Category Archives: Oil Internet

Oil Internet: core services – website design

In the first of our blogs about Oil Internet’s core services, we look at the importance of design within a web project. Can a website be truly beautiful without being usable? What steps are involved in the design process? And how can websites be designed to relate to your offline materials and branding?

When it comes to websites, we’re not convinced that beauty is actually in the eye of the beholder. There are just too many potential beholders to enable such a singular definition of beauty.

Instead, we’d argue that beauty is a by-product of intuitiveness, usability, thorough planning, inspiration, perspiration and quite a few conceptual cul-de-sacs. Admittedly, that’s not quite as catchy a phrase as dumping beauty directly into someone’s eye, though.

Perhaps what we’re really trying to say is that with the development web projects, beauty shouldn’t be the solitary aim. Of course, not many people set out to develop a hideous website. But beauty is just one of the central characters. It should share the stage with immediacy, ease-of-use, consistency, flexibility and, as far as is possible, future-proofing. Truly beautiful web projects combine the aesthetic with the utilitarian – allowing users to find what they need quickly and intuitively, preferably presenting that information elegantly and attractively and adapting to changing requirements over time. When it comes to web projects, beauty means little if isolated from usability.

When we first commence work on the design of a website, our approach could be argued to be distinctly scattergun. Initially, we try to have an open conversation with our client and subject them to a very amicable version of the Spanish Inquisition. What are their main goals for the new web project? Who is their target audience? Are there more than one? What do these audiences expect to see on the website? And what don’t they want to see? How will the audience find their new website? Does the client have competitors? What makes them different? What unites them? What content will the site display? How should the site be structured? Which web projects do they like and which do they hate? What, outside of bits and bytes, inspires them? What frustrates them? And, of course, the predictable usual suspects – is there a fixed deadline and what sort of budget is available?

Assuming that the client survives this barrage of queries (always delivered with a smile!), we then have much of what we first need to go on. At this point, we tend to disappear for a little while. Into the dark arts of design. Seeking inspiration in the strangest sources, grappling with a blank canvas and all that.

But we don’t like to mystify design at Oil Internet. In fact, we prefer to involve our clients within the process as much as possible. We ask for regular feedback and request that our clients be as open, honest and frank as they can be. We know how to build websites, but our clients are the experts when it comes to their audiences – so any successful design will be, by definition, reliant upon both parties. And our clients can help us with their own website content. As users navigate through a website, it’s crucial that they find the content most relevant to them as and when they need it. So we give a huge amount of thought to how to best present the user with the right content at the right time – and helping them to make the right decisions. Whether that’s a specific call to action or just providing relevant support, it’s just a part of ensuring excellent usability – and something that we work on directly with clients through the use of wireframes and other planning tools.

Equally, design evolves out of purpose. For example, the visual aims for our personality websites, such as those of Michael Palin and Antonio Carluccio, differ hugely to those involved in informational projects such as Thomas Goode and Tunstall Property, or not-for-profit sites like Action for Stammering Children.

Furthermore, web design isn’t just pretty accounting. There are few obvious answers and what’s right for one person is wrong for another. Design is highly subjective and, at its best and most potent, thrives on and evinces charged and sometimes contradictory emotions.

And website design is not an island. Okay, nobody suggested that it was – but what we mean is that website design normally has to connect with other mediums. In the vast majority of instances, your web project will need to link with offline branding, other products, third parties and/or further projects with which you’re involved. So it’s important that you get your website look and feel right. And make it flexible. Designing something that looks perfect in pixels isn’t much help if it appears pathetic in print. And creating a website that is out of step with your other marketing mediums will confuse your users. As a result, we spend time talking with you about your existing branding and the environments within which it is used. We like to see website design as part of an overall picture, and not the entire picture itself.

Perhaps most importantly, website design is not just how you see yourself. It’s also how your audience views you. The more guidance you give them – the more assistance you provide in making it clear who you are, what you do and what you stand for – the more confident your users will be that they understand who you are, and the greater your opportunities will be for disseminating your message. You’re not force-feeding your audience, but you are holding their hand – guiding them where they want to go and showing them what they need to see. Whether you’re trying to sell products, entertain or inform, if you provide an immediate, intuitive and unpretentious design, you’ll take more of your users with you. Which is good for you and for them.

In initial website design conversations, many of our clients will effectively recite the common art mantra: “I don’t know much about this, but I know what I like”. And that’s the most important instinct there is. We can’t tell you when to have it, but we can work with you to make your website design as likeable as possible. For you and for your users.

Oil Internet: a brief company history

In this, Oil Internet’s first blog, we discuss Michael Palin, William Morris and, erm, being the oil that ran a content management engine. We also consider the enormous benefits of thorough planning and the changing guises of technology at the turn of the millennium.

It’s no secret that technology is a fast-moving beast. The cliche of “here today, gone today” seems rather apt.

So it’s to be expected that, since we started Oil Internet in 2002, we’ve witnessed some major technological shifts.

In those days, the overriding sentiment was that everyone – whatever the sector, whatever the goal – needed a website. Since then, everyone has developed their first website. And, more than likely, a second and third website. They’ve started a blog, commissioned an app and created a Facebook page to “tap into the power of social media”.

In many cases, those websites, blogs, apps and Facebook pages have been successful, well-judged, strategic decisions.

But for some, there is a lingering sentiment that new technologies are necessary evils. Murky virtual environments in which shiny-suited (or perhaps jeans-and-tshirted) salespeople flog solutions that are rarely needed, barely comprehended and always overpriced.

There is no question that this can be the case. We’ve had countless conversations with prospective clients whose pervasive sense of paranoia resulted from being burnt by website design companies whose sole ambition was to sell as much functionality as possible, whether relevant or otherwise.

Our core belief is that, but for his choice of tools, William Morris would have been a superb web designer. His assertion that “nothing useless can be truly beautiful” is as relevant today as it was during the English Arts and Crafts movement of the nineteenth century. We always aim to design beautiful web projects – and we like to believe that we succeed more often than not – but the inherent beauty comes from a combination of style and substance. It’s not just a question of pretty pixels, but of presenting the user with what they need, attractively, intuitively and swiftly.

The first paid Oil Internet project was Michael Palin’s official travel website, Palin’s Travels. We’d met Michael at a Christmas party at the Stammering Centre, a charity for whom we’d built a website free of charge. He chatted about the difficulty he was having convincing the BBC to launch a website that offered all of his travel writing for free. With a whopping portfolio of one site under our belt, we put ourselves forward. Within weeks, we were sat in Michael’s offices discussing written content, videos and audio clips.

Whilst those early days were extremely exciting, they were also daunting. We had some experience from our prior work at a travel dot com, and had some web design, build and editorial skills to offer, but were essentially learning the ropes as we went. Not only were our portfolios and skill-sets limited, the technology of the day was also an embarrassment when compared to today’s riches. Internet speeds and processors were cripplingly slow, database choices relatively few and even digital cameras pathetically low on pixel counts. Indeed, as it was 2002, the hundreds of photos from Michael’s first series were, of course, taken by traditional, film-based cameras – so there were many a joyous hour spent scanning photos! And, most problematically of all when trying to build a site to house five complete travel series-worth of textual content, videos, photos, interactive maps and Michael’s multimedia souvenirs, there weren’t too many off-the-shelf content management systems (CMSs) kicking about.

So we built our own.

We went to the Tate Modern, unfurled an enormous piece of blank paper, and sketched every possible pathway, category, database and content type we could think of. And then we sat down in Hyde Park with our phenomenal programmers, Erik Lindegren and Tomas Larsson, and tried to visualise a CMS that could handle all of that information. Except it was such early days that the term “CMS” was yet to become accepted terminology – so we called ours a CME (content management engine). And we were the OIL that made the engine run, believe it or not. We still blush when we recall that particularly inelegant metaphor.

Equally, we still can’t believe what an astonishing job Erik and Tomas did with that initial version of the CMS (or, ahem, CME!). Twelve years later, we continue to use many of the original lines of code for our current bespoke content management system. In the days when Ask Jeeves was the leading search engine (honestly!), when people were as familiar with the process of cherymoya hand pollination as they were with search engine optimisation (SEO), and when optimising a website just meant putting the same keyword into the header thousands of times, preferably in white text on a white background, Erik and Tomas even had the foresight to include meta data fields within the CMS. They built a chat room where Michael could conduct live question and answer sessions literally years before the trend for such things caught on. And, as a direct result, Palin’s Travels continues to educate, interest and inspire its many thousands of users, while Michael himself has broadened his online library even further by now offering all of the content from nine complete travel series completely free of charge.

The fact that we continue to work with an ever-expanding group of diverse and motivational clients probably comes down to a handful of key variables.

Firstly, we were unquestionably and unforgettably fortunate to be trusted by Michael Palin when we first met over a glass of wine at a charity get-together. Not many national treasures would have taken such a risk, and he has our eternal gratitude.

Secondly, we were extremely lucky to know Erik and Tomas (and subsequently the equally fantastic Björn Nilsved), and to be able to look on as they realised our half-baked, offline dreams with a powerful, stable and flexible content management system.

And, perhaps rather less glamorously, we stumbled across a strategy we continue to use today when we sat down in the Tate Modern with our humungous piece of paper. Unwittingly and subconsciously, we must have realised that few web projects will be built successfully without deep foundations of intricate planning. The quality of content is essential. The beauty and intuitiveness of the design will attract users. The application of SEO campaigns will broaden the potential audience. But without thorough, fastidious, eagle-eyed planning, a web project quickly buckles under its own weight. Requirements will always change and specifications will always grow – and that type of organic growth depends almost entirely upon the strength and accuracy of initial planning.

So, as a result of methodical planning, hard work, increasing experience and skills and sheer good fortune, we launched Palin’s Travels on 25 September 2002 (the fourteenth anniversary of Michael’s groundbreaking Around the World in 80 Days).

We would say we’ve never looked back, but that would be flagrantly untrue as this first blog is a nostalgic review of Oil Internet’s early days. Perhaps we should instead say we’re looking forward to looking back in another 12 years.

And, more immediately, we’ll look forward to blogging about the core services we’ve honed over the past 12 years.