Building a Website [Part 1 of 3]

One of the questions I get asked over and over is “What should I use to build my own website?” If you’ve listened to episodes of On Taking Pictures, you might expect me to reply “Squarespace,” and you’d be at least partially right – but more about that later. Generally, I respond with something like “Well, what do you want a website for?” or “How do you want to use the site?” The reason those are important questions – beyond getting you to think about them just in case you hadn’t – is that they address both the purpose and the scope or expectations of the site and, in doing so, will help determine the best platform on which to build. In this three-part series, we’ll be building a basic site from scratch, using the two most popular platforms: Squarespace and WordPress. We’ll go through some of the strengths and weaknesses of each solution, as well as basic setup and customization to help make the site your own. While it may sound daunting, it really isn’t. Even if you’ve never written a single line of code and have no idea what CSS is or how to use it, by answering a few simple questions and learning just a few tips and tricks, you can create a great looking website.

Initial Questions

As I mentioned previously, one of the first things you want to ask yourself when considering a new website (or redesigning an old one) is simply “Why?” The pervasive wisdom seems to say that everyone needs a website – especially business owners – and while they can be extraordinarily helpful, even necessary, there are a number of very well known photographers, artists and writers who don’t have their own websites and are doing just fine. So, why do you want or even need a website?

“I’m an artist or a photographer and I want to promote my portfolio and sell prints of my work.”

“I want to share my work somewhere other than just social media such as Facebook, Instagram, Flickr or Google+.”

“I want to control the look and feel of my product or brand.”

“I’m a retoucher and need an online portfolio to grow my business and offer my services to photographers outside of my local area.”

“I’m a writer and I would like to post selections from my book as I write it to get feedback from my audience.”

“I love movies and want to build a community by posting reviews of some of my favorites.”

Once you establish why you need a website, the next question is “What type of website?” While there are many different types of websites available, for our purposes we’re going to look at the two most popular: the Portfolio and the Blog – and although one may contain elements of the other, generally one will take a primary role, while the other would be in a more supporting or a subordinate role.

Additional Questions

Does the site come from a singular voice or is it more collaborative or even community driven?
Will there be regular posts to the site or only occasional updates?
Is eCommerce a consideration either at launch or in the future?
Are you targeting only Desktop users or is Mobile and important factor?

Whether you are building a blog-based site or one that is portfolio-driven, both Squarespace and WordPress offer all the tools you need but there are some advantages and caveats with each that you should be aware of. In the next section, we’ll take a look at a few of them and see what makes these two platforms similar as well as where they are different.

A Complete Solution

Squarespace is an end-to-end solution for hosting, building and customizing your website. The latest version, called Squarespace 7, is an all-in-one suite of tools that includes a drag-and-drop style editor, on-page editing, and a unique system of Content Blocks that allow insertion of everything from text and images to audio, video and even navigational elements. For example, if you want to add an image gallery, simply select the Gallery block and drag-and-drop your images directly onto the component.

ss-content-blocks

Also, each of their clean, modern templates are responsive, which means both the UI and the content scale proportionately to look great on desktops, tablets and phones, without the use of additional plugins. Every account comes with built-in e-commerce tools (also drag-and-drop) and 24/7 tech support – something you definitely will not get with WordPress. The real beauty of Squarespace is that it is a complete platform – from design to analytics (which are also gorgeous) – and it just works. That said, if you’re looking for specific tools or customizations beyond what the platform is capable of, you may end up disappointed. I’ll be covering more on features and limitations in Part Three.

For example, Jeff Rogers (http://howdyjeff.com) is a very talented artist who specializes in brilliant hand lettering. His site is all about the work – big, beautiful photographs from his portfolio that show what he does and where you can see it. There’s an about page and even a store, but with no blog component at all, this is a perfect example of a Portfolio site. It’s also an excellent example of, in my opinion, what Squarespace does best – clean, minimal interfaces with terrific functionality that let your content be the star. Could Jeff easily add a Blog component? Absolutely, and with Squarespace, it’s as simple as adding a page and using the drag and drop tools to customize it, which we will cover in part three.

A La Carte

In contrast to Jeff’s portfolio-based site is Faded & Blurred (http://fadedandblurred.com), which is an example of what is commonly referred to as a “magazine-style” Blog. For this type of site, where specific features and customizations were desired, WordPress is a terrific choice. The open-source CMS platform has been in development since 2003 and is constantly being refined and updated. In addition to the myriad of custom templates available, there is a robust worldwide developer community that produces literally hundreds of plugins to extend the built-in functionality with e-commerce, SEO, discussion forums, social sharing, image galleries and more.

wp-admin-plugins

As they say, with great power comes great responsibility, and while WordPress has all the features you are likely to want or need, those features come with a price – namely in a steeper learning curve. When you inevitably need help with your WordPress powered site, you may need to do a little digging, since tech support is not provided as it is with Squarespace. However, chances are, regardless of your questions or issue, the answers are out there, if you have the patience to look.

While one solution is turn-key and the other is more “roll your own”, both WordPress and Squarespace offer a ton of features and functionality and they are similar as much as they are different, so it really comes down to your own needs and/or comfort level. In part two, we’ll take a look under the hood and go through the steps of building a basic site using each solution. We will go through the initial setup (or install, if you are using WordPress) and see what each platform offers in their default configuration. Then, in part three, we will look at how to use templates and some basic CSS customization to give the site a more unique look and feel.

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