Balance and Alchemy

Balance and Alchemy

Hello! Welcome to a new column I’m writing for this website, on creative business. It’s partially a journal of my own progresses and also created with creative people in business in mind, and I’m aiming to write about things which help me and I hope you too, on your creative journey.

It’s been some time since I last wrote in this blog, going so far as to remove reference to it in the menu, while I worked out what to do with it, and if it was something I wanted to create. The thing is, I love reading blogs in certain sites, ones which I come back to daily, and not because the articles are full of ‘useful information’. My favourite blogs have a sense of community and a different way of looking at things, one of them takes videogames really seriously, and others give a softer perspective to real and difficult events. There’s a communication between the writers and the readers, which is sensed in the writing, and continued in the comments. A mutual support.

This feels like one of the nicest ways to engage with people as a creative business online. Through a real, personal connection, listening and responding, and creating things that a) you naturally want to create, and which b) your people are naturally drawn to. It’s what brings me back to blogging rather than Instagram or Facebook, or other platforms where it’s a quick yell into the internet and a flurry of taps from people of varying interest levels. For sure, Instagram right now looks like one of the best ways to really visually connect and build a real aesthetic, and also as a great place to get people clicking through to your shop. This is definitely how I’ve made impulse purchases of things, through the initial Instagram connection.

But it’s through blogs that I’ve met people who feel familiar to me, and slowly come to understandings of their work and naturally, as the occasion arises, commission their services, subscribe in a financial sense, or form a long-lasting relationship to their work as something that I’d recommend, endorse or engage with.

 

lake mountain

Above: ‘Spring’ at Lake Mountain (still very icy and misty)

Above: A lake up the top of Mt Buffalo, Victoria

And so, this is what I hope to create here, with The Grazing Elk, as we venture further into the wilds of what we want to do, further along the deer-trail, following the scent of fresh herbs and berries to create more and more interesting, new work with people.

We currently find ourselves on a new trail, somewhere just past building a digital product and on the way to a fully fledged conversational brand building creation. When I say ‘brand building’, I’m trying to express the joy of really being able to get to know a person and their business; for them to experience the same too, and then to create strategies, visual design, and a wholehearted creation of digital and physical tools to help them do what it is they do best.

I hope you’ll join me for the journey.

x Lara

 

Playful & Generous Design

Playful & Generous Design

One of the first things I created when I launched my business, The Grazing Elk, was a list of qualities I wanted my designs to have. They included playfulness and generosity, as well as treating the people who would engage with the designs as intelligent beings, and never calling them ‘users’. (Thankyou QUT and Jane Turner for that very beautiful piece of drilling!) I wanted my designs to be inspirational, and aspirational, to be a breath of fresh air and suggest freedom rather than corralling into funnels.

treesAnd – as corralling reminds me – I wanted a touch of the Wild West, the Frontier. The Digital Frontier, or the Digital Wilderness. For our work together to be an adventure and a journey into the digital wilderness, learning new paths and engaging with what we are designing on its own terms. To not automatically do things as others have been successful in or have promoted, but to do things as best suits our unique purpose, journey and audience.

To be playful in trying out different things, and generous to ourselves and the people who will interact with our designs. I’ll try to be concrete here in some examples.

One example that comes to mind is about the ongoing use of the word ‘user’ online and also the perennial ‘foolproof’ way of designing programs or systems. It isn’t very generous because a) it’s calling you a ‘user’ and a ‘fool’ and b) that’s the only way it’s talking to you. There’s no elevated option where we have one person talking to another person, on an intelligent level. I think we are moving out of ‘foolproof’ into ‘intuitive’ with, for example, Google’s Inbox having some nice touches on mobile which are intuitive and surprising (because they actually do what you hoped they would!).

A generous way of having an interaction with, say, a website could be:

  • – that you are talked to in genuine tones which are not just sales-pitches or incomprehensible jargon
  • – a ‘show, don’t tell’ way of interacting, where instead of saying “we are a caring and supportive company” (and perhaps having a bit of a cold way of talking and being hard to contact), the website takes the idea of “caring and supporting” and expresses that through everything they do/write/be/use in the site. For example, perhaps stock photos are not appropriate in a site where it’s about a very personal experience with a business, where you want to see who they are, not what represents them in stock-photo-land.
  • – places where you get to interact on the site – maybe just through a comment, maybe through direct contact, or maybe in a way only you can see, with an interactive section… it could even just be an interactive visualisation of data and still be charming
  • – allowing a place for personality in design – through words, images, layout or even just micro-copy – a funny phrase when a contact form message is sent? Two examples where I’ve experienced fun phrases in an unexpected place are MailChimp on their alert and confirmation messages and Freshbooks’ time tracker also has cute phrases when you log hours.

Is there room for Playfulness? Or is business too important for that?

playground

That’s a joke. Well, for me it is a joke. Our work here, the work I do with you, The Grazing Elk itself, we’re easygoing about being playful. It’s fun, engaging and liberating!

The photo above is a playground in this very commercial area. It’s near a library, but I haven’t ever seen many children in the vicinity. Actually, I’ve never seen anyone playing there, but it’s so appealing, so different from old plastic playgrounds that I’ve climbed right through all of it once.

If playful options are presented to people – fun ways of getting feedback via a quiz designed with TypeForm, a portfolio sorted by colour, a pop up box that has a joke in it rather than a demand for an email… little things which can give people a laugh or a delightful surprise – I tend to think that your website will be remembered and talked about.

What’s your favourite thing a website has done which has surprised you? What do you wish websites would do to make your visit happier? If you like, let me know in the comments !

Conversations: Web Design Philosophy

Conversations: Web Design Philosophy

This is a new column where I talk about my design approach and thoughts surrounding different aspects of my design practice.

Websites… what wonderful things!

What I love about websites is that they can be so beautiful and so expressive. People now are accessing websites from so many beautiful places – reading your blog from a seaside cliff sipping tea, browsing your shop from a warm cafe – and websites are not just coded, clinical things. They can receive imprint from visitors, absorb attention and reflect what people enjoy looking at, and mirror the beauty of the website’s owner to the world.

They are organic. The best ones flow like water to fit the screen you see them on.

CaptureThey usually represent ‘the real’, as digital. When translating something which exists in three or four dimensions into something that’s basically read as a flat screen, space and volume matter.

Some websites are for personal projects, some for business, some for commerce, and each can be designed to best support its purpose. Knowing your purpose with your website is important, because the design will functionally, emotionally, psychologically and visually support your purpose.

Where in the past a website might have been viewed as just a one-way communication tool, and where now we have a lot of emphasis on social media and marketing with possibly less genuine feeling behind messages, we’re in a space where we can really define what we want our websites to do and how we want them to represent us. The technology is there to make communication and sharing of ideas two-way, and the knowledge of spreading your ideas is also well-developed. Implementing this in a genuine way which carries real feeling is then what your designer can help you to do.

Websites are not isolated. A truly great website for a business relies on the business understanding themselves, their customers and their purpose. I work mainly with sole traders or small businesses, so let’s define this even further to be that the person commissioning the website may be in a perfect place to start to learn much more about themselves and their own passions (which the business is hopefully a part of) before any code is put to server. (That’s a joke about putting pen to paper)

ph store

When designing, I try to express distance and space as well as a range of focus points in the page. As you’re reading this article all the text is at one focus point and the background is flat, but at least the photos can give your eyes some space to focus in the distance. For a whole website, this practice works a bit better because we’re not just looking at one text-dense page.

Having a sense of rhythm in spacing and layout as well as in distance can help a website be more comfortable to spend time on, and more enjoyable and interesting to browse.

Like the design philosophy of a Japanese tea house, space and neutrality gives the viewer space to see themselves in the site.

The principles of a zen-like design are:

  • Keep the components of your site’s visibility in balance
  • Consider your options wisely before using them
  • Keep your visitors enlightened (offer them knowledge)
  • Maintain clarity and reduce noise pollution

– Alexander Dawson, in Distinctive Design: A Practical Guide to a Useful, Beautiful Web (2011)

 

Let’s Learn a Thing: Being Found Online … while staying authentic

Let’s Learn a Thing: Being Found Online … while staying authentic

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When I think of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), I can’t help think of all the advertising aimed at “getting you to the top” of the search results.

But the delightful fact is, that you can’t force anything to the top of search results, and you can’t buy rankings. (This isn’t about adwords which can put your ad up top, this is about normal search results).

So when I help people with their Search Engine Optimisation I make sure I keep up to date with the currently known information about how Google manages its search results. (This article is just focusing on Google, and may or may not be true for all search engines).

I mention authenticity because SEO seems at first to be a very technical, clinical thing you pay someone else to do.

But this isn’t necessarily the case. The current state of Google’s search results set-up, in a simple sentence, is that it prioritises genuinely useful content written for people (not robots), which is in an accessible format.

Let me break this down.

• Writing for people as opposed to robots means that just writing your keywords a lot in the page won’t work. Instead, writing well crafted sentences which are appropriate in reading level and content to your audience, and also make mention of your keywords explicitly (we’ll come back to this) will work best.

• An accessible format means that your site is created to work well with mobiles and other devices as well as full computers, loads quickly (slow loading sites will not rank as high as fast loading sites), and may also come to mean accessible to people with screen-readers and using valid code.

Although you may need help from a professional for the second point above, the first point is something that’s within reach of almost anyone.

Writing at least a few paragraphs about your topic on each webpage in a useful, authentic way, drafting and refining the content, is worth more than a technical SEO setup on a poorly written page or one with no real content.

It is important to note that when we have an about page that talks about the company in general terms it’s hard to then connect that to specific keywords to promote. So if we mention those specific keywords in the page content in a useful way for readers, it is also useful for SEO.

This may seem obvious but what I’ve seen when I create websites for people is that often because they know their business so well, they will write something general like “our products are safe and reliable” which could refer to anything, whereas a sentence saying “The Grazing Elk’s website designs are created to be responsive, accessible and optimised for search engines”, targets the keywords I might want to reach such as “website design”, “responsive”, “accessible” and “search engine optimisation”.

Once you keep the specific words you’re talking about in your writing, as well as writing in a style suited to your audience (formal and complex sentences are fine for a site aimed at specific technical knowledge whereas overly-convoluted sentences are probably not ideal for someone connecting with a general audience – these sentences are graded on a reading scale and do make a difference with SEO).

(You can test the readability of a sentence/paragraph here: https://readability-score.com/ remember that if you are scoring “difficult to read” but this is the language your visitors are expecting, then that’s perfect!)

To summarise then, don’t feel that to get good search results you need to pay someone a lot of money. If you have a fair grasp of your topic and are happy doing some writing, you’re more than halfway there!

Authenticity is effective both for the search engines, and for audiences, and writing good pages is within your reach!

However, if you do need some help here’s some handy contacts.

For making your site accessible or faster to load: Consider The Grazing Elk’s website maintenance and improvement program. This can be a one-off, although I recommend at least 2 sessions to get things really going well. (Also very effective in website security because I monitor your website throughout each month and fix/upgrade things immediately)

For the technical SEO (once-off) setup once you’ve written your content: I offer a page by page technical SEO setup where I add in the meta-description, title, alt tags, and score each page for its most relevant keywords, aiming for Green Light of Success on each page for SEO. I also set up the .xml site map and global website settings for your Google search results and can connect your Google Analytics or Adwords accounts. Just email me if you’d like to set this up!

For Copywriting: If you have ideas but not the time or inclination to write content yourself, I recommend contacting Carody Culver.

For really in-depth SEO information I recommend visiting https://yoast.com/ to learn more. Their paid services are also ones I would trust. (This isn’t an affiliate link, just the most reliable source I know provided for further reading).

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