Beyond Web Mechanics – Creating Meaningful Web Design

It was just over three years ago when I embarked on becoming a web designer, and the first opinion piece about the state of web design I came across was a conference talk by Elliot Jay Stocks called ‘Destroy the Web 2.0 Look’. Elliot’s presentation was a call to arms, a plea to web designers the world over to stop the endless reproductions of the so called ‘Web 2.0 look’.

Three and a half years on from Elliot’s talk, what has changed? Well, from an aesthetic standpoint, not a whole lot. The Web 2.0 look has evolved, but it’s still with us and much of the web remains filled with cookie cutter websites that bear a striking resemblance to one another. This wouldn’t matter so much if these websites were selling comparable services or products, but they’re not. They look similar, they follow the same web design trends; their aesthetic style sends out a very similar message, yet they’re selling completely different services or products. How can you be communicating effectively with your users when your online book store is visually indistinguishable from an online cosmetic store? This just doesn’t make sense.

I don’t want to belittle the current version of the Web 2.0 look for the sake of it. I want to talk about the opportunity we have as web designers to create more meaningful experiences for the people using our websites. Using design wisely gives us the ability to communicate messages, ideas and attitudes that our users will understand and connect with.

Being human

As human beings we respond emotionally to everything around us – people, objects, posters, packaging or websites. We also respond in different ways to different kinds of aesthetic design and style. We care about style and aesthetics deeply, whether we realise it or not. Aesthetic design has the power to attract or repel. We often make decisions based purely on aesthetics and style – and don’t retailers the world over know it! We connect attitudes and strongly held beliefs to style. Individuals will proudly associate themselves with a certain style or aesthetic because it’s an expression of who they are. You know that old phrase, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’? Well, the problem is that people do, so it’s important we get the cover right.

Much is made of how to structure web pages, how to create a logical information hierarchy, how to use layout and typography to clearly communicate with your users. It’s important, however, not to mistake clarity of information or legibility with getting your message across. Few users actually read websites word by word: it’s far more likely they’ll just scan the page. If the page is copy-heavy and nothing grabs their attention, they may well just move on. This is why it’s so important to create a visual experience that actually means something to the user.

Meaningful design

When we view a poster or website, we make split-second assessments and judgements of what is in front of us. Our first impressions of what a website does or who it is aimed at are provoked by the style and aesthetic of the website. For example, with clever use of colour, typography, graphic design and imagery we can communicate to users that an organisation is friendly, edgy, compassionate, fun or environmentally conscious.

Using a certain aesthetic we can convey the personality of that organisation, target age ranges, different sexes or cultural groups, communicate brand attributes, and more. We can make our users feel like they’re part of something and, perhaps even more importantly, we can make new users want to be a part of something. And we can achieve all this before the user has read a single word.

By establishing a website’s aesthetic and creating a meaningful visual language, a design is no longer just a random collection of pretty gradients that have been plucked out of thin air. There can be a logic behind the design decisions we make. So, before you slap another generic piece of ribbon or an ultra shiny icon into the top-left corner of your website, think about why you are doing it. If you can’t come up with a reason better than “I saw it on another website”, it’s probably a poor application of style.

Design and style

There are a number of reasons why the web suffers from a lack meaningful design. Firstly, there are too many preconceptions of what a website should look like. It’s too easy for designers to borrow styles from other websites, thereby limiting the range of website designs we see on the web. Secondly, many web designers think of aesthetic design as of secondary importance, which shouldn’t be the case. Designing websites that are accessible and easy to use is, of course, very important but this is the very least a web designer should be delivering. Easy to use websites should come as standard – it’s equally important to create meaningful, compelling and beautiful experiences for everyone who uses our websites. The aesthetics of your site are part of the design, and to ignore this and play down the role of aesthetic design is just a wasted opportunity.

No compromise necessary

Easy to use, accessible websites and beautiful, meaningful aesthetics are not mutually exclusive. The key is to apply style and aesthetic design appropriately. We need to think about who and what we’re designing for and ask ourselves why we’re applying a certain kind of aesthetic style to our design. If you do this, there’s no reason why effective, functional design should come at the expense of jaw-dropping, meaningful aesthetics.

Web designers need to understand the differences between functional design and aesthetic design but, even more importantly, they need to know how to make them work together. It’s combining these elements of design successfully that makes for the best web design in the world.

About the author

Mike Kus is a web/graphic designer & illustrator. He’s based in UK and works for clients worldwide. You can see his work at mikekus.com.

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