Online magazine project, day one: Goal

Web design, like mediation, is about understanding needs, goals & interests.

The Free Liberal open redesign starts with a clear vision of the site’s vision, values and communication goals.

This post is part of an open redesign project I mentioned on Friday.

Before taking on a new project, I always work out a clear vision of the client’s communication goals. This includes focused queries and brainstorming about the character and identity of the site, the needs and interests of its community or audience; it also includes an overview of the content, with attention to how people will use the site.

Listening, sensing & communicating vision

My questions come from training in mediation and my background in visual storytelling, in addition to daily experience as a web developer. It may sound navel-gazey, but part of my purpose is to gain a sense of the project’s spiritual direction by clearly stating and clarifying its big picture goal:

The word goal is used here in the special sense of the overarching purpose, the big dream, the visionary concept, the ultimate consummation which one approaches but never really achieves. It is something presently out of reach; it is something to strive for, to move toward, to become. It is so stated that it excites the imagination and challenges people to work for something they do no yet know how to do, something they can be proud of as they move toward it.

— Robert K. Greenleaf, from Servant Leadership (emphases mine)

This process is challenging for clients who are used to submitting a list of their requirements and getting a quote— but I’ve found this step crucial to crafting a proposal that addresses the real needs of a project, and delivering creative work that solves real problems for site owners and their communities. The process almost always gives everyone new insight into their shared vision and values, or exposes conflict in a constructive way.

Redesign goals of the Free Liberal

On the other hand, it’s not enough to understand the goals of a site— we also have to make a plan for action based on the resources, opportunities, and time available. That means reducing the big dream to concrete actions and focusing on the limited scope of the present.

My Free Liberal project assessment is seasoned by my friendship with the site’s publisher Kevin Rollins, and my acquaintance with the editorial team and other contributors. When Free Liberal was still a print publication, Kevin commissioned me for cover illustrations; since then, I’ve attended several Free Liberal board meetings and social events, giving me a stronger sense of the Free Liberal community.

Moreover, Kevin and I have talked at length about his evolving vision for the Free Liberal as an online magazine, and Kevin included me in the recent ongoing conversation with the editorial team, focused on the Free Liberal‘s identity, branding, communication goals, and redesign objectives.

Those goals were stated most clearly and cogently by Free Liberal science advisor Carl Milsted —here’s my summary and comments.

  1. Be more magazine-like: The new design must project Free Liberal as an online magazine rather than a web log. Brand building will be a major part of this: developing a strong style guide that incorporates colors, typography and various visual standards (graphics, photography, etc.) to communicate the site’s identity through look and feel. Further brand stewardship will fall on the site’s editorial team, by publishing great content.
  2. Organize the site into meaningful, effective navigation: The new site must include easy-to-use archives of content indexed by section, category, and author, cross-referenced with individual articles so that readers can easily find related content.
  3. Cross-platform accessibility and SEO: This is a matter of applying the standardized best practices of building professional websites. By combining meaningful content with light, semantic markup (HTML) and microformats, using only stylesheets (CSS) for visual design, readers can enjoy the site content regardless of what browser or device they’re using. Configuring the site’s content management system to generate human-readable URLs with a clear content hierarchy, along with site maps in XML and HTML, will contribute to strong standards of accessibility and meaningful search engine rankings. The first rule of search engine optimization is to publish great content that engages human readers, which is up to the editorial team, but setting up the site to expose its content to robots is a matter of design professionalism.
  4. Be in the conversation: Invite users to share the site using various social media tools. This again creates a responsibility for the authors and editors to interact with their readers through those tools— setting up social media invites without watching the conversation is poor brand stewardship. But if authors show care, social media tools can offer a great platform to build the Free Liberal community.
  5. Give keys to the authors: The new site should offer authors access to a publishing platform that enables them to easily draft and submit content, relieving editors of some of the data entry. This lightens the burden of site maintenance, allowing editors to select, edit, and publish new features instead of diluting their energy in webmastering.

Next steps: sorting content, site structure, & layout

All the site’s existing content has been imported into a fresh installation of the awesome Textpattern CMS at our development site.

Behind the scenes, Free Liberal editors are developing expressive categories for the site’s content in line with Kevin’s immediate and long-term communication goals. This will help organize both existing and future content into meaningful, effective navigation that is lacking on the current site. With a working idea of the site’s taxonomy, editors can go through the old content, tag it appropriately, and highlight the best article’s from the site’s history.

Related to this is finalizing the major divisions of content into a site map and realized navigation. The top priority here is to separate features from the site’s guest columnists, giving more priority to features in the design.

Aha, the design! I’m currently drafting a layout for the site’s homepage based on the all the above. This layout includes no treatment for the typography, colors, graphical accents, or even content for the site footer— those will come later. In my next post, I’ll write about the tactical decisions that inform the homepage design, and other stuff.

Feel free to post your comments and feedback below. You can also follow @freeliberal on twitter for updates on this open redesign.

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