A homepage, the power of design, and "consulting"

Before I played a tiny part in the gentle launch of the BBC Programmes website I spent the first few weeks of my summer break from college on another project for the BBC. Myself and Alan Connor were charged with the task of thinking about the direction the bbc.co.uk homepage should take in a year or two’s time.

This was quite a change for me. Most of the work I’ve been doing over the past few years of freelancing has been more in the “making things” direction rather than the, shall we say, “waving hands” direction. I’ve made lots of sitemaps and wireframes, I’ve produced lots of designs, I’ve churned out a lot of PHP, HTML, CSS and Movable Type templates. And while all that has required its fair share of thought I hadn’t yet been paid to only scribble on whiteboards, meet lots of people, have discussions and think hard about a muddle of very vague ideas.

This took some getting used to after years of jobs where I’ve created a thing to justify my pay. But once I’d got over the nagging guilt this was mostly a wonderful task. It was a pleasure and an honour to be thinking hard about this stuff at the BBC, with someone as witty and intelligent as Alan.

Unfortunately I’m not going to say what we came up with. It hardly seems right to give away all that work for free (no, even if you have paid your Licence Fee). It’s not much of a secret to say that the current homepage is loved by almost no one. Very little of it changes from one day to the next, which isn’t a good representation of an organisation with several TV channels, oodles of national and local radio stations, a vast tangle of online activity and much more besides.

The homepage also does very little in terms of representing any kind of brand. By trying to represent all of the BBC at once it appears very staid, perhaps an example of design-by-committee, with only the top-right “promo box” having any sense of dynamism. Pick any single BBC brand and it will be more exciting than the BBC homepage.

After much discussion we settled on a solution for what the homepage should be. What should be on it, how does it work, what’s the concept? What’s it for? However, we barely even thought about what it should look like. Many people (at the BBC and elsewhere) jump at the chance to break open Photoshop at the first mention of the word “redesign”. I think this is a big mistake for two reasons.

First, you need to know what the design needs to incorporate. What is it that you’re designing? Yes, sometimes a mere lick of paint — the same features and content with a new look — might be all that’s required, but for any major “redesign” the pixels must come after the basic concept.

The second reason to avoid design as long as possible is because pictures are so strong. In any redesign process as soon as anyone comes up with an image, whether it’s a rough wireframe sketched on a whiteboard or a pixel-perfect mockup, no one can get it out of their head. From that point on all discussion about what the page (or site or whatever) is will be framed by that image. It will stick in everyone’s head and become the reference point for future ideas.

This isn’t to say the basic ideas and the design should remain forever separate. I’ve no doubt that any decent finished site will involve a lot of back and forth between, say, the editorial and design folks, with each enriching the work of the others. But early on in the process of rethinking the “isness” of a thing, pictures will only constrain everyone’s thinking.

On a personal level this was a great project for me. I’ve always been impressed with so many of my friends who have so many apparently well thought out opinions on things, and so many interesting ideas about their fields. I think part of the reason I’ve felt lacking in these departments is because I’ve spent so long working alone, and alone on pure development projects. Spending some time thinking about what the BBC homepage should be, and, more importantly, discussing what I thought and justifying my beliefs, was a whole new experience. I had to think hard about why I thought some things and work out a considered opinion on issues that had never before crossed my mind.

I guess this kind of work is “consulting”. I’ve never considered myself a consultant before; “freelancer” seems a much more craft-based and hands-on kind of term which is, in my stubborn logic, therefore more worthy. I’ve always shied away from the more consulting oriented tasks in the past, partly due to lack of confidence. It always seemed to me that a consultant should be clear in their convictions, able to convince people that what they believe is right, and argue their case against all those who are equally-convinced of their own contrary opinions. This isn’t me. I can see the other side to almost any argument and when faced with someone who stands firm with an opinion opposite to mine, then I’ll question myself. I might later realise their idea was ludicrous but if they seem certain enough then at the time I’ll waver and wonder if maybe I’m wrong after all.

I expect it takes practice. More time spent arguing and discussing ideas presumably helps them take root more firmly and before long I could be convincing people of ludicrous ideas of my very own.

4 Nov 2007 at Twitter

  • 12:38pm: Le Pain Quotidien by RFH for ginger beer and treacle tart / coffee and apple muffin. Mmmm.