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.

I feel pretty, and witty, and SHEENAZING

It’s a dream I’ve held since fourth grade: to finally be recognized as SHEENAZING. I credit, as always, my sweet dance moves.

My thanks, complete with pop-n-lock, to whomever nominated me in two categories for the Sheenazing Blogger Awards organized by Bonnie from A Knotted Life! Voting is open now through Thursday evening, with the timeline somewhat dependent upon whether or not “Person of Interest” is a rerun. I love a Catholic blog awards contest that keeps it real.

I’m nominated for Funniest Blog and Best Looking Blog; I credit the latter to my mastery of a smoky eye and 5-pound earrings.

Oh, yeah, I'm Sheenazing alright

I am realizing that the entire punchline setup for this blog post depends on your knowledge of who Sheena Easton is

As far as Funniest Blog, I totally know I am not going to win that category, either, but I shall submit a portfolio nonetheless. These posts from last year may or may not represent the average level of wacky hijinks around here on a daily basis:

Sheenazing Sheena Easton 1

What do you mean, you don’t have time to go back through my archives?

There are many terrific blogs nominated in several categories, and I encourage you to go forth and vote! Along with the categories I’m going to lose, there are also polls for Coolest Blogger (surprisingly, Sheena did not come through with a nomination for me in that one), Most Inspiring, Best Lifestyle Blog, Best Link-Up EVAH, Best Underappreciated Blog, Best Mommy Blog, Smartest Blog, Blog with the Best Memes, and Best Blog by a Catholic Man. Thanks to Bonnie for putting all of this together in honor of…wait a minute…

…it has come to my attention that I had the wrong Sheenazing celebrity. These awards are actually in honor of Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, known for using new forms of media (particularly television) to evangelize.


Sheenazing Sheena Easton 3

I am kind of amazed my mother let me listen to this song 500 times now that I read the lyrics. I thought it was about karate. “Strut, POW!”

What’s your version of Authentic?

I read a lot of Internet. You, too?

Well, one genre of which I read a lot is the Internet Marketing stuff – how to write for the largest possible audience, how to write for gaining traffic, how to choose words that the greatest number of readers will respond to  and understand. I read this because for other projects I do need to know how to create copy that’s plain-spoken and enticing.

And there’s always the “what is your call to action?” What is it that people should desire upon encountering your web presence? Diamond-scented widgets? Lifecoaching for ferrets? The one furniture polishing secret you’ll be amazed to discover? (Mine: “DON’T.”) How can you present your offering in the best possible light so that all the people out there will be asking for more?

This strikes me as a fairly terrible way to live your actual life.

It Takes All Sorts

One of the great things about the Catholic New Media Conference – particularly in conjunction with the Catholic Writers Guild – was getting to meet a wide variety of Catholics who are somehow involved with new media. And I don’t just mean “some bloggers, some podcasters, some lifestreamers,” although that was certainly also true. Rather, it was the film crew sharing a documentary about a concert in the Philippines, and the guy with the epistolary zombie-monastery novel, and the person behind the scenes at a diocesan website. I would say, in general, that there was definitely a different vibe among the CNMC people versus the CWG people and that the overall decibel level of “HI! HI HI HI!” was 3x higher in the CNMC. But it was terrific to have all of these worlds colliding.

I think sometimes the message we get is “you should try to fit into this One Standard Jubilant Catholic Personality if you’re going to be an effective evangelist.” I know that when I was in the classroom that was a big thing with many of “the youth” – I don’t want to have that haircut/listen to that music/be that person, so I guess I don’t want to be Catholic.

How much more effective – and truly Catholic – it is to say “you are uniquely created and whatever your gifts, whatever your personality – that is how you should live your faith.”

Your Consumer Preferences Do Not Sanctify You

One of the problems with the word “authentic” is we’ve started to slap it on every aspect of our lives – thus the mockery of hipsters as obsessed with locally crowdsourced authentic mango-infused hair tonic. The search for a more local, authentic experience can drive right off the cliff into solipsism* – is this skirt really handmade if I used a zipper manufactured in china and thread made in Pakistan?

You can easily be paralyzed in the quest for the completely unfiltered purchasing experience. And none of this schleps grace onto our heads. Yes, it can make you a generally more conscientious shopper and less materialistic, but a reusable hemp grocery bag doesn’t confer holiness upon the user.

Or there’s the question of insta-gramma-photo-shopping every aspect of our lives in order to portray the deepest level of meaning – this sunset at the beach is too incredible to be captured in two dimensions, but maybe if I (insert technical mumbo-jumbo) it to the hilt, that gets more at the essence of the experience. And that isn’t bad! Photography is a fun hobby, I’ve heard, from people who do more than just take hundreds of terrible pictures of themselves with their cell phones to evaluate their at-home hair color. (ahem)

Be Yourself

I’m feeling like this is meandering into “and that’s why our media should have low production values, because it’s more authentic!” territory but of course that’s not what I mean.

This image would be an example of low production values

This image would be an example of low production values

But – if what you’re doing is blogging for the sake of connecting with other people on an individual level – I would suggest that all of the “presentation” aspects of that enterprise should be focused on what makes people feel welcome and what makes it easy for them to connect with you. The trend towards more white space, larger font sizes, uncluttered sidebars, etc., is all about making it easier on the reader. So doing these things, and choosing a color scheme that isn’t  all up in people’s faces – that doesn’t mean you’re putting on airs about your blog. It’s just nice manners.

Making it all about your own perfection, though – and look, we can be disingenuous about that – “this old thing! Why it’s just a recipe handed down from my grandma’s kitchen that I tried 53 versions of before taking photos with my $1500 camera to capture the moment!” – I dunno, that’s just not my thing. It may boost traffic, but does it build relationships between you and your readers? Or – even better, in my opinion – between your readers? That, for me, is my hope from blogging – that everybody gets along and makes some new friends.

This is somewhat a continuation of the thought-provoking conversation had by…other people, heh…in the comments on the So You Don’t Want to Be a Professional Blogger post, which I would very much encourage you to check out. I also put together a list of specific resources for making your readers feel welcome which may interest you.

Today’s discussion question, maybe, is – what’s something you are hesitant to share about yourself because you feel like it doesn’t jibe with people’s expectations of you as a Catholic? OR – more broadly, just answer that in terms of “people characterize me as This Kind of Person but I really like This Other Thing, so I’m tempted to keep that to myself.

*This is an example of a word I should not use because it’s probably pretentious. But I really like the word “solipsism.”

So You Don’t Want To Be a Professional Blogger

See what I did there? Attention-grabbing headline! Provoking a strong emotion! You are more likely to share this post!

Not that I haven’t totally, totally finished writing my talk for the CNMC – I mean, the hardest part was the hand-embossing of the calligraphy for my speaker notes – but I’ve been thinking about this a lot, this question of – what techniques are needed for successful blogging? And why blog if you’re not willing to do that?

I was going to share my reasons but I’d actually be more interested in yours. Without turning this into Occupy Blog Street, I’d like to know – if you blog for other reasons versus blogging intentionally to build a platform for your writing/your apostolate/your cat – and I am not saying that it’s bad to try to boost blog traffic:

1. If that’s not your primary focus, what enjoyment do you derive from blogging?

2. Do you consider yourself to be a “successful” blogger? In what sense?

3. If you could choose between having a post shared 500 times, or having one of your Internet Idols send you an email to say “I really enjoyed your post,” which would you choose?

I’ll answer my own questions in the comments in hopes of starting a discussion.

Also: “blog” is such an ugly word, right? I used it way too many times in this post.

Please, let’s not go in the direction of small-time bloggers versus the big-name bloggers, because:

a. I don’t like it when people argue, and

b. I think we need to respect the amount of effort, emotional energy, and thought that goes into really being a high-profile blogger, and some of my best Internet friendships started with comment-box discussions on high-profile blogs.

What I’m interested in for the sake of this discussion are more the “I don’t focus on my blog’s traffic because…” stories.


App reviews and more at CatholicMom.com

Dorian Speed Tech Talk columnsJust a quick overview – here’s what I’ve been talking about over at Tech Talk on CatholicMom.com!

My obsession with Evernote knows no bounds – recently, I’ve talked about how my husband and I use shared Evernote notebooks to be less disorganized about our finances, travel plans, and children’s records.

Let me tell you a story. It’s the love story of two very, very optimistic people who suffer from a shared malady: Hopelessly Inconsistent Household Organization (HI-HO). We’re a terrific team, my husband and I, but perennially paper-challenged to such an extent that it was really hurting our family. High stress levels over never knowing where anything was, every-so-often forgetting to pay an important utility bill (so embarrassing that I had to tell the Internet), and always having to ask “could you send me that document again?”

Enter shared notebooks.

You can even see five family lists we share in Evernote to get your brain churning on how this application could help simplify your life, too.

If you’re heading out on a road trip soon, download the Road Ninja app to find the restaurants, gas stations, and local attractions at each highway exit.

If you’ve ever been stuck in a vehicle with antsy children in need of a clean restroom and an air-conditioned playground, well, Road Ninja is for you. It uses your GPS location to tell you what you can expect at the next few exits and how long you’ll have to wait before the bliss that is Waffle House.

And – the app I’m using RIGHT THIS VERY MOMENT: Toggl! I’ve talked about Toggl before as a tool that helps me focus despite my head-in-the-clouds personality. I loved it that Sarah Reinhard, my Meyers-Briggs’ personality opposite, has also found this to be a useful app. It works great on a phone or on your computer.

Now, if I really wanted to incriminate myself, I’d use Toggl to track all of the little things I volunteer for because “they’ll only take a few minutes.” THAT would be illuminating. But for now, I primarily use it both for client projects and for my own personal projects. If you’re like me and have a really difficult time estimating how long it will take you to finish a task, this tool is going to be an eye-opener. (The Clock Is Ticking – and That’s a Good Thing!)

Be sure to check out all of the great columns from the Tech Talk team at CatholicMom.com!

(This post took 20:09 minutes, for the record. NOTED.)

The Evernote Evangelist – My New Column at CatholicMom.com

You know how Kermit the Frog does that happy, hoppy dance when he gets good news? That’s how I am feeling about joining the team at CatholicMom.com. YAAAAAYYYYYYYY! I am going to be focusing on apps for the Android platform, but I’m starting off with a big series on my beloved Evernote. I know I’ve mentioned Evernote before, and my enthusiasm for it is so great that it had to be drawn out over several posts. Here’s the first:

Whether you’re an everything-in-its-place organizing genius or a more “holistic,” pile-based thinker (like me), Evernote will work for you. It’s like a virtual file cabinet into which you can throw receipts, important documents, links to funny YouTube cat videos, notes from a business meeting, and to-do checklists. Better than a traditional file cabinet, though, Evernote allows you to either search for a single word among all those piles/folders, or organize them to the hilt using separate notebooks and tags (like labels for individual file folders).

Read the whole thing! http://catholicmom.com/2012/06/02/the-evernote-evangelist/