A Web Site’s Look: Thinking about Web Site Design as Part of Online Strategy
Maybe you already have a web site and think its look needs an update or re-do. Maybe you are starting from scratch. Here are some tips and questions to ask to think about the look of a web site from a content perspective, to plan for change, and to execute and evaluate that change.
A Web Site = 4 Inter-Related Aspects
Each web site is the sum of the following:
The 4 are necessarily related and any thoughts about tweaking the look (or developing the look of a new web site) have to take the other 3 aspects into account. Think about it:
- Content is the text the reader will see—the guts of the site. Typically, and according to best practices as they have evolved, content is broken into distinct web pages (structure) that are related (function). Individual web pages are often chunked into lists, paragraphs, columns, etc. (structure again). The look of each page ties the whole together.
- Structure is how the content is organized visually, including how one navigates from the home page, what headings are used, where the menu bar falls, etc. Structure necessarily relates to function and look…
- Function is the most technical aspect and answers a lot of questions that relate to both structure and content—e.g., How are pages linked? Are they categorized and tagged? Should the “About Us” page have sub-pages for each lead role in an organization? Can comments be made and how? Are they mediated or not?
- Look is the sum of everything visual in the web site—photos, illustrations, graphics, colour choices, the grid of columns, the weight of text and use of white space, the line of the menu bar, and so on. So the look relates necessarily to content, structure, and function.
With the inter-relatedness in mind, here are some steps to addressing the look of a web site, either existing or new. In terms of planning, execution, and evaluation, discuss steps 1, 2, and 3 even before meeting with a designer, and be prepared to return to them. Design (in fact, any creative activity) is recursive and means juggling many balls at a time.
- Evaluate where you are. Do you have a web site already and feel it needs an update? a visual overhaul? What user comments and other specific feedback lead you to that conclusion? What specifically in the content, structure, function, and look needs change? And what might be the implications of these changes?
- Resources—Do you have a designer or design team in place? What money and time is allocated to this? Who must be involved in the process of developing the design requirements, reviewing proposals, and approving the final?
- Likes and dislikes—What in existing web sites can you point to that you like and don’t like? What do web sites of your competitors look like and of them, which stand out and for what reasons? What features and functions seems useful and effective?
- Think personality. What image does the web site need to project? What is your brand? Outline the goal of any changes in terms of personality, tone of voice, and immediate impression. These are ways of thinking that will help the designer know what you are after.
- Think templates. The first time I had a web site designed, it was essentially from scratch. In 2011, however, an update was entirely possible with templates. There is a huge range of templates now available and an able designer can customize extensively. Essentially, templates ensure that the designer does not need to reinvent the wheel. Note, however, a choice of template can limit structure and function; clarify what the opportunities and limits of a particular template are.
- Finally, less is more. This is my bias: clean, uncluttered design that is visually welcoming and engaging for the targeted reader wins every time. When in doubt, present fewer visuals (but each one better) and present less text (but tighter, more focused text). Think like the reader/user to present your brand with care.
For more about web sites from a design angle, you might want to see:
- Yahoo! Style Guide book and web site—yes, I keep promoting this; it’s authoritative and broad.
- Effective Website Design
- The Big Decisions About Design and How to Make Them