I love my job, because I get to play with web code all day, but more and more I’m learning the hard way about working in a bureaucracy; that is, the private institution sort of nonsense that plagues academia.

A few months ago, the web services department got a rather nasty e-mail from the VP. Actually, I shouldn’t say “nasty,” because it wasn’t overtly nasty, but rather insinuated some nasty things. Some awards group of some sort had made their 2005 list of the Top 10 Admissions sites of private colleges. Our local rival, Lewis University, was #4, I believe. The #1 spot went to Transylvania University. The unasked question from the e-mail? “Why isn’t St. Francis on this list?”

Well, that’s a good question, Mrs. VP. There are a number of reasons.

We’re living in 1998. I mentioned last year that I was working on a major rewrite of the site’s HTML template. We started rolling it out this week, but the problem is that we’re using a bunch of static HTML files and a set of Dreamweaver templates. Changing anything is a horrible ordeal. I’ve tried to make changes as easily as possible by handling most styles in a set of external CSS files, as well as having our persistent navigation menu be called from an external Javascript. But the St. Francis website is a collection of years of cruft. At the end of last year, I was still finding and deleting/updating pages in the 2002-2004 template. Now, as nice as I can make the template, I have little control—at least during the switchover—over the editable sections, which are a mess. A complete, utter fucking mess, with tables inside of tables inside of tables. We have years and years of stupid faculty and incompetent people putting everything inside of tables, just so that they can have several elements—which should be in list form—appearing side-by-side.

I don’t expect people to understand the difference between, for instance, <em> and <i>, but understanding that tables are only to be used for tabular data is not difficult. The problem is sheer laziness: tables are easy to put in, and they do what you want.

But therein lies the problem: a large number of our faculty edit their own pages. We give them access, a copy of Dreamweaver 4 (there’s another problem, right there), except when they edit pages with Word, the stupid pricks, and they’re supposed to do their own thing. This is good insofar as it relieves us of the tedium of text updates, but bad in that faculty and staff do some really dumbshit things, including tables, animated gifs or cartoonish icons, and of course everything is hardcoded with HTML declarations instead of with CSS.

So, Vice President, why is Lewis University on the Top Ten list and St. Francis isn’t? Because Lewis University outsources its website. The knuckle-draggers on campus don’t get to touch it: they only send updated information which their (expensive, I imagine) webmasters then put into the site, which is OK for a designer’s standpoint, but of course I’d like to see it coded better.

I have to work with incompetent people. The University employs a graphic artist who lives in another state. We send her an assignment, and we get good work a few days later. However, she works on a Mac, using Quark Express, and so no matter what she does, and no matter what we ask her, she sends us a PDF of the finished work. Rasterized, in other words. Even when outside consultants we hire ask her for metadata-enabled file types, or PNGs, or something that they can work with…. she sends them a PDF. Oftentimes, we use the PDF promotional flyer for the web, but we need to make a form out of it, or change the text, or—in the case of the Chicago Tribune, who we submit ads to—completely remake the poster by blanking out the text and typing it into a layered PSD (Photoshp) file.

She won’t send anything else but a PDF. We continue to pay her.

We have management who thinks that the website is something that should be a communal decision. Not a communal effort, mind you, which is of course necessary, but a communal decision. That is to say, we need to have a committee that decides on design elements and how things happen. Especially managers, because they always think they know what’s best for the website, even if their own experience is limited to making a personal page in Word. Competent managers hire competent people and leave them alone to do what they do best. Needless to say, that isn’t the case here. The VP, in her e-mail, said that USF’s not making it onto the Top Ten list was proof positive that the website needed to be more of a group effort. Does it surprise anyone that a VP would say that? No, what it proves it that

  1. Sites which are outsourced to professional firms are often entered into contests like that
  2. The web services department is underfunded and understaffed
  3. The university website is already too much of a group effort, thank you very much

I am the only person here who seems to know anything about web design. My department consists of only three people: myself, my boss, and another student worker. I talk about CSS, about semantic markup, and none of it has any effect. My boss sympathizes: I suspect that given his druthers, he’d let me do pretty much whatever I want with the site, but he’s the first one to get bitched at if anything is changed. Faculty yell about “academic freedom,” and of course everybody and their mother wants to say what goes on their little piece of the (templated) site1, and it invariably includes something horrendously stupid or contrived.

The people at my University don’t view the web site as a serious internet presence: they view it as a curiosity and a toy. They think that their colleagues or prospective students will be impressed by the godawful tripe they hack up. They don’t understand, for instance, that most visitors to the site might not have the esoteric font they chose, or that six billion small graphics make people want to wretch. Here’s the thing about design: if you can’t say why you’re putting a certain element in a certain place, it’s probably bad design2. “Just because” is not a design decision: it’s an amateur sending a dagger through the heart of Web-2.0-conscious designers everywhere.

We have a business unit that will design and host websites for local businesses. I’ve designed several of these3. These sites are basically just subfolders in our normal site, and the domain name the local business may or may not use is mapped to the index of that subfolder, and nothing else. If you navigate within a hosted site, you will go from www.domain.com to www.stfrancis.edu/domain. I asked my boss why we couldn’t simply move these hosted sites up to the same directory that the root of our normal website sites on, make some additional entries in Apache’s config file, and go from. He says he was told by one of our network staff that this was impossible. Either we have some limitation that I’m unaware of, or our network staff can’t administrate for shit.

So, as a result, we have Dreamweaver “sites” overlapping, which can sometimes lead to problems.

In private moments, my boss talks about taking everybody’s write rights away, and only giving them out as necessary, to preserve the integrity of the website. It’s a good start, but the fact, is, people already have way too much power when it comes to their ability to manipulate webserver files.

This summer, the word is that we’ll be upgrading our network from Netware 5 to, I think, Novell’s Enterprise Linux, which means we might actually have a dedicated Linux box running Apache. If this is true, I’d like to start moving our current site over to a CMS, probably PHP-based since anything else would be beyond the pale for this place. Still, even using something like Joomla! or Drupal would be relatively easy, I think. Contributers would be given a very limited role, basically being able to contribute only text, perhaps some pictures. I’d brand the whole thing up, and that would be that. Now, as to whether that actually happens is another thing entirely.

You see, our current project is a portal. The CMS systems I just mentioned are basically portals, but we of course couldn’t use anything straightforward. No, we got some hefty grant and some third party whipped up an Oracle portal for us, written in crufty Java, and sitting on a (apparently poorly configured or underpowered) Linux box. Without even getting into its internals, it’s a UI nightmare, and that’s for the tech department: I can only imagine what the students are going to think when they learn how completely atrocious the porlet-adding process is, and how if you don’t like the personalized layout you’ve made, you basically have to delete everything and start from scratch.

I’ve no doubt that the final decision on the Oracle portal came from higher-ups, and not the people who have to implement or use the technology.

It’s sad, however, that my $7.95/month shared hosting account is faster than the one in our datacenter. I could shift the entire USF website to my own account, turn it into a CMS, and it’d probably be a hell of a lot better than what we’ve got now.

  1. We have many sections, including faculty homepages, which are separate from the template and done by faculty in whatever program they choose. They are, to say the least, hideous, but it’s none of our concern[]
  2. I’m paraphrasing this from article I read recently, but damned if I remember where I read it[]
  3. Joliet Country Club is one example, though I’m not particularly proud of it, since I had nothing to work with. They having nothing even approaching a marketing department or established branding, and very little content, so I had to pull the palette and much else out of my ass. Since we don’t offer database or scripting, everything is static HTML, which limits what we can do for them[]
§985 · February 15, 2006 · Tags: , , ·

6 Comments to “A long, angry entry about web design and my job”

  1. Jeff says:

    I don’t think you can really expect faculty to do much with CSS or to even spend a lot of time with it. Would they be against moving to some sort CMS like you suggested?

    I’ve seen some bad faculty pages, of course. The worst one was from a CS professor, even. He has a better one now, but holy shit, it was the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen. There’s a copy of it here, but without the graphics you don’t get the full effect.

  2. Ben says:

    Well, I tried to build a bunch of classes into the template, so they can just choose element classes from a dropdown box. The problem comes when they try to be cute and have font colors and sizes all wonky: they don’t know the first thing about how and why to do certain things certain ways.

    I don’t so much care if faculty pages are fugly, because they’re an entirely different context. Butt when faculty members (usually administrators, not teachers) try to do cutesie garbage within the template, then we have a problem.

  3. Ben says:

    Oh, and to answer your question: no, I don’t think most people would be averse to the idea of a CMS: in fact, most people would prefer having it abstracted to that point. A lot of people are completely lost with Dreamweaver.

    There would be some, however, whom we would have to wean off the idea that the webserver isn’t their personal playground. If they disagree, I’ll kick them.

  4. John says:

    Of course, you could always have the opposite problem where you run into a Web system that is completely controlled by web admins and thus all changes have to be done by them. This is the problem I have run into at GVSU. I submitted some pretty simple html/php stuff to our web admins to be added in whatever way they do (the html/php was supposed to be a model, GVSU uses coldfusion for its website). They proceeded to rape the layout and functionality that I had painstakingly crafted, and left only a shell that had errors and disfuntionalies that would make a kindergardener blush. They left it half-finished, and havn’t touched it for months, despite a detailed follow-up that pointed out the specific areas that needed to be changed and how.

  5. Ben says:

    Sounds painful. Of course, everything hinges on “competent” people. The fact that GVSU is running Coldfusion says to me that somebody who makes the decisions isn’t particularly competent.

  6. […] See, if I was at a competent university that cared about their website, we wouldn’t be having this problem, because we’d have some sort of decent CMS, and faculty wouldn’t be allowed to edit anything outside of their own personal area. But that’s a topic I’ve already covered. […]

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