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The Skinny on WordPress for Artists

Author:  on 
July 31, 2013

 

 

We have over 500 members on TAFA. Most of them were invited to join by me.  How did I find them? By visiting thousands of websites. In the beginning, I spent lots of time, scouring the internet, doing searches, visiting other organizations, and following lists of links. Out of every twenty I visited, I might have invited five and out of those five, perhaps one would join. Why did I invite so few? Because unbelievably, so many artists and businesses have awful websites. You have to click five times to get back to the home page, there is no navigation, no information about who they are, no way to contact them, or they might have background music (which makes me run away immediately). Fonts are a multitude of fluorescent colors, too tiny, jumping all over the place… The worst are the images: tiny little thumbnails that you can barely see, blurry, dark, were taken with a flash and have horrible shadows……  How can people who work daily with beautiful objects live with such a poor presentation of their work? Is seeing on the web that different from seeing through a window? Visiting all of these sites helped me understand much of what is going on in the textile world, but it also hit home how backwards our community can be.

Our first site took up a lot of my time during our second year. A design group built it with a great deal of feedback from our members and myself on how we wanted it to look and operate. I have very little control or access to the back end as it is a huge database with bits and pieces of programs making it work. After the launch, I looked closely at my personal site, www.rayela.com, and cringed.  My site was as bad as many as the ones I had been screaming about in my head. A complete overhaul was needed. I went searching for options, read articles, watched tutorials and decided that WordPress was the way of the future. I had built my old site on the now defunct FrontPage, took a class on and had started to use DreamWeaver, and felt confident that I would be able to learn this new platform.

Why WordPress? Because it is flexible and can change with the times (fingers crossed!). It’s built on a module that has a few basic folders which always stay in place: your settings, images, pages, posts, stuff like that. I like to think of it as a skeleton:

skeleton with plugins

Extra things can be added on that have specific jobs.  These are called plugins. This site has WordPress’s BuddyPress (creates members and groups on the site) and bbPress (operates the forum) plugins. I’ve also installed plugins for the Member Blog feed, the Classified Ad page, a plugin that allows us to upload files to our posts, and more. Each plugin can slow the site down and interfere with other plugins, so care must be taken. But, if you pay for good hosting, in theory, the site could host a multitude of capabilities, both on the front end, which is public, or on the back-end which is private. We have added a shop, have a business directory and so on. In fact, BuddyPress is being used by universities and organizations with hundreds of thousands of users. The potential is enormous.

Most artists just need a simple site that has some basic pages: Home | About | Statement | Gallery | Contact. It’s your presentation to the world of who you are, what you do, your mother ship. It should be clear, simple, easy to navigate, with beautiful images. Building a site can seem intimidating, but hopefully this post will keep WordPress for Artists simple and clear!

Jose Guadalupe Posada

Jose Guadalupe Posada

Many of us also have blogs. Another thing I had to do when I revamped my site was to close my old Blogger blog, and move it to rayela.com. I loved that blog! I had spent three years on it, building content and it had good traffic and loyal followers. But, I had made the mistake many others do: named it something completely different from my business name: Rayela’s Fiber Focus. We need to think like “real” businesses and develop our brands.

Our name needs to be the same thing everywhere we go.  I’ve seen so many who have a different name on their site, their Etsy shop, their blog, their Facebook page and on Twitter. How will those loyal followers ever figure it out? And, here’s the thing about blogs: they get better indexing by search engines than those tired websites that were set up years ago and have no relevance today. I’ve seen many artist sites announcing a show that took place five years ago! I pass right on by those because the message that I get is that they are not really invested in their business anymore. Blogs build links, traffic, and bring new people. They need to be incorporated into your site.  Some sites don’t have that option and force the user to have a blog somewhere else, but if that is the case, they need to be visually similar and have links that take the visitor back and forth seamlessly.

WordPress was originally built as a blogging platform and took on these other capabilities as it grew. It’s an open source project which means that thousands of geeks around the world are working on it, improving it, shaping it to keep it relevant to our times. Think about the iPhone and other smart phones. Even three years ago, they were a novelty.  Now, smartphones and notebooks are competing neck to neck with laptops and desktops. A huge part of cyberspace will only see your website on that tiny screen. Have you checked to see how it looks? Is it responsive? A responsive site rearranges itself to look the best possible on these small screens. They are built on a grid, or have building blocks which can be stacked or moved internally depending on how the site is displaying.

How a site looks depends on its theme. These are the bells and whistles that make everything look good: the header, footer, where the logo goes, how columns are displayed, background colors, the sidebars, and whether it is responsive. The nicer ones have a price attached. I paid $60 for this one and made a huge mistake because it is not responsive. But, it’s not the end of the road. At some point in the future, I’ll just get a different one! You see, a theme is like a costume or an outfit.  All of those plugins that are attached to the skeleton stay in the same place. There might be some tweaking with a different theme, but the content will all be there. This is truly the beauty of WordPress’s genius!

skeleton with themes

The skeleton keeps everything in place. How it looks depends on what costume you want it to wear. There are themes out there that are designed specifically to show off images, or for dentists, dog walkers, churches, car guys, vintage, and thousands and thousands of other options. Search for “responsive artist WordPress theme” and you will find plenty to dig through.

This is wear it all gets hairy: because WordPress, the themes and the plugins are all open-source not everything is hunky-dory. Each time WordPress updates, everything else has to, too: plugins and themes. If they don’t, they might quit working. Time and again, I have found the perfect plugin but it hasn’t been updated in two years and is no longer functional. These geniuses moved on to something else. Finding the right theme and plugins takes a good amount of research. I look at their documentation, their feedback, at how responsive they are to questions on their support pages, and whether they have developed other things that have also had support and good ratings. The best themes and plugins now charge a small fee (some can be astronomical!) and they should! They need to be compensated for their time and effort, just like anyone else. Geeks are people, too.

Results can be messy. Plugins might conflict with each other or with your theme. You might install them and go “Huh?” They look fine on their page but when you actually start to mess with them, they make no sense at all. Again, most artist sites do not need very many plugins. Keeping things simple is best. 

I am not a coder! I’m a tweaker! When reading about WordPress and watching the tutorials, it looks like everything should be intuitive. It’s not!!! WordPress, BuddyPress and bbPress each have their own website with support forums. Search and issue and you find post after post with instructions on how to change code.  “Replace this (a string of 200 lines) starting on line 349 with this (another string of 240 lines). I won’t do it! I just don’t have the brain space for it, was never good at math, and it’s just not the way I work. I understand some code just from having worked with FrontPage and trying to figure things out, but I don’t have the confidence to make changes in anything. So, I want themes and plugins that are robust and do what they should. I want to be able to change colors, make this bigger, that smaller, etc. I believe that most of my peers are in the same boat.

la calavera catrina-jose-guadalupe-posada

La Calavera Catrina, Jose Guadalupe Posada

 

The nightmare scenario: When I was ready to work on the forum this past January, I started searching around for themes, found this one and bought it. Soon after that, WordPress went through a major overhaul. A bit later, BuddyPress went through a complete re-write. The theme no longer worked! It took me a long time to understand what was going on and why and then our theme developer was off on vacation somewhere, so the whole thing ended up being six months of aggravation, lost hours, and exhaustion. It’s now working and members are starting to use it, which makes it really fun and worthwhile.

The point is that we have these amazing tools at our disposable, most of it is free and you can learn how to do it yourself. You can live under a rock and not bathe for two months, but your website can look pristine and clean. There is a definite learning curve and a new language to learn. For example, the other day I was struggling with a setting that said, “Throttle posting every __________ seconds.” Huh? You were supposed to check it, perhaps, and put in how many seconds it should do that. Off I went to the BuddyPress forum. Or, would it be on WordPress? bbPress? Confusing. Everybody else seemed to know what this meant and I finally figured out that it was a way to prevent spammers from posting too often. Bleah! We don’t need it because all of our people are our beautiful members! But, it’s stuff like that just drives me crazy! Still, if I can do it, so can anyone who has patience and persistence.

Along the way, you find mentors and gems to hang on to. One of mine is Spence, The Evil Genius. If you are seriously interested in learning more about WordPress, he can explain the foundation and capabilities way better than I can. But, do NOT be fooled. He says that you do not need to know how to code, but if you get stuck, like I have, you WILL have to learn some basics. His other video, The Definitive Guide for BuddyPress, helped me tremendously, so if you are thinking of setting up a forum like this one, do watch that one, too.

 

Spencer is a Chicago boy who was also actively involved in Ning‘s development and SocialGo, two other community platforms that I have tried in the past that lacked the potential our BuddyPress forum has of expanding into other functionalities. Spencer has other videos which are helpful in thinking about income generation and presentation, too. He is clear, illustrates process well and personable.

If you do not watch the video, be clear about one thing: there is WordPress.com (a free blog with limited capabilities) and WordPress.org (reach for the stars!). You will always be able to tell who is using the freebie because their web address will be starvingartist.wordpress.com. If they are paying for their own hosting fees and have free rein to do what they want, their address might be starvingartist.com. Warning: one of our members recently had her free WordPress account suspended, after years of daily documenting her work, for some insane reason like quoting someone who triggered something. It was very unclear, tore her apart, and even though she was reinstated, she moved her site over to SquareSpace, another web model. Lesson learned: whenever there is a freebie, there may be strings attached. Own your own site!

After visiting thousands of sites, I felt like I had a grasp on what was decent web design. At least I knew what felt comfortable to me. I succeeded in re-vamping my personal site (which I never have time for since I am always focused on TAFA), then I had to re-vamp Afghan Tribal Arts, which I have managed online for years for Abdul (friend, former business partner and TAFA Member).

Website imageOne of Abdul’s customers needed a site, so I did hers:

A local friend owns a mag, Purchase Family Magazine, so I set hers up:

You can see how different they all look from each other. The themes, remember? I’ve been able to figure almost everything out, but every now and then, there is a glitch. When that happens, I call on Aynex Mercado or Linda Matthews, both TAFA Members. They can code!  Woo hoo for them!

The skinny on websites is:

If you have an ugly, outdated site, you are giving the message to the world that you could care less. Either you are too famous and don’t really need to get your name out there or you have moved on to other things. If you need to sell, are promoting your services, have a shop, etc., then you need to step up and take charge of your image! Your site should be as beautiful as what you do. Invite people in, show them around, let them enjoy what they see, dance a bit…  It’s a royal pain to have to be a techy when you would rather be in your studio creating or out in the “real” world working, but cyberspace is a reflection of that world and once you have your ducks in a row, the upkeep can be quite painless. No web skills? Then grab your local geek or hire one of us! Make a party out of it!

posadacalaveria-jose-guadalupe-posada

Jose Guadalupe Posada

I hope this helps give a decent introduction to WordPress. I have a love/hate relationship with it, but I believe that it is the way of the future, or at least the future of the next ten years. We have NO IDEA what the web or technology will be like then, but if we are going to invest time and money into it, then WordPress seems like it will be one of the platforms that will stick around.

Do you have any questions?

Do you have a WordPress site?

Leave a comment with a link so that we can take a look. Tell us about your frustrations, your victories, your favorite plugins are and anything else you want to share with our community. (As long as it is not spam………….)

See our post on WordPress Plugins, 2014 Review

About

I've been working with the arts and craft world in many capacities since 1988. Handmade textiles have been my core focus since launching TAFA in 2010.

My hope is to contribute to the economic development potential the arts bring to the world, along with the intrinsic beauty shown in the work. May the world become a friendlier place for artists and nature!

Arrived in Kentucky after a childhood in Brazil, college in Minnesota and 20 years in Chicago. It's been a ride!
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