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What makes for good web site graphic design?

Summary: Graphic design for web sites is more limited than for print media.

Good graphic design supports your marketing message and promotes good usability and accessibility.

The best way to evaluate your web site's design is to observe your customers while they try to use it. Testing should begun early in development and be done at each stage of site development.

You can save yourself a lot of expense and worry by knowing one fact about web design: The visual design of web sites is different from print media design.

Graphic design for the web is limited

The web was originally planned as a purely text medium without graphics. It's only been since the mid 1990s that designers have been pushing the graphic potential of the web.

Web site layout offers fewer options than magazine layout or desktop publishing

To give just one example, print designers have strong control over the size, color, weight, and texture of the paper on which their designs will be printed.

Web designers, in contrast, can't specify the "paper" for their designs. Web users may be viewing web pages with CRT desktop monitors, tiny LCD displays on cell phones, or digital media projectors that fill huge screens.

In addition, web designers have only partial control over how visitors will view colors, fonts, size of window, and many other elements of the design. In another article, I list many examples of web designers' limited control of the appearance of web pages due to user settings, hardware limitations, and software limitations.

There's no way to make your web site look exactly the same on every display

Web design is a series of compromises. Perfection is impossible. Trying to create the same look on every display would be a pointless waste of your money. Web designers must create designs that adapt gracefully to a wide variety of situations.

One advantage of these limitations is that they encourage us to pay closer attention to what really matters: your web site's content and how users experience it.

Graphic design for web sites satisfies several distinct needs

Graphic design for web sites isn't just about creating an attractive screen.

Good graphic web design supports your message

We're all drowning in an ocean of advertising, so it's hard to win your target audience's attention. An essential role of graphic design is to interest your audience in reading your message.

Web site graphic design represents your business visually. Is your business cutting edge or homey? Casual or formal? Are you aiming for the upper crust or the middle class? What emotional benefit do you provide your customers? A good design can communicate these qualities.

Good graphic design will distinguish your business from your competition. This is why your designer must understand your marketing strategy, and should probably be involved in planning your strategy.

Web site graphic design contributes to usability

"Usability" refers to the degree to which users can interact with your site successfully and efficiently. A site has good usability if users can easily understand how your site's information is arranged and how to operate your site. You might think of usability as a measure of user-friendliness.

Why is usability important?

  • The more distracted visitors are by having to figure out how to use your web site, the less attention they can give to your message.
  • A positive or negative experience with your web site reflects on your business as a whole. If visitors find your web site unusually easy to use, they're likely to associate your business with quality, satisfaction, and professionalism.
  • If usability problems prevent visitors from finding what they're looking for, you'll lose those customers to another site.

If you want an effective, successful web site, it must have excellent usability. In part, this is achieved by making the site consistent with the expectations of users and consistent with itself.

Graphic web design also affects accessibility

"Accessibility" is making sure that anyone can use your web site. A site is accessible if it is usable, regardless of physical, sensory, or cognitive disabilities, and no matter what technology is used to interact with your site.

If accessibility seems like a minor concern, you might be surprised to learn that 20% of Americans have a disability, and 55% of those over 65 years do.

Evaluating a web site's graphic design

Evaluating the artistic aspects of a web site's design can be difficult unless you have a very good eye. Even an excellent artist will often ask others for feedback. But, as we saw above, there is more to a web site's graphic design than just the aesthetic qualities.

One method used to evaluate web sites is the "expert review," in which someone with experience imagines what problems the site's users might have.

A more reliable method is to find out how a design affects your customers by observing them directly. With this method, observers watch as testers use your web site to complete a set of tasks.

Many business owners incorrectly assume that they know their customers. This assumption has been disproven many times. It is rare that the business owner or the designer have the same perspectives and expectations as the customers. User testing almost always uncovers issues that the owner and designer couldn't see.

Who is the audience?

In a sense, the only people whose opinions matter are the people who will be buying your product or service. Visitors who come to the site to read your information but have no intention of buying are not customers.

Generally, you and your employees are not customers. You and your staff could be considered "customers" if you use the site to make internal business processes quicker and easier. In this sense, staff are customers when the site is used to process employee sign-up for training, to take job applications, or to create and access customer service records.

As a matter of pride, of course, you—as the site owner—will want to identify with the site's design, just as I—as the designer—will want to feel good about my work. But it's important to keep in mind who the ultimate audience is: paying customers. Your testers should match your customers as closely as possible.

What response does the visual design produce?

Even though individually our design preferences are often highly subjective, any site will draw predictable and generally-shared responses. Your testers don't need to know design theory. They give useful feedback simply by reporting their experiences as they use the web site.

The question to ask is: "What kinds of responses does the design evoke?"

  • What associations and feelings does your customer have when they look at your web site?
  • Does the design fit the intended positioning of the business?
  • Is the navigation easy to understand and use?
  • Is it obvious what the links, headings, and labels on each page refer to?
  • What do users pay attention to on the site? Do they actually read the content?
  • Can they find what they want?
  • Can they complete their tasks?

When is the best time to test a graphic design?

You might think of testing as adding to the expense of developing a web site. Not so. You'll actually save time and money, if testing is begun early in development and done at each stage of site development. Why? Because it's easier to change a design aspects while you're creating them. Problems that are noticed only after the design is completed will inevitably cost more to fix.

Before closing this topic, let's list a few of the most common graphic errors in web design.

Seven common mistakes with the graphic design of web sites

  1. Image files are too large. If your larger images are over 10-20k in size, they will take too long to download. Small images should be closer to 2-4k.
  2. Too many images are used on one page. Each additional image slows download times. Especially bad are designs composed of one huge image which is then "sliced" into smaller images that can be laid out in a table.
  3. Images are used to show text. Plain (html) text is faster downloading and, in many cases, easier to understand. In addition, text in images is not yet searchable, so text in images will hurt your web site's search engine ranking.
  4. The layout uses frames or tables. These methods were widely used in the past. The preferred method today is Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).
  5. The layout is cluttered and confusing, making it hard to find things. A visual layout must be so obvious that a total newcomer will not struggle in finding their way around your web site.
  6. Pointless use of Flash or animated gifs. In very few cases do these add value for your customers. Movement on a web page is usually distracting or even annoying. These animations also require such long download times that some visitors will leave before reading your message.
  7. The visual appearance of the site is dated, amateur, or otherwise in conflict with the professional image and positioning of the business. The use of color, line, image, and pattern requires skill and talent that the average person has not cultivated. Visual tastes change over time. Many businesses choose a "classic" look, which is likely to stay fresh looking longer.

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