The Four Hour Website

A few months ago, while chatting with my mother about an editor she works closely with and who I grew up with – literally, Patrick worked in our living room and saw me in my pyjamas every morning for all of my teenage years – I Googled his name and found he didn’t have a website to promote his freelance work.

This struck me as a spectacularly poor plan for 2010, and my mother agreed. Since my mother might charitably be described as “forceful”, Patrick wisely agreed as well. A so few days later, when I woke up very early with nothing pressing to do, I sat down to create

I hadn’t done a small-scale site in a long time, and I was curious to know how quickly a serviceable result could be achieved. This is actually a good and important question, because your average client doesn’t get value from setting the design world on fire, doesn’t care about winning awards, and doesn’t want to pay you for a selection of five increasingly courageous design iterations.

In fact, the average client just wants a website that looks okay, is appropriate for their market, can be found by search engines, can be understood by humans, and costs as little as possible. And I wanted to know how little really was possible. So, out of curiosity, I timed myself.

To start, I was armed with three pages of bio and credentials, a budget of precisely zero, the idea of using license-compliant Creative Commons images off of Flickr, and a cup of coffee. Years ago I had mentally bookmarked the free Aquatic themplate from Template World, and with few sections to create, the simple navigation finally seemed like a good project match.

For the record, nobody can ever accuse me of being up my own arse, since I just freely admitted I have used a template from the dreaded Template World. Luckily I lack the gene for shame. (I get that from my mother, too.)

Things I did:

  • Created new images for the site and swapped them with the old layout images, because I am exactly that lazy;
  • Played with these classic fonts used for print typography to render the name as a title, and grabbed a preview screenshot to avoid paying for a font I’ll never use again because I am exactly that cheap;
  • Sourced a header photo licensed for commercial use from Flickr to avoid paying for stock because my budget was exactly that tiny;
  • Edited the CSS to change colours from aqua to something more suitable;
  • Edited the HTML to remove from the template several major classes and divs not used in the production site.

All in all, this site took four hours from putting the coffee pot on at 4 am to emailing my mother to say “What about this?” at 8 am.

Things I did not do:

  • Consult with the client(s).
  • Edit the text.
  • Put it in my portfolio.

To be fair, even the most naive client would realise that several things I did not do here are normally fairly core elements of the web design relationship. What most clients don’t realise is how much of the project time is taken up by the missing elements, and how much that time contributes to the total project cost.

A lot of the hours of a project’s total budget are spent talking to the client about the project, rather than actually producing work for the project. For this reason and many others, I am not a huge fan of client collaboration. Generally I find it vastly more efficient to understand the goal, figure out a way to achieve it, and get it done. In my experience, if you’re good at your job, people are generally very happy to accept the solution you’ve built for their problem.

In this particular case, I was extremely motivated to keep a lid on Pandora’s box and simply deliver an acceptable result without discussing it beforehand because the client was effectively my mum. It took my mother six years to choose paint colors for the interior of her house. Several rooms were repainted more than once. One was remodelled three times. This is not an experience I want to replicate on a five page website. Or ever, really.

In addition, clients generally provide very poor copy for their websites. I pretty much never, ever put client copy onto a website as delivered, unless the client is my mother. Typically I spend anywhere from one to twenty hours fixing or writing web copy, depending on what if anything is delivered in the first place. All I did here is add additional paragraph breaks for web readability and remove one comma.

I will never reveal to her which one because then I will have to argue about putting it back.

Finally, not all sites go in my online portfolio. The ones I put in there tend to be the sites I like the best and would like to do more of. But not every site hits that mark; the reality of freelancing for most designers and developers is that a certain percentage of your body of work is the stuff you do to pay the bills, rather than to satisfy your creative yearnings. I don’t dislike this site; it’s nice enough and does its small job just fine. But it isn’t, let’s be honest, a great site.

Could it have been? Sure. With a twenty or forty hour budget, I would have taken a totally different approach and done something dramatically different. In this case, we didn’t want to do something elaborate and out of the ordinary; we just wanted to play it safe and quickly bring the client up to par with his peers so that when you Google Patrick’s name, his contact details are readily found. My reason for writing about a site I am the first to admit is entirely middling is to show that entirely middling is obtainable in about four hours, but only if we don’t have to discuss how we’re going to get to middling.

And to point out that since few clients really want to work that way, even fewer designers will give you a quote for a four hour website.

Time is money, baby.

Site Launch:

Radisens Technology

I don’t do a lot of brochureware sites, and the ones I do I rarely put in my portfolio because I’m not particularly gagging to do more of them., however, is going in for two reasons:

One, I like it a lot. No idea why; I just do. It might be because I did the voice-over for their video,  which was fun. I’ve never done a web one before but suddenly ever client wants voiced video, so there are more coming in future projects.

Two,  if you happen to have a spare hundred thousand or two, I am telling you right now: give it to Jerry O’Brien and you will die a billionaire. This is world-class, game-changing technology for the (highly lucrative) medical diagnostics marketplace. Jerry has his head on straight, knows where he’s going, and this Irish company is one to watch on an international level.

Site Launch: The Good Wine Show

The Good Wine Show

The Good Wine Show site went live a few weeks ago, but I didn’t have the ten minutes to tidy the tiny stuff nobody else will ever notice until last night.

When you have a budget of tuppence and literally need a site the day after tomorrow, every corner gets cut – including the whole mock-up and approval process. The first time the show organisers saw this site was when it went live the morning of the deadline. I vastly prefer to sacrifice development over design time, so this site is built on a completely customised stock template, and the order form and all calculations are driven by FormSpring.

The Show site budget was for about a day, although the site took one and a half. On the plus side, three of Cork’s finest wine merchants each owe me a bottle of their favourite white, so I can live with that :)

Site Launch: Little Quiz Know a little, win a lot!

I finished up work for some time ago, but they were waiting for their swanky swag to arrive so they could launch. For this project, branding, slogan, blog and website design and a bunch of product and print design was done by me; the site and system was coded by the very talented Dave of Ambient Age.

This was definitely a Stalinist web design project but Joe Scanlon is an ideal client and did indeed love what I gave him. It can also be tricky when you’re doing design and someone else is coding, but what Dave turned out looks exactly like the mock ups, to the pixel, and that isn’t easy. Plus his Ajax bits are very sexy.

Site Launch: Twitter Mosaic


“Site launch” is a bit of a misnomer, as the functional but fugly Twitter Mosaic was up and running and already getting loads of attention when Walter Higgins asked “What’s your availability? Can you make Twitter Mosaic pretty?” My answer was “My availability is shit, but yes.”

There’s no time like the present, so Guillermo Moreno and I sat down at midnight to see just how fast we could get design, XHTML and CSS out the door, and Walter woke up six hours later to a brand new Twitter Mosaic. Launched allows couples to search for available reception venues across Ireland by date and by county. It’s a simple idea that turned into a powerhouse website, and I’m delighted for Ciara Crossan, who has enough energy and enthusiasm for 12 people and will totally drive this to success. Front end design by me, back end Django development by Python god Bartosz Ptaszynski.

The site soft-launched a few weeks ago, but today rolled out a really interesting survey on the recession and wedding budgets, with a very cool prize draw. So if you’re engaged, go check it out and maybe win a swanky hotel get away and golf package! Launched

Circus Vegas - Ireland Travelling Circus

It is entirely possible I have been waiting my entire life to do a website for a circus, because I can’t think of a site that’s been more fun to build or a site in my portfolio that I love more than Circus Vegas. The design was just enormously delightful to create, and even though the poor client had to wait a completely rediculous six months, we both think it was worth it. Features a CSS layout and a WordPress blog all about the facinating world of circus life.