Redesigning your company’s website should be the ideal design experience—an opportunity to highlight your proudest achievements without a pesky client looking over your shoulder—but it’s often the one task every agency employee dreads. There’s no shortage of excuses. An agency’s site is a vital tool for generating new business, but it’s the only project that doesn’t end with an invoice, so it’s constantly competing with paid work. And when 30 or 40 cooks are messing around in the kitchen, a few food fights are inevitable. If there’s any truth in the old trope about the cobbler’s children having no shoes, then the design industry has barefoot kids running rampant.
We spoke with several agencies that emerged from the experience with plenty to say.
In the fall of 2016, Threespot’s chief creative officer William Colgrove noticed their website had gotten a little stale, so he created a simple one-page “front door” with a graffiti aesthetic that announces: “We help progressive causes make the world a better place.” The approach is consistent with the founders’ history of performing together in Washington D.C.’s punk scene in their younger years; and when Donald Trump was elected weeks later, it seemed even more appropriate.
“One of our clients recently told me, ‘I hire you so I can put you in front of people and you can say unpopular things that they need to hear,’ so that ‘rebel’ aesthetic makes sense,” says Colgrove, who believes too many agencies construct bland, soul-less portfolios for fear of putting off clients in search of versatility. Colgrove sketched out Threespot’s punk aesthetic on his own, then brought it to fruition with the help of a creative director steeped in UX design.
Once the design was locked, staffers selected six of their favorite projects just before launch. Animations were added as an additional touch, later in the process, and the site was coded from scratch, without a CMS.
Ammunition (in Brooklyn and San Francisco) also realized the need to add energy to its site, which includes a portfolio of industrial design, brand identity, and user experience work.
“In the past, we’d always created beautiful renders of our work on a grey background with drop shadows, which was all we could really do the day a product launched,” says Aaron Poe, VP of digital. “But we realized that we needed to show the Square stand in a cafe, a Lyft driver out in San Francisco, and Beats headphones worn on a subway because brand development is about all those touchpoints, not just a logo.”
Helsinki’s Agency Leroy took a distinctly Scandinavian approach to its site (surprise, surprise), echoing the sparse design of Tumblr with scrolling series of images introduced with one or two sentences of copy—and that’s it.
“With copywriting, the shorter the text, the longer it will survive,” says creative director Janne Hänninen. “If you say, ‘This year, we did this…’ and launch into the details, it’s going to age faster than something more neutral—and every case should be pretty self-explanatory, anyway.”
Agency Leroy also has one of the simplest staff pages you’ll find, eschewing colorful portraits of employees for a simple listing of names, titles, and contact info. “The photo archive of our personnel is never quite complete—someone always says, ‘My hair doesn’t look like that anymore,’ and it’s just one more excuse to avoid launching your site. Remove those obstacles and lower the threshold—that’s my design philosophy.”
Perhaps that’s why the design process was led by a two-person team that included Hänninen. “We kept the rest of the agency aware of what was happening, but it was presented more as, ‘This is the direction we’re going in. If anyone has anything to say, now is the time,” he says.
For its part, Ammunition worked hard to keep people within the agency informed, so they’d feel more comfortable with the changes ahead. “We were very transparent throughout the whole process” says VP of marketing and communications, Sara Munday. “We didn’t want to go away for months, do the work, and come back with this big ‘Ta-da!’ moment.”
Of course, it’s a fine line between checking in and being beholden to dozens of opinions, a lesson that Brand Union’s digital creative director Marta Swannie learned quickly. “When we began our redesign we had a lot of people involved, but in the end we narrowed it down so that key decisions were being made by two people—the CEO and the chief product officer—and that really sped things up,” she says. “With the size of our network and so many people in different time zones, it was the only way to [keep things moving forward].”
Move quickly, yes, but don’t mess it up. Swannie was tasked with the redesign her first week on the job in London, making her first client the company’s global CEO, no pressure.
When the design team needed content from offices, official briefs were sent out to staff and followed up with a note from the CEO. Ammunition took the same tack, advertising the project as a “nine-month labor of love” that started with the typical stakeholder insights they’d pursue with any substantial project.
“We discovered the site itself was being viewed 82% on desktop and only 18% on tablet and mobile, and we thought there was an opportunity to improve that,” says Poe. “But we also learned that a lot of our prospective clients were viewing everything on 27” monitors, so there was a big opportunity to fill that gap, literally, with richer images and more animations so the site didn’t feel so static; those findings were key to making the site look the way it does now.”
Building the site is one thing, but once it’s live, whose job is it to add new work and updates? Unlike a typical client project, there’s no hand off and walk away at the end of your own site redesign. “In managing Ammunition’s previous site, I was the only person who knew how to upload new content, which was a lot of work,” says Munday. “Our new site has a more comprehensive content strategy that requires editing images and wrangling video, so we had to discuss how things would work in practice. In the end, we created a team of people to help out.”
Once Ammunition’s site launched, account reps continued to schedule five hours a week for upkeep, which includes creating assets for the blog, writing copy for new projects, and photo shoots of client work “in the wild.”
Making the new site easy to update was also a top priority for Agency Leroy. “We made the backend so straightforward that it’s impossible to fail,” says Hänninen. “There are no options and no layout decisions to be made. For creative people, the self-criticism is so bad, we put the threshold for publishing as low as possible.” Hänninen admits that the simple layout means that small projects and huge projects all receive the same treatment, but it’s a small price to pay.
You will make mistakes. You may waste time, and you may waste money. And you’ll probably argue over quite a few things that don’t really matter all that much. Just take note, for the next time.
Brand Union’s lesson was a simple one: add a little more padding into the schedule before flipping the switch. “We were about to go live and I remember realizing that we were still waiting for client sign-off for several of the case studies,” says Swannie. Clients had all asked to see the design in situ, which means there was little alternative to waiting until the last minute, but when you’re juggling dozens of approvals over the course of months, the very last one can easily slip your mind.
Threespot’s Colgrove looks back on the project and wishes he had been a little more forthcoming early on. “Sometimes I have a very clear idea how a site should look, from the language to the design and the tone, and I haven’t been clear with my staff, because I wanted to give them a chance to run with their own ideas,” says Colgrove. “But I’ve learned I should be more honest and more direct early on—I shouldn’t be afraid to say, ‘This isn’t good’ or ‘I don’t like this typeface. If you’re particular, then you’re particular—own it.”