In a recent blog post I had a look at the top 100 charity websites and the common features that many of them share. Why is it that the charity sector is so diverse, yet our websites tend to look so similar?
‘Good artists copy, great artists steal’
It’s not clear whether Picasso ever actually said that, but I think it’s easy to see what it might mean in a web design context. Copying the layout/design/functionality of another charity’s site can be tempting when you’re working on a tight budget. But there’s two problems with it:
- Design is a problem-solving exercise. The design of their site is an attempt to tackle their unique problem. If you’re a similar sized charity in a similar niche to them, then your problems might be similar. But they’ll never be the same.
- You have no context as to whether that design/functionality actually works. On the face of it, it might look pretty, but does it do its job well? Really you need web tracking or some other data to answer that question.
I think you do see a fair bit of the copying mentality within charity website design. With limited budgets we often don’t have the luxury of designing something completely bespoke so we tend to fall back on common layouts and elements. And we end up fitting our content into our design, not building the design around our content.
It was common for a long time to think ‘I like Big Charity A’s slider/carousel on their homepage. We should have one of those on ours’. As web designers it’s our job to challenge and unpack that a bit. Their problems/challenges as a charity are likely to be very different to yours, so copying a solution that you can only assume works for them, isn’t the best solution to your unique problem.
I’ve talked before about why sliders aren’t necessarily a good idea for your homepage – they’re often there to appease internal stakeholders rather than be useful to your actual website visitors.
Steal like an artist
Whilst blindly copying something because ‘they’re doing it — so it must be good’ is a bad idea, it’s still useful to keep an eye on fellow charity sites to spot new trends and ideas. I think it’s OK to try to steal some of the thinking behind their sites. To reverse-engineer some of their stuff in order to figure out what problem it’s trying to solve. And to adapt that to a problem you might have.
So on Macmillan’s website you might see a section whereby people can self-select what type of visitor they are, in order to quicker hone in on the content best suited to them.
I imagine that the thinking behind that would have been something like this:
99.9% of charities aren’t in the same situation as Macmillan. You probably don’t have a hundred million pound turnover and tens of thousands of items of web content. So your situation is different to theirs. If your site is much smaller then you don’t have such a big problem of organising its architecture as you may only have 100 pages or so.
So while you don’t want to copy a solution to a non-existent problem, it can be useful to steal some of the thinking behind it. As in ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought about presenting our content in a way that reflects the needs of this audience and giving them the option of being guided on a particular journey through the site. Maybe that thinking would work well for the teachers who visit our little environmental charity site’.
You can find out more about our charity web design work throughout this site.