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5 lessons I learned From Redesigning Stephen Coonts’ Website

In October of 2008, I was chosen to develop a new website for the author Stephen Coonts. He was friends with the owner of the company where I was working at that time, and mentioned that he wanted to build a new site. “We can do that for you!”

I was picked for this project because I was the most experienced web designer in our department at that time, and I tend to make things work despite the odds. That said, before this site I’d really only built event landing pages for car dealerships around the U.S. and Canada; nothing very taxing, and usually tied in to their current framework/look, so beyond the event itself, there wasn’t much to customize.

I viewed this project with mixed feelings of excitement and dread. “Excitement” because it was something new, and “dread” because this was a textbook example of a nightmare project. The owner of the company was heavily involved, and he really wanted to impress his friend with what our company could do, and the deadline was short.

The owner’s vision: “Make the site look like the visitor is in a room in Stephen’s cabin. Make it look as if it could be where he actually sits and works, and make everything in the room interactive. Have a window that shows the mountains and have his airplane flying past. Animate it in Flash. Maybe make the whole thing in Flash. Also, have a desk over on the left side, a coat rack on the right that has an aviator’s helmet and some other hats, and have each hat link to a different video. Include pictures on the wall that link to more videos and pages. Include a bookshelf that has all of his books on it that will take you to a page where people can see the covers, read a synopsis and an excerpt, and listen to an MP3 of Stephen talking about each book. We have him in the studio right now making the recordings, and we will get you all of the books so you can scan the covers. Oh, and each book needs to include direct links to the five or six places that the people visiting can go to buy it. So, can you do that? When will you be done?”

What could I do? I had to build something unlike anything I’d ever done before, incorporate all of the elements and direction I’d been given, keep the page loading speed fast, and make it as user friendly as possible. That last bit was a very important. This project felt destined to fall victim to “mystery meat navigation” if I wasn’t careful.

I didn’t know anything about CSS, PHP or JavaScript at that time. It would have gone much smoother, and worked far better if I knew then what I know now. Since I didn’t, I fell back to what I was most comfortable with: sliced images, i-frames, tables… etc. The end result looked good, functioned correctly, but the underlying code was not as well constructed as it could have been.

Now that I’ve said all of that, and possibly piqued your curiosity, don’t bother trying to find the site I built*. Some time in the last year it was redesigned yet again, which I had been expecting. Websites that aren’t changed up every couple of years are in danger of becoming stagnant, especially as fast changing as the web has become. For example, when I built that site, not very many people were concerned about how a site looked on a mobile device. Now, you really have to think about it, and design for it.

It’s always a good idea to take a close look at your website every year or two, see how it stacks up to the current state of the internet, how it compares to your competitors’ sites, and make changes as needed, or it could end up like some sites you still see around the web today that look like time capsules from the 90s.

The changes may be something small if the core of your site is still strong, like integrating the latest social media options, or it can be as large as a complete overhaul. Doing this keeps your site looking fresh, and it allows you to take advantage of the latest web innovations. Not to be confused with fads. Beware of fads. Fads and buzzwords.

I will end with five things I learned from working on this 65 hour, three month project:

  1. When stuck between a rock and a hard place, wiggle sideways for all you’re worth.
  2. Even if it seems highly unlikely, compromises can be made with single-minded people.
  3. Not every “latest thing” is a good idea. Be prepared to explain why, and stand your ground.
  4. Under promise, over deliver. But don’t do that too often or it becomes the norm.
  5. And finally, for you other web designers out there, don’t use HTML tables to define your web page layouts. Take the time to learn CSS. You will be glad you did.

*All I have left of the site is a screenshot I took about a year after it went live:


Someone else had made some slight changes to it (the ‘Sea Witch’ cover and the red lettering beside it), but it’s mostly the same.

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