The dust may have settled on your Turkey leftovers, but we’re keeping the spirit going with a feast for your eyes and a peek into our recipe for a creative part of Ask.com. Today we’re dishing out a “making of” blog post about our holiday themes. Few destinations on the Web do it the way we do it.

Many sites recognize special days each season, but we’ve never really settled for a “doodle” to do the job. If you’ve visited us on holidays, you’d know that Ask.com does it big: a custom-crafted image decks the homepage. As the artist behind the scenes, imagine a digital age version of the iconic painter Bob Ross… equipped with Photoshop skills poised to paint “happy little trees”… or turkeys, as the case may be. It’s been a fun facet of my role on the UX team since the start of this art direction’s style in 2008.



I’ve thought about rolling out the visual décor for any major Holiday probably more so than your local Walgreens does. Internally, they’re known as “HPTO’s” (homepage takeovers), which begins with one designer choosing the right images to source and purchase from stock libraries like pieces to a puzzle that has yet to exist.

Concepts for themes are born at the crossroads of topical and visual relevance.
 
Two tenets apply across the board:
1. Support and enhance the “Question of the Day” feature in a monumental way.
2. Meeting the challenge of creating a visually delightful tribute for the occasion.
 
This time around, the Question of the Day asked the audience…

We get the ball rolling like this:

  • pre-planning of the concept with our Web Producer, Holly Boston
  • pre-production and sourcing for visuals (searching through hundreds)
  • in a couple rounds, create a completed scene by adding the “secret sauce” in Photoshop to weave a composition together

Creative formula applied to HPTO compositions:

  1. Main hero object as the focal point of the theme
  2. Out-of-focus foreground and background.
  3. Vignette of several adjustment layers creating a style of outershadows
  4. Optional: some background “characters” like these gobblers

Defining UI factors and technical aspects:

  1. Remaining sensitive to and complementing the UI rather than interfering with it.
  2. Users of a range of browser resolutions can “get” what the theme conveys no matter how they slice it. Users with higher resolutions can see the full panorama in a widescreen view.
  3. Optimizing it (jpegmini works like a charm!)
  4. Being well crafted for the time invested, allowing for a review cycle after the first draft has been created.

These benchmarks and image architectures are applied from Valentine’s Day to the winter holidays when production really ramps up. 

To recap, here’s the “Live Turkey” which ran (as seen in a final snapshot on my laptop, after dinner, with myself firmly implanted on the sofa next to it) on Thanksgiving Day – Thursday November 24, 2011:



Creatively, we look for ways to be inventive even if the theme must suit the same occasions every year; there are many ways to visually interpret a holiday. As the Ask.com UI changed considerably to support new initiatives, the scale of HPTOs adapted while the creative secret sauce and technical recipes remained. Our next round of creative features will undoubtedly adapt with the Web, while also remaining a celebratory tradition as much as the holidays themselves at Ask.
 
If you’d like to follow my path as an artist on the UX team at Ask.com, and beyond, find me on Twitter @dianafurka