Product of the Environment
I recently enjoyed what has become a Halloweentime tradition here in Rhode Island, taking the family to see the massive display of pumpkins known as the Jack-o-Lantern Spectacular.
For those who live outside of the Ocean State and are unfamiliar with this event, it is a month-long, nighttime exhibit featuring, according to the official website, “thousands of carved and illuminated pumpkins, with hundreds of them depicting people, places and scenes from popular culture to old-time favorites and everything in between.” There are jack-o-lanterns carved with every kind of face imaginable - from happy to sad, goofy to scary. There are tiny pumpkins and giant pumpkins (including one that tipped the scales at over 1300lbs), and every size pumpkin along the way. Obviously, this is quite the appropriate event for someone whose domain is pumpkin-king.com.
Ghosts of Pumpkins Past
I went to my first Jack-o-Lantern Spectacular in 2003. That year, it was hosted by the Roger Williams Zoo in Providence. I instantly fell in love with this event and vowed to make it part of my October calendar every year.
To that end, I attended the Spectacular again in 2004, which turned out to be the final year it would be held at the zoo. There were a few years (including last year) where the event was held outside of Rhode Island and I did not attend, as well as two years that it was held at McCoy Stadium, home of the Pawtucket Red Sox.
The Pumpkins Return
For 2009, the pumpkins have returned to Roger Williams Zoo. As I walked the trail at this year’s event, I realized how much better the display is at the zoo, how superior the event is at this location when compared to the previous years that it was at the ballpark. I had attended the Jack-o-Lantern Spectacular the years that it was held at McCoy and I honestly enjoyed it very much both times, but seeing it at the zoo again made me realize how much was missing from the ballpark’s presentation.
What was the difference? The pumpkins themselves were the same, for all intents and purposes. Every year has a theme, so there are definitely differences each year, but the quality of the jack-o-lanterns themselves was absolutely equal when comparing the event across the different locations where it was held. The variable that made all the difference was the location itself – the environment surrounding this spectacular display of carvings.
The Environment Makes the Event
When on display at the ballpark, the pumpkins themselves were impressive, but the presentation of those pumpkins was not. Positioned at ground level of the stadium on tables and benches and the like, the jack-o-lanterns felt like they were being presented in a rigid, museum-like way. Everything was very structured and laid in an almost symmetrical fashion. Each table held a certain number of pumpkins, displayed neatly in a row so you could see them as you made your way around the inside wall of the ballfield. The field itself also held a number of illuminated pumpkins, but the public was understandably not allowed on the ballfield, so the fences blocking it off kept that part of the display in the far distance.
This structured, museum-like display may sound like it worked, and when I saw it, I thought it was good enough – or at the very least didn’t realize what it was lacking, but after seeing the event at the zoo once again, I have changed the way I look at those ballpark years.
The zoo has something that the ballpark does not have – an expansive, natural environment that complements the jack-o-lanterns perfectly. Instead of being displayed on tables and benches, the zoo allows the pumpkins to be displayed on tree stumps and in the dirt or along wooden fences and bridges. They are on display in the water, held aloft on little platforms that are invisible from a distance, giving the glowing jack-o-lanterns the illusion of resting directing on the water’s surface. The pumpkins are displayed in the trees and all along this winding path, illuminating your way as you travel through this incredible environment (they are lit with small light bulbs, by the way, not by candles, so there is no risk of lighting the surroundings on fire). The jack-o-lanterns are laid out almost chaotically, with no discernable pattern or preference in somewhat the same way that nature displays her treasures. The entire display, chaotically overwhelming and wondrous, creates a truly awe-inspiring scene lit with the orange glow of Halloween.
The ballpark? In the end, it looked like a ballpark – but with some pumpkins added.
What Does This Have to do With Web Design?
Let me pause in my fanboy-like praise of this event for a moment to answer a question you are likely wondering – what does this have to do with the Web? This blog is about web design, so where’s the tie in?
Besides wanting to contribute some blog posts reminiscent of the Halloween season for the month of October, this event, and the challenges posed by the different environments in which I have seen it displayed, really made me think about how similar it was to the concept of design and content in relation to websites – something all working web designers deal with daily.
Content is king, that is a web truth that had been heralded time and time again. We know that users come to sites for the content, but our design is a crucial part of the experience. Finding ways to visually present the content in ways that are usable, attractive or in some cases unexpected and surprising can transform a site in the best ways by taking an acceptable experience and making it exceptional.
Is this not similar to the comparison between the Jack-o-Lantern Spectacular being presented at the ballpark versus the zoo? In each case, the ‘content’ was the same – the jack-o-lanterns themselves. What differed was the environment surrounding the content, or if we think about that in web terms – what differed was the design that supported the content.
The Value of Design
I’m often surprised to find, when speaking with clients, that they expect that we have a stable of pre-designed templates that we choose from when creating a new site. Oftentimes, they look at our web design project gallery and treat it like they are choosing a design they prefer which we will then, in turn, slap their logo, color and content into to create their site. When I explain that our gallery is simply examples of our past work, and that each project we work on is designed from scratch to meet the specific needs of the client and the content that their project contains, I am often met with surprise on the part of that client.
More than once, after hearing this explanation of our process, I have had a client question why we actually start fresh with each new project when we have an impressive array of existing design work from which we could draw. They don’t see the value of the design process, instead thinking that ‘good’ design means ‘appropriate’ design. In these cases, it is my job to explain that just because a design works well and looks good for one project or client, does not mean it will work for another. A design needs to do more than look great, it needs to look great, while supporting the content and the user’s experience the best that it can – the way the zoo’s environment supports the pumpkins.
Back to Jack
McCoy Stadium is a great place to see a ballgame. Bringing my family to the park to catch a game, eat some hotdogs and, on select nights, marvel at a fireworks display is something that is a cherished summertime tradition for us. Granted, the park was built to host baseball games, so it makes sense that it is a good spot to watch one, but I have also seen a concert in that park (the Dropkick Murphys and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones) and it was an excellent place to see the show. The truth of the matter is the Jack-o-Lantern Spectacular, when held at the park, was good as well. It just wasn’t as good as it could’ve been.
Taking an existing design from a project gallery, as solid a design as it may be, and tweaking it to fit a new client’s needs would share the same fate at the ballpark display of the pumpkins. It would be acceptable, but not exceptional. No client, I can assure you, wants their website to be considered “acceptable”, just as no designer serious about their work would want that work to simply be “acceptable”. Everyone wants exceptional and exceptional starts with looking at your content, be it web copy or thousands of carved and illuminated pumpkins, and creating a design or an environment that is uniquely suited to support and showcase that content. That is more than great design. That is appropriate design and, in the right hands, that can become exceptional design.