We all wish we could stumble on Magic Answers, to the questions like “How do I better market my comic?”, “How long will it take before my readership starts growing?”, “When is best to start exhibiting at conventions?” … as well as “What are the rules for creating the best website design?”.
I hate to burst your bubble, but website design, like many other aspects of being a creator, is subjective. You may start to notice trends– some gimmick that all the “heavy-hitters” are using– and as soon as you manage to employ it yourself, they go and change it around. That proves my point- there is no Magic Answer. But there are some helpful hints that can– and should– be utilized by anyone who is distributing their comic content online. Seeing as my website has gone from hastily-created flash website, to drunkduck-hosted, to wordpress/comicpress and beyond (with many redesigns), I have learned a lot about how to display your “baby” (ie: comic) for optimal readership and ease of use.
Lets make this easy and list the Do’s & Don’ts.
- …I cannot stress this enough: make the comic the HERO. In fact, I’ll go on record saying this a Magic Rule of Webcomic Website Design. No matter all the other stuff you put on the site, the comic is still the reason people visit your site. “Making the comic the hero” means to allow it to be the predominant element of the “above-the-fold” (ie: before you scroll down) space the visitors will first see. If you have to scroll down to see the bulk of the comic, it may lead to a confusing first impression.
- …Make the second element that jumps out in the “above-the-fold” area the comic’s logo. The way a new visitor should process your website sounds a bit like“Oh, this is a webcomic… and it’s called “____title___””
- …Employ proper navigation. This is pretty much a standard for the webcomic field. Although some people are trying to be innovative with new ways to navigate through an archive… seasoned readers are still used to the “first, back, next, latest” system. If you hid away your archive, it’ll be that much harder to gain new readers. Make it SIMPLE and EASY.
- …If you have chapters and storylines, a separate page clearly linked from the homepage is suggested. Although some creators use a special splash page that will direct readers to the latest comic, beginning of the chapter, or other chapters. This can be annoying for regulars, but helpful for new readers. One of those subjective issues… you’ll just have to decide which is best for your comic.
- …Find a simple and clear way of directing people to your social networks. After all, it’s not just about getting new readers, but getting them to come BACK… and the best way to do that is via a social network– so make it easy for them to follow you! The twitter, facebook, and RSS feed icons have become very recognizable, using those or your own drawn versions of those icons is suggested. Be sure this is not obtrusive to your comic.
- …Also allow your readers to easily share your comic on their social networks. There are plenty of plugins and widgets for this, including ShareThis, AddToAny, and “Really Simple” share buttons.
- …Clearly list all your important pages in your menubar. Title them with the most simple-and-to-the-point names. WordPress/Comicpress allows for parent and child pages, so if it’s easier for you to split a couple pages into 2 or 3 for simplicity’s sake, go right ahead. Some widely-used pages for webcomic sites are:
- About – this could be about the creator(s) or about the comic or both
- New Readers – can be used instead of the “about” page, this page is an easy way for new visitors to explore the comic, cast, concept, and decide if it’s up their alley.
- Store – for, yknow, the stuff you’re selling!
- Links – as opposed to your friends/reference/comic list (which can get pretty expansive) being on the mainpage, you can “hide” it away on it’s own page. You can also include banners this way, without using up space and precious load-time on your mainpage.
- Promo , or Extras – a good page to toss some banners people can grab to help promote your comic or for banner exchanges. You can also include wallpapers, avatars or other goodies for your hardcore fans.
- …Make it clear when you update somewhere non-obtrusive. It can be as simple as “Updates M-W-F” under your logo. Seeing a schedule reminds your current readers when to come back, and gives new readers the impression that you are professional and dedicated.
- …Try to entice your readers to go archive digging. Sometimes the simple navigation buttons aren’t enough, especially if you have a HUGE archive– that can be overwhelming! Utilize the sidebar to showcase a “start here” image– for those who work in chapter-based storylines. If you’re more of a gag-a-day creator, a rotating “ad” with some funny imagery may be intriguing. Pop-culture references (if your comic touches on them) that everyone can pick out are a good way to grab attention. A good plugin to use for this rotating ad idea is Datafeedr Random Ads.
- …Get too crazy with the background and color choices for fonts/layout. This goes back to “Do” #1– allow the comic to be the hero. Think of your website as a frame for a favorite picture. If the frame is screamin’ fuchsia, with bells and whistles and blinking lights, you probably won’t be as inclined to admire the picture.
- …Use a ton of images built into the site design. Extra images means longer load-time. Longer load-time means impatient readers who’ll bail more quickly. Remember it’s okay to just pick a font and color (coded into the CSS/HTML) for the headers or menu items, rather than using a ton of extra .jpegs that have to be loaded upon every page load.
- …Make your navigation buttons little complicated masterpieces of their own. They are buttons. They serve on purpose, let them do their job. Getting too gimmicky with these may hinder a reader’s ability to flip through your archive… if they can’t figure out which way is “back”, they may just move on.
- …Go overboard with widgets. I know, I know.. there’s so many to choose from and they’re all so dang neat! Just keep reminding yourself that your website is about your COMIC. Anything on the mainpage should only enhance the comic-reading experience. If you’d really like to test out a widget in question, “bury” it on a page of its own… and link to it from your blog area.
- …Bombard your website with ads. We’re all trying to earn some extra cash, but you can work out your ad placement to be non-obtrusive and fit within the website layout well. This, yet again, ties into the idea that the comic is the hero…. then #2 is your logo. If you must have an ad in the “above-the-fold” area, just be sure it sits at #3 or beyond in the hierarchy.
- …Neglect interacting with your readers! The comic may be the hero and the first thing people read– but they follow-up by reading the creator’s blog, and possibly leaving comments of their own! Even if it’s just a sentence about what inspired the current comic, try to give your readers a little glimpse into YOU. Post a picture. Ask a question that relates to your comic. Post a poll. And be sure to keep tabs on the comments and respond if necessary. When designing the site, make sure the comments section is usable and intuitive… if the standard WordPress commenting system isn’t for you, the Disqus plugin is a nice alternative.
- …Forget to BACK-UP your website once in a while! Who knows what could happen to those servers.
Like I said, this is mostly a subjective issue. Have YOU discovered any “rules” you’d like to pass on? What irks you about website design? What’s a “must-have”? Are there any points that pertain specifically to webcomic websites?
Dawn Griffin is a self-described “crazy chick”. She likes steak, Cleveland sports, video games and oh yeah, comics. She spent her high school years either playing street ball, pitching, or drawing comics and submitting them to syndicates. Once she –accidentally– discovered the world of webcomics, the sydication route became a pointless hurdle. After all, “Crazy Chicks” do things their *&%$ selves. Dawn is the mastermind behind Zorphbert and Fred, and the illustrator of the Abby’s Adventures kids book series. She can be easily bribed with ice cream.