How to Keep Your Website Designs From Becoming Hot (Visual) Messes

Your CMS should support your website design by allowing content editors the control they need without unfettered access to the site’s look and feel.

Put 10 graphic designers in a room and they’ll have 50 stories about beautiful website designs they launched that looked just awful six months or a year later.

That’s the double-edged sword of modern content management systems. A CMS gives content managers a tremendous amount of control. Used wisely, that control can help make a website even more effective as a marketing tool over time.,

Without forethought and planning, though, marketing effectiveness plummets as brand identity is lost and the site’s message is muddied by design inconsistencies and outright errors. Here are some ideas on ways to short-circuit that decay.

Plan for Distributed Control

It won’t always be you and your development team with tight control of the site and its content. In most organizations, a broader team is going to be invited to participate. And even on smaller teams, staff turnover is nearly always inevitable. New faces can mean new priorities.

To keep those new faces from wreaking havoc, even accidentally, coordinate between the coding team and the design team during discovery to define what content elements should be automatically styled and laid out on the front end.

For example, your team page is likely to see a fair amount of change as team members come and go or are promoted. If you create automatically styled fields for name, title, credentials and bio/personal statement, you won’t find a mish-mash of colors and fonts, as people neglect to refer to your style guide or website user’s guide.

Don’t forget to define parameters for headshots, either. A formal headshot will look out of place on a grid of more casual shots and vice versa. An incorrectly sized photo can wreck the grid layout entirely.

Plan for Exceptions

Narrowing the possibilities for errors due to inattention to lack of knowledge also means introducing some measure of inflexibility. That can create problems, if the site is made too difficult to use and incapable of adapting to changing circumstances.

For example, on the team page example above, you may have a type of employee who has professional credentials, as well as titles. A checkbox could allow content editors to activate the “Credentials” field when necessary. The positive action required to use the field makes it less likely that it be used inappropriately than if the field is always available.

Make sure the marketing team is part of the planning conversation so they can identify likely exceptions to the rules you’re creating and options can be built in.

Automate Styling

Assumed in the work above is that the fields you create for different pieces of content are styled automatically. Do not give content editors control of WYSIWYG or code-based editors except for long-form content where they will likely need control over bold, italics, bullet points, etc. Otherwise, any edits they make will override the styling you’ve set site-wide and result in that mish-mash we want to avoid.

Make Staying on Message Easy

This isn’t just about fonts and colors. Anyone who has access to your website’s administrative dashboard should also have access to and be familiar with your branding guidelines and the website user guide.

The branding guidelines will help keep everyone on the same track in those areas of the site where more flexibility is needed. Don’t forget to include guidelines on stock image usage. That’s an area that is often not addressed and one where many content editors may lack experience.

The user guide will provide information on how the site is intended to be used and how they can best prepare new content to work within the system you’ve designed.

Plan for Evolving Needs

Understand that the site you build today will not be the site you need tomorrow. That’s not a knock against websites or digital marketing or technology more broadly. That’s just the nature of business (and marketing) in a fast-paced world.

Budget for quarterly reviews of the site and yearly updates. Or, adopt a message-driven approach and budget for incremental updates on an ongoing basis. That can be easier to do from a budget standpoint and can make your marketing even more effective. You’re effectively shortening the cycle between updates.

Most importantly, let people know this matters. Someone will always choose expedience over effort, at some point; but if you make the process easier, your systems will win more often.

And that’s important, because this is not just about skin-deep beauty. It’s about keeping your site’s marketing effectiveness high.

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