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When Adam McLane of the Youth Cartel invited me to help build a new website for (then) The Center for Youth (now re-branded as Culture and Youth Studies, or CYS), a organization supported by Gordon Conwell College, I was thrilled. But there were several things I didn’t realize at that time.
First. I didn’t realize that Dean Borgman, founder of CYS, is considered by many in the field of Youth Studies to be one of the preeminent shapers of how churches understand youth ministry in America today. I also didn’t realize that the website is basically an Encyclopedia of his thought and writing over the past three decades. It’s an A-MAZING source of links, articles, commentary, research, statistics… you name it.
I also didn’t realize that this site would push my technical skills into a whole new realm. If I knew then what I know now, would I have taken the job? Yes. But I would have been A LOT more nervous. It was by far the most challenging, difficult, baffling, and yet inspiring website experience I’ve had in my professional career. But what is best of all is that I’m really proud of the end result. Here’s just a few reasons why.
CYS is Full of Great People
I’m so thrilled to have worked with Dean Borgman and Michelle Weigers through this whole process. They had a really stellar vision for the new website. I love working with clients who know what they want but don’t know exactly how to get there. They way they listened to my advice, received it, but also pushed back when they needed to was really professional and effective.
It was also really special the way their logo evolved. They recruited a graphic design teacher at Gordon Conwell to make their logo a class project. They got a series of logos from the students and I was happy to come alongside and make my recommendations for the logo they eventually chose. The student did an excellent job, a great start to her promising graphic design career. I hope when she’s ready to build her online portfolio she’ll call me up!
Dean Had a Great Vision
Did I mention that Dean is nearing 80 years old? That guy has vision that beats kids a quarter his age. He said really simply: “I want the site to look like Google.” Simplicity in design is an awesome goal. But despite it’s name, simplicity isn’t simple. Google can be Google because of it’s brand recognition. CYS definitely needed the search bar to be front and center in their design, but they also needed folks to know where they landed when they got there.
This was the crux of our discussions about the design. How to we embrace Dean’s clear vision, but also make the branding and navigation really clear. It was very affirming when they had a committee of people come together and unanimously choose the homepage that we eventually landed on. It took longer than anyone expected, or wanted, but sometimes results like this need time and patience. I was really impressed with their ability to stay focused, stay patience, but persist toward their goal.
When it Comes to Articles and Categories WordPress is King
The previous site made the articles of their “Youth Encylopedia” navigable through iFrames. The major draw-back to that approach is that none of the thousands of articles were searchable, or had unique URLs at all. The Youth Cartel and I knew that as soon as those articles were available for Google to crawl, CYS’s natural traffic would skyrocket.
Luckily, when it comes to articles and categories, WordPress knows what it’s doing. Basically, making each “topic” be a Category, and each sub-topic a sub-category, the whole structure of the newly branded “Infopedia” was natural in WordPress.
Obstacles and Solution Makers
One of the best experiences out of this whole project was finding out how amazing some of the folks in my web developer network really are, as well as meeting some new folks. A while back I wrote this post: “Websites take a Community”. This site was one of the primary motivators for that post. Here’s why
- OBSTACLE #1: The old encyclopedia was stored as .aspx files, not as a database. I knew of no way to import all that data into WordPress. Matt Conkle, of covaservices.com said “I know how to do that!” Without his awesome PHP-skills, we’d still be re-typing the whole thing article by article today.
- OBSTACLE #2: CYS needed to be able to drag and drop re-order the categories under each topic. There’s a useful plugin for that. But we also needed the topics themselves to be order alphabetically for the Infopedia main page. Doing both is basically impossible using WordPress’s default functions. Dave Jesch responded to a thread I created about this problem in a group he and I are in and said he’d look into it. He took an afternoon and created a function for my sidebar that overcame all the problems. One day, when I grow up, I want to be just like Dave Jesch 😉
- OBSTACLE #3: The site is heavily text-oriented. I needed some advice on maximizing the readability of the articles. Natalie McLees of PurplePen Productions took one look and handed me some CSS that instantly improved everything. Then she pointed me to all the crazy typography resources she leans on for her awesomeness. Cheers to Nathalie!
- OBSTACLE #4: I’m just one guy! The one thing that couldn’t be imported was the main topic articles. They had to be the first thing you see when you land on the topic, so it made the most sense to make them the Category description. But that meant copying and the code from the aspx files, pasting it into a post, cleaning them up, then pasting the code into the description field. When we’re talking about 400+ topics it quickly became clear that I couldn’t do this alone. Happily, I got to work with Nick Adams, and Stephanie Hellwig to make that happen.
Not Just Movie Credits
When you look at that whole list, and consider all that the CYS staff put into this project as well, it’s amazing to think I had any work left over at all! The truth is, as with most things in life, nothing of real value gets done alone. It takes a lot a people working with energy and professionalism to get great results. These folks deserve serious credit (beyond simple remuneration). One thing’s for sure, they are all on my short-list of folks I plan to work with more in the future.