A Brown Latina smiles and holds her fingers to her head as she looks at her laptop

Website and Graphic Design in Applied Research

I’ve been away a long time and I wanted to restart my series on A Day in Applied Sociology, to shed light on what it’s like to be an applied sociologist. First, I wanted to show you how I manage my public sociology with my paid work. Second, I wanted to reflect on what it’s like learning website and graphic design for business, research and social policy audiences.

A couple of months ago, I started working over the weekends to prepare some papers for my personal research, as well as updating my personal website and social media.

I spent time over several weeks redesigning my website in small time blocks. One of the first things was to redo my logo for my personal website, which has all my research publications. Not many people would be able to tell, but I changed some of the lettering and simplified the header. I removed some information and cleaned up the design. I recreated the entire banner in Adobe illustrator to clean up the lettering and enhance the red colour palette.

At the same time, I redesigned my research blog. The header had a lot of colour, a street art image of a little girl spray painting a wall, and a different logo. I worked on five different designs. I started by getting rid of all the background colours and unifying the layout with one block of colour. I now use the same red across all my websites (including this one).

Logo

I initially wanted to use the same font pairing for my website and research blog. On my research blog, I wanted to keep the little girl, as she’d been on my header for about five years. I am not a graphic designer by any stretch of the imagination. Being an applied sociologist means I’ve had to pick up a lot of unexpected skills. Basic design is one of them. Initially out of necessity to manage my own content (in 2011), and subsequently to design websites and social media content for clients when I worked as a consultant. It’s taken years of following tutorials, trial and error and self-learning.

One of the first rules about design is that you really shouldn’t pair two fonts that are very similar, but I was so besotted with this brush font that I kept pairing it with handwritten fonts (a big no no!).

It took a few weeks to finalise details, as I can only work on my personal websites around long hours in my paid work. I got some advice from my Instagram followers, who voted that I keep the brush font. In the end, on my research blog, I swapped out the little girl for a cartoon portrait of myself, which I commissioned from an artist. For my personal website, I kept the leaner modifications to the original design.

All of these minor details represent a tremendous amount of work! Branding is such an important aspect of social media and business. Having both designed simple websites for clients, and led the redesign of complex websites for clients and national organisations, I can attest to this skillset being an important aspect of my career.

Investing in social media expertise

Many organisations are specialists in one area. They may sell goods or services, they may produce research, or they may undertake other activities. Everyone understands that a website and social media presence is important, however, people are guided by subjective aesthetics. They don’t know how much work is involved, or the types of decisions that need to be made. For example, I’ve now worked with countless organisations and businesses that paid for a website design company for a bespoke website that actually functions poorly, or does not meet their evolving needs. This leaves them dependent on web developers to update even the simplest things. This ends up being costly, when they would be much better off building their website with an off-the-shelf template that they can customise and maintain.

Most organisations do not sit down to plan their content and layout. They trust that web developers will do this for them. But web developers are IT experts. They aren’t the experts of your business. They can only deliver quality work based on quality planning by their clients.

I’ve had the unenviable task of leading many website redesigns, even though my main job is to provide research and policy advice. I’m currently doing this in my paid work. Our website team will migrate our content, but as I run our blog and website, I’ve been working with colleagues to audit our content and consider reorganisation of the layout in the new context.

User focus

Why does all this matter? It matters because the average user will take four seconds to decide whether they want to stay on your website. If information is not easy to navigate, or the resources are hard to read, or if it’s boring, or it doesn’t add value, people will not use your content, no matter how much time and effort you put into writing and publishing great reports.

Teams often have strong feelings about how their websites should look, but it’s often driven by personal preferences, rather than thinking about the needs and interests of their current and future users.

How applied sociology can help

An applied social scientist will end having to pick up these skills. I’ve now been responsible for building a dozen business sites, plus another dozen national and state organisations’ websites. That’s a lot of upskilling myself at nights and on weekends, over many years.

As for the graphic design, there’s no substitute for beautiful work delivered by experts!

I’m not a trained expert. I’m self-taught. What I lack in sophisticated graphical training, I make up for in understanding how regular customers consume media, specifically for research and policy. A slick infographic is nice, but will it actually be used? Will it lead to behavioural change? That’s where my research training helps to enhance graphic design and social media management.

Unless your organisation can pay for an in-house designer, learning how to proficiently use Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and related programs is a valuable skill for an applied sociologist.

I’ve designed hundreds of social media graphics, posters, and banners, as well as countless reports, funding prospectuses, business plans and other marketing collateral. I’ve done this for not-for-profit organisations, government agencies, and small businesses.

Not too shabby for a qualitative sociologist who started off working on issues of race, gender, sexuality, religion and identity!

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