Designing Fictitious Corporate Websites

Over the years, I've been party to any number of websites for fictitious companies. (Also religions, activist groups, and so on.) I've learned a few things about what I like to see in my fictitious company websites, and so I'd like to take a tangent from my writing for transmedia series for a quick one-off on website design for transmedia. Let me share with you what I have learned so far.

The Dos

The most important thing you can do as a web designer for a transmedia project is to understand the big picture. I like to involve a designer on a higher level than simply handing down a very specific wireframe and a completely finished functional spec; after all, I'm not the artist with the best skill set for that. But it can also be frustrating for the designer to hear nothing more than "OK, go make a website for a fake bank."

Most work will fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Here are a few things the designer can do to make sure everything goes smoothly (or the interaction designer can make sure to tell the designer before beginning):

Research. Generally, the website you're designing will have real-world analogues. If you're making a fictitious site for a church, find some church websites to look at. If you're making a megalithic industrial company website, take a look at the design for companies like Boeing or Lockheed*Martin. You won't want to copy these sites wholesale, but you'll get design cues from existing sites that can give your work a little more verisimilitude.

Consider content length. Before you create an initial design, make sure to have a discussion with the interaction designer or writer regarding how much copy they expect to write for the site (and therefore how much space you'll need to allow for it). You need to be on the same page about creating short news bullet points vs. page-long press releases, for example, instead of just knowing there will be 'news'; and if they need a section for a thousand-word long treatise on the corporate mission, you'll want to know this up front, right?

Provide space for necessary multimedia. Make sure you know what kinds of media will be a part of your project. Video? Audio? A tweetstream? If the project requires these elements, you'll need to provide for a place for these elements to be presented on your website. You don't want to design a sleek, tight website for a finance company and find in the last week you have nowhere to embed the CEO's heartbroken resignation speech.

The Don'ts

I love when designers take initiative and make a site better than I could have imagined. I welcome it, I cherish it. That said, unless these things are specifically in the design spec, please, please don't include:

Locations and/or maps. Please, no addresses or maps in a design unless they are explicitly in the spec. Many transmedia experiences extend into the real world, and there isn't a good way to indicate when yours isn't going to do that. So never give your fictitious company a real-world address.... unless you actually want somebody to turn up at that address.

News sections. Particularly for a long-running game spanning dozens of websites, a news section is a pernicious creature. News must be periodically updated to maintain the illusion of a living and persistent storyworld. If all of your one-off corporate websites have news sections, you may soon get bogged down under the obligation of coming up with side content for them, at the expense of your core story.

Login forms. That blank user/password entry area is a signal to players that at some point, they will be able to given access to something more. If this doesn't happen, your audience will feel frustrated at the red herring. Don't put in login forms merely as a design element.

Note that I am not in any way a web designer myself -- my skills were state of the art back in 1998 and haven't progressed much since then. So I may, indeed, be stunningly off base here.  Let's hear from all of you. Interaction designers, what do you find yourself telling web designers again and again? And website designers, what could we be saying or doing with you to make the whole process easier and more successful?

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