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Superbadass Web Sites for Everyone!

With Knowbility's AIR-Interactive for the arts and a team of professional designers, I am going to help reinvent the Internet

By Spike Gillespie, Fri., March 4, 2005

(l-r): Loop One's Elli Swift, James Fenelon, and Tim Thomas at work revamping SpikeG.com
(l-r): Loop One's Elli Swift, James Fenelon, and Tim Thomas at work revamping SpikeG.com
Photo By John Anderson

In January, I received an e-mail from Teresa Ferguson, who works for the Athens Group and who hosts Femme FM on KUT. (She's got that honey-coated chocolate voice.) Teresa sits on the board of a local nonprofit called Knowbility, which works to promote Internet accessibility for disabled Web users by striving to remove IT barriers. Put simply, Knowbility creates virtual curb cuts.

Ferguson is chairing AIR (Accessibility Internet Rally) Interactive for the Arts 2005, one of two annual Knowbility contests. Web design teams pair with artists and nonprofit organizations to overhaul or create from-scratch sites that promote the artists' work and demonstrate accessibility. Winners are announced at SXSW Interactive. Teresa's e-mail was a call for artist participants.

Being chosen is a big honor. "Since 1998, the AIR program has created accessible Web sites for more than 200 local groups that serve the arts, human service, educational, and environmental needs of Central Texas," says Knowbility co-founder Sharron Rush. "AIR has trained more Web professionals in accessible design techniques than any other program in the nation – maybe in the world."

I begged to be picked. This project is an unbeatable deal: For a $100 entry fee, artists receive a professionally designed site worth thousands. Because design teams are competing with one another, they go out of their way to make superbadass sites, since winning means big kudos and bragging rights.

I didn't make the initial cut, but at the last second a lucky 12th design team, Loop One, signed on, and I scored the new opening. At our first meeting, I explained my goals and projects, no doubt putting panic into my team members' hearts as I ticked off a formidable menu including my writing, music promotion of teen rock events and Southpaw Jones, my summer writing camp, my knitting addiction, and about a half-dozen other endeavors.

But the team – Tim Thomas, Elli Swift, James "www.redsite.com" Fenelon, and Michael Coker – smiled unflinchingly, arranging another meeting for the following night. I provided pictures, video, audio, ideas, and a brief history of my existing site. Originally built by Jason Levitt in 1995 (featuring me in a bikini back when that was not a crime, plus some of my poetry), the site morphed a few times when different friends updated it. Loop One took my stack and headed out.

As per competition requirements, I met with Rush, who detailed Knowbility's goals, and demonstrated the need for accessibility through examples. Then I waited for my big unveiling. I felt like a contestant on The Swan, agreeing to a total makeover followed by public judgment. Meanwhile, Coker filled me on what was in store.

"The site we're building is a rocking new design that has 200% the daily recommended dosage of Spike personality and is likely to give you a visual orgasm," he said. "We aim to generate an overall more accessible Web site and to extend the target audience by making it easier for those with assistive technology to use and navigate. We promise to increase the SpikeG.com Internet experience for everyone by 14% or your money back! Some of the things we're doing to improve accessibility are moving away from the use of tables for layout, creating a layout whose core is based upon usability and not how it looks visually but giving it a professional-level visual design at the same time, making all of the audio/video media accessible for anyone, and using validated, standardized HTML that works across all platforms."

Ten days before deadline, I was ushered into the Loop One conference room, the lights were lowered, and there I was on the big screen, center of three design possibilities. Team leader James pointed out various features, and the rest of us discussed what we liked most (and least). I was most drawn to Option A. We tossed ideas back and forth, decided to incorporate elements from the other designs, and I sat there thinking just how rich this all was, my getting to call the shots, while they contemplated how in the hell to accommodate me in an accessible manner that would most impress the judges, all inside of the looming deadline.

Then it was get-even time. James gave me 13 homework assignments – essentially gathering and writing a ton of fresh content and images – and about 48 hours to meet this deadline. I didn't sleep much that weekend.

Meanwhile, all over the city, other teams were meeting with other artists and groups. Here's how it went down for some of them, my competitors, the folks I hope to be consoling on March 14 when I proudly march away the big winner.


Christa Blackwood

Artist with Children's Photographic Collective

Our design team is called City of Austin 2. What's so terrific about these guys is that they all signed up for the project independently. They are Sheila Colbarth Harden, project coordinator; Nathalie Herrera, designer; Paul Frank; and Cecilia Dearen. They're bright and talented city-of-Austin working stiffs, lending their considerable skills to the AIR program. It's not as if they are lawyers making 250 bucks an hour and can afford to do pro bono work because their anti-bono work pays so much: They're just hard-working, high tech, conscientious Austinites.

This is our first real-deal Web site. A few years ago, we had a small site of a couple pages piggybacked onto a friend's business' site. He sold imported glassware from Europe. His site was GlassNow.com. So, we were GlassNow.com/cpc. Everyone thought we were connected with the burgeoning new post-communism countries of Eastern Europe.

It's truly been a collaborative process. I've written the bulk of the text, and they have designed the site. I showed the designer ideas from other contemporary art sites that I liked, and they incorporated a certain design sensibility based upon my suggestions and made something even more beautiful and compelling than I ever imagined.


Ann Graham

Executive director with First Night Austin, a forthcoming annual celebration of the new year through the arts; collaborating with Vox Group and Go9Media

My first response to being selected was "What a windfall!" My second response? "Oh my gosh, what a labor of love for everybody, but what a wonderful opportunity!"

How we define ourselves on the Web site is how we define ourselves to the public. It's like trying to design a telephone answering service that is the best and works with the fewest steps ... and it's what we don't get any more: a real human being answering the phone and saying, "Hello, may I help you? Oh, yes, I know the answer to that!"

Think of how much time you've wasted on a telephone punching No. 2, then 9, then 7, then 5 ... and you still haven't gotten your questions answered.

Same thing with a bad Web site ... going from page to page and never finding your answers. Our challenge is how to give our public the answers they want with the fewest possible clicks and to entice them to become active participants. We have to go through this exercise anyway to be able to define who we are and what we do, and this is a way that forces us to do it with more clarity, more succinctly, and in fewer words.


Nick Weynand

TradeMark Media; overhauling a site for musician Wendy Colonna

Our Web development team has competed in AIR since 2002. I've known Sharron since we began competing, and she always puts together a top-notch program. This world has a serious lack of people like her. Before we started competing in AIR, we knew very little about accessibility. None of the sites we built were accessible. Now, we know a lot. We use all the section 508 guidelines [a section of the Americans With Disabilities Act that states, for instance, that alternative text needs to be used for all important images and that the layout of the site needs to be controlled with style sheets]. Wendy's old Web site is drab and doesn't have much functionality. We had her fill out our preproject questionnaire to answer a bunch of questions about how she wanted the Web site to look and work. Afterward, we got together for a design session. During this brainstorming meeting, we hammered out everyone's ideas about the site. The deliverable produced was a Design Session Summary including a graphical site map, site notes, and areas where Wendy was to provide us content for the site. There was a full collaboration.

First and foremost, our team hopes to increase our accessibility skill set. I've had all my developers attend as much of the training as possible. We hope we finish this competition knowing a lot more about accessibility than we did before. Secondly, we hope to win and get a little exposure.


Suze Kemper

Wrangler of schedules, assets, and talent at Olive Design; partnered with KLRU-TV

Jeremy Adam is leading design at Olive with Matt Sanders and David Nunez from Polycot Consulting on the back end. Jeremy Cox and Nick Munro have also contributed this year. Kierstan Schwab, VP for digital content, leads the team at KLRU.

We chose to refresh the kids section: updating content and graphics and optimizing for accessibility. This section hasn't been updated in a while, so it's going to look brand-spanking new. We've got a couple of delightful surprises up our shirtsleeves.

The current Kids Space was well ahead of its time when it was designed about five years ago. In fact, many leading stations across the country have borrowed the theme and the imagery. But KLRU is known for being a step ahead, so it's appropriate to update the look, the content, and the navigation at this point in time.

Olive Design has participated in Austin AIR since its inception. We're always excited to help Knowbility spread the word. The collaborative experience alone is worth the effort and a great reason for people to participate, in addition to all that you will learn. Successful design and programming for accessibility requires thought and preparation. It's a challenge to design and build 15-20 pages with audio and video assets in such a short amount of time. But that's what makes it fun, too – to see how much can be done well in the shortest month of the year. And I love a good adrenaline rush.


Suzanne Mahoney

Principal, Vox Group, an advertising and marketing group designing two sites – First Night Austin and Aaron Hamre Band – which are then being turned into sites by Go9, an interactive group

First Night is going to be a massive event, so we need to have a site that scales up pretty big. Because they are a brand-new organization, before we did anything else we had to establish their look and feel, an identity, a color palette, how they wanted to position themselves. The first two weeks were figuring out all that "who are ya?" stuff, before we could even think about what kind of site we wanted to build.

It is an incredibly short turn time. When we do a Web site normally for a client, minimally, you're looking at an eight-to-12-week time period. It reminds me a lot of finals week. You're not sleeping, you feel really panicked, you know it can't be as good as you want it to be because you don't have enough time.

We want to make a slamming, cool, totally badass site that's beautiful for folks who can see but really rich for folks who can't see. We're not using a lot of the real traditional stuff – Java scripting and Flash stuff – we're trying to do a lot of work-arounds on that.

We're going up against a bunch of other folks we run into in the market, so, of course, there's a lot of "We want to crush agency X. [pauses, laughs, disclaims] We don't really want to crush them. We want everybody to have fabulous sites."


Dave Hime

Go9; working with Vox Group on two sites: First Night Austin and Aaron Hamre Band

The Aaron Hamre Band is three really great guys originally from New Mexico, and they've been in Austin for a while and have a really compelling story and a whole lot of content on their existing site. They have tons of content, MP3s, video, a really attention-grabbing logo with flashing lightning and fire and all the kind of things you want from a latent Eighties rock & roll feel-good Austin transplant band. What they're looking for is to make the site accessible and also make it something that has a clean enough look that were a label interested in them, they could take a look at their Web site and not only get a sense of who they are, but also not have the feeling that they would have to sink a lot of money into redoing their Web site.

The process has been awesome. They came to us fully creatively juiced up and fully open to our ideas. They're completely ready to put their site in our hands, and that's so rare with an existing site – especially with creative people. We got them two designs they were really excited about. It was difficult for them to choose one, so we've sort of put them together in a true Frankenstein marriage that's turning out to be a love child rather than a monster.

I love the reality-show analogy: The one that works for me in terms of all this is The Swan. This is not that ugly a process, but, in the end, there is a beauty contest, but it's a contest where all the judges have their eyes closed. end story


The Knowbility AIR-Interactive for the Arts Awards will be announced at 4pm on Monday, March 14, at the Austin Convention Center's Day Stage. Other Knowbility panels include the following: Accessibility: Can't We All Just Get Along (10am, Sunday, March 13, with James Craig, Derek Featherstone, Ian Lloyd); How to Use Accessibility Guidelines, Standards, and Testing (3:30pm, Sunday, March 13, with Sharron Rush, Wendy Chisholm, Matt May, and Michael Cooper); How to Incorporate Stunning Multimedia Into Your Accessible Site (5pm, Sunday, March 13, with Bob Regan and Michael Jordan); and the Accessibility Shoot-Out (2:30pm, Tuesday, March 15, with James Craig, Kathy Keller, and Sharron Rush). For more information, see www.sxsw.com.

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