Plog: Links, Articles, & Editorial by Perry Garvin

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Hammer Museum Website Redesign

Hot on the heels of the SFMOMA website redesign comes the Hammer Museum’s new site.

It’s a knockout that weaves together many threads of programming – events, exhibitions, and the crucial multimedia that bind users to a site – into a cohesive experience that satisfys the needs of many kinds of visitors.  Even better, they’ve embraced an openness to multimedia distribution and sharing so unusual among organizations of this type.  A user can subscribe to the museum’s offerings through podcasts or RSS, embed video or audio into their own website, or post content to content sharing sites like Facebook.  These are fundamentals in 2008 which a lot of museum sites still aren’t embracing.

The design team also came up with a minimal and elegant design that frames the museum’s programming transparently, throwing emphasis onto the many visuals the museum naturally generates through its events and exhibitions.

The Hammer also has crack crew making sure their site runs smoothly.  Audio and video and images are everywhere and that’s a testament to all the little monkeys behind the scenes who are producing, cropping, editing, formatting, and posting this material.

Tip o’ the hat, folks.

I confess that when I first went to their site I was nervous it was going to be an all-Flash hell hole on the order of the epic disaster that is The Kitchen‘s website: a nightmare of an interface, a buggy, error-filled disaster that probably halves attendance figures because content is so freakishly hard to find and so garishly designed.  The Kitchen’s website is made even more painful because of how it stands in such stark contrast to their outstanding programming.  Although I have many friends that work at that august institution, I have no idea what happened behind the scenes that led to their digital debacle.  I’ll assume it has something to do with an overworked staff entrusting the project to developers who had absolutely no business making websites.  It’s a total heap and needs to be redesigned completely and immediately for institutional solvency.

Anyway.  Back to The Hammer.

It turns out that Flash is limited to the homepage and discreetly around the site in audio and video modules and an effective (if random) interactive Membership matrix.

Featured programs are listed on the homepage (although I wish it would say “Featured” since I thought that all I saw on the homepage was all that was at the museum (wrong)).  They’ve nicely integrated video into the homepage (but didn’t allow it to go fullscreen).  The full bleed background images switch as the user selects different featured programs – cute.  Upcoming events are conveniently listed on the bottom.  It works.  It’s full of stuff but is coherent and offers a lot of info in a compressed way.

The real killer feature – and it’s simple – is the section that drops down from the main horizontal navigation bar when you roll over major section headers.  Mouse over “Exhibitions” and before you click into the unknown, a helpful menu drops down to show you what to expect: exhibitions on view, etc.  For each section the dropdown area shows you the most important stuff.  It’s so good.  They’ve really done a nice job of not forcing people to click, instead enabling users to find things simply by hovering.

I like how they list their current and upcoming exhibitions together on the Exhibtions landing page but it’s a bit obnoxious that in order to see more current exhibitions one has to click a tiny right arrow for the other thumbnails to slide in.  Hammer: just have it drop to the next level.  This type of hard-to-find-button-to-push-to-see-more-stuff won’t pass the mom test.  Also I’m not sure if segregating the past exhibitions into its own area is necessary but it works well nonetheless.

The Programs section does what SFMOMA’s didn’t do: tag lots and lots of images to every single event.  I know from firsthand experience that it’s annoying and it’s grunt work but it makes the section look visually delectable and encourages visitors to click on things they otherwise wouldn’t.

The Collections sections provides an overview but doesn’t even attempt to put anything online.  Bummer, but they’ll have time to fundraise for that functionality in the future.  In that case they can look to SFMOMA who did a great job.  And the Met, of course, who does an even greater job (and from what I’ve heard will be launching some exciting new online collections soon).

The best part of the site is the “Watch and Listen” section which does what every museum should be doing: have a whole section fully and totally devoted to the gobs of audio and video that they are producing.  The Hammer nails this section.  First off, you can watch things right there on the website but you can also embed it into your site or subscribe to the podcast feed.  SO BASIC BUT SO GOOD.  Why can’t most every other place get this so right?  Filtering works well but Search doesn’t.  Just to see if search functionality actually functioned, I searched for words that I saw in the titles: “Lopate” and “Arbus” in my case.  It said nothing could be found.  Uh.  Tsk tsk.  Fix this.  I also wish there was a browsable list of all the multimedia participants so I could just skim and see if my favorite artist was there.

I’m not sure why the section is called “News and Blogs.”  How many blogs do they have?  As far as I can tell it’s just one.  And just call it “News.”  I don’t think you have to drop the “B” word.

The user interface is really elegant and smartly prepared.  Content flows intuitively and key information is presented immediately with secondary or extra information accessible through a mouse click.  I would boost the overall site font size.  Small looks sexy but it’s hard to read for a lot of (older) visitors.

All in all – this site is a real triumph and the team behind it should be complimented on an outstanding offering.

  • david evans

    Perry: I get the drift of your comments on both the SFMOMA and Hammer websites. I’m sure you will understand that I agree with most, if not all of your observations and conclusions. Among the most important disagreements I have with the artsy side of museum and gallery website design (other than my utter and conventional aversion to 99% of the Flash typically used on most artsy sites) is the slavish use of black backgrounds and white type (or, occasionally worse, colored type)… what we used to call “reverse type”… on entry pages. Don’t the artists who design these things get any training on usability and readability?? In the advertising business we have almost a century of research and experience that says reverse type drops readership by stunning amounts. In terms of eye camera research spanning almost 50 years (…yes… 50 years… I got my first experience with eye camera readership in 1960) we know that reverse type in any form or any point size makes readership plummet. In this regard, the very first pages on the Hammer site that have any hope of intellectual connection with the visitor are two pages deep or three pages deep within the site… at least one page beyond which the typical visitor will bounce out due to lack of clear direction and communication. And, in fact, the “Exhibition Info” pages are excellent examples of what the entry page should be: easy to read, conventional in layout, black (flexible) type against a white bg, etc. These exemplars demonstrate, too compellingly, how chopped up/unreadable/confusing/defeating the home/entry page of the Hammer site really is.
    Just a thought.
    Best: David Evans

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