Although his design work has made him one of the most sought-after sound designers in the city, Nick Keenan has also become something of a guru for arts organizations looking to expand or improve their web presence. Entirely self-taught, he began designing and programming sites for his own projects and those of friends, and in the past year alone has helped develop strategies and sites for the Theatre Communications Group, the League of Chicago Theatres & World Theatre Day, and became COO of multimedia marketing and consulting firm Marshall Creative. We asked Nick about the challenges and opportunities of web presence for arts groups, and how he frames the conversation when artists and organizations want to give themselves a face—and a voice—online. —CAR Theater Researcher Dan Granata
How did you get into programming and web design? Was it a natural outgrowth of your sound design work?
Growing up I always had an interest in graphic design and web technologies, but it really started taking off when two things happened at the same time: I became part of the marketing team for my theater company, New Leaf Theatre, and I discovered that my coworker at the Goodman Theatre, Patrick Hudson, was the guy behind the national theatre job search board, backstagejobs.com. At the time, Patrick was manually updating the site in between techs using raw HTML and FrontPage [a website administration tool], which was so inefficient (and stressful for Patrick) that the site would have these dark weeks—new jobs weren’t posted or changed whenever he went into tech. I had always wanted to learn the dynamic web language PHP, so I taught myself some basics over the course of the year while creating a new version of backstagejobs, launched it, and suddenly users could auto post and edit their own jobs on the board. Within a few months, Patrick had a bunch of time freed up as he became more of a moderator instead of an editor, and membership on the site jumped by about 125 percent.
You've said that one of the biggest pitfalls artists and arts organizations fall into when creating a web presence is focusing on design at the expense of maintainability, especially given their limited resources and staff. What questions can artists/arts organizations ask themselves that will help them avoid that trap?
Theatres and arts businesses are entirely preoccupied with how a site looks. That’s absolutely a valid concern—after all, your website ideally is an online articulation of the identity of your company or personal point of view. However, it’s also a core part of your business, and keeping it current and updated has to be carefully integrated with the way that you make your work. The easiest websites to update are ones where your content fits into neat "buckets"—a blog, a video, a "hero" image [e.g., a central or featured image from a current production, company member, upcoming event, etc], but many artists are rightly unsatisfied with a template site that doesn’t distinguish their work from other artists. However, customizing the feel of a site often means creating custom code. The more that happens to fix visual problems in the site—for example, wanting some flashy animation to present text or a video in a unique way—the artist risks becoming overly reliant on a programmer or designer to maintain their site over the long term, which in practice never works out.
I think an artist or arts organization can keep themselves safe by asking three bottom-line questions as they develop a site with a designer and programmer:
1. Do I have the skills to change each piece of content on my site? What do I need to do with a programmer and what can I do on my own?
2. I want a specific look and feel that matches my artistic point of view. What aspects of that look and feel are absolute needs, and what are things that I just want?
3. Do I trust my designer, programmer, or off-the-shelf template service? Do they listen and explain the process clearly, and do they have the skills I need to balance my needs, my wants, and my resources?
Your resources are probably the most fundamental part of the equation, and the critical ones to watch in yourself and your organization are time, money, energy, and knowledge. If out of those resources you find you only have a sliver of time and energy left, firing up a blog simply to create a news feed for your work and updates is usually the most elegant solution, and one that adds little to no financial overhead to your arts business.
Speaking of blogs, you've written that arts organizations often have a similar "form over function" approach when considering blogs and other social media as tools for community and brand-building. How would you guide a group or individual into this brave new world?
Are you talking about “web candy”? This last decade we’ve seen blogs, then Facebook, then Twitter make big impacts in how the arts have communicated and connected with an audience. The big question is: we’ve all felt it happen, but has it really happened? Someone who has been doing fascinating research on the real return on investment impact of social media technology on the theatre world has been Devon V. Smith. Looking at the data she was collecting really confirmed a basic idea that we had been feeling—artists shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that social media is just another way to have a conversation with his/her audience. A “get-rich-quick” scheme will usually out itself whether it’s online or in a curtain speech. What works is listening to your audience and creatively engaging them in conversation that gets them excited about what you do.
In the next decade we’ll see a huge competition—if not an outright war—in the social media services as Facebook, Apple, Twitter, and Google and hundreds of other companies jostle with each other, create larger and larger networks of people, and set policy for how that massive amount of data should and shouldn’t be used. It’s going to feel big and scary to small organizations, but we need to remember that it’s a phenomenon caused by people interacting with technology, which has been happening ever since the first stories were told around a campfire. I think artists need to engage not just as participants in those networks, but also in those and any questions facing our society. Our ability to innovate as artists really does bring something unexpected and valuable to the way those technologies evolve. Artists tend to infuse technology with humanity.
You've been on both sides of the divide—as both a designer and programmer, and a member of an organization looking to revise its web presence. What would you say is the biggest source of stress in that process?
Because a website is an expression of an artist or company’s identity, it’s amazing how quickly a web project can unexpectedly veer from a discussion of media, content, color, and shape into [a kind of] organizational therapy. This is definitely stressful, but also amazingly valuable to articulate an artist’s or company’s core mission.
The trouble often comes up when we start discussing the sitemap, which is both the order in which we see items in the navigation and the visual priority of how areas of the site are laid out in the page. On a recent project, the development department of a theatre company really felt that the company needed to highlight a list of donors prominently on the site to encourage more investment in the company, while the artistic director wanted to use that space for the latest blog post from the cast to feature the process more, and for me, as a design advisor, I felt strongly that we had to pick one and not both as the homepage was already way too text-heavy for most Internet readers. That became a discussion, quickly, of what was more important to the company—the artistic process, the relationship with the company’s patrons, or the artistic product itself. The company realized that this was not just an important question to ask for the benefit of the website, but fundamentally for the company itself to know how to serve its audience better.
Beyond the question of “Who am I really?” the hardest thing to figure out on each project is how best to balance resources. In theatrical design we use a simple and kind of trite calculation when figuring this math out: “Good. Fast. Cheap. (Pick Two.)” And it really is true. I find that most arts organizations just starting out can’t afford expensive websites, and they demand quality in their work, so the easiest thing to do is often to slow the process down to wait for the right opportunities. If you look and investigate, it is often possible to get good pro bono or discounted programming and design work done from recent graduates looking to build their portfolio or even pros who work on clients much, much duller than your organization and want a break from the drudgery in their hobby time. But that almost always means your website is a labor of love for that programmer, and it will necessarily take a backseat to paying work, so make sure your timelines are set accordingly. (It also means you shouldn’t expect that designer to be on call to make updates—making the questions of site maintenance all the more important to address early.)
And it’s worth noting: If you have the ambition for it, it’s also totally possible to teach yourself this technology, and it’s an increasingly valuable skill set to have. I’d estimate that it took me about 10,000 hours over five years of study and practice to get really good at this work, which I did without a degree while I was working on other artistic work. That’s for comprehensive knowledge, though. You can get your own company’s web strategy streamlined with maybe a year of trial and error.
Nick Keenan is COO and programmer for Marshall Creative, a creative firm owned and operated by theatrical professionals with the philosophy that high-quality dramatic storytelling, improvisational techniques and design can be the key to agile communications in any corporate or non-profit market. His online innovation projects for theater include the national job search page Backstagejobs.com, the Chicago Theater Database, and his blog, Theater for the Future. Nick also serves as marketing director, resident sound designer, and webmaster for New Leaf Theatre. His over 100 sound design credits in the Chicago area include work with Court, Next, Chicago Dramatists, Peninsula Players, Dog & Pony, the side project, TUTA, the Neo-Futurists, Remy Bumppo, Metropolis, Raven, Apple Tree, Rivendell, Greasy Joan & Co., A Red Orchid, and assistant designs at the Goodman, Chicago Shakespeare, and Milwaukee Shakespeare. Nick earned a B.A. in Theater from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.