The making of Timbaktu Collective website

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TC Website

Designing the Timbaktu website was not a merely about designing a website. It was more to do with communication design.

The primary factor being the medium itself and in that the medium determines the design. Here you have 15-20 seconds of the audience attention. So, the question then is (i) how does one retain the attention (ii) if one cannot, then what crucial info one wants to get across before you lose it. So, besides the construction of the message itself, one also has to work out the visual aspects – where do you want the attention to go, and how does one draw it – so fonts, colour, size etc. are juxtaposed for maximum impact. The underlying factor has to be the unifying element, usually sublimal, that holds the thread…

The communication design is also layered in the website, is also layered keeping the medium – in this case the website – in mind. So, in the first instance you get the main message across… hopefully piquing curiosity… which draws the reader into the next level of detail… enough to get across what one wants to get across, yet having a scope for deeper engagement… which takes the user to next deeper level of the more detailed story…

I feel when we communicate, even if only through the website, it is a story. And the story is made up of 3 elements – the story, the storyteller and the audience. Here the story was the Timbaktu story. The storyteller is me+medium. And the audience is of course the visitor, who “interprets” with their own worldview, priorities, and background. And the final story is an amalgamation of the strengths and limitations of all three. This is my understanding of communication/story-telling.

When I started out with the website, Bablu said what the website should stand for and communicate is “celebration of life” – in all its aspects – the joys, the pain, the triumphs, the struggle, the poverty, the richness of wisdom… it was a tall order!

My own “order” was that it has to have a persona, consistent with the character and nature of the organization. Too often we see organisations going with the “latest”, with the sexy contemporary, while the orgn itself is perhaps more formal (read staid and stuffy). So, here Timbaktu itself has a distinct personality – it is bold, raw, high energy, pioneering… larger than life. So, that is primary energy that had to get across. Yet, Timbaktu is also very deeply aesthetic, visually beautiful. The primary message underlying it all, was of collective strength or gaining strength through the collective…

The audience was the third arm. The question then was who is the audience? It was going to be a niche audience – (i) donors (ii) well-wishers, friends, peer organisations (iii) and maybe some wanderers who came across the site in their searches. So, what was it that the audience would look for..? The donors could be old and new. The donors would want to check out the scale, the impact, the methodology, the credibility… so, one had to very quickly give out that information, right out there, in your face… which will also ‘hook’ them into going into the deeper layers. The well-wishers, friends, etc. would like to see how T2 has done what it did, maybe share the stories or see how it is progressing. Yet in all this one had to keep the “idealism”, the perspective, the approach in mind… and not just get lost in numbers…

The last but not the least was the technical level of competencies within T2 – which is of a certain level. The challenges are that not too many have capacities in story-telling, language, in the back-end maintenance work. So, one had to work within this constraint. It had to be ultra-simple, able to hold-out within the constraints. Besides this, there is the very physical, technical problem of bandwidth… the fact that T2 has frequent electricity and internet black-outs. So, one couldn’t be too ambitious. Also had to keep the costs very low… so couldn’t splurge on software or get outside specialists, artists, etc. involved…

The biggest challenge was the extensive history of intervention… there was just too much of interesting stuff one would like to tell. So, one had to be rather ruthless and leave out what one WANTS to tell and balance it with what the audience wants to hear… the scope of T2’s work is simply massive… also the work is very deep. Bablu’s and Mary’s own personal stories would require a book! The stories of their team and the communities would require several! The website afterall cannot say it all… it is a very limited medium… and can engage only so much… ideally the story needs a trans-media communication… but one had to work with what one had…

I also had to go through 1000s of photographs. Rural images of the poor are also so depressing… quite impossible to “glamorize” them… also to keep the temptation to glamourize down. Deprivation and struggle, in my opinion, cannot and should not be ethically “sold”. Too often one sees poverty-porn. I personally hate it… it generates a sense of guilt and shame… doesn’t inspire hope or wonder or a sense of possibility. Personally I wanted to give the latter message, which is very much T2’s message – that it IS possible… change IS possible… that land and people both have regenerative powers, the desire to live and thrive… all it requires is a little bit of right support… and to be left alone and let it happen…

So, the design follows this logic…

  • the colour is orange … vibrant, raw… it threads through the site…
  • the images are large, visually appealing and (hopefully) gets one part of the message across… in fact the images actually tell the story… at least a kind of a ‘trailer’. most of the images used are of people and land… it brings out the joys, the struggle… the lines on their faces… yet patience and endurance comes through (hopefully)…
  • one connects to the challenge in the context… to the quality of land, water… problems… the impacts are visible … one has to after all not get lost in the ‘problem situation’ but get the “possible” across…
  • the menu gives one a quick overview of all they do, with little intros…
  • the home page gives the scale, the numbers, the outreach… at each level there has been an attempt to introduce the scale…
  • the inner “programme” pages give the impact straightaway through picture and words, the components, major activities, a quick narrative…
  • the innermost pages give the specific details of programs, the whys, hows, etc… with some links to specific stories….

And that was how the website was built…

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