Facts About Web Design
by Christopher Peruzzi
It’s a very generic term that has been confused with web development, visual design, web usability, information architecture, or just plain web page making. In actuality it is all of these and yet none of them at the same time.
A web designer could simply be a person who creates wire frames of a site. In essence, that’s what he’s doing. He’s designing a site that has yet to be created. He’s making a blueprint. I’ve seen many methods of designing a website. Some people use MS Visio, some use PhotoShop, and some use very expensive software packages like Adobe Dreamweaver or MS Frontpage.
A real web designer starts simply. His tools are a pen, pencil, markers, ruler, graphing paper, a set of requirements, and the piece of gray matter that is conveniently located between his two ears and behind his eyes.
The field of web design is one that is constantly being made over and redefined as the field gets more competitive and as technologies get more and more complex. However, the simplicity of creating something that can eventually be put onto the internet does not change.
The beauty of web design is that in its strictest definition, the only things you should really need is a few basic rules about presentation and a goal for the site usage. I say this because in the beginning of making any website a lot of really stupid questions need to be answered first.
It requires patience and practicality. It is a delicate balance between art, business, and technology. It delves into the most primary part of a consumer/researcher and is used to not only figure what the customer wants but made in a way that he’ll be able to go where you want him to go without him realizing he did.
I’ve been working in the web technology world since 1996. I’ve worked as a designer, as a website quality assurance tester, as an analytics reporter, and as a web project manager. What I can tell you is that the one constant in website production is that a lot of stupid questions need to be asked and answered before you put pen to paper, fire up a graphics program, or even accept a job or assignment.
Here’s a few of them:
- Why do you need a website designed?
I know. That’s a really stupid question. Every business in the world should have a web presence one way or the other. That’s how people are doing their consumer research. Whether you run a school, a deli shop, a restaurant, or a small business, you need a website. The problem is that people know they need a website, but they are completely unprepared on what it means as far as preparation, purpose, or monthly site maintenance.
All they know is “I want a website.”
Should that be the case, there a hundreds of web solutions available that don’t require any kind of web expertise whatsoever. All they need to do is pop in their content, logo, and give a credit card number. The service will take care of the rest. Unfortunately, they still may not know why they needed a website to begin with. And what’s more, they may have something that may not really suit their needs when it comes to marketing their business properly.
- Do you have content for your website?
I have seen more web projects crash and burn due to the inability of a client who is not only unwilling to answer this question but also unwilling to provide content.
I’ve seen websites go up from start to finish as quickly as three weeks. I’ve also been on projects that have taken over a year to produce. The difference? Content.
What are you trying to say? What is your business about? Who are you? What makes you different from every other widget producer in town? Who is your customer audience? Why should they care about you? Where are you located? What are your business hours? Do you deliver?
A web designer not only can’t answer these questions, he shouldn’t answer these questions. Only the client knows his business. What you might be able to suggest to a client is that he get in touch with a freelance copywriter who can provide not only answers to these questions but also done in a way that makes it optimized for web search engines.
I suggest two things: that he meet with a FLCW (Freelance Copywriter). They will be able to answer these questions. Secondly, that when they are near completion that they forward you what I call a web content matrix. Essentially, that’s an outline of everything they are going to say but have yet to say it. It will give the designer an idea or how many and what kind of pages need to be designed.
- What do you need your site to do?
These are requirements. This is part of your contract. The answer to this question will let you know who else needs to be involved in this project. While you may be a crackerjack website designer, you may not have the necessary backend experience you need to tie a website to an interactive database.
You may need a web developer as well. This is the guy who will be able to tie your brilliant design to code that will make your website into the necessary web application it needs to be. It will also define where your expertise begins and ends. You may be both, depending on your expertise and experience. Depending on the parameters of what the client wants, you may need to consult with a developer to get an idea of what type of hosting company should run your site.
- Who is going to maintain the site?
Yeah. It’s nice to have a website. However, you should have someone on your staff who will have the expertise to be able to change the content every so often. Websites that change content often attract search engines. The more search engines that can find your site through either web visits or pertinent keywords in the site’s content, the better that site is found by your customer base.
If the client has no one on their site who is not web savvy enough to edit HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), you may need to see a content management system solution. These are fairly common and make content maintenance an easy chore for any secretary or clerk without them having to know some of the deeper complexities of the web world.
If the client has no one and if you have the expertise, you can volunteer to charge an hourly rate for any of the necessary edits that have to be done to the website. This is good and bad. It’s good because it’s extra money. It’s bad because it’s like being married to your client and needing to be at their beck and call – at least during business hours. My suggestion is to make your hourly rate high enough to keep him from asking for unnecessary stupid edits but low enough to get a good price for your time and trouble.
- Where do you need your clients to go?
Now we get to the real meat of the design. This tackles many of the main issues of web usability. It will affect where and what type of buttons you use in a site. It will affect how you design the site. It will also dictate how many clicks the user has to make to get to a page where he either learns about the product he needs or actually purchases the product through an ecommerce solution.
What you need to do, once you get this answer, is figure into your design specs the best usability approach to drive customers to that page.
- What’s the message or feeling you need to give to the user?
There is a lot to say about the look and feel about a site – especially in the unspoken message in what colors you use. My guide is to base it on the client’s logo (if he has one). If you have that you can make a triad or something complementary to it. The right color scheme can create a warm happy message or one that says, “We sell refrigerators”.
- When do you need the site?
It’s a fair yet direct question. If they are asking you to work an eighteen hour day to get a site done in three weeks, you have every right to charge an appropriate rate for your time. Remember, they are paying for the set of skills and what you plan on delivering to them. You must account for revisions and the unanticipated problems that come with every website production.
What do you need to do?
Make a website, do everything your client asks, and live a life of sad indentured servitude.
What you need to do is put in writing exactly what you will be responsible for as a designer. While it’s good to have enough knowledge to be “one stop shopping”, if you are going to be a web designer you will need to have very specific goals documented as your deliverables.
You may be on the hook for the rough design (wireframes done on paper), the design (wireframes done on MS Visio and MS PowerPoint), and a limited number of look and feel proposals (done on paper), and then once the rough proposal is accepted to come up with a PhotoShop composite of the actual site.
While you may not need to do comps on every page of the site, you will need to do AT LEAST a representation of the page types (ie – Home Page, Vanity Page, Details Page, Landing Pages). If you are doing this as part of your own business, you need to put this in writing. If you are a web designer for a large corporation, they will be part of the project manager’s project plan.
This is not a profession for people who are thin skinned.
Your work will be constantly under scrutiny. You will need to make revisions based on the ideas of people who are clueless. Most of the suggestions will be inspired by something they heard in a bar or read in a book or article somewhere.
While they know nothing, you need to have a good way about people and make an unimpassioned argument for your case. If they tell you no, do what they say – in the end, they are paying you.
I recommend that at the end of any project that you make a screen shot of your finished unblemished work. If you are the person who is doing the work from start to finish, then you should make a record of what the site was like before your client decided that they’d “improve” your site. There is nothing worse than showing your online portfolio and finding the URLs that you gave the potential customer, client, or company ruined by some lout who can’t design his way out of a paper bag.
Also, you should have the services of a lawyer. There have been cases where a client will see your proposals and tell you that your work is not what they are looking for. In a few months, when you see your ripped off design on their URL, you should be able to either sue them or have them take the site down.
This is your hard work. This is your profession. You will not only need to become adept at usability, but also keep your technological expertise constantly up to date. That knowledge and experience has a price tag.
All that being said, I will say that I have worked on designing websites that have been personally and professionally rewarding. There is always something new and interesting to learn and so long as there’s an internet and people who like pretty things, you may have some work.
I recommend this career for any young person who’s looking to marry IT with marketing and advertising. It will make you old and keep you young at the same time.