How to design a better design portfolio

Sep 11, 2018

About a week ago on Twitter, I asked a poorly phrased question, which I’ll re-phrase here for clarity’s sake:

Why do designers focus on images in their portfolio’s archive, instead of properly describing their work?

This is something I’m just as guilty of as the next designer. Here’s an image of what my portfolio looked like at the time of the tweet. You can find countless other design portfolios that riff on a theme just like this.

My favourite portfolios are really image-heavy, and I suspect that’s true for most people. Those portfolios are so fun to look at and make. But I often find myself wondering if those portfolios are effective.

If you’re a potential client, why would you click on a thumbnail image? Some designers might hope that the thumbnail tells the story of their project, but the thumbnail is inconclusive at best and misleading at its worst. It often shows off what the final result looks like, but it doesn’t share the thinking behind that visual approach.

But that’s what designers should sell. We need to sell the thought process that gets clients results, because that’s what a good designer gets paid for.

Design pricing is in a race to the bottom. Or maybe it’s already bottomed out. But I think a lot of that is because we’re showing off visuals, instead of explaining our process or discussing our results.

So I’ve made some changes to my portfolio. Now, when you visit the home page, you’ll see a list of every project I was proud to be a part of. Instead of images, each project gets a description. Some of those descriptions link to case studies, and some don’t — but the work is all present and explained.

I had a lot of fun making this. My portfolio isn’t as flashy as it was before, but I hope my portfolio will now be more effective.

How to Translate a WordPress Site

Aug 23, 2018

Every Home for Christ has a long-term goal of making all their websites available in as many languages as possible.

Obviously, this is a huge amount of work. Each site has a lot of content, and often require multiple translators to account for differences in cultural expressions.

Thankfully, though, I am not a translator. I’m a web designer. My job is to make sure each website is accessible and easy to update in multiple languages — a task that is time-consuming and easy to get wrong.

EHC’s websites are built on a tailored WordPress core, with a variety of plugins and custom bits and pieces to make them sing. We knew that the websites had to be multilingual from the start, so I began researching my options over a year ago — in phase one of EHC’s digital communications overhaul.

According to my research, EHC had three options:

  1. They could set up multiple sites, each running an installation of WordPress in a different language. They could install each site on different servers. They could even use WordPress’ multi-site functionality (but that has a lot of other trade offs that rarely make it worth using).
  2. They could install a simple multilingual plugin (like Polylang, which seems like the most popular option).
  3. Finally, they could set up WPML, which is the Rolls Royce of multilingual WordPress plugins — in terms of both price and quality.

I played with all three of these options on a couple local WordPress installations, and settled on WPML. Here’s why:

  1. Having a website dedicated to each language is a content management nightmare. Whenever possible, everything should be in one place — not several.
  2. Using WordPress’ multi-site tool is a recipe for long-term disasters, and impacts the hosting flexibility and portability of any website.
  3. If each site is in its own dedicated language, so is each CMS. The people who work on the websites all speak English, so I couldn’t ask them to update it inside a French interface. (If there’s a way around this, let me know, but I couldn’t find any obvious solutions.)
  4. Polylang is nice, but it adds additional categories to your website to manage its content, which is a pile of hot garbage. It also doesn’t offer string management.
  5. WPML came with every tool I needed right out of the box, including the ability to find text strings in themes and plugins and mark them for translation. That saved me a lot of time futzing about with if/else statements, which also would have slowed down the site.

WPML is nice. Like most non-core WordPress tools, it feels a bit like a hack. It’s clearly an interface add-on, and there’s a lot of friction in the initial set up. (It’s made for very technically minded people — again, not unlike WordPress.)

But once it’s set up, it’s great. You can filter your content by language, and add additional translations for each page or post with a single click.

WPML also makes it easy to set up multiple domains for your site. (We’ve hit a snag with SSL for this site, but that’s an unrelated DNS issue.)

It’s not all roses, though. WPML could be better at integrating with additional plugins. Not every plugin is compatible with WPML, and WPML relegates those that are to a separate, more technical part of the interface. It’s not easy to use, it breaks WPML’s expected design conventions, and it goes against the typical WordPress content flow.

As a result, if you’re not careful (and lucky), WPML may introduce compatibility issues with existing themes or plugins. Like adding any moving part to a product, you’re increasing the likelihood that something will break down the line.

None of this is insurmountable for any developer, but it’s the reality of WordPress. It’s a piecemeal system with a lot of accumulated technical debt.

WPML is great, but if multilingual features are of paramount importance, you should consider a CMS with those features baked into its core. I particularly like Craft, which includes flexible layout tools and multilingual support right out of the box.

New Work: Crossroads Prison Ministries

Aug 22, 2018

Yesterday, I launched the new website for Crossroads Prison Ministries Canada. Crossroads is a non-profit. They provide Bible courses for prisoners in Canadian jails, and connect the prisoners with volunteer mentors. Their mentors mark the students’ lessons, and send them letters of encouragement. Their website needed to make their mission and offerings clear, as well as have a beautiful design that matched the new branding from the U.S. head office.

Of note, the home page has some fancy design tricks if you’re using a modern browser (and it scales down easily if you aren’t). It’s easier than ever to browse Crossroads’ offering of courses. And they finally have a page detailing their impact.

This is the first phase of the Crossroads re-design. Later this year, as more content gets added to the site, the blog will get another dramatic overhaul to make browsing its contents easier. We’re also building a gift catalogue in to the website, as a way of fundraising for Crossroads’ ministry.

In the meantime, the new website is a better place for Crossroads to share its story, attract donors, and train their mentors. I can’t wait to show you what else we’re cooking up. I’ll be sharing a detailed case study as soon as I can — but maybe not before we roll out the next couple phases of the site.

I hope you enjoy the website.

New Work: Wild Writers Literary Festival

Aug 14, 2018

I’m excited to announce that the new site for the Wild Writers Literary Festival is now live.

Wild Writers is an annual literary festival put on by one of my coolest-ever clients and one of Canada’s most prestigious literary magazines, The New Quarterly (I also built their website). The festival is a celebration of great Canadian writing, and an opportunity for aspiring writers to go learn from, and network with, published authors.

Their website is a heavily-customized WooCommerce store that’s designed to be secure and as future-proof as possible. You can read the program (or check out last year’s event), build your own all-access weekend pass, or browse this year’s roster of speakers.

I’ll have more to say about the work in an upcoming case study, but for now, I want to wish them the best of luck with this year’s festival. If you’re in the area and have any interest in honing your writing skills, you should really consider going — it’s a treat.

Please enjoy the website.

A step-by-step guide for sharing content between multiple blogs

Jul 18, 2018

I have multiple websites. This website hosts my portfolio and design blog, but I also have a personal website. Because I don’t know what content should be shared on which site, I don’t update either of them often enough.

Although having a website for each project in our lives sounds logical, it makes planning content for those sites difficult. There’s a lot of crossover between the topics I’m personally interested in and the topics I write about here.

After all, I’m a designer who runs a design business. It’s no surprise that I like thinking and writing about design. But it begs the question: if my personal interests are related to my work interests, and I have a site for each of them, how do I decide what to post where?

I’ve spent the past few months carefully considering a content strategy, and have come to some fairly obvious conclusions. Here’s my simple guide to writing content for multiple websites.

  1. Write whatever you want to write. Make sure what you are writing is worthwhile. Make it good, and keep it lean.
  2. Identify your best site for this content. As an example: if you have a personal blog and you run a musical instrument store, your music store’s blog is probably the best place to share your post about Gibson’s recent bankruptcy filing.
  3. If you do not have a place for this content, share it on the lowest common denominator. Your lowest common denominator is the place that lets you be whoever you want to be. It’s the place where you are freed from business or corporate requirements. For me, that’s my personal blog.

Simple, right? Write the content, figure out what it’s good for after the fact, and put it in the place that’s best for that.

Done.

Upcoming Panel Discussion at First Annual Pride in Business Trade Show

Jun 13, 2018

I’m thrilled to announce that I’m speaking on a panel about Promotion through Digital and Traditional Media. The panel is at the first annual “Pride in Business” Business Forum and Trade Show on June 21st.

I’ll be joined by Patrick McCauly of Point Man News Creation, Janine Harris of Keyring Media, and Dan Snow of Snow Social.

If you’re in the downtown Toronto area on June 21st, I’d be honoured if you’d join me for the discussion at the Berkeley Bicycle Club. You can get free tickets for the panel on Eventbrite.

Be Different

Feb 8, 2018

Influencing change can take decades, and people always push back against it. But sometimes the change becomes the new norm.

Transparency

Feb 1, 2018

How do you become more transparent and honest online, where it’s so hard to hide behind platitudes and avatars?

Two Questions

Jan 5, 2018

There are only two questions people have about your business — and neither of them put your brand at the center.