies, regardless of industry, brand, clientele etc…

    At the same time I was working in FS, some of our clients, did some really creative things with their websites and still saw great results. I guess it’s all about making a coordinated brand for yourself. But if that means doing something different and it works for you – then I’m all for it. It would be boring if everything looked the same! That said, I think it needs to be backed up by successful stats. There’s no point in having a beautiful site which no one can access and doesn’t drive any business.

  8. This is an excellent article, and as much as you are going against the grain in terms of making things as easy as possible, it really does make sense. I remember when the green room launched and your twitter stream was basically on repeat trying to explain how the slide worked and I remember thinking “these guys really don´t seem to be trying, because its just not that hard”

    And the idea of using your site layout as a “filter” is making a whole lot of sense to me too, we shoot weddings in Portugal, which is still fairly traditional, although it is starting to change. More than half of the inquiries we get are from couples who have just copied/pasted a generic list of questions and emailed it to dozens of photographers. These are not our clients, these are bargain hunters, and if our site could send them away before they even found the contact form, then thats 50% less emailing and admin… and more time to spend on the couples who love our work and trawl though every post in the blog archive and genuinely “get” the way we do things.

    Thank you Kat (and Lisa and David) for an excellent article, you´ve got my brain going at 100 mph right now, this has really given me something to think about, love you guys!

  9. I love the Green Room and Im finding the information really helpful, but I have to disagree about deliberately challenging your customers to find information.

    Perhaps this works if you have a large established following but as a small business I find first impressions count and many customers will leave the site if not immediately impressed with content and ease of use.

    We have just re done our website and one of the biggies that we thought about was ease of navigation as I usually hate websites with tricky navigation. Its not a lack of intellect, its a lack of time. In such a tough market I don’t want to have to work to see someone’s website, I kind of want it presented to me.

    Saying that though, I didn’t think the slide function was difficult to figure out and I enjoy whispering sliiiiiiiide when I do it :D

    Great post, definitely made me think! I love the ‘don’t lose sight of what makes you weird’ picture. I think its way too easy to go beige…

    Sam x

  10. Post author

    Thanks for your comment Sam and by the way, saying sliiiiiiiiiiiide as you slide into the green room is mandatory.

    Your point is very valid and i too find it very annoying sometimes when i go to badly designed (usually unintentionally) complicated websites, hence my dubiation at posting this article. However, for someone like Lisa who is inundated with (sorry but..) pointless enquiries from brides who are clearly just spamming out to every photographer they can, i do think its an idea worth considering. I’ll be honest, when Lisa first told me about her website design idea when she was about to launch it, i was dubious too but she was right and it works great for her!

    its just about taking from the idea what you will really and whats relevant to you and your business :)

  11. @Sam, I’m with you. I also think there is a difference between graphic design and interaction design. Your site can still look unique and have a very memorable / distinguishing aesthetic but the interactions should be simple and intuitive.

  12. Post author

    haha not at all Alexis! i defo think the idea is an interesting one though but of course its not for everyone. for me, making the green room a little harder to get into worked, however i agree that i wouldnt want to make the main part of my site (ie the bread and butter) hard to navigate…

  13. Your point is so valid though, I do worry that our personality doesn’t come across in our website, though it pushes through more from our blog posts. (I hope!)

    Im booked on your Sheffield blogging course Kat so will be picking your brains there! Woop! Cant wait!

  14. I understand why some people disagree but I actually think this post is excellent.
    It is so easy to fall into traditional web design techniques because we don’t want to frighten or alienate our audience but web technologies have progressed exponentially since these techniques were developed, as have the abilities of our audience.

    It is still entirely possible to design an intuitive website without following the “normal” layout and designs. I actually find that people overlook much of a website because they are so used to seeing it all around the web.
    Of course that may be what you want (especially if you want the reader to skip straight to the content), but it is not ideal if you are trying to develop and maintain a brand. For many businesses (especially small businesses), having a memorable “web presence” is hugely important these days.

    I also think the technologies exist now where you can make a website look visually stunning and interact well without resorting to Flash – check out CSS3, HTML5 and JQuery designs

    (sorry for the essay!)

  15. I’m split on this one… part of me feeling loyal to my web roots and wanting to keep everyone on track following the standards laid out by the W3C” – and part of me embracing the fact that people are trying different things in more mainstream industries rather than just developers showing what fancy tricks they’ve managed to incorporate into their designs. Having said that though, the navigation in The Green Room did throw me at first.
    Though ultimately, as long as it doesn’t start blaring music at me, I don’t really mind how the site works! Long may people experiment and innovate.

  16. You have some fair points Kat. Though I do agree with Alexis. Nowadays people like things quick. If a potential client is having to look for the information they need they might get frustrated and move on. There are definitely some key elements in design that are proven to work. There are ways of showing your creativity and own personality but also applying these key design elements. I do love though that you’re not afraid to state your opinion and challenge people to think outside the box! Fair play!

  17. I think there are some fair points made for both arguments (and I love the green room and that I am in on the secret)

    But here’s the thing… I think you have to have a definite following (hence all your people in the article) or it wont work. You have to already have fans that are willing to go the extra mile with you – they know you well enough to know that it will be worth the hard work…. but if you arent really established, then I would almost equate it to website suicide – if you are trying to make a first impression, making someone work is not the way to go (oh, how I wish it was!)… so I believe that having a pretty/standard website/blog is the way to start out and then once you get some fans and find your niche, then make them work for it… :)

    Just my 2 cents though…

  18. Post author

    Agreed Addie. you have to work out what will work for you. For instance, i wouldnt the main part of rock n roll bride where i blog the weddings to be complicated as i want to attract as many visitors to that portion of the site as possible.

  19. I think there’s a lot to be said for deferring from a standard site format, along with great design, in making your brand and your site that bit more memorable.

    Yes, I agree with comments that you don’t want to irritate potential clients/readers and make information difficult to get at, but in actuality none of the examples you’ve used are doing this. There’s a difference between a poorly set out, awkward to use site, and one where things are set out in a more inventive way. All the information is there in all of these examples, and it’s easy to access. They’ve just been set out more creatively so you consider what you’re doing a little more, which I think is a really good thing. I know I’ve visited blogs, and flicked through on autopilot, where I’ve really enjoyed the content, but then can’t differentiate one site from another in my mind when I’ve wanted to go back to it later.

    My own site’s only been live a few months, but this has definitely got me thinking about how I can improve the user experience and make it more memorable.

    Thanks for another thought provoking post Kat, you douche.

  20. I’m trying to do something a bit different, but I’m right at the beginning of trying to find clients and it’s tough striking the balance between attracting enough clients to create a viable business while staying true to who I am. I’ve had lots of advice, some I agree with and some I can see value in so for now I’m going to combine my different approach with some tried and tested web design bits thrown in.

    However… if you are an established blog/business like your examples I’m in complete agreement with making things a bit challenging and representative of who you are to find people who REALLY want to work with you and weed out those who can’t be bothered.

    p.s. Not jumbled or douche like at all. Yet another great post!

  21. Really loved reading this. I must admit, I found both Lisa’s site, and your slide navigation bit of the Green Room difficult to navigate at first. But there is something fun and challenging about that, and funnily enough they are both websites I enjoy coming back to because I know there will be something challenging and inspiring to see and read about. I’m always asking myself whether clients might find my website difficult to navigate, and worry about it, but like you very rightly point out, if they can be bothered to take the time to really look around your website, those are the clients worth having! Great post! Big love, Kathryn xx

  22. The Green Room is required reading. I think it is fabulous that you are willing to share your knowledge and experience. Thanks! Sx

  23. sarah

    I read your website through my gReader on my phone as an RSS feed. It’s great – I have all my favourite blogs delivered to me in an easy to read, clear format all day long. I didn’t even realise these business posts are a different section of your website. I can honestly say I know exactly who I’m reading on each different blog post through your content. I don’t think I would so much if I had all the distractions of a website.

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