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ARTICLE ARCHIVE


Summer 2004

A Guide to Going Online

How to present your work to the world
by launching your own website

by W. Logan Fry


The author in his weaving and web-design studio.

Irvin Mayfield, the founder and director of the Institute of Jazz Culture at Dillard University in New Orleans, explained in an interview one of the reasons he set up the institute: "Culture is about definition, and if you're not involved in the process of defining yourself, somebody else will; and perhaps they will define you to the point where they don't think you need to exist" (The Tavis Smiley Show, National Public Radio: November 10, 2003).

The issue of definition is not an insubstantial one. It was strong enough to induce the American Craft Museum to change its name to the Museum of Arts & Design and move from its West 53rd Street home to 2 Columbus Circle. Not a popular move in some quarters, but clearly a mighty response to the issue of self-definition.

As individual textile artists, or individuals interested in textile art, how do we go about the process of self-definition? The usual ways are tested and true: weaving, quilting, surface design; exhibiting; writing; curating exhibits; forming groups and coalitions. And in this process, we also frequently take matters into our own hands. We secure space and put up our own shows. We write about our own work, and we write about the work of our colleagues.

An increasingly popular niche for textile artists for showing and writing about their work is in the virtual space of the World Wide Web.

This is an article about putting your work online, where it can be seen as easily in Oslo and Omsk as in Oshkosh. As a largely self-taught weaver and Web designer, I have found that an individual doesn't need a degree in art to be an artist or a degree in media arts to set up a website. Art is one of those great professions and avocations that exist largely by self-definition.

Surveying the Field

A place to start in creating a website is to visit with people who have their own sites, explore the reasons they have undertaken them, and review the different layouts and designs they used. Let's stay in the United States, but scan from coast to coast.

Beth Surdut lives on Cape Cod, but you can visit her, together with the mermaids that share her inspiration, at www.bethsurdut.com.

Carol Ventura is an associate professor of art at Tennessee Technological University. Her website, plato.ess.tntech.edu/cventura, is clearly directed at education and cultural interchange and bringing artists together from around the world. From her website, you can visit a batik artist in Cameroon and foot-loom weavers in central Mexico, among others.

Roberta Lavadour of Pendleton, Oregon, makes extraordinary paper and books from her beautiful home and studio, housed in a building that was once the mission school of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The studio lies at the foothills of the Blue Mountains near the original Oregon Trail, while Roberta's cyberspace studio can be found at www.missioncreekpress.com.

Finally, far to the north in Anchorage, Alaska, Helga Berry weaves gorgeous tapestries on large Tue Lervad looms from Denmark. Trained at the Manufactures Nationales des Gobelins in Paris, she travels widely. I caught her in cyberspace, as she wrote to me first from Cairo, Egypt, then Munich, Germany. You can see her studio and work at www.alaska.net/~fibercom.

All these artists and teachers have designed their own websites, and all are conversant with the requisites of good website design. They taught me an unexpected—then quite obvious—lesson. Having a website transcends issues of self-definition. It's a business necessity for those who pursue their life's work as a business, beyond the pure joy of working with fiber. Beth Surdut says it best: "You cannot thrive in the business world today without a website. Even if it is nothing more than a single page with examples of work and contact information, you must maintain a Web presence to survive."

A Simple Start

The easiest way to design your own website is to use the options available through your Internet access provider. The pages offered will give you a chance to show a few images and include text. But you will often be severely limited by narrow options. The easiest way may not be the best way.

Instead, many artists create webpages with drag-and-drop, menu-oriented software. Dreamweaver, FrontPage, and Microsoft Publisher are used by the artists we visit in this article. I use Adobe PageMill 3.0 for the Mac. All have yielded good results.

Figure 1C shows a completed webpage created with PageMill. The steps were simple. Before starting, I sketched with pencil and paper a rough idea of how I wanted my page to look. The planned page would have a caption at the top, an image of a weaving below at the left, and information about the weaving to the right.

Producing the webpage was then a straightforward process of gathering images and putting them in a folder (Figure 1A), laying out a page structure with the design program (Figure 1B), dragging the images into the top and lower left block of the page (or using the menu options to bring the pieces in), typing text directly into the lower right block of the page, and changing the background to black.

HTML

HyperText Markup Language (HTML) is simply the set of instructions behind Web-design software. It is also called "source code" or just plain "code"; it tells the computer how to display information for the World Wide Web and on your monitor. Learning HTML itself broadens your abilities to create webpages. The code that implements the webpage shown in Figure 1 is shown in Figure 2 below.

Note that "BGCOLOR" and "FONT COLOR" are boxed. The numerical (hexadecimal) color equivalencies are given within the quotes; that is, "BGCOLOR=#000000" yields a black background. You can easily darken, lighten, or change background and font colors by changing these numbers. Moreover, you can analyze attractive color combinations you see during your Web surfing (by analyzing source code) and adapt them for your own webpages, being careful not to copy the tone or composition of the pages you have studied, or you can insert colors directly from hexadecimal color tables.

Instead of a solid background, you could directly add another extra snippet of code, to read <BODY BACKGROUND="background.gif"
BGCOLOR="#000000">. That will "tile" a small, predesigned image across the webpage, often to spectacular effect. Roberta Lavadour uses a simple "back.gif" taken from an image of a paper sample to create a very sumptuous paper texture for her website. (You can also accomplish this with a pull-down menu in most design programs.).

Caution: If you create a tile named "back.gif" in your image program, e.g. Adobe Photoshop, you need to spell it exactly the same in your HTML code, including adherence to upper- and lowercase. Spelling it as "Back.Gif" in your HTML will generally not work, and even if it does, it won't on someone else's computer.

As a final example, you can add bits and pieces of JavaScript you may encounter, even if your design program does not provide for it directly. You might copy nonproprietary code you see on a gallery website to achieve pop-up images of artwork for your own website. Again, however, avoid copying entire pages of someone else's code.

One of the best ways to master HTML is to take a class in an adult or vocational education program. It may sound intimidating, but if you can learn the weaver's drafts in Marguerite Porter Davison's A Handweaver's Pattern Book, you can learn HTML.

Nevertheless, you will find few artists who actually work directly with code. The design programs are generally good enough. Roberta Lavadour adds, emphatically: "My contention is that if a person only had a very limited amount of time to devote to learning how to create a website, [they should] study typography and layout instead of HTML."

But again, those who do become familiar with code enjoy an enhanced ability to tweak their pages and to analyze the good features of other websites they encounter during their journeys through the web.

Working with Digital Images

Working with digital images is a skill that fiber artists need to develop even if they do not have their own websites. Editors, publishers, and website creators will be able to work with images more easily if those images are prepared well.

First, a word on image size. Image dimension and image size are very different, although closely interrelated. Image dimension relates most directly to the size an image will appear when printed on a page. Image size is the amount of disk space an image uses. Image size is tied to the concept of resolution, that is, how finely an image is stored digitally and rendered for printing or photo reproduction. Good printing requires a minimum of 300 dpi (dots per inch). Higher resolution leads to better printed or developed images. Computer monitors have historically been produced with a screen resolution of 72 dpi for Macs and up to about 96 dpi for PCs. Images with smaller dimensions and lower resolutions load faster, which helps people who are viewing your website using dial-up connections (modems).

Understanding how a monitor displays images helps to predict results. If you have a 1- by 1-inch image set at 72 dpi on a typical Mac screen set at 800 by 600 dpi, the image will appear to be 1 by 1 inch on the monitor. If you change the specs to a 1- by 1-inch image saved at 144 dpi, on a typical Mac screen set at 800 by 600 dpi the image will enlarge to 2 by 2 inches on the monitor. Change the screen to 1024 by 768 dpi, and the image will appear smaller.

This is the reason that screen grabs (copies) of computer sites generally look a bit fuzzy in print--they are not displayed online at print resolutions. This is good news for the artist, however. One of the recurring threats confronted by the artist going online is image theft. It's not too bad if someone is just grabbing your images to create personal screen savers or bulletin-board art, but it is bad if someone wants to bootleg prints of your artwork. The salvation? Even a 10- by 10-inch image at 72 dpi does not provide enough information to create a good print, just a really fuzzy one.

There are several ways to obtain digital images for your website. If images you have provided for an exhibition or article have already been converted from film to digital format, you may be able to harvest those images. But don't use the image without permission if it has been significantly edited, altered, or blended with images of other artwork.

Scanning slides or transparencies yourself is another great way to get digital images of your work. When scanning slides with a scanner, set the resolution very high, perhaps as high as 1800 dpi. Then, when manipulating the image for the Web in Photoshop, for example, you may increase image dimensions, while keeping image size (in megabytes) the same. A 1.28- by .58-inch image at 1800 dpi becomes a 7.68- by 3.48-inch image at 300 dpi (good for print purposes) or a 32- by 14.5-inch image at 72 dpi. And while a 32- by 14.5-inch image may seem dimensionally large for the typical monitor, a crisp 5- by 5-inch detail from it might be very good to have.

The digital camera, of course, has enhanced the ability of all artists to obtain images of their work. That option is also nice because you get instant feedback on image quality—and avoid wasting film.

Web designers use both GIF and JPEG images for websites, but images that are more than 250 KB (some would say smaller) are too large for many computers and hookups. Large images may take so long to load that the viewer may abandon the effort. In the first room of Helga Berry's Gallery, for example, the largest image is about 245 KB; the next largest is down to 100 KB. Similarly, Carol Ventura has more than fifty images on her opening page, but they are generally in the range of 45 to 50 KB. In both cases, these sizes are more than enough to ensure good color and clarity for the pictures.

Thumbnails—small images, often presented with the option of viewing a larger version—are a neat and effective way of organizing images. Avoiding full-size images in the first phase of a visit or search saves time for the viewer.

Links and File Structure

In the example in Figure 1, there was almost no file structure. A single folder contained a single HTML page and two images. If you have more artworks, however, you may want a separate page for each.

In addition, you may want an "info" or "about" page with overall information about your fiber work, studio, and home; an exhibitions page listing where your work has been shown; a résumé page; a contact page showing your address, phone and fax numbers, and e-mail address; and, if the work is for sale, an address or art gallery at which orders can be placed. Such options as a visitor feedback page, a gallery of friends' work, and a family photo page can also be added. The four websites featured in this article illustrate the variety one can achieve.

For many websites, all these pages can be, and generally are, arranged in a single folder, and each page in this folder can provide a link to every other page. There can also be links to other websites anywhere on the Web. The resulting sets of pages are more like an interlinked mesh than pages in a book, which are arranged in tight, linear fashion.

As websites become more complicated (more than ten or twelve pages), multiple folders are useful, and good folder construction becomes critical for success. A good folder system will help you break down the process of web design into manageable subprojects. It will also allow you to make modifications to your website by simply slipping out an old folder containing a number of subfolders and HTML documents and slipping in the new, rather than deleting and adding each of the individual pages separately.

An example of an extensive file structure using folders can be found in the exhibit Layers of Meaning: the Evolution of Pick-up Double Weave at the Digital Museum of Modern Art, my museum project. The goal was to make the exhibit more nearly worldwide, so it was presented in five languages: English, Dutch, German, Norwegian, and Russian.

The site shows the actual exhibition at the Flaten Art Museum; recites the statements of the exhibit curator and museum director; presents the exhibition catalog in .pdf format (pdf is an acronym for "portable document format," a file type created by Adobe Systems); and displays most of the work in the exhibition arranged in five virtual galleries.

This single online exhibit consists of 51 folders, 216 web pages, 342 images, and 22 pdfs. The project would have been unmanageable if it had been undertaken in one giant folder. This then is the first reason for developing a good folder system: dividing the work into manageable segments that can be worked on sequentially or in parallel, as discrete work projects.

The folders themselves needed to be in a hierarchical order, even though when viewed, they will preserve the organization of a network. A primary structural feature of the project was dividing the exhibition into sets of folders based on language: all the Dutch pages in one set of folders, all of the Norwegian in another.

Images, on the other hand, were placed into folders separate from the related HTML pages, and also fully outside of the separate sets of folders organized by language. The goal was to use a single set of images for the entire exhibition. When you view an image of Marie Westerman's work in the English galleries, for example, you are seeing the same image you would see if you were in the German galleries. Books cannot do that.

Some of the text images, primarily the signs and buttons, however, were unique to individual translations. The title of the exhibition "Layers of Meaning: The Evolution of Pick-up Double Weave'' appears in the exhibition lobby of each separate translation of the exhibition. It reads: "Schichten des Sinnes: Die Entwicklung der Doppelgewebe'' in German.

A separate image was created for that caption, and for each sign or button unique to that translation. The functional signs were given the exact same name in the code from one translation to the next, however. The button may read "Hovedinngang" in Norwegian, but the image name in code is "main_lobby_1.jpeg." These language-specific images were put in separate folders for each of the translations.

Structured in this manner, I could easily add a Latvian version. It would simply require the duplication of the HTML pages (copy the entire "en" folder, for example, while changing the name to "lv"); creation of a new set of signs in PhotoDeluxe for the internal links of the translation (e.g., lobby, catalog, curator's statement, etc., all replacing the English signs in the "images" folder); and inserting Latvian translations of the statements. I would also create a sign indicating the "Latvian'' translation for the "exhibitions" page in the "exhibitions" folder, and create a link to the "lv" folder.

The new "lv" folder could then easily be slipped into the "layers_of_meaning" folder on the server as a single, quick operation at the same time as the "exhibitions" page is modified in the "exhibitions" folder.

Getting Fancy

A lot of media options can be added to a website: music, digital movies, Flash animation, virtual reality activities, and more. These features go beyond the scope of the basics presented here. It's best to get a good website up and running before you try to add all the bells and whistles. Keep in mind that the fancier features may be frustratingly slow to access for visitors with dial-up modems.

Test, Test, Test

After you have a really nice website, but before you actually go online, test it in a variety of browsers. My version of PageMill allows me to open the pages in both Netscape Communicator and Internet Explorer to see how those browsers respond. Run your site through AOL, too (even if you are not a subscriber, you can still maintain the software on your hard drive).

When you try it out, you will find all manner of weird changes that were not evident as you were working in your design program. You may need to reposition images, alter spacing, or change font sizes. The effort will give you a far better and more universally usable site.

Going Online

Remember that you can create a good website completely on the platform of your own computer. Indeed, some people do so to catalog images or create a visual database, with no desire to actually go online. But if going online is the goal, then there are good ways and less good ways to do it.

The worst way, in my opinion, is to post an opening page with numerous links to pages "Under Construction." My view is that such pages should be banished from the Web. On the other hand, some advocate the practice as "a promise of things to come." My advice, nonetheless, is to get the website together first, even if it takes three years to do it. Don't go online until you're ready.

What you don't have to wait for, however, is your URL. This is the unique name that identifies your website to the world. You can order a URL from the server that will host your site, but if you have not chosen a site host yet, do this: Go to Network Solutions (www.networksolutions.com) and enter your desired URL in the search box.

If your name is Jane Smith and you find that www.jane.com is taken, try www.janesmith.com. Keep trying until you hit an available name. Maybe your success will come with www.jane-smith-quilter.com. Then register the name, preferably for at least three years, so you won't need to worry about it for a while. By taking this step, you eliminate the worry of another Jane Smith who is also a quilter taking the name first.

Once you do get your URL, protect it. Don't let it lapse, or someone else may be able to purchase it.

Finding an ISP

Most people bringing a small site online use the services of an Internet service provider (ISP). Think of an ISP as a special service that has connections to the web, stores your site, and makes it available to the public twenty-four hours a day. A primary piece of equipment is the server, a specially configured computer that performs these tasks.

The variance in prices for server space is almost beyond belief. I first looked at some local companies but was dissuaded by price. Then I found a cheap ISP online; for $7.95 a month, it provides 800 MB of disk space and 30 GB of cumulative transfer, which is defined as the sum of the inbound and outbound data moving in and out of the website (from visitors viewing pages and downloading any images, music, or little movies you have on your site). Thirty gigabytes is more than adequate for all but large, institutional users.

Finally, you need a program to actually move the website from your computer to the server on which the website is maintained. Both PageMill and Dreamweaver have the capability to transfer files, but if your Web development program can't do it, WS_FTP is useful for PC users and Fetch Softworks (www.fetchsoftworks.com) for Mac users.

Asking for Feedback

After you get your website online, send its URL to a few friends and family members and have them review your site and give you feedback. This is called usability testing, and it can highlight confusing or misleading areas in your layout, design, navigation, and content. You may be surprised to find out that what's obvious to you isn't always as easily understood by others. Fix any significant problems as soon as possible, especially if you're attempting to sell your work online—most people will leave your site quickly if they can't easily make a purchase. For more information about usability, visit www.useit.com (a website run by Jakob Nielsen, one of the foremost authorities on usability).

Getting Noticed

Once your site is working well, there are a variety of techniques for getting it into the public eye. The first and easiest way is to send e-mails to friends and colleagues and just announce that it's up. You can ask your friends to tell their friends as well. And remember to put your website address on your business cards, letterhead, and e-mail messages.

It's also good to send a press release to local newspapers and magazines. News outlets that have an online presence will often give links in stories, and such coverage is one of the best ways to generate an ongoing Web presence.

Trade links with other artists. Sometimes links are provided throughout a page, as Carol Ventura does on her website, and sometimes they are found on separate "Links" pages. Links pointing in to your site are even more important. Don't hesitate to ask friends and associates to trade links if you think the work is complementary.

Greater appreciation of the necessity of exchanging links can be attained by reading Linked by Albert-László Barabási (New York: Plume, 2003). Barabási says the Web is composed of four basic structural components. First is a central core, a group of highly interconnected websites forming a tight lacework of actively energized sites and links. Those are the sites with traffic.

A second region can be reached via links from the central core, but it lacks links back to the central core. These sites are not highly interconnected, but at least they are visible. A third region suffers the opposite fate; it has links to the central core, but no links back. If you have a website that is rarely visited, but which provides links to museums, art schools, well-known artists, etc., you may be in that lonely region. Few will ever reach you.

Finally, a fourth region has scant links to or from the central core. This group is truly isolated. Isolation can be a good thing if the website is devoted to family photographs and journals; or to esoteric political and cultural pursuits. It is not good if you have art or ideas you want to share.

Barabási generalizes: "... the location of a Webpage on the Web has little to do with the page's content; rather it is mostly determined by its relationship, via incoming and outgoing links, to other documents." He adds: "If your Webpage is on an island [no incoming or outgoing links] the search engines will never discover it, unless you submit your URL to them."

It is thus the presence of links—both to and from your website—that will position it in the central core and help ensure that it will be noticed.

Search engines facilitate finding information on the web. Google, at www.google.com, now stands out above the rest. Website owners vie for listing and position on Google; optimal is a listing on the first page or two of results from a Google search. One of the best resources for learning how Google generates its search lists is Google Hacks: 100 Industrial-Strength Tips & Tools by Tara Calishain & Rael Dornfest (Sebastopol, California: O'Reilly & Associates, Inc., 2003).

In Chapter 8, the authors make a number of suggestions on getting noticed. Some may not be feasible, such as having a website containing more than 100 pages of "real content." Other hints may be more useful for someone with a small Web presence. Foremost among these: Keep the website easy to navigate. Most of the work of indexing webpages is accomplished by "spiders" that creep through cyberspace to search out information. Difficult pages can impede their progress. If you have easy links among the pages of the site, the spiders can efficiently crawl through your site and extract necessary information. It sounds almost too weird, but it's true.

Use of "metatags" is another device for attracting attention to a website. Metatags are key words and phrases placed in the source code to facilitate indexing by search engines. In some design programs, they can be inserted by pulling down the appropriate menu item. Carol Ventura, on the other hand, inserts them directly into the source code.

Roberta Lavadour also uses metatags effectively. One of her pages, for example, includes the following metatags (among others): "Mission Creek Press, books and handmade paper, custom books, book arts, custom invitations, bookbinding, handmade books, business cards, artistic techniques, Gallery of artist, unique."

For indexing images, the "alt" phrase, which is designed to stand in for the image if it cannot be displayed, may be very useful for search engines. For those familiar with HTML, note the following in Beth Surdut's code: <img src="images/jpegs/macaws.jpg" alt="Macaws and Mangoes, silk painting by Beth Surdut" WIDTH="288" HEIGHT="345">. Using this phrase, a search for ''macaws and mangoes'' returns two images on Google. Note that Beth did not run the words together in her image description but rather retained the spaces between them. If she had run the words together, as in "macawsandmangoes," the search would not have returned a link to her site.

A last bit of advice: Don't pay for a facilitator. Most search engines provide a way to submit websites at no charge. Paying someone else to do it for you, on the pretext of getting an expedited or better position in search results, is probably a waste of resources. If you follow the steps above, search engines will probably find you without a facilitator.

Going Forward

Because each of the artists discussed here has created her own website, the cost they report is quite reasonable—generally in the range of $200 to $500. But those were strictly costs such as purchasing a Web-design program, registering a website name, and paying ISP fees. It did not include the cost of a computer and equipment (digital cameras, scanners, printers), and there are ongoing costs to maintain the URL and ISP. Importantly, these figures do not include the cost of the artists' time—time spent developing the site and time spent maintaining it. That cost, they agree, would be incalculable. Yet all would gladly do it again.

So engage in a little self-definition and create a website. It can be a single page or a hundred. And regardless of whether your efforts at Web design are successful in generating traffic, producing sales, making contacts, or gaining invitations, it will clearly be a way to share your ideas and art with others.

W. Logan Fry weaves and writes in rural Richfield, Ohio. His website, the Digital Museum of Modern Art, can be seen at www.dmoma.org.




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Summer 2004

 

 


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