Why Church Web Design Matters Visualize a Comic-Sans-Free Vatican website

Yesterday on Facebook, there  were a few friendly conversations bemoaning the design of the Vatican website. It’s a perennial punch line – particularly the Parchment background that dates from the last century. This came up in conversation because someone went to quite a lot of trouble to put together a beautiful album about Pope Emeritus (sob!) Benedict XVI. It’s a 62-page album of photos from his papacy, and each one has a quotation from one of his speeches or writings, with a link to the full text. It is a very moving tribute to his service as our spiritual leader.

You can get to the album easily – just type “http://vatican.va” into your browser, and…

Oh, sorry – that link doesn’t work:

Screenshot of Google Chrome

So, make sure you type in WWW.vatican.va, because nobody’s had time to set up the redirect for the plain http:// version, and you’ll see the album here.

It is obvious that someone put a lot of work into assembling the photos and selecting the quotations. There’s potential for this to start some provocative discussions in which people reexamine the media narrative of “Pope Rottweiler the Staunch”. Like this quotation, included in the album:

Benedict XVI album quotewhich links, via that little blue arrow, to Benedict XVI’s Mass of Possession of the Chair of the Bishop of Rome.

The what now? He was Bishop of Rome? When was that? What’s this thing with the Chair?

Many Catholics already know that pope = Bishop of Rome, but most people probably do not. Here’s a perfect opportunity not only to show people what Benedict actually thought about the papacy, but to explain some basic “Catholic-ese.”

Instead, we have this album, which is not immediately clear as to how one turns the pages – I thought you could type a page number into the box at the bottom and didn’t realize there was a way to “flip” pages until it was pointed out to me by Brandon Vogt, Social Media Guru. Okay, so that doesn’t speak well of me as a web designer, but: still.

Benedict XVI album screenshot

I felt vaguely bad for criticizing the album, because – again – obviously someone put a lot of thought into compiling it. But here’s the thing: Now it’s on Mashable. And not because it’s amazing, but because it’s mockable.

“Vatican Celebrates Pope Benedict XVI With Comic Sans Photo Album”

Shared 2,400 times in the last six hours. (The Mashable article, not the Vatican album).

I understand that some would say “this is just another example of how the media twists everything that comes out of the Vatican.” But this is so easily avoidable.

For many people, the Church’s Internet presence is the only public face they will encounter – a face that, as Benedict himself stated, in reference to the scandals –  “has so often been disfigured by man.” Why are we putting up further roadblocks in the way of people who are looking for more information about our faith?

The Church has been a patron of the arts—devoted to the belief that beauty itself points to truth—for centuries. Design is kind of our thing. Yet over and over, when it comes to web design, the Church says “oh, what we’ve been doing has worked fine so far.” These visual cues reinforce the image of Church as outdated and irrelevant.

Making our message accessible means utilizing at least basic principles of web design. For example, this album should use “alt” tags to indicate what links or images are about, so a disabled user who accesses the site via a screen reader can hear what the content is instead of the word “image” or “link.” The design itself should draw the user into the experience, to want to learn more. It should…not look basically the same as it did in 1998.

We need to understand that something like this is just serving it up on a platter for those who are looking for ways to snark on the Church. It’s one thing to say “we will not compromise who we are to suit the ways of the world” and another to say “what we’re doing worked ten years ago, so let’s keep doing it exactly the same.”

Related – Matthew Warner on “What the Church Should Be Known for Online”. Oh, and look who said all of this more charitably: Benedict XVI in his Message for World Communications Day:

The ability to employ the new languages is required, not just to keep up with the times, but precisely in order to enable the infinite richness of the Gospel to find forms of expression capable of reaching the minds and hearts of all. In the digital environment the written word is often accompanied by images and sounds. Effective communication, as in the parables of Jesus, must involve the imagination and the affectivity of those we wish to invite to an encounter with the mystery of God’s love. Besides, we know that Christian tradition has always been rich in signs and symbols: I think for example of the Cross, icons, images of the Virgin Mary, Christmas cribs, stained-glass windows and pictures in our churches. A significant part of mankind’s artistic heritage has been created by artists and musicians who sought to express the truths of the faith.

Also related: I am so excited about the work that the contributors to ElectingThePope.net have been doing. We are up to 50 questions answered so far, with lots more to come. Thanks to all of those who are working to make this a great resource for students, teachers, journalists, and anyone looking for basic information about Catholicism.

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  1. says

    Could you hack into the album and change the typeface? 😉

    On my blog- sometimes- the sub-headers come out as comic sans even though they have NEVER been that way- this happens with only some computers, and usually only while the blog loads and then the headers change to what I wanted- but sometimes, the headers are stuck in comic sans- diagnosis, please- someone???

    • says

      The issue is that you’re using a cool web font – which isn’t a BAD thing. But when a website uses a web font, before it can load the fancy cool font, it goes with a font that’s standard on most people’s computers. The stylesheet for your site says “if you can’t find Pupcat, use Comic Sans instead” – it’s Pupcat you’re using, right? So, in that instant while it’s waiting to get the script to load Pupcat, it fills it in with Comic Sans.

      I haven’t done a design on Blogger in a while but I’m betting somewhere in the template designer, where you specify the cool font, there’s a place to say what you want the backup to be. Alternately, somewhere in your stylesheet there may be something like “font-family: ‘Pupcat’, ‘Comic Sans’, sans-serif;” and you can change/delete ‘Comic Sans.”

      Caveat: I may be wrong about how Blogger does this.

  2. says

    You make tons of wonderful points here. It would be nice to see the Church/Vatican get its(their?) digital act together, but I’m not sure we should hold our collective breath.

    And now I’m feeling sheepish that I forwarded the link to that online album to you. I love the photos and the accompanying text and yeah, I noticed the font was kinda dumb… Anyway, that’s why they pay you the big bucks, right?

  3. Kate says

    I had the exact same reaction to that album…first “oh, what a great idea!” followed by “why oh why does it look so amateur?”

    For goodness sake, they have GOT to have the budget for a decent web designer. Heck, I bet they could find members of the faithful who would tithe their time – GLADLY – just to have a better website.

  4. says

    Why is the design so bad? Bureaucracy.

    For example, Dom is the web guy for the Archdiocese of Boston. The Archdiocese of Boston’s website is lame and needs to be redone. He knows this, has argued for an overhaul. Can he do it? No. Bureaucracy.

  5. says

    I just can’t ever find what I’m looking for on that website. Maybe I’m just stupid, but I seem to find my way around every place else. Like here–see–I’m posting a comment.