Web Designer Interview: Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys on the Launch of

In celebration of the release of my new picture book, Santa Knows, co-authored by Greg Leitich Smith, illustrated by Steve Björkman (Dutton, 2006), it is my pleasure to announce launch of and to share an interview with the design guru behind it, Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys. Let’s hear from Lisa…!

How did you translate Santa Knows (Dutton, 2006), the book, into, the website?

With every site design I have to be mindful of that site’s audience and purpose. And, to succeed on the Web, every site has to answer a question within a few seconds of loading: “What IS this?”

For, the ‘audience’ might seem the same as for the book itself: the picture book ‘reader.’ Except—it isn’t.

All children’s publishing and marketing is filtered, first, through the adults who acquire and edit the books, and, next, through the adults who choose the books for the children in their libraries, classrooms and homes.

To plan a site to feature Santa Knows, we had to keep this duality in mind:

1. This is a site about a book meant to appeal to young children.

2. However, except for a precocious few, young children aren’t actually going to be reading the site–the adults in their lives are.

Hm, okay. The site needs to show some kid-appeal but needs to make it easy for adults to get the information needed to evaluate the book and perhaps buy it for a child. These practicalities drove the content you provided and the way I presented it.

And–while this may seem obvious–the site needs to show right away what it’s about–a specific book about Santa Claus. It’s not a site about Santa Claus as a popular figure, or kids’ seasonal wish lists, or even how to answer the question, “Is there really a Santa Claus?”

The navigation bar at the top says it all–the site will introduce the book, its authors and illustrator, highlight the cover art, and will list news and reviews as the book begins to build its audience. And, not least! it lets people know how, when, and where to buy the book.

What were the design considerations? The challenges?

With Santa Knows, one thing I wanted to do was show what sets the story apart from the masses of other Santa and Christmas-related material out there.

(This is a seriously funny book!)

We were very fortunate to have Steve Björkman’s funny, jolly illustrations as a springboard. I was able to pull the color scheme straight from the book art. So we have a white, snowy background, some cool light blue, hints of bright yellow-gold shininess, and, of course, green and red.

Notice, however, that the hues are slightly off what you usually see–the green is a bit sharper and yellower than the usual Christmas-y green, and the red is more of a candy-red, not the traditional berry-red. It’s a subtle difference, but it supports the slightly unorthodox tone of the story.

Steve’s cover art–which shows the author and illustrator bylines against a background of ball-ornaments–also inspired me to use a slightly different take on ornaments, this time as ‘frames’ for photos of the authors and illustrators themselves.

One challenge had to do with the treatment of the overall page space. People are viewing web pages on a variety of screen sizes and resolutions, so there are techniques to make the page seem “full” to those on the bigger displays, but still keep all the important stuff within a certain dimension, so readers don’t have to go scrolling all over the place just to read a few lines of text.

So, if you view on a monitor capable of displaying an area larger than 800 x 600 pixels, you’ll see that there’s a blue and white “snowy” texture filling in the space on each side of the center content. It helps the page seem complete to those viewing on larger monitors, but no actual content is missing for those viewing on the smaller screens.

How about on the technological side? What were the issues and triumphs there?

I got to have a lot of fun with the art for I usually shy away from recommending any sort of animation on author websites, because so often the effect is cheesy. But some projects really benefit from a little animation. I thought the sparkles that glint off the title words “Santa Knows” were very appropriate. It’s like Santa himself is twinkling at us.

I did have to choose between technologies when creating the twinkles. Flash animation is very popular these days, but it does depend on having the right player installed. I didn’t want viewers to be confronted with a popup telling them they needed to install something, just to view the site. So, the sparkles are actually three instances of the same tiny .gif animation–an older technique that sometimes gets derided because it was formerly used in clumsy and inartistic ways.

What appealed to you about the project?

1. What’s not to like about Santa? It’s happy, fun material.

2. It was finite: just 5 pages to start out. I liked that the ratio of tedious labor to fun stuff was weighted in favor of the fun stuff!

3. It was a chance to work yet again with one of my favorite clients.

What was the timeline from contract to launch, and what were the major events along the way?

As you well know, some sites can take many, many months to develop, but that wasn’t the case here. From contract to launch was less than three months, and the actual development time was even less than that–only about a month–but we both had summer travel plans that interrupted the work flow.

More globally, why should authors with established author-oriented sites consider adding a book-specific site to their online marketing efforts? What are the special benefits?

Readers don’t always remember author’s names, but they do tend to remember titles or at least the main topic. Having a site devoted to one book can make finding your book–and subsequently you, the author–easier for the reader.

(Or, in the case of a picture book, for the parent, teacher or librarian shopping for that reader.)

Another way to look at it is if you write for a wide spectrum of ages, or in a number of genres whose audiences don’t tend to overlap, you are more likely to be found through a site devoted to a specific work.

Having both an author-oriented site and book-specific sites means you’re giving your readers many more ways and chances of finding you.

What are key considerations in creating a book-specific site?

The audience for a book-specific site is much more focused than for a more general author site.

With author-oriented sites, you need to take care to be very inclusive, so that all the potential audience members for the site are catered to.

With a book-specific site, you have more opportunity to shape the “brand”—all the design elements can complement the design of the book, for example.

A tougher point to consider might be whether you want to include activities or interactive elements. Kids do love games and quizzes, but the development costs can be substantial.

(My advice to authors who bankroll their own sites is to keep things simple. Make sure what you put up is the best it can be. Better to do less stuff, but do it in a really classy way, than to cobble-together a lot of disparate or amateurish elements. On the other hand, if your publisher is paying, by all means push for bells and whistles!)

You’ve been kind enough to talk to Cynsations before. But could you remind us of your services and where to find out more?

Sure! I specialize in building expressive, unique web sites for individuals (as opposed to businesses or corporations). It’s not the most lucrative way to conduct my business, but it is what I enjoy doing and do best. Most of my clients are authors, artists, and educators.

You can find my biz stuff on the web at Hit Those Keys ( and I also blog intermittently on writing, design and other, more personal, topics at Wild Keys ( Or, feel free to email me at

Is there anything you would like to add?

I happen to believe that the Web is a very exciting medium for authors. There’s a very low barrier-to-entry—it is affordable and yet the reach is enormous.

Creating a web presence is a way to grow as a writer/artist/person. It pushes you to get over yourself and reach out. You can pull in an audience from anywhere in the world, test out new voices and material in real time, and get feedback just as quickly.

And, as ever, Cynthia, I appreciate the opportunity to talk to your readers about what I do!

Cynsational Notes

Come visit the official Santa Knows website!

Lisa also is the talented designer behind my main author site at