Squinting to read tiny white words set on a black background? Not knowing whether to click or to scroll? Do these problems sound familiar? Your website is the face that most of the world will see—even more than your latest building or monograph—so get it right by following a few simple rules:
Don’t do Flash: It’s easy to see the appeal of Flash animation as a dynamic splash page to introduce your practice. Resist the temptation. Your content will be invisible to search engines and impossible to view on mobile devices.
Think beyond the portfolio: Many architects still treat their websites as digital monographs—heroic project images front and center, with descriptions and design philosophy at the margins. But more firms are chafing at the restrictions of the “grand showcase,” as NBBJ communications director Helen Dimoff, Assoc. AIA, calls it. Seattle-based NBBJ wanted to get out of Flash when it redesigned its website in early 2013. But the firm also wanted to convey the ideas and research backing its portfolio. With 700 staffers working globally in research-intensive practice areas such as healthcare and higher education, the firm had plenty of stories, but no good way to tell them using a conventional, portfolio-driven website. “When we looked at the industry’s way of communicating through company websites, it was all the same,” Dimoff said of the competitor audit the firm conducted. “We wanted to go a little further in the storytelling.” NBBJ reviewed numerous concepts with interactive design studio Method before taking the site in an editorial direction. Today NBBJ’s homepage will point you to a blog post or an interview with its architects.
Find the right balance between text and images: NBBJ’s headlines are the giveaway—the site relies on text, from an “ideas” channel to a design blog spinoff, nbbX. On pages where images have pride of place, users don’t have to click through for accompanying text. “We didn’t want to hide the narrative,” Dimoff says. The photos are enlivened by people using the spaces that NBBJ designed. The firm commissioned new, humanized photography especially for the redesigned site. Method principal David Lipkin advises against stark building-as-object shots: “Warm it up, don’t make it so cold. Not everything has to be cold and modern.”
A text-rich site is not for all, of course. For Julie Eizenberg, AIA, principal of Santa Monica, Calif.–based Koning Eizenberg Architecture, less text is better, and the act of distilling it can lead productive discussions. “The language [on the site] is deliberately straightforward,” she says. “We wanted to use it as an opportunity to think about what the hell we were doing” as a firm.
The firm’s site follows the latest trends in Web design: images in horizontal ribbons and parallax scrolling, which creates the impression of a background and faster-moving foreground. Stacked full-width images feel less busy than smaller tiles, while foregrounding the text ensures it won’t get lost. “There’s a certain playfulness, flexibility, and populism within the firm itself,” which carries over to the site, says Wil Carson, creative director of graphic design studio 180West that designed the Koning Eizenberg site, along with the sites of many other firms, including Michael Maltzan Architecture, Brooks + Scarpa Architects, and HMC Architects.
Responsive design is important, but not necessary: Responsive design optimizes viewing on mobile devices, tablets, and desktops. It’s important: Mobile devices now account for more than 20 percent of all Web browsing. But going fully responsive is expensive and unnecessary for most architects. Thousands of people aren’t browsing your site on the train, and no one is buying your services with one-click ordering. “A lot of the mobile use of a corporate website is someone going to a job interview or meeting [and finding] the address or phone number,” says Method’s client services lead Carolyn Weiss. Essential information should be prominent and viewable on a phone.
Have fun: For a profession that prides itself on creativity, architects are stuck in groupthink when it comes to websites. A few firms do break the mold: Copenhagen, Denmark–based Bjarke Ingels Group created a striking periodic table of its projects, and New York’s Diller Scofidio + Renfro has rows of 3D tiles that the user can fly over. Parisian firm LAN (Local Architecture Network) uses its site to showcase its high-quality videos. But another Parisian firm truly sets the bar for originality: The site of Freaks Freearchitects opens with a clip of the Power Rangers doing martial-arts moves with partners’ names patched in. The “lectures” page has a GIF of teenage girls screaming at what could be a Justin Bieber concert. It probably goes against all advice a Web designer would give (it uses Flash, for one thing)—but it’s great. Firm partner Guillaume Aubry says a cheeky site filters all but potential collaborators. “We maybe get less phone calls than others, but those phone calls more often end up with a real exciting project. Our ratio is quite good.”