Credit: Doug Ross

When was the last time you cast a critical eye on your company’s website? If it requires visitors to download plug-ins, features small photos, has hard-to-find contact information or important sections that can’t be printed, it’s time for an update. With the proliferation of the iPhone, iPad, and other handheld wireless devices, overly complicated Flash sequences are out, too. What’s in? Bold graphics, personality, and quick access to information. Architects like the understated elegance of white space. It makes your portfolio pop and maybe even expresses your minimalist philosophy on screen. But let’s talk about font size. “When I survey architects’ websites, I’m amazed at how small the type is,” says Michael Bierut, an associate at New York–based graphic design firm Pentagram. “I don’t think there’s any profession that has such an addiction to tiny type.” The problem, he says, is that it misses the intent, which is to communicate something useful. As Bierut reminds modernists, the ethic also has a purposefulness and functionalism and blunt force. “The sign on the front of the Bauhaus was big, not clever and subtle,” he says.

Website design has changed rapidly over the years, along with upgrades in technology and bandwidth. A decade ago, people were happy if they could find some information about a company online. Soon after, websites were providing vast amounts of content, such as downloadable bios and project sheets. About five years ago, architects began using their online platform to demonstrate their design ingenuity. Visitors were greeted with sophisticated Flash intros, which in effect withheld real information while the animation painted a picture. These days, though, it’s all about accessibility. Visitors use websites as a quick, intuitive tool. They want a clean experience that gets to information quickly and expresses something about an organization’s character, without romance and atmosphere getting in the way.

Bierut is hardly the only branding expert questioning a practice that has become routine among architecture firms: intricate online personas long on style and short on personality. “From a branding perspective, most of the time people get their understanding about a company from its website,” says Tyler Young, creative director at San Francisco–based Young Nomad Brand. “At the end of the design process you really need to say, ‘Yes, this site talks for us in its tone and content.’ By themselves, beautiful photography and boring text don’t convey an identity very well.”

information architecture

That doesn’t mean you have to blog, if it’s not your metier. Blogging is time-consuming and takes effort to sustain, and there are other ways to interact online with your audience. McKinney York Architects in Austin, Texas, for example, publishes newsy items about the practice and the local community on its site, along with links to its Twitter feed and Facebook page. The move to a new building and the addition of partner Al York, AIA, to the firm name prompted a recent website redesign, which won a 2010 American Web Design Award from Graphic Design USA.

“We’re a general practice firm, so we didn’t want to appear too corporate or too residential,” says associate Will Wood, AIA. “We wanted the site to look clean and organized, friendly and informal, but professional.” The architects already had a strong identity, but they asked Creative Suitcase, a local graphic design firm, to develop a more dynamic site. In addition to rewritten content, the customized WordPress application features easier navigation that eliminates use of the “back” button, a custom slideshow with large photos, location maps, video, and a content management system that staff members can update themselves. The architects often upload construction photos from their phones, and finished projects get a short summary and mouse-over icons that highlight awards recognition and sustainable ideas.

If proof was needed of the importance of the human touch, Google Analytics showed that McKinney York’s visitors check out the profile photos first. In response to other traffic reports, the home page was tweaked a year after launch. “News stories were not getting much attention, so we put the news feed on the front,” Wood says. “And we originally had a slideshow up front with automatic pan, but now we have four banner photos directing people to a project that recently won an award or was published. If someone only sees two or three projects, we know they’ll be our best.”

Everyone wants to be found on Google, so a search-engine-friendly site is crucial. And that means forgoing some fancy maneuvers. “Mobile apps won’t play Flash, and search engines can’t read the content unless you go to great effort to make it readable,” says Rachel Clemens, creative director at Creative Suitcase. But that doesn’t eliminate all bells and whistles. On McKinney York’s Work page, for example, the scrolling slideshow supplies movement without being Flash-based. Other essentials: Make it easy for people to contact you with an e-mail form or by clicking on an icon, map your office location on the contact page, and include short videos with searchable tags. “It’s so easy to put video online now because everyone’s bandwidth is caught up,” Clemens says, adding: “A simple site outweighs a complex site. People leave quickly if they can’t figure out how to get something they’re after.”

identity issues

Michael Bierut agrees. “When our firm designs signage for museums and college campuses, the most popular sign is the one for the bathroom; people want to know where it is,” he says. Likewise with websites, “it’s surprising how often people who visit simply are looking for an address or phone number, and how often it’s difficult to find it.”

Content should be to-the-point and found in a quick visual sweep. The goal isn’t necessarily to get people to linger, but to create a coherent experience that piques their interest enough to continue the conversation. The starting assumption, Bierut says, is that you can’t design a site that works for everyone, so you have to make judgments about your real audience. “Maybe someone in authority has said, ‘We’ve got a project to do. Research these six firms to see if they’ve done this kind of work before,’” he says. Particularly for large firms, that means matching what’s offered to their clients’ vetting process.

At New York–based Robert A.M. Stern Architects, it means making pages that look good in print. “One thing we know from working in an office with people of all ages is that even Web-savvy decision makers often ask junior people to print information for them to review while they’re on a plane or away for the weekend, and we want to make the cut,” says Peter Morris Dixon, director of external communications at Robert A.M. Stern Architects.

Large, diverse practices like Stern’s must represent their breadth of work online, conveying authority in each sector without overwhelming visitors. Bierut, who designed the firm’s new website, notes that if you arrive thinking you’re commissioning a house, it’s confusing to see an apartment building or office tower. His solution? To graphically depict all 12 project categories on the home page in large type, accompanied by abstracted thumbnail apertures that scale up into oversize images when scrolled over. “Rather than putting the navigation of building types somewhere else on the site, it’s the first thing you see when you arrive, and is meant to get you to those categories quickly,” Bierut says. “The cream background is warm, and the design lets the photos be the star. You grasp that the range is impressive, without being confused.”

Robert A.M. Stern’s new website uses the latest technology to more accurately reflect the firm’s character. According to Dixon, who spearheaded the six-month process, the design program included adding some interactivity, replacing thumbnails with larger images, and creating a more glamorous look on par with the firm’s monographs. To that end, the kerned serif headlines are consistent with the monographs, which Bierut also designed. “The words are images, not text, and are intended to evoke a sense of permanence, like carving in stone,” Dixon explains.

The site design—which represents 16 partners, nine associates, and selections from a portfolio of more than 1,000 projects—also strikes a balance between quick reads and deep wells of information. Featured projects are briefly described and stats are omitted, but staff bios are fleshed out. “If we were pursuing a corporate headquarters project, our presentation might abbreviate the universities a partner has done, but on the website we don’t know what people are looking for on any particular day,” Dixon says. “Experience is important to convey.”

So is sustainability, he believes. While some architects might argue that an environmental tab is gratuitous because the ethic permeates everything they do, the Stern partners wanted it prominently displayed on the main navigation bar. “We had heard from clients that our information on sustainability was hard to find,” Dixon notes. “We’re very aware that people don’t associate some of the traditional architecture we do with sustainable design, but our approach is specific. We want to make it easy for people checking out firms to see that, even though it’s also explained in the project descriptions.”

Some issues called for compromise, such as photo size. Large images take longer to load, so the team had to find a balance between speed and size. These days, site visitors want information to load quickly, and if what they’re looking for doesn’t pop right up, they’re likely to move on. “The redesign was not linear and required a consultant team skilled at collaboration,” Dixon says. And there’s more work to come. Next on the drawing board: a site tailored for mobile devices.

personal best

As social media rises, sites that are little more than online brochures are on the wane. Social media has changed the way people interact with information, and creating the built-in browsing experience they expect is another way to round out a firm’s personality. One architect doing that exceptionally well is Michelle Kaufmann, Michelle Kaufmann Studio, San Francisco, whose new website reflects her separation from mkDesigns, the brand she sold to BluHomes in late 2009.

Her content-rich home page is packed with visual cues, yet the fluid design is easy to absorb. A banner features rotating portfolio images with superimposed large-type adjectives describing her design ethic, such as “healthy,” “smart,” and “systems built.” The mid-section includes a three-sentence blurb and subcategories such as blog, homes, books, buzz; and at the bottom is an explanation of her guiding eco-principles, plus a tag cloud and social media links.

“A sense of collaboration and community is so much a part of Michelle’s work. If you just see her buildings, you have only half the story,” says Young Nomad Brand’s Tyler Young, who designed the new site. A prolific blogger, Kaufmann had observed that some architectural websites were geared more toward other architects than to clients, and saw hers as a way to connect the dots. “I thought, here is a real opportunity to help people make more thoughtful decisions,” she says. “It’s not just about, ‘Hey, come hire me,’ but about, ‘Let’s make this world a better place, and talk about things people can do in their existing homes.’ Then they’re more likely to engage an architect rather than just go to a builder.’”

When Young asked what architects inspire her, Kaufmann mentioned Charles and Ray Eames. The question became: If the couple were alive today, what would they be doing online? Young found examples of the Eameses being playful in the studio. There were photos of them taking photos, showing the guts of their designs in beautiful ways and telling stories about how things were made.

“Architects are sometimes very linear, but they’re also interesting people with a ton of knowledge,” Young says. “It’s important for clients to understand how they work rather than just the work, because it’s often similar to what others are doing.” He gravitates toward images that capture the human side of architecture. “It’s not just about the house, but life in the house, which is crucial from branding perspective,” Young says. “Architects might be better served reflecting the environment they built than their design aesthetic.”

Michelle Kaufmann Studio’s website traffic statistics seem to bear that out. According to Compete, last year the number of unique visitors to Kaufmann’s site far outperformed those of architecture giants Kohn Pedersen Fox and OMA, Rem Koolhaas’ firm, suggesting that interactivity attracts a larger audience.

Ultimately, though, technology is just a tool. It changes, but key branding messages never do. San Francisco graphic designer Earl Gee, Gee + Chung Design, whose clients include Apple, Autodesk, and IBM, applies a standard beyond resonating with a target clientele: Would an outside audience understand and appreciate the message? Simplicity is a big deal.

When Gee judges website competitions, he runs through a checklist: a strong concept that permeates the site, well-organized content, clear navigation, the engaging use of interactivity, and multiple entry points and ways to experience the site. “You use storytelling to define how you’re different and why it matters to your audience,” Gee says. “A website is a key investment in your business. It’s how people meet you nowadays.”