An unfortunate thing happened a little while ago to my portfolio website. When my partner first helped me set it up he added it to his own hosting service (which was convenient at the time) - a few months back, he accidentally let his hosting expire, so all data was lost, and now I have to start again from scratch.
This has been a blessing in disguise though, because I never felt particularly attached to any of the themes or set-ups I've had in the past. A fresh start was necessary, I think.
This time around I have the benefit of past experiences to help me avoid common mistakes, and that got me thinking. Back at uni we were required to create a portfolio website for our art, and I saw a lot of those mistakes coming up all over the place. That's what happens when you get artists to be their own web designers, I guess!
I thought I'd collect my lessons in bad design here, as a what-no-to-do kind of guide for artists who need to put on the design-cap for the first time.
Most of these mistakes are common, especially among creatives, because we love the process of getting messy and trying new things. The trouble with that approach though, is at the end you're left with a big ol' mess!
SO without further ado, don't do these:
1) Artworks as background
In an art portfolio, you want your art to be Front and Centre. The background is a support, like a gallery wall. You don't want to make the work of showing off your art even harder by camouflaging it. A simple background (black or white, or somewhere between on the greyscale) is usually all you need. Additional details like vignettes and drop shadows usually go in and out of vogue but I've always found the simplest design solutions are also the most timeless.
The neutral colour you pick for your background will also help your audience (and any potential buyers) to get a true sense of the colour of your work, so if you do venture outside of the greyscale even slightly, it pays to keep this in mind.
2) Colours, colours everywhere!
Like opening a fresh pack of pencils, the first thing a lot of creatives want to do when they are exploring design options is use as much colour as possible. I know you hate to hear this, I know all these wonderful options can be overwhelming; but listen to me: this is a mistake.
One remark I heard a lot made by fellow artists at uni, while developing their works, was just how much versatility they could get out of just a few materials. Your pack of pencils might have every colour of the spectrum, but imposing a limitation can generate fantastic results that might have otherwise eluded you in your enthusiasm to try it all. This theory also applies to web design in a big way.
Keep your palette minimal and clean, and select colour with care and context in mind. Again, remember to keep the artwork front and centre.
3) Using every font in the library
I have genuinely seen the most atrocious websites where artists have tried to use a different font for every line of text.
Please don't do this.
It takes the mind a lot of effort and energy to switch back and forth between different fonts while reading. This may cause the reader to lose their focus on the content of the text - it's distracting and will only be detrimental to the presentation of your work.
Like with colour, less is more. At most, find one fancy or bold font for larger titles (such as your name on the homepage), otherwise stick to using a simpler font family for other headings and body text. Sticking with the same font family will create a sense of unity across your website - this will only help to build your 'brand' as an artist. I recommend a solid sans serif like Museo or Avenir; leave Times New Roman for printouts of your uni readings.
And for the love of god, avoid Comic Sans like the plague. No one will take you seriously otherwise. Papyrus too, if you don't want to be inextricably associated with every low-to-midrange naturopath and day spa in your area. And every other area. Oh god, it's everywhere! *cringe*
4) Hierarchy, Hierarchy, Hierarchy.
There's nothing worse than looking at a webpage and not knowing where to look. I have definitely struggled with this on my website.
Basically, you want to use the design elements of the page to guide the audience to where you want them to focus their attention. Layout; font style, size and weight; and colour are the primary means of this. We've already looked at colour and font, but we haven't touched on layout yet.
The first step for layout is picking a theme. Regardless of what platform you choose to use, be it wordpress, squarespace, joomla, etc. the first step is to pick a theme. There are countless options out there that are ready to be selected and customised, so how do you find the right one?
Use search words like 'portfolio', 'clean' and 'minimal' to find the best options that will help your work shine without overshadowing it with a bloated range of features.
You will need to know how you want your images of your works to be viewed before you even get started. Does each artwork require one photo or many? Do you want to group your works together into collections? Do you want to display the images all on one page to scroll down, or in a side-scrolling gallery? Again the options are limitless, but always come back to the original question: what will present your work to the world in the most optimal light?
Once you've selected a theme it can be customised in any number of ways. Remember, you can always select a theme that suits 90% of your needs and customise it to suit you later (with a little help and a lot of googling, anything is possible!)
It also helps to look at some fantastic examples. Find artists who do work similar to yours and see if they have a website. Take a look, and note down what you like about the website and what you don't like. Every observation is a lesson, and can guide you to a better overall design.
This should provide a good starting point, but remember there are still so many more things to think about as well: the quality and style of photography used to capture your work, how much or little text to include with each work, how long/short to keep your artist statement or bio, the list goes on. Done right, your portfolio can be a fantastic promotional tool for your practice. Just be careful to avoid the pitfalls!