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How to Succeed in the Design Website Business


Back when I was an undergrad, my friends and I started a punk-rock band. We spent the next three years playing and touring the Eastern Seaboard. Full-time employment and a future career path were not a priority.

The punk band moved to Boston, and I landed a temporary job at a software company. The band thrived for a while, then crashed and burned. So my employment became full-time, which led me to enroll in the graduate industrial design program at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute.

Eric Ludlum and I began as a student project. The web was brand-new. Designing websites was an unheard-of occupation. Netscape had not gone public, and we listed yahoo! as one of our "cool linx."

The website immediately took off, opening doors and garnering a lot of attention for us. We never expected the great response that continues today. We've nurtured an active and ardent following by maintaining direct and open communications with our users. We try to demonstrate our real care and understanding of their concerns. Using a shoestring budget, we keep our well-financed and well-connected competitors at bay. We maintain a do-it-yourself attitude that manifests itself in nearly everything we do. That Core style of operating has been with us from Day One. That is the intangible element that makes the site as successful as it is.

Running an internationally renowned design website might seem glamorous, but, like life on the road with an independent band, it ain't no cup of tea. As the recent implosion of the Internet Economy proves, running a content website is not a recommended business model. Keeping going has proved a challenge hour our six-year history. Yet Coke or Pepsi would kill for the community we've built. This irony doesn't escape us. As much as corporate America wants the loyalty of our users, our site is a labor of love. This is why that user loyalty exists in the first place.

Through the years, we have occasionally tried to raise money from the traffic through our sites. We have been repeatedly slain for it. Nowadays we think of ourselves as practicing "Compassionate Capitalism." This means that our work, while greatly appreciated by a large audience, consistently contradicts efforts to converge on economic success. We depend on our own skills as new-media and interaction designers to pay the website's bills and finance operations.

Why go through this effort? Running keeps our lives interesting. It's an ongoing design project where WE are 100-percent in charge. In addition, the unsolicited fan mail and the occasional stalker message sent from prison provide a warm inner glow that money can't ever buy.

People write to us. A lot. The unique characteristics of these inquiries make it difficult to create FAQs or canned responses. Our resulting personal responses strengthen the relationships between the users and the site. But this often leads to a reactive workload, where we're always playing catch-up. This in turn leads to missed deadlines and mistakes, a cycle we tend to repeat, again and again.

A typical example is a recent promotional effort, a bumper sticker. We planned it out, sketched it and came up with a graphic concept we liked, but were unsure of the right tag line to use. We had our own slogan, but at the last minute thought we'd ask our users for input. Of course, we got hundreds of responses. We spent days sorting through them, only to end up using our original choice. Now we have the extra job of sending reward stickers to the loyal users who took part in our experiment.

When the community feeds the content, a website's success is assured. We actively solicit user feedback and contributions. People send us articles, news, notices, and anything else that might be of interest to the Core77 audience. We spend quite some time dealing with the results. Our users love it and our site is better as a result. We're planning a new content system to provide users with input that is even more direct. We hope this will speed up response time, enhance community feeling, and lighten our workload.

We also host an annual conceptual design competition. We get responses worldwide, generating great content and attention for the site. This competition is also a lot of work, but fulfills our basic goals: to encourage new thinking; raise public awareness of new design ideas; and connect designers worldwide to ourselves, to the site, and to each other. The competition increases discussion and interaction among the users, bringing some fame to our real heroes: working designers with original ideas.

Real-world events follow naturally when you have fostered network connections and built a community of interest. Last year's competition gave us an excuse to hold our first public party (to review the winners). We've since hosted design events, lectures, and more parties, and are planning educational seminars and presentations. The response has been tremendous. However, real-world networking requires real-world space, plus food and drinks, and all this costs real-world money. This is good and bad; money complicates our plans, but gives us an excuse to contact sponsors.

Our tools are pretty simple--computers, of course; desks; office space; and an Internet connection. Throw in common software packages like Eudora, Photoshop, and Dreamweaver (for emailing, image processing, and web production), and you've built yourself a design office. But our real work is communication: between and among us, our users, our clients, our sponsors, and our technicians.

I didn't start a punk band in college because of some burning desire to express my individual artistic vision. Instead, it was a good excuse to get friends together, have fun, and drink for free. By playing from the heart, without a lot of planning or foresight, our band had a great time, and do did our fans. Years later, carries on that tradition of doing what we want, when we want, and how we want. Our audience is clearly enjoying themselves, and we are too. And every once in a while, we get free drinks!

Based in New York City, Stuart Constantine was one of the original designers and developers of CORE-Industrial Design Network, an award-winning portal catering to the industrial design profession. His everyday work as a designer includes website concepts, production, interface design, navigation design, copy writing, project management, client relations, business development, and running an office. His clients include Fortune 500 companies, design and advertising agencies, universities, and manufacturers.

By Stuart Constantine
COPYRIGHT 2001 Point Foundation

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