DesignX vs. Livebooks vs. SquareSpace
Well its a new year and with that brings all those "New Year's Resolutions".
For me its to get out again and market myself. 2015 was a busy year and with that brought zero time to get out and meet new faces or even to catch up with the ones I already know. So I have a reworked website for 2016 that I actually finished a few months ago, a new printed portfolio and soon a couple of finished promo pieces to go out.
I know a lot of photographers who have been asking me lately "who does your website"?
Well as a matter of fact, I do. I maintain it and upload new content and when my new branding was finished I implemented it into the site as well.
Now who hosts my site and created it, well that was Rob Haggart and the boys at aPhotoFolio.com with their new DesignX service. I've been with aPhotoFolio since 2011 and for the most part its been very painless. Previously I had a couple of custom sites created for me and they were more of a pain than anything; difficult to update images (Flash based), clunky and overall not as clean and professional as I had wanted.
Websites had always been a bugbear for me. I first dipped my toes in the water in the mid 90's and totally had them chomped off. I had hired a firm out of Florida who promised me the world. Back then there were very few photographers with cool sites. There was a photographer out of Texas, Jeff Stephens who had a decent little site that I felt worked very well and was coherently thought out. I gave the link to my web guys in Florida, along with my American Express number. A couple of months later after much hounding, they sent me a link to one of the most gawd awful sites on the early WWW. It was embarrassing. I complained that the navigation and layout bore nothing to Jeff's site and them claimed it did. We went back and forth and finally I called AMEX and had them reverse the charges, lesson learned.
With a bad taste in my mouth, I puttered away for years with a shabby printed portfolio and nothing else. Websites were just never convincing to me; too difficult to navigate, bad layout and design and slow and clunky.
Then around 2004 an art director friend of mine showed me a photographers website that had been created by liveBooks. Well it was a breath of fresh air. Layout was pretty decent, navigation was okay but you could see what they were thinking of in the future. In my old company, my partner and I would go through websites everyday, looking for photographers, designers and other creatives in the Southern California area to collaborate on projects. it was always difficult going from a liveBooks site to a Flash tailored site or even worse an older HTML clunker. Navigation would be all over the place (everyone had their own ideas on what worked best), layouts were designed with PC's in mind still so resolutions would be down at 600x400 or if you were lucky maybe 800px, and speed would be beyond slow with many of the Flash and bad HTML sites. The liveBooks sites on the other hand were simple to use, arrows and navigation were consistent and despite a common problem with thumbnails they were slowly becoming the industry standard.
Word started to spread quickly amongst creatives that you didn't need to have a custom site and many CD's, AD's and designers preferred looking at work coming off a liveBooks website. livebooks had the market sewn up. I'm sure they couldn't be depositing the cheques faster into their bank account. That market for photography, artists and designers, to show their work simply to the world would be dominated by liveBooks for almost 5 years. In that five years liveBooks did very little to change or improve their design or delivery. Many simple features didn't work (previously mentioned thumbnails would appear on mouse over to obscure the main image window), and it seemed like liveBooks were resting on their laurels.
Their were a few upstarts that came along like SSP, Neon Sky and a few direct liveBook rip off companies but none ever captured the simplicity of LB.
Roll along 2008 and the newbies on the block, aPhotoFolio, headed by Rob Haggart from Outside magazine, take liveBooks on at their own game; content ready template sites with simple logical navigation and layout.
So what Rob and his crew were doing wasn't new, they just flipped the coin on its side and instead of looking at it from the photographers side, they took the role as the viewer and how could you improve the viewing experience while keeping the back end of uploading content simple for the photographer/artist/designer. They came up with 7 or 8 simple designs with very logical layouts that a monkey could navigate; using arrow keys on the keyboard, clicking the right or left side of the content for forwards/backwards and thumbnails that did not impede viewing.
The real clincher though, to close the deal, instead of paying $3200 for a liveBooks package, you could get the APF site for $1000, big freakin difference right?
I emailed Rob, interested in a trial version and I was immediately sold. It was so much smoother than my dog of a SSP site but even at $1000 it was still a big pill to swallow. He later emailed me to tell me he could give me a deal; $250x 4 payments to make life easier, SOLD.
Which brings me to now.
livebooks has had a few updates, a couple of band aids and is still trundling along. Right now they are attempting to convert their Flash based sites over to HTML5 but are having some serious issues. Everyone has heard the problems of Flash based sites and SEO, security issues, as well as Adobe officially changing the name to Animate and sort of shovelling it to the side while it focuses on HTML5.
In the meantime there are other upstarts coming into the market like Format and SquareSpace with simple design and easy to use back ends for the content to be uploaded. Format is a little cheaper at around $10.75/month while SquareSpace is at $18/month. Both seem like capable platforms with the SquareSpace site seeming a little bit more robust.
I gave the SquareSpace a good working over, uploading about 50% of my current site onto a trial version. The site works well, if not a little bit slow (not sure where their servers are located), and the embedded video I tested from Vimeo actually looks better than the one I tested on my APF/DesignX site. I choose SS's "Wells" design which most closely resembled my own DesignX cascading mosaic styled thumbnail design.
After much fooling around and testing the speed and navigation of each site, I feel that in my opinion DesignX for the money, is the most robust, professional site for the working photographer. SquareSpace would be a distant second, great for the money but a too little slow and I'd doubt that an art buyer would wait around for images to load up while other photographer's site just snap to it.
And way off the pace is LiveBooks, I truly feel sorry for photographers that opted into this site years ago and have been paying their annual dues towards this 2002'esque site; navigation is so poor and customer service (from friends who still have it) is utterly atrocious.
Your website is important; its a critical key to your entire marketing persona. A bad site will leave a bad taste in an art buyers pallette. Good navigation and decent loading speeds are the norm and they should be for your site too.