In the first of our blogs about Oil Internet’s core services, we look at the importance of design within a web project. Can a website be truly beautiful without being usable? What steps are involved in the design process? And how can websites be designed to relate to your offline materials and branding?
When it comes to websites, we’re not convinced that beauty is actually in the eye of the beholder. There are just too many potential beholders to enable such a singular definition of beauty.
Instead, we’d argue that beauty is a by-product of intuitiveness, usability, thorough planning, inspiration, perspiration and quite a few conceptual cul-de-sacs. Admittedly, that’s not quite as catchy a phrase as dumping beauty directly into someone’s eye, though.
Perhaps what we’re really trying to say is that with the development web projects, beauty shouldn’t be the solitary aim. Of course, not many people set out to develop a hideous website. But beauty is just one of the central characters. It should share the stage with immediacy, ease-of-use, consistency, flexibility and, as far as is possible, future-proofing. Truly beautiful web projects combine the aesthetic with the utilitarian – allowing users to find what they need quickly and intuitively, preferably presenting that information elegantly and attractively and adapting to changing requirements over time. When it comes to web projects, beauty means little if isolated from usability.
When we first commence work on the design of a website, our approach could be argued to be distinctly scattergun. Initially, we try to have an open conversation with our client and subject them to a very amicable version of the Spanish Inquisition. What are their main goals for the new web project? Who is their target audience? Are there more than one? What do these audiences expect to see on the website? And what don’t they want to see? How will the audience find their new website? Does the client have competitors? What makes them different? What unites them? What content will the site display? How should the site be structured? Which web projects do they like and which do they hate? What, outside of bits and bytes, inspires them? What frustrates them? And, of course, the predictable usual suspects – is there a fixed deadline and what sort of budget is available?
Assuming that the client survives this barrage of queries (always delivered with a smile!), we then have much of what we first need to go on. At this point, we tend to disappear for a little while. Into the dark arts of design. Seeking inspiration in the strangest sources, grappling with a blank canvas and all that.
But we don’t like to mystify design at Oil Internet. In fact, we prefer to involve our clients within the process as much as possible. We ask for regular feedback and request that our clients be as open, honest and frank as they can be. We know how to build websites, but our clients are the experts when it comes to their audiences – so any successful design will be, by definition, reliant upon both parties. And our clients can help us with their own website content. As users navigate through a website, it’s crucial that they find the content most relevant to them as and when they need it. So we give a huge amount of thought to how to best present the user with the right content at the right time – and helping them to make the right decisions. Whether that’s a specific call to action or just providing relevant support, it’s just a part of ensuring excellent usability – and something that we work on directly with clients through the use of wireframes and other planning tools.
Equally, design evolves out of purpose. For example, the visual aims for our personality websites, such as those of Michael Palin and Antonio Carluccio, differ hugely to those involved in informational projects such as Thomas Goode and Tunstall Property, or not-for-profit sites like Action for Stammering Children.
Furthermore, web design isn’t just pretty accounting. There are few obvious answers and what’s right for one person is wrong for another. Design is highly subjective and, at its best and most potent, thrives on and evinces charged and sometimes contradictory emotions.
And website design is not an island. Okay, nobody suggested that it was – but what we mean is that website design normally has to connect with other mediums. In the vast majority of instances, your web project will need to link with offline branding, other products, third parties and/or further projects with which you’re involved. So it’s important that you get your website look and feel right. And make it flexible. Designing something that looks perfect in pixels isn’t much help if it appears pathetic in print. And creating a website that is out of step with your other marketing mediums will confuse your users. As a result, we spend time talking with you about your existing branding and the environments within which it is used. We like to see website design as part of an overall picture, and not the entire picture itself.
Perhaps most importantly, website design is not just how you see yourself. It’s also how your audience views you. The more guidance you give them – the more assistance you provide in making it clear who you are, what you do and what you stand for – the more confident your users will be that they understand who you are, and the greater your opportunities will be for disseminating your message. You’re not force-feeding your audience, but you are holding their hand – guiding them where they want to go and showing them what they need to see. Whether you’re trying to sell products, entertain or inform, if you provide an immediate, intuitive and unpretentious design, you’ll take more of your users with you. Which is good for you and for them.
In initial website design conversations, many of our clients will effectively recite the common art mantra: “I don’t know much about this, but I know what I like”. And that’s the most important instinct there is. We can’t tell you when to have it, but we can work with you to make your website design as likeable as possible. For you and for your users.