Why design should not be left to the designers

The absence of hard-and-fast rules about website design make it essential that non-technical executives keep a watch on the brief.

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In design, as in most things on the internet, there are few hard and fast rules. It all depends on what you are trying to do with your site.
This is why it is essential that senior non-technical managers within an organisation keep a close watch on the design brief. It is all too easy for designers to include features that add visual pzazz, without considering whether they are commercially desirable (biggest current sin: overuse of Flash software).
Take a look at Cisco System’s site. Its home page consists of nothing but text links – visual appeal is almost nil, yet it is perfectly appropriate for a site used as working tool by IT managers with high-mileage computers. Now look at the Absolut vodka site. All singing, all dancing, packed with funky technology – but fine for Absolut’s young audience, which will typically visit it late at night on powerful home machines. Appropriateness is all.
More rarely, designers may be too restrained. One issue that managers will know better than designers is how many likely users have broadband connections. If a good proportion of them do, heavy graphics and even the judicious use of Flash may well be appropriate. On a more technical note, make sure that your site looks good on all browsers, and on Macs as well as PCs.

Six rules that generally hold good

1: Be striking and original

Signal your presence with flair: make your site stand out from the crowd. Whatever its purpose – to sell, market, inform or entertain – an unusual look will catch the attention of first-time visitors, and draw them into your online presence. Most skill is required where it is appropriate to be serious and tempting to be dull – but here a little flair can lift a site above its competitors. Standard Chartered Bank uses ‘handwriting’ to add an edge to a big bank site. For the uninspired option, see Deutsche Bank or ABN-Amro.
Have a look, too, at some of the central banking sites – surely an area where we should not expect too much visual flair but one where attention to detail makes a big difference. Banque de France uses rich colours to add interest, while the Banco de Mexico goes for minimalism with plenty of white space and the Bank of England makes good use of its imposing building to provide a visual lift on each page. The US Federal Reserve has a mundane home page that is saved by an image (an eagle) in the centre: try disabling images and reloading the page to see how the site loses all focus.
2: Be clear

Limit the decorations: a crisp look eases navigation and comforts visitors. Some websites cram too many graphics and other baubles onto their home page, disorientating users and undermining the messages the site’s owners are trying to get across. A more restrained approach, as well as being more usable, can also look more sophisticated: the British Museum’s wonderful home page is a good example.
3: Be resolute

Keep on top of the politics. As the site grows, make sure the home page does not become cluttered: this is usually more a matter of internal politics than anything else. however hard your colleagues press to have ‘their’ link featured on the home page, add it only if it fits with the design. Dropdown boxes can be an effective way of adding links without adding clutter: collapsible navigation boxes such as those provided by Cable & Wireless and ICI are a stylish extension of this concept.
4: Be harmonious

Ensure that the design of all the sections fit well together. This does not mean that every section has to look identical – an over-homogeneous look can be tedious and even confusing. But try to make sure different areas have some common feel. As with navigation [see issue 8], wild variation in appearance and layout between sections can be bewildering for visitors. Companies with many subsidiaries often fall at this hurdle; once again, political rather than visual skill is likely to be the key element.
5: Be ready to evolve

Never be afraid to change your spots: the Web is a constantly evolving medium, and a site’s design should change regularly too. This helps guard against users tiring of the site, and encourages them to keep coming back. (Think again of Flash intros – three years ago they were new and funky; now they are a cliché).
6: Be open to innovation

Keep an eye on the cutting edge. Many online design innovations appear on entertainment and non-commercial sites long before they find their way onto corporate home pages. Not to say that you should necessarily use them – but it is worth at least knowing what is in the shop. If you use the web at home, note interesting-looking sites you come across – and ask your colleagues, children and in-laws to do the same.

First published 26 February, 2003
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