I realized this afternoon that I am simultaneously managing or building three new web projects: lifeteen.com Version 2.1, camps.lifeteen.com, and ym.lifeteen.com. Beyond that, I have to maintain lifeteen.com, which is too much to do even if I commit every hour of the day to updating the site. It’s a challenge, but I feel like the only way for lifeteen.com to succeed is to build out two more sites within it. It’s unconventional, I know.

The Big Meeting
This morning we had a meeting with netFusion about changes in the 2.1 project. This was the first meeting where I took leadership from the first moment to the last. I sat at the head of the table, which is new for me. Normally I’d do it Christian-style and take an humble position on a table, like somewhere on the side near the end. But today I sat at the head and then I steered the whole meeting. I decided to do this because I realize I’m the only one who knows what we’re meeting for.

I explained our ideas about breaking off content for adults into its own minisite: ym.lifeteen.com. Much of the functionality for ym.lifeteen.com is already built into the 2.1 project, so hopefully it won’t cost us much more money. Everyone on their team seemed excited about the project because it seems like a logical expansion. Plus it will be easier for me as the designer and them as the coders to not contend with the fitting these upgrades into the already cramped structure of lifeteen.com.

A Flash Miracle
Adam Robo is good at Flash, and I’m trying to give him projects on the camp site. Since the camps site grows and evolves every day, I wanted to bring on his Flash expertise once I had the structure finished and most of the content placed. We decided he would design a photo gallery so that people could click through shots of each part of the camp. This solved the problem of having too many photos that made individual pages vertical bulk.

Well a couple days ago he decided to look around online to see what other designers have done to spruce up the click-through photo albums. He found a stunning design for managing a lot of pictures. We bought it, downloaded it, and started working. Within an hour, we knew that this was a perfect solution to our problem. It was hard for us to leave work on Wednesday because it was so rewarding to make this happen.

No Surprises
Another exciting thing to do with the camps site is to make the camps not only look cooler, but at the same time give realistic expectations of what each camp is like. There’s nothing worse than a deceptive glossy brochure.

The first step is to help the camp directors with their descriptions of the facilities. I’m constantly tweaking paragraphs so that they are more accurate and exciting. The next thing I’m doing is I’m drawing the floor plans to each of the facilities in Adobe Illustrator. Once they are done, I’ll export them to PDF then post them to the site. I’ve already done this with one of the cabins, and it looks awesome to have a pretty snapshot of the cabin, a descriptive paragraph, and then a floor plan. And then there is a link to print out the floor plan as a PDF.

Just looking at it, you really get an idea of what you’re getting into. So when people roll up to the camp, I hope to save the camp director from the hassle of explaining that they aren’t renting a resort for the weekend. I want the campers to drop their sleeping bags in their cabins and then go exploring the woods. Because it’s the adventures outside of the walls that makes camp so much fun.

A New Approach to Design
It’s remarkable how a creative project evolves as time passes. Normally I would first look at the content and on paper decide what needs to go where so that everything is logical and easy-to-find. Then I would design the entire look of the website in Photoshop around that structure. Finally I would make that come to life in the code. This pragmatic approach is necessary when you build a big site. It feels great to have the most complex problems solved first, and then everything falls into place.

With the camps site, I can just I can let the content tell me how to design the page, rather than I design the page to tell the content where to go. This may be uninteresting to most other people, but I’m loving the fact that the content I am dealing with has such personality. And my job is to let the personality break out and delight the user.

To let the personality break out requires constant negotiation. Each camp is unique. My job is to make a sections for the camps look similar to one-another in the patterns of navigation and how I place content, but at the same time give room for each camp to shine. This is especially difficult because Covecrest is three times as big as Tepeyac. I have to find a way for Tepeyac to not to look like less of a camp because it doesn’t have as many buttons and brilliant photos of pretty buildings. I mean, the drive through the Arizona deserts to get to Tepeyac is much more exciting and interesting than the drive into Covecrest. But how do you say that in a website?

I just love these kind of problems because I’ve been at this web design thing long enough to know that I eventually solve all problems in creative ways. And the bigger the problem, the bigger my creative solution. These problems really are opportunities in disguise.

Take for instance the top navigation bar on the site. For the first 3/4 of the project, I had it look like clouds. It’s fun, campy, and calming. But the shape is so dominant that you can hardly notice the letters inside of the clouds. Yesterday at 5:30, I decided to scrap the whole bar and do a Flash-driven navigation centered around the logos of the camp. Even though I haven’t touched it, I already know it’s going to be an exhilarating solution to an irritation problem.