Paul Thornton - Wednesday 22nd February 2012

Are Graphic Designers killing the web?

This week I read a really interesting post on The Guardian about just this topic (you can have a read here), and it got me thinking. The author obviously set out to be slightly controversial (not unusual for readers of The Guardian) and perhaps takes it slightly to the point of exaggeration, but he does raise a really interesting question and one which we’ve discussed here a few times before. So let’s start with one simple fact: designing websites is not the same as doing graphic design. That’s probably upset a whole load of people, but it’s the truth. My very favourite quote about design is from Steve Jobs who said about design that “’s not just what it looks like and feels like. It’s how it works.”
(I read his biography over Xmas and couldn’t recommend it highly enough. Buy it here)

So let’s think about this and how it applies to web design. And to why we think graphic designers are killing the web. In fact, before we do that, let’s quantify that last sentence a bit more in the hope that any graphic designers reading this don’t feel completely offended…What I mean is this: graphic designers who build websites based around what the clients want for their brand are killing the web for users.

How do you design a website? So many websites that we see seem to be designed by brand/graphic designers using the client’s brand guide and not much else. End result? The client loves their website, thinks it looks great with all their business cards and print ads and recommend their designer to everyone they know. After all, they love their website and that’s the important thing, isn’t it? The answer to that is, resoundingly, no. We meet very few clients with a detailed understanding of what it takes to do business online. And we meet nearly as few graphic designers with this skill. The reason is that web design, as Mr Jobs would have it, is about how something works.

What’s the purpose of your website? I think it really breaks down to 2 things: to give visitors what they’re want as efficiently as possible and with the best experience; the second is for your website to get visitors to do what your business needs them to do. If you didn’t make a list of these things before the design process began, or if your graphic designer didn’t, then I absolutely guarantee you that your website isn’t performing as efficiently as it could be. The problem with design is that everyone has an opinion on it, and because they all use the internet, they tend to think they know what’s right and what’s wrong. When we couple this with a designer who’s designing for the client any way, is it any wonder that we see so many websites which are all about looking pretty, and not at all about doing business online? (Doing business doesn’t necessarily mean selling something). Of course functionality doesn’t have to come at the expense of good design, far from it. But it’s not subservient to design.

Right – time to pick on someone! Have a look at Britomart’s website. Pretty isn’t it? Nice colours, cool fonts and it looks like something that would make a great print ad. And I bet the client loved it when they saw it. Now look again: did you even notice that the top blue bar is the navigation? The vast majority of people we asked in our totally unscientific user survey had no idea at all. Those pretty coloured bars? Again, navigation. Who’d know? Even if they just changed slightly as you mouse over it would be huge improvement. This is a really clear example of graphic design over web design. But I need to be fair to Britomart and to whoever designed the site – functionally, if you can get past the home page, there’s actually some pretty cool stuff going on and the information pages for the Britomart businesses are really well done. So why make it so hard to get to them in the first place?

Looking for something in Britomart?  You’ll get there. Eventually.

Image of a screenshot from the Britomart website


But wait, there’s more. And it’s way scarier. Imagine you’re thinking about coming to New Zealand on holiday and ending up on the official website for Tourism New Zealand I’d love to have been a fly on the wall at the design meetings for the creation of this site. User experience? Don’t think so? Conversion optimisation? What’s that? And we’ll leave this unfortunate case alone now.

Want to visit somewhere apart from Milford Sound? Good luck… (PS We actually LOVE Milford Sound!)

Image of a screenshot from the Milford Sound website


Am I saying that your brand is irrelevant when designing a website? Absolutely not. Do I think a website should look like your print brochure and ads? Absolutely not either. The internet is a total different communications medium to print, and to assume that the skills to make something work in one medium are the same as another totally different one is just setting up for failure. Before you start design, think about the purpose of your website for your business. Write down all the things you want it to do for you. Then think about your potential customers and what they want from the site and write down all the things they want (not what you want them to want!). And then get a web designer to design you something that will perform these very key actions whilst still giving the visitor the right view of your brand.

If all websites were built by web designers, the internet would be a much, much easier place to get around. As a user you’d be able to find what you wanted more easily and as a business owner you’d find that your website was a much better tool for your business. Sounds good to me.

Disagree? Thought so! Leave us your comments below

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