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October 20, 2006

On The Center For Progressive Reform's Sucky Website

Latts comments:

It has always amazed me that the left makes so little use of its natural resources-- after all, we have basically all of the creative classes, including writers, designers, directors, & actors, plus a solid number of technical types and many astute critics. Yet almost everything produced on our side just sucks, while the GOP frequently has better web design, photo ops (i.e., set design), commercials, etc. We have tons of professionals (evident in in the blogosphere) who, while most are willing to phonebank & canvass, could probably make substantial contributions in their areas of expertise, but no one seems to be interested.

That strikes me as right. The number of folks in the blogosphere who can design a decent web page is enormous. So why is there no routinized way for undercapitalized-but-important lefty causes to apply for some pro-bono, or discounted, help?

October 20, 2006 | Permalink

Comments

Ezra, Don't you think your suggestion illustrates the problem. As a rule, you don't get the best work for a discount, and certainly not for free, even if the worker is benevolently motivated. (There are of course exceptions.) The way you generally get a good anything is to find a first-rate professional and pay what it costs. Who cares what their politics are. I guess it's no mystery why market types would approach it that way.

Posted by: Will Wilkinson | Oct 20, 2006 12:15:02 PM

Bringing in from the original article the examples provided:

The Center for Progressive Reform" website.

The pro-unfettered corporate power Mercatus think tank web site.

Oh, and probably the best example that, yes, the CPR site is much more confusing happens when you accidentally get to the heart of the site, which is the "Center for Progressive Reform Perspectives" page ... links to selected "perspectives" are presented in three topic areas on the front page, but nothing on the front page to indicate what a "CPR Perspective" is, and on the other hand there is no sorting by topic area on the list of all "perspective", just two identical long alphabetized lists, one as a menu along the left hand side and one as a bullet point list as the main page.

Posted by: BruceMcF | Oct 20, 2006 12:15:06 PM

An organization devoted to providing technical and artistic services cheap or free to progressive groups or candidates sounds great. Isn't it one of those things like progressive talk radio and think tanks that Soros et al. are supposed to pour money into? It sounds like a good start on that Left-Wing-Conspiracy thing people are always talking about.

Posted by: Sam L. | Oct 20, 2006 12:28:51 PM

Will: That's totally correct. But my site, for instance, was designed for free, by one of my readers (and guest writers). There's no question that first-rate work will remain the domain of those who can afford it. But there are ways to make the web presences of undercapitalized but important sites better than third-rate. Any competent designer could do a simple, clean page in a couple of hours/days. I think the legal example of pro bono work is, by the way, a good model here.

Posted by: Ezra | Oct 20, 2006 12:29:42 PM

Ways to apply for it exist. The first way that comes to mind is craigslist. Though I haven't tried advertising on it much myself, I'd be amazed if cost too much. And it's always full of ads for temp or specialized help. Facebook might also be ideal, both for advertising to the target audience and as a social networking service with the groups. As for Web sites, they could even use a blog, which are very pre-made.

A better question might be "why is there no way to specifically apply for it?" or "why do apparently so few people use the existing ways to get it?"

My reflex is some snark about those visionary few, the early adopters, followed by the more serious response that it would be more complicated than you make it sound. Pro bono ads... with props and sets and actors and professional voice-overs and moving graphics? That's a lot of people to persuade to work pro bono. We have tons of professionals who are willing to phonebank and canvass... for spare hours after work or a weekend right before the election, but making a decent Web site takes more time and coordination, and perhaps most importantly, work well in advance.

I'm not saying it couldn't be done, just that it would be an ambitious undertaking to get off the ground.

Then again, maybe the phrase pro bono itself is telling. Lawyers donate their time, as do doctors sometimes. But both services are either not needed at all or are matters of life and death, almost, so there's frequent need without means and a direct and immediate moral case for helping. And both professions are lucrative ones (admittedly, that is less true these days, as I was reminded by a talk last night about ridiculous amounts of debt after law school). All of that is, if not unique, certainly less common in the media field.

Posted by: Cyrus | Oct 20, 2006 12:40:39 PM

The Dean campaign rather famously utilized this strategy in designing their web game. It won them a lot of media hype, and a lot of support among activists. And it wasn't completely for nothing, because he used it as a springboard to become DNC chair after the election.

But in terms of winning the support of primary and caucus voters, it didn't seem to help him out a lot. Phonebanking and canvassing are less glamorous and less hip, but if I had to choose between having the best ground game vs. having the best web game, I know which one I'd choose.

Posted by: Chris | Oct 20, 2006 12:54:45 PM

I don't know how true it is that the left has all of the creative classes. In some areas that is probably true, but in, for example, web designers, I have my doubts.

Most of the web designers I know, and I know a few, are either self employed or work for quite small businesses. They tend to be entrepenuers and generally vote Republican (except those that vote Libertarian.)

Posted by: Dave Justus | Oct 20, 2006 1:07:22 PM

I'm surprised at you, Ezra. For someone who routinely defends the rights and dignity of the working man, you sure are quick to ask designers to work for reduced wages. If you think lefty causes are undercapitalized, you should meet the typical web designer. Their kids gotta eat too, y'know. And the larger design firms need constant cash flow to properly compensate the designers in their employ. No matter how successful they may appear, most of them are one deadbeat client away from bankruptcy. In the end, you get what you pay for. The right sees the value in investing in good communication. Maybe someday, with your help, the left will too.

Posted by: Kevin | Oct 20, 2006 1:17:21 PM

It is ludicrous to make this sterotypical assumption that all of the people that make these things happen are on your side. Maybe all of the shrill and vocal ones, but the reality speaks for itself. There are plenty of qualified people that make this happen for the conservatives.

The evidence speaks for itself.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Oct 20, 2006 1:45:54 PM

Posted by: Fred Jones | Oct 20, 2006 10:45:54 AM ...but the reality speaks for itself. There are plenty of qualified people that make this happen for the conservatives.

The evidence speaks for itself.

I love it when evidence does that. But you forgot the link to the evidence of conservative websites that were put up with pro-bono work, as opposed to being just another job for professional web page designers. You've got me on the edge of my seat waiting for the debunking evidence to show up.


Posted by: BruceMcF | Oct 20, 2006 2:06:43 PM

Well Dave, all the web designers I know, and I know a bunch, are all liberals. So I guess that says you are wrong? (Yes, you're overall point is correct, enough of them exist on either side.)

Posted by: Adrock | Oct 20, 2006 2:35:09 PM

I build websites for money. I've worked with lefty nonprofits and almost-spammers and lots of other kinds of clients. I don't think the crappy quality is because of a lack of access to decent talent. They probably HAD decent talent.

Progressives are intellectuals, typically from a public policy or liberal arts background. They tend to pride themselves on being ignorant of "all this computer stuff". At the same time, they can get excited by tech and what they imagine a website can do. Key word there: imagine. Because they are intellectuals with college degrees, they will get way too involved in some aspects of the design, dictating the choices to be made. Because they don't really understand it (nor want to particularly), their choices are often poor. To be charitable.

This is standard corporate behavior as well. Where you find decent sites on the right will be the other kind of business-oriented client: the ones that say, "These are the things it has to do, I won't pay you any more than X dollars, it's due in a month. Go away and come back when you have something to show me." They don't try to get involved in the details.


Also: unnecessary PDFs are the tool of the devil.

Posted by: tatere | Oct 20, 2006 2:47:43 PM

Here are some basic design rules that anyone can use, and I offer them for free, which is reasonable, I think. These guidelines will seem obvious to many, yet browse around the Web and see how many people violate them. To their own detriment, sadly.

1. The trendier the color combination, the sooner the expires-by date. Stick with dark (black or gray) type on a very light-colored or white background, perhaps using another light color for featured blocks.

2. Novelty fonts also tend to date quickly. Use a classic font: Times Roman, Helvetica, and Courier are a few that come to mind. Courier is the requested font for manuscripts at many publishers.

3. Avoid moving graphics on screens. According to one designer I know, there was a study that showed women (in particular) find moving graphics, flashing lights, and animated titles--anything that wriggles, flickers, or jumps, really--make them uncomfortable. It is possible that their fight-or-flight response is being subtly triggered when these moving things appear in their peripheral vision. (I can't cite the study off the top of my head but I can search for it if anyone is especially keen.) So, no twitchy, annoying stuff, please.

4. When in doubt, think clean. If your website exists to showcase your writing, then your writing should be the focal point. This would seem obvious, but oftentimes I'll visit a blog or website and find myself completely distracted by the banners, sidebar items, and ads. I know ads are a necessary evil for many, but some sites seem to be little more than huge electronic billboards. If I want to wade through that much advertising, I'll pick up one of the mammoth fall Vogues and squeeze in a little bicep work meanwhile.

5. If your primary product is you--your opinions, your work, your ideas, your projections--then give your audience a mental assist and put up a decent photo of yourself. It seems to me a normal human thing to picture the face out of which the words are coming: we're image-driven creatures, and being able to put a face to a name helps you connect to the speaker/writer. It feels more like conversation and debate.

6. For some visuals on clean layout (and pleasing color schemes and modern, legible fonts) go to your nearest bookstore and look at design magazines like Dwell or Metropolis. Then apply these looks to your site.

Posted by: litbrit | Oct 20, 2006 3:23:08 PM

I love it when evidence does that. But you forgot the link to the evidence of conservative websites that were put up with pro-bono work, as opposed to being just another job for professional web page designers.

The true believers would not take the job, would they?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Oct 20, 2006 4:23:51 PM

Posted by: Fred Jones | Oct 20, 2006 1:23:51 PM

I love it when evidence does that. But you forgot the link to the evidence of conservative websites that were put up with pro-bono work, as opposed to being just another job for professional web page designers.

The true believers would not take the job, would they?

Oddly, it seems that even when you speak for the evidence, it is not speaking for itself very loudly. The true believers in what would not take what job?

And since when is basing your argument in a counterfactual a situation of the evidence speaking for itself?


Posted by: BruceMcF | Oct 20, 2006 5:15:50 PM

And it's tatere & litbrit FTW.

At least in my experience, it hasn't been for lack of designers, or good designers, or good designers willing to do it for free -- it's the client. They're very willing to take the service but not the advice that goes with it, i.e. the good design know-how that's as much a part of a web designer's service as the coding.

Case in point: I helped form a small voters' rights organization a few years ago that was advocating "exporting" Oregon's vote-by-mail system to other states. Lots of talented individuals in the group, all very passionate. I offered to do the website for free, of course, and what we wanted was a simple site that, coding-wise, was pretty basic.

What we ended up with...well, there are times when design-by-committee can really work. This was not one of those times.

Posted by: Brittney | Oct 20, 2006 7:08:38 PM

Brittney said -
What we ended up with...well, there are times when design-by-committee can really work.

I would like to see some evidence of that (as so many say around here;). I have, never in my life, found an example of design by committee that worked. Unless the committee let one or, at the outside, two people do the work - so that all could take the credit. . .

Posted by: DuWayne | Oct 20, 2006 9:19:26 PM

Wil said -
As a rule, you don't get the best work for a discount, and certainly not for free, even if the worker is benevolently motivated.

I have to dissagree with that. Most people I know who occasionaly volunteer their time and skills committ to the same level of quality for pro-bono as they do when they are getting paid - usually a matter of pride in their work (I know it is for me when I volunteer my skills). A few folks have pointed out the real problem, most of the time, is the people the work is being dome for and their decisions.

Case in point. My church has the ugliest trim detail I have ever produced, around the lobby. It is virtually perfect, all the joints are tight, it's consistently tight against the floor, ceiling and walls - but it is absolutely hideous looking. This is not my fault. I did the work to the absolute best of my abilities, which are quite good. But the church board let a several people submit deigns for the detail and then they voted for the absolute ugliest. About eighteen people in the church really like it. About one hundred, eleven people in the church don't. When my pastor threatened to put a thank you in the church bulletin for the job I did on the trim, I asked him not to, unless it was made quite clear that I just did it exactly the way it was designed, by others.

I don't know anyone who would volunteer their time and skills without doing the best job possible. A lot of the paying jobs I get are a direct result of jobs I did for free or a huge discount. If I slacked on the cheap or free jobs, I couldn't get the advertising out of them - making them truly "free" and pointless. I have a hard time imagining why anyone would bother to volunteer, waste the time, just to do a crappy job. I realize that it happens - but I can't imagine that it happens that way most of the time. That's discounting people who volunteer to do things they are unfamiliar, unskilled with.

Posted by: DuWayne | Oct 20, 2006 9:36:46 PM

So why is there no routinized way for undercapitalized-but-important lefty causes to apply for some pro-bono, or discounted, help?

More importantly, why is there no routinized way for undercapitalized-bit-important left causes to get more money to spend on necessary resources like decent web designs. I mean, if these causes are so important, there must be some way to get them more funds, right?

There are certain kinds of work that lend themselves to volunteering-- things that are one-off jobs, like canvassing, fixing something, cleaning up, etc. Projects that need to be spread over many days or weeks and require upkeep and building upon previous work simply don't lend themselves for being done "for free," since the proposed volunteer is no longer working during his spare time but is going to inevitably be taking time away from his paid work to help out. Relying on such volunteer work doesn't strike me as a winning formula.

Posted by: Constantine | Oct 20, 2006 10:51:34 PM

Call George soros

Posted by: Fred Jones | Oct 21, 2006 9:36:33 AM

Posted by: DuWayne | Oct 20, 2006 6:19:26 PM
Brittney said

What we ended up with...well, there are times when design-by-committee can really work.

I would like to see some evidence of that (as so many say around here;). I have, never in my life, found an example of design by committee that worked. Unless the committee let one or, at the outside, two people do the work - so that all could take the credit. . .

The closest I have ever seen is design-by-committee-chair, where various committee members are responsible for putting forward design elements and the chair does a TU or TD on the pieces and either stitches them together or delegates that to a trusted lieutenant.

Of course, some might argue that is a CINO ... Committee In Name Only.

Posted by: BruceMcF | Oct 21, 2006 5:31:28 PM

That'll teach me to post a mildly offhanded comment and run, I guess.

I think several commenters have the right idea about the party/party leaders/movement in general being really pretty lousy customers and having generally poor judgment, especialy wrt marketing & advertising. And I'm reasonably sure that Markos & Jerome pointed out in their book that there's almost no leadership development on the left, which tends to lead to a very closed system that really doesn't seem to have that much regard for its own volunteers, while not bringing out the best of those within the system either. It's odd, and I'll have to think on it some more, but after years of observing the right's base and marveling at their lack of critical inclinations, only a few years of closer political observation has led me to believe that not only is the GOP leadership much more astute than their base, but that the attribution of those qualities is almost exactly reversed when talking about the Democratic leadership vs. the party's peons.

I don't know if pro bono work from party activists will ever be really feasible except on a fairly local level, but at the very least the party should try to remember that many of its members are both literate & creative and try not to make them cringe. Which brings me back to the reversal between the parties: it's pretty well documented that the GOP has an anti-intellectual base that they are very careful to treat as smart, while Dems, sadly, tend to have a base of very bright and competent people they treat like they're mildly stupid. It's really no wonder so many of us are pissed.

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