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What We Have Here Is an Opportunity to Communicate

The work of web design involves understanding what your clients wish to achieve, helping them refine their goals by focusing on things that can be done (and are worth doing), and ultimately translating those goals into working sites.

While interacting with clients, you're also interfacing with research and marketing folks to find out who is expected to visit the site and what they will demand of it. You'll be translating the anticipated needs of projected visitors into functional and attractive sites—and hoping that visitors want what your client wants them to want. (Try saying that with a mouthful of peanut butter.)

If visitors seek in-depth content, but your client envisioned the site mainly as a sales channel, either the client has fundamentally misunderstood his market (it happens), or your design is sending the wrong messages. To build sites that clearly convey what they are about and how they are to be used, you must first communicate unambiguously with clients, marketers, and researchers.

The site can't communicate unless the people who build it communicate. Ever try to design a logo for a client who could not articulate the target market, product benefits, or desired brand attributes? The same problems crop up in web design unless you are blessed with great clients or are willing to work with the ones you have. Listening may be the most important talent you possess. If your listening skills have grown rusty, you'll have plenty of meetings in which to polish them.

Good web designers are user advocates as well as client service providers. They are facilitators as well as artists and technicians. Above all, they are communicators, matching client offerings to user needs.

As designers, we often look down on clients for reacting according to their personal taste ("I don't like bold type") instead of viewing the work through the eyes of their intended market ("That's just what our customers are looking for"). But web designers commit the same offenses. Some of us become so enamored of our aesthetic and technical skills that we end up talking to ourselves or sending encoded visual messages to our fellow web designers.

As a design professional, you are presumably free of this affliction most of the time. (If not, you'd have found some other line of work by now). Retain that focus (Who am I talking to? What are they looking for?) as you pick up the tools of your new trade. If you emphasize communication above all other goals, you will find yourself enjoying a significant competitive advantage. You'll also design better sites.

Let's expand our definition of the web designer's role.

Definition (Revised)

A web designer is responsible for the look and feel of business-to-business and business-to-consumer websites. Web designers solve their clients' communication problems, leveraging brand identity in a web-specific manner (in other words, in a manner that respects the limitations and exploits the strengths of the web). A web designer understands the underlying technology and works with team members and clients to create sites that are visually and emotionally engaging, easy to navigate, compatible with visitors' needs, and accessible to a wide variety of web browsers and other devices.

The Definition Defined

Let's break this definition into its components:

A web designer is responsible for the look and feel of business-to-business and business-to-consumer websites.

Look and Feel

Just as in print advertising, editorial work, and graphic design work, the look and feel reflects the client's brand, the intended audience, and the designer's taste. Is the site intended for pre-teenage comic book fans? Is it a music site for college students? An entertainment site? A corporate site? An informational or shopping site for a wide, general audience? Is it intended to reach an international visitorship? Or just people from Ohio? (Is visitorship even a word?)

As with any design assignment, you first find out all you can about the client's brand and the audience the client intends to reach and then make appropriate decisions. The terrain will be familiar to you. It includes choosing typefaces, designing logos, selecting or creating illustrations or photographs, developing a color palette, and so on. These familiar tasks change a bit when applied to the Web because the medium embraces certain things (flat color fields, text) while hiccuping on others (full-screen graphics, high-resolution images and typography).

More significantly, "look and feel" decisions extend beyond traditional graphic design and art direction to encompass site-wide navigational architecture. Technological issues play their part as well. A site in which database queries generate results in HTML tables will have a different look and feel than a more traditional content site, or one created in Macromedia Flash. The technological choice does not dictate the look and feel: It can be any kind of HTML table-based layout, any kind of text layout, or any kind of Flash-based design. The choice of technology merely establishes parameters.

Business-to-Business

Business-to-business means one company communicating with another or selling to another. Annoying dot-com types and techno-journalists refer to this as B2B.

The B2B category includes intranet sites (the private, company site of Ogilvy & Mather or Pepsi Cola) and extranets (a steel company's site linked to a broker's site linked to the sites of five customers). Though this part of the web business is hidden from most folks, it is vast and growing. There's no doubt that in your web career, you'll be asked to design some B2B sites. You'll also have to avoid slapping people who say "B2B."

In fact, we'd like to apologize right here for using acronyms such as B2B and B2C. They annoy us as much as they do you. But you might as well get used to them because you'll be hearing them constantly at your job. Besides, as annoying as these acronyms are, they're not nearly as nerve-wracking as ubiquitous venture capitalist phrases such as "burn rate," "built to flip," or "ad-sponsored community play."

We've never understood why these phrases arise, let alone how those who talk that way manage to avoid being beaten with large polo mallets on a daily basis. Our theory is that such phrases make the speakers feel important. As you can probably tell, we didn't have much to say about the business-to-business category because, basically, web design is web design regardless of the acronym attached to a particular category. Vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry—ice cream is ice cream, Jack.

Business-to-Consumer

When most folks think of the Web, they form a mental picture of business-to-consumer sites such as Amazon.com—a business that sells products to consumers like us. Not all B2C sites are overtly hawking products. Yahoo.com is a B2C site. Yahoo! (the business) provides web users with information. It isn't selling anything per se, but it's still B2C because it speaks to consumers and is open to all. It's not hidden on a private network and password-protected, as a B2B site would be. The B2C segment is the most visible part of the web. (We also apologize for using the word "segment.")

Solve Communication Problems

Let's continue with the next part of the job description:

Web designers solve their clients' communication problems, leveraging brand identity in a web-specific manner (in other words, in a manner that respects the limitations and exploits the strengths of the Web).

Using HTML to lay out web pages does not make you a web designer—nor does making pretty pictures in Photoshop. A web designer, like any other designer, is a communications professional who solves problems. Just as a CD cover says something about the music it contains, the band that created the music, and the likely customer, so the site must clearly communicate its structure, content, and purpose in a way appropriate to a specific audience.

Gosh, haven't we made this point before? Yes we have. And yet many web designers will read these words, nod their heads sagely (or maybe just nod off), and then continue to create sites whose appearance has nothing to do with the product, user, or brand.

Brand Identity

As a designer or art director, you know what this means. But what does it mean on the Web? In simplistic terms, and on the most basic level, it means the same kind of work you've done all your professional life: Make the logo bigger. Use the client's color palette.

But on a deeper level, the web designer doesn't merely "use the client's colors" and slap the client's logo on a web page. The web designer uses the site to express and extend the client's brand identity.

Web-Specific

No surprises here. Clear navigation, a search engine, menus and other interactive pieces of the site work to support the aspect of the site's brand.

Restrictions of the Medium

Every medium has limitations. This article, for instance, lacks a soundtrack. You can't bookmark a motion picture (at least, not in the theater—the management might complain), and you can't save printed magazine images to your desktop, though you can often save newsprint to your fingertips.

The Web has many restrictions, as well as strengths. Respecting those limitations and playing to those strengths is a key difference between design and web design. A web page that ignores the medium's restrictions (for instance, by forcing the viewer to download 100K of bloated imagery) or that fails to play to the medium's strengths (for instance, by offering limited interactivity), may be visually beautiful—but it will still be poor web design.

Let's look at the last part of our definition:

A web designer understands the underlying technology and works with team members and clients to create sites that are visually and emotionally engaging, easy to navigate, compatible with visitors' needs, and accessible to a wide variety of web browsers and other devices.

Technology

Web designers have a lot to say about the appropriate technological level for every site they design. Choosing appropriate technology is part of your job as brand steward and user advocate.

Technology choices are essentially decisions about who the site is for. As a communications professional, you should cultivate an informed opinion on this matter. If you don't decide these issues for yourself, somebody else will decide for you, which can have potentially tragic results.

It's also worth repeating that even if you decide the site is primarily for bleeding-edge web enthusiasts, you will want to create alternative pages that are accessible to anyone.

Works With Team Members

Although sites are often driven by a lead designer and technologist (or a lead information designer), web design is nearly always a group effort. Think of your team members as friends. In fact, think of them as family. You'll probably see more of them than you do your friends and family anyway. Then again, as a designer, you may already be used to that.

Visually and Emotionally Engaging

Like we have to define this for you.

Like that ever stopped us.

Beyond functioning appropriately for its intended use and supporting the brand, if your site lacks visual appeal or a coherent and engaging message, all but the most dedicated users will pass it by in favor of a more fulfilling experience elsewhere.

"Form follows function" does not mean "form doesn't matter." Form matters a heck of a lot. Given two functionally equivalent sites, only one of which delights the eye, where would you choose to spend your time? Okay, you're a designer. But given the same two sites, where would your Aunt Martha choose to spend her time? Okay, well, yes, we forgot about Aunt Martha's problem. Anyway, you get the idea.

You did not go into design to make the world duller or uglier. Anyone who tells you a functional site has to be visually plain is suffering from an emotional problem. Don't make their problem yours. (But don't give them ammunition by designing a beautiful but hard-to-use site.)

Sites cannot be emotionally engaging if they don't have a clear purpose and a distinctive, brand-appropriate look and feel. It also helps a great deal if they're well written. Few commercial sites are. If you end up supervising budgets for some of your projects, be sure to leave money for good writers and editors. Great cinematography can only go so far when the script is bad.

Easy To Navigate

An entire article can be written on this point alone. However, for our purposes here, let's just say that if no one can find their way around the site, they aren't going to stay long. Users will try once, maybe twice to find what they need but if they fail, they are more likely to simply find another site that is easier to navigate. Persistent users will sometimes get a determined look on their face and spend hours upon hours digging for that one page they know seems so obvious but isn't there. These people will find what they're looking for once, but only to prove they can and promptly leave to never return.

Compatible With Visitors' Needs

There are three partners in any website—the designer, the client, and the end user.

Get inside the user's head (to the best of your abilities, anyway) to structure and design a site that meets that user's needs. Aside from your Uncle Marvin's personal homepage, no site appeals to just one user. We construct multiple scenarios to forecast the needs of multiple users.

Accessible to a Wide Variety of Web Browsers and Other Devices

The Web is accessed by a wide range of browsers and that each of them has peculiarities, also referred to as incompatibilities. (Other words are also used, but we've given up swearing for Lent.)

Until all browsers support a core group of common standards, you will have to learn the ins and outs of each distressingly different browser and confirm what you think you know by testing your completed designs on as many browsers and platforms as possible. In addition, your sites might need to work in non-traditional browsers and Internet devices such as Palm Pilots and web phones.

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