Soft site, hard sell

A website for photographer Lee Miller shows that a simple design can also be an effective selling tool. Yolanda Zappaterra goes on-line to check it out

In the fast and furious world of new media, where the number of tools at the producer’s and designer’s disposal would put Honest Jon’s Cowboy Builder’s kit to shame, there’s always a temptation to overdesign. And, if your site’s raison d’être is to persuade surfers to part with their hard-earned dosh, then obviously you have to pack it with the latest whizzy graphics, animations and plug-ins. After all, as the communication pavilion at the recent Powerhouse: UK exhibition seemed to suggest, marketing, advertising and selling is all about excess. Your punters expect excess, which must mean that you need it to sell them something, right? Well, not necessarily.

Anyone looking at the Lee Miller Archive website (leemiller.co.uk), designed by Brighton-based new media design consultancy Keymedia, would be seduced by the simplicity, effectiveness, speed and educational content of the site. You might initially think it was nothing more than a small, but perfectly formed forum promoting the American model-turned-photographer famed for her Surrealist work, but also renowned for her reportage, fashion shots, portrait work and, as an accredited photographer with the US army, World War II coverage. And part of Keymedia’s brief was indeed to fulfil that function.

“For some time the Lee Miller Archive (owned by Tony Penrose, son of Lee Miller and Sir Roland Penrose) had felt the restriction of not being able to reach all its potential worldwide audience through exhibitions and galleries alone,” explains Keymedia partner Ed Carr. “This crystalised into the requirement to put up on the Web a small representative sample of the archive, using some of the best-known images and keeping intact the strong visual impact of the black and white photography,” he continues.

The few examples, for each of five different areas Penrose and Keymedia have identified as Miller’s genres, are representative of her work and act as a very persuasive catalogue for the huge amount of material sold by the archive. For, make no mistake, this site is really just a shop. To paraphrase that well-known phrase about the Victoria and Albert Museum, it’s an ace shop with a nice gallery attached, but a shop all the same.

Anyone planning to use the photos or text on display here for their own personal use is invited to do so (though the disingenuous phrasing would lead you to expect a lot more material than is actually available), but in addition there are hundreds of prints, along with books (some out of print and only available through the site), sets of slides, postcards, videos and brochures.

This is all presented in a simple site that has no animation, no gimmicks and a navigation system that is childsplay. “We felt that the best use of the budget was to create a decent site that would support the business and marketing strategy of the archive, giving plenty of opportunity for controlled expansion, rather than just shove a few hundred poorly rendered images up on the Web like an inferior stock photolibrary,” says Carr.

The tactic seems to be paying off, with the site getting in the region of 6000 hits per month. “People really do seem keen to understand more about Miller’s extraordinary life and the kinds of photographs she took, and not only do the hits seem to be worldwide, but sales of archive-quality prints from the site have been to territories not covered by the gallery network,” says Carr.

The virtual world seems to be having a tangible effect on its real-life counterpart too; Carr claims that sales in dealers’ galleries are up since the site went on-line, and this symbiotic relationship seems set to continue: “It’s raising awareness of the archive in general – it’s another point of contact,” concludes Carr.

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