design & marketing blog
Marketing, design, and technical resources for making your digital and print communications more effective.
To my recollection, I’ve never made mention on this blog of a specific Website as an example of being truly great. While no one has elected me as the design judge of the Internet, nor will any great people likely take notice of this post, I am compelled to call out a Website that I’ve been captivated by for some time and that serves as a great example of the principles that we here at RisingLine advocate every day.
No, it’s not RisingLine.com (although I have to admit I think quite highly of that design), and before I continue I should disclose that I have absolutely no ulterior motive in praising the site I’m about to mention . . . no referral fees, or kickbacks of any kind.
So enough with the rambling, MediaTemple.net is the site to which I am directing my compliments. The first thing a visitor to their site will notice is that graphic design is extremely powerful but not overpowering. . . minimalist, detail oriented, clean, modern, just plain classy. It does what a graphic design is supposed to—provide a professional backdrop to the content of the site which beams credibility without distracting from the message.
I have to assume by the continued proliferation of shabbily designed sites on the Web that many don’t realize just how important design is. As we like mention, over and over, research has shown that a shockingly high percentage of people make a judgment call about the credibility of a company within seconds of visiting a Website based primarily on the graphic design (see the Stanford Web Credibility Research site for more insight on this topic). While my high school history teacher did not find it amusing when I offered to turn in a picture instead of the assigned 1,000 word essay, it really is true that a picture (or for our purposes a design) is worth a 1,000 words of credibility, and all that communicated in the blink of an eye.
A very common misconception is that an effective design is one that has a lot of swirls, colors, moving things and flashy graphics. While those types of sites might be appropriate in some instances (although I can’t think of any of the top of my head) professional Websites have a demanding purpose to concisely communicate value propositions and persuade their prospects to buy. Much Web design we see out there does more to distract from those goals than reach them. Media Temple offers us a great example of a well refined goal-oriented design that delivers their message with just a touch of panache.
Even the best graphic design is of no real use without concise messaging, clear communication flow and easy to understand navigation. These disciplines are collectively known as usability and are achieved exceptionally well by Media Temple. What’s even more impressive in this accomplishment is that the unique value of Media Temple’s hosting solutions are considerably more challenging to communicate than their competitors because they really are unique. Media Temple provides virtualized hosting accounts that are spread across a grid of resources as compared to the typical shared hosting company that sticks customers on a server in their farm to fight with the other squatters for finite resources. Based on my experience using their product, Media Temple’s solutions live up to the grand impression they make on their Website.
While I’m not going to get into the details, the usability of their client-side administration panel and knowledge base impresses me even more than their front end. I recently spent some time in Media Temple’s Grid-Service environment testing the CMS platform we develop on (coincidentally their hosting platform provided the most consistent high performance of any of the many shared hosting environments we’ve tested in) and I had a hard time tearing myself away from their administration panel when our project was complete.
Hats off to Media Temple for their great achievement and many kudos for providing us all a great example of what the Web should look like.
Graphic design is the first thing that many Web site owners and managers think about when they seek out the services of a Web developer. There is no denying that the graphic design element of a Web site is important, in fact research shows that design has an immense and immediate effect on your visitors. Within moments, about 1/2 of those visitors will make a judgment on the credibility of your company based solely on the quality of your graphic design. So design is immensely important, just like a foundation is important for a building. The foundation must be solid and it must come first but without the building on top it acheives little.
Without design being part of a holistic strategic approach to communication, it becomes impotent. A site with no design will trump the most artistically original site if the former has quality content and offers intuitive and easy to use solutions to its target visitors needs. The classic example is the most visited and arguably most successful Web site in the world: Google.
Web sites are a lot like people, their success is ultimately based on the value they contain, not their outward appearance. This is vital to understand so that design is put into its proper place. Web design is still important, it just has to be the dressing for content of real value.
Google is like one of those geniuses who are so recognizable and brilliant that they can get away with wearing an old t-shirt and jeans to deliver a key-note speech. It’s fair to say the brilliance of most of us is not as common knowledge.
Web design is the same, once the foundation of quality content is present, professional and usable design is an excellent catalyst to facilitate communicating the value of your site. In my next post I’ll get into some specifics about our philosophy and methods for designing Web sites that are modern, appealing and clearly communicate the values of your organization.
Web design, when compared to printed design, has some unique pros and cons. A big “pro” is the flexibility of publishing to the Web. A printed marketing piece is designed once and published—most organizations don’t find it plausible to go back and reword a paragraph after 10,000 copies have already been printed.
With Web publishing it’s relatively easy to have a Web developer make changes after the initial publication and the cost is nominal. Content Management Systems like our own WebSite 2.0 take this benefit a step further by allowing even those who aren’t trained web developers to easily login to their site and make text and graphic changes.
On the “con” side of Web publishing a big challenge is insuring your target audience views your publication as you intended. Each type of Web browser interprets how to display any given page of HTML code—for example Internet Explorer may display a page of HTML differently than FireFox or Safari. Noticeable discrepancies can manifest even within different versions of the same browser. So, a site design tested only with Internet Explorer 7 may look great in that browser, but look like a mess in another. While this is a challenge, the risk can be mitigated by testing the majority a site’s design and layout on the most popular browsers which are reported monthly by W3C and presently consist of FireFox, Internet Explorer 6 and Internet Explorer 7.
Not only should a Web sites appearance in popular browsers be considered, but also the individual operating environment that any given user may set themselves should be taken into consideration. For example, if the default font size is set too small by the designer (a common occurrence in my observation) users may be inclined to increase the text display size in their browsers. When this happens the browser will reformat a Web page to fit the larger text. It’s prudent to first choose a readable text size and then to design a site to look presentable when text size is kicked up a notch or two.
Another important consideration of your site should be the size of monitor (i.e. the pixel resolution) that your target audience is likely to be using. There are two basic types of design to accommodate this: fixed width and liquid or floating width. There are a lot of considerations when deciding which route to go, but in general, business sites are most often fixed width (as you’ll notice by surging through Fortune 500 sites) with liquid width sites typically being to best suited for sites with lots of text copy…reference sites, academic sites, or blogs for example.
Business oriented sites often fall into two categories. The first, to take fresh prospects through a sequential process of establishing your credibility/trustworthiness and persuading them to become a customer. The second is accommodating existing clients who are retrieving information, executing transactions, making a payment, viewing schedules, etc. The best practice principles of persuasion and usability lend themselves most often to fixed width design because fixed width designs allow more control over the visual presentation quality and encouraging concise bill-board style statements and discourage verbose copy that statistics show most people don’t read and find counter productive to their goals of being on a site.
Sometimes, there is an impression that the “white space” displayed to left and right of a fixed width design is undesirable. While each situation is unique, this empty space is often a benefit when attempting to communicate to a Web audience. A computer monitor full of text/graphics dilutes messaging by creating clutter. As Steve Krug points out in his classic, Don’t Make Me Think, one of the most common roadblocks to creating persuasive and effective Web sites is too much copy . . . he advocates designing Web sites with a “billboard” mindset—concise, appealing messages that tell the target visitor what they need to know without having to wade through clutter.
The white space, which coincidentally is only noticeable on displays larger than the site was optimized for, can in fact create a very desirable mechanism to funnel your prospects attention to the most important statements about your organization. That’s why you may have recalled seeing those full page Wall Street Journal ads, that some deep-pocketed corporation paid a large sum for, that are mostly white space. It’s draws a reader who is being overloaded with pages of information like an oasis in the deserts and captures their full attention.
At the risk of this post becoming verbose itself, I’ll stop here and post more on this topic in the future. As I’ve done before, I highly recommend that anyone responsible for a professional Web site read the aforementioned book by Steve Krug. It’s not a book about the technicalities of Web design, but provides an invaluable executive guide to understand the fundamentals of an effective and profitable Web site.