New School/Old School in Web Design

Web 2.0 tools have changed the bound­ary lines between techies and pro­gram staff in many non­prof­its over the past few years. At least, they should have, though I know of var­i­ous orga­ni­za­tions that haven’t made the con­cep­tu­al leap to the new roles.

OLD SCHOOL: Webmaster

Let me explain by talk­ing about my own chang­ing work role. Even a few years ago, I was a paid staff web­mas­ter. You could divide my work into two large cat­e­gories. The first was techie: I man­aged serv­er accounts, set up required data­bas­es, designed sites. I got into the HTML code, the PHP, the Javascript, CSS, etc.

The oth­er was con­tent: when program-oriented staff had new mate­r­i­al they want­ed on the web­site they would email it to me or walk it over. I would put in my work queue, where it might sit for weeks if it wasn’t an orga­ni­za­tion­al pri­or­i­ty. When it came time to add the mate­r­i­al I would boot up Dreamweaver, a rel­a­tive­ly expen­sive pro­gram that was only acces­si­ble from my lap­top and I would put the mate­r­i­al onto the web­site. Need­less to say, with a process like this some parts of the web­site nev­er got very much attention.

At some point I start sneak­ing in a con­tent man­age­ment sys­tem for frequently-changed pages. This seemed very hack­ish and not good at first but over time I real­ized it great­ly speed­ed up my turn-around time for basic text con­tent. But the orga­ni­za­tions I worked for still relied on the old mod­el, where staff give the web­mas­ter con­tent to put up.

NEW SCHOOL: Web Developer

Nowa­days I’m a web devel­op­er, a free­lancer with an ever chang­ing list of clients. I typ­i­cal­ly spend about a month putting togeth­er a site based on a con­tent man­age­ment (like this) or auto­mat­ic feed sys­tem (like I did for Philadelphia’s William Penn Char­ter School). I do a cer­tain amount of train­ing and while I might add a lit­tle con­tent for test­ing pur­pos­es, I step back at the end of the process to let the client put the mate­r­i­al up them­selves. I’m avail­able for ques­tions but I’m sur­prised about how rarely I’m called.

Here’s two exam­ples. Steady­foot­steps is a blog by an Amer­i­can phys­i­cal ther­a­pist in Viet­nam. When we start­ed, she didn’t even have a dig­i­tal cam­era! I gave her advice on cam­eras, start­ed her on a Flickr account, set up a fair­ly gener­ic Mov­able Type blog with some cus­tom design ele­ments and answered all the ques­tions she had along the way. She went to town. She’s put tons of pic­tures and embed­ded Youtube videos right in posts. Here’s a non-techie who has con­tributed a lot to the web’s content!

Penn Char­ter is a school that was already on Flickr and Youtube but want­ed to dis­play the con­tent on their web­site in an attrac­tive way. I pulled togeth­er all the mag­ic of feeds and javascripts to have a media page that show­cas­es the newest material. 

They’re very dif­fer­ent sites, but in nei­ther instance does the client con­tact me to add con­tent. They rely on easy-to-use Web 2.0 ser­vices: no spe­cial­ized HTML knowl­edge required.


I got an email not so long ago from an old boss who man­ages a month­ly mag­a­zine. Her site has been rad­i­cal­ly rebuilt over the years. Dreamweaver is out and con­tent man­age­ment is in. They use Dru­pal, which my friend Thomas T. of the Philadel­phia Cul­tur­al Alliance tells me won the recent pop­u­lar­i­ty con­test among non­prof­it techies. This is great, a def­i­nite step for­ward, but what con­fused me is that my old boss was ask­ing me whether I would be inter­est­ed in return­ing to my old job (the suc­ces­sor who over­saw the Dru­pal upgrade is leaving).

They still have a web­mas­ter? They still want to fun­nel web­site mate­r­i­al through a sin­gle per­son? Every staff­per­son there is adept at com­put­ers. If a phys­i­cal ther­a­pist can fig­ure out Flickr and Mov­able Type and Youtube, why can’t pro­fes­sion­al print design­ers and editors?

My hourly rate ranges from two to five times what she’d be like­ly to pay, so I turned her down. But I did ask why she want­ed a web­mas­ter. Now that they’re on Dru­pal it seems to me that they’d be bet­ter off switch­ing from the web­mas­ter to the web devel­op­er staffing mod­el: hire me as a free­lance con­sul­tant to do trou­bleshoot­ing, staff train­ing and the occas­sion­al spe­cial project but have the reg­u­lar full­time staff do the bulk of the con­tent man­age­ment. I’d think you’d end up with a site that’s more live­ly and updat­ed and that the cost would about the same, despite my high­er hourly rates.

I’ve heard enough sto­ries of places where sec­re­taries have come out of the shad­ows to embrace con­tent man­age­ment and have helped trans­form web­sites. I’m the son of a for­mer sec­re­tary so I know that they’re often the smartest employ­ees at any firm (if you walk into an office look­ing for the expert on advanced Excel fea­tures you’ll sure­ly find them sit­ting right there behind the recep­tion­ist desk).


I’m try­ing to join the band­wag­on and use Dru­pal for a upcom­ing site that will have about a dozen edi­tors. But there’s no built-in WYSIWYG edi­tor, no lit­tle for­mat­ting icons. Sure, I myself could eas­i­ly hand-code the HTML and make it look nice. But I don’t want to do that. And it’s unre­al­is­tic to think I’m going to teach a dozen over­worked sec­re­taries how to write in HTML. The inter­face needs to work more or less like Microsoft Word (as it does in Mov­able Type, Cushy­CMS, Google Docs, etc.)

Most Dru­pal sites I see seems from the out­side like they’re still old school: staff web­mas­ter through whom most con­tent fun­nels. Is this right? Because if so, this is real­ly just an insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of the con­tent hack I did six years ago. Can any­one point me to live­ly, active Dru­pal sites whose con­tent is being direct­ly added by non-techie office staff? If so, how is it set up?

  • thomast​.myopenid​.com

    Good ques­tions. At the Cul­tur­al Alliance, we’re cer­tain­ly plan­ning to have Dru­pal be a non-techie tool for post­ing con­tent, but we’re just get­ting our require­ments doc­u­ment next week and haven’t actu­al­ly done that yet.
    It looks like my last employ­er, the Jew­ish Recon­struc­tion­ist Fed­er­a­tion is hav­ing pret­ty good suc­cess with mul­ti­ple con­tent authors.