Beyond Web Mechanics – Creating Meaningful Web Design

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  1. dan

    Great points Mike, I would like to see more from you on such subjects and the odd tut! The web does need people to push the line. I think some of the problem is that the majority of web designers have not got a history in design and sometimes the same old gradients is the easy option?

  2. Matt Hamm

    Great Article Mike,

    I truly believe the best approach is for designers to create their own unique style of visual as well as functional design aesthetics which attract clients that want that same feel attached to their own brand. I certainly get that impression from your work. I can spot a Mike Kus designed website in a second.

  3. i?computers

    In the book “Understanding Comics,” Scott McCloud talks about this phenomenon with new artists where the first time they are inspired to practice the art-form that inspired them, they replicate it. What you get is a piece that is all surface, which didn’t have the fundamentals of the art-form applied to it during its creation. Mr. McCloud then goes into the six steps where he explains how a new artist transforms into a professional and what kind of professional they can become.

    Anyways, the important thing I got out of that section is that having pieces of work that essentially mimic the presentational styles of the artwork that inspired you won’t really lead you anywhere. In fact, the web designers that do inspire me (Dean Curtis, Tim Van Damme, Joe Lifrieri, Jason Santa Maria, and so on) do so because their work shows that they’re taking some fundamental knowledge in their field of design and applying it to the web (like Mike Kus or Jason Santa Maria, who if I recall correctly, used to be a print designer).

    I could say web design is just print design with interactivity, but that’s missing out multimedia or usability or other abstract attributes that are crucial in shaping a positive experience for a web browser (I’m of course referring to people or should I call them internet surfers or is that too 90s). 


    Anyways, amen! Thanks for this article. It’s a good reminder for those who are drowning in the technicalities of web design and development. Now to pick up more books on design.

  4. Chris Wallace

    I think this effort is the next step in making the web a better place, just like the web standards movement brought change in how everyone builds for the web and how browser manufacturers build their browsers. We should be encouraging designers to look for inspiration in the real world and teaching them how to invoke certain emotions and reach certain audiences through design.

    I think the biggest problem is that “web design” as an industry is made up mainly of self-taught, trial and error designers who make up their own curriculum as they go along. Plus, there is no requirement to earn a certification or get a license to become a designer, unlike becoming a doctor or an attorney.

    I think once we start to see standards in web design programs in higher education that include a wide range of creative and technical courses we’ll see more designers that truly understand both creative design for the web as well as technical limitations and/or possibilities.

  5. DRoss

    Agree mostly with your points and yes, many websites look the same. If a designer uses a few shiny gradients and drop shadows he/she thinks they’ve created something great. Usually not the case. BUT…I design a lot of web applications which require user many types of user interface elements. Using gradients and drop shadows just for the sake is silly but using in a thoughtful way which improves UI is important.

    I looked through your portfolio and have seen and like your work but you’re not designing user interface / application style websites. When you do, you’ll see the “web 2.0/gradients/shadows/depth” are pretty necessary – which isn’t the case for the sites you’ve worked on. At least nothing I see in your portfolio.

    So what I’m trying to get at is there are multiple styles of web design, some work for certain brands/types of sites and some don’t.

    So before we lament that web 2. 0 is crap maybe we should redefine what web 2.0 is?

    -D

  6. Valon Sopi

    Great point Mike:

    “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.”

    ///

    Yes, functionality comes first and everything should be built around the content. If this is done successfully, then any style (read: fart) will make sense. As long as ‘content is king’, style and aesthetics are ephemeral elements and rely on pure taste of any given moment, which I’m not suggesting are not an important part of the equation.

    Thanks for sharing Mike.

  7. Mike Kus

    @Dross

    Thanks for you’re comment.

    I agree with you. Like I said in the article, we need to think about why we use certain treatments in our web design and if that involves using gradients and shiny buttons, so be it. The key is to have good reasoning behind these choices.

    I think it’s a mistake to label certain web design as not ‘user interface’ design. Every website on the web is user interface design.

  8. Suleiman Leadbitter

    Some good points and lets be honest, this is broken record for most high end professional designer like yourself or Elliot. Trouble is for the rest of us, trying to earn a decent crumb is what seems to be the most diluted of industries. When a client says “Web 2.0” “Zing” “I want it to pop” and other BS terms, what do we do? We just bite the bullet. We can only advise and after that the paying client gets what they pay for basically.

    What I would suggest is, that designers put themselves out there more. Do what THEY want to see in personal projects. Who cares if no one likes it, as long as it’s original that’s what matters, then after a while fine tuning that style will be the best thing you could possible do. Obviously stick to certain design rules, but after that, go wild.

    People just don’t go wild anymore or take any chances :(

  9. Luke Jones

    Awesome article Mike.

    One of the major issues many of us designers face is that we aren’t allowed the creative control that we’d like on a website. Fortunately, many of the designs you’ve worked on have been for organisations with great understanding of design whereas, most other designers get stuck doing working for people who may be a little more old school.

    For example, I’m creative director at a small agency, as well as a freelancer in my spare time, and even though that’s my job title, clients still ask for that ‘web 2.0’ look and just won’t listen to the advice given to them about modern design because they’re so very stubbern. So, I think a major problem is trust with us guys – people don’t trust us when really, they should completely trust us because we know what we’re doing. It’s a real catch 22.

    Fortunately, my main client (freelancing) recognises that he doesn’t know design and lets me do whatever I want. Unfortunately, I cant put the designs in my portfolio until some time late next year (gr.).

  10. Mazilu Teodor

    Great article. Very good read.
    I’d like to point out – as someone else already hinted at – that designs are often steered in the wrong direction by the clients themselves. As a professional you can ‘protest’ and try to convince your client that you’re the expert, but in the end you must either comply with their demands (because after all you’ve been hired to offer a service/product that meets the client’s needs) or simply quit. It is the sad truth.
    In my last design project (which got cancelled so unfortunately I can’t show you anything), the CEO of the company I was redesigning the website for completely disagreed with my design decisions and decided to completely do it himself in Photoshop. I guess you can imagine the frustration I was going through..

  11. alex morris

    Hey Mike

    Some good points and I’m all for diversity in interface design where appropriate.

    Thing is, for all the crimes that happened in the name of the Web2.0 aesthetic, a useful visual language has emerged that for some use cases, is absolutely right.

    Trends come and go, and for a while the whole aqua thing worked while we all had candy-coloured iMacs sat on our desks. Sure it got cheesy and was over-used and looked terrible when executed badly.

    But what fell out of that though was some really useful patterns/conventions for (amongst others) buttons that actually looked like buttons, navigation that looked like nav, larger more legible type, good use of whitespace and GUI chrome that gets out the way of content (as it should).

    Users have come to learn these references/patterns and they love consistency.

    I guess the tricky part is finding balance. Referencing patterns where appropriate and breaking rules where you can. Any design that deviates for the sake of it, isn’t good design if that design creates a headache for users or attempts to reinvent the wheel just because they can.

  12. Carl Rosekilly

    Great article Mike but I don’t think these thought processes can apply to every designer.

    Not everyone is in the same position as you and we don’t all have the fantastic budgets and open minded clientele that you work with.

    As already mentioned by other posts, some clients have old school ideologies and less attractive budgets which means giving the client what they want, without really being able to put our stamp on things.

    Putting this all aside, if we do try to break the mould and offer an alternative, then even the least attractive client could conform to our formulas as certain styles and UX would become more acceptable.

    I’m of the notion that function should always eclipse design because if a user can’t navigate a website, what is the point? Regardless of how pretty it looks, but…

    …If you have a website that looks s**t hot and functions really well, then you’re certainly on to a winner ;-)

  13. Russell Bishop

    Very persuasive points, Mike.

    I agree with Matt Hamm’s earlier point though, and I believe there’s a definitive ‘style’ that’s inherently included in all of our design work, which aids in a specific designer/company being hired to work with a brand.

    And yes, I too can spot a Mike Kus design in a second, and it’s not because he’s put forth his own style over brand requirements.

  14. ali stone

    I spose I would say that this is all well and good but you must consider your client as well as end user and your own interpretation as a designer.

    Clients generally have major pre-conceptions too that are design related. I would love to say that Lloyds bank, Nat West etc are designing what I believe to be unnecessary web 2.0 styled elements (shiny buttons, gradients etc) but then it’s very difficult to argue that with Barclays. Clients will often see the trends and embrace them, their experience is not on the side of originality it is from their personal (usually limited experience).

    Anything outside of what they understand often scares them and you have to be very careful not to alienate a client or make them feel stupid.

    Essentially what I am saying is that be pioneering/push the boundaries but it’s the careful application combined with the understanding that is the key. Like Mike says you should go through your design and subtract anything that offers no benefit in it’s visual communication i.e. what is that ribbon saying to me? Less = More

  15. Mike Kus

    Thanks for all you comments :)

    @Suleiman Leadbitter
    @Luke Jones
    @Mazilu Teodor
    @Ali Stone
    Thanks for your input guys!

    I understand your frustration about clients steering the design in a certain direction but this is something that every designer encounters, it’s just part of the job.

    I think the very least we can do in these circumstances is just make sure we’re applying our styles thoughtfully and in a way that aids the functional design of the site.

    @Alex Morris
    You’re right, some of these treatments aid the usability of a site design. I don’t object to this. It’s the thoughtless application of style that I’m referring to.

    @TheFella thanks :)

    @Carl Rosekilly
    Thanks for your comment!
    I don’t think clients or budgets are the issue here. The article isn’t about breaking the mould either. The key message I was trying to get across is that when we apply an aesthetic to a website we should do so thoughtfully and make the style relevant to the content of the site.

    @Matt Hamm
    @Russell Bishop
    You’re right, this has happened to me.

  16. Ryan

    Greta Article!

    I agree that we need to push ourselves to create truly unique experiences, instead of copying the latest trends out of dribbble and onto our site. Unfortunately, most clients dont not share this vision and request that we build a site that looks and feels like everything else. That is a hard choice some of us have to make, do it or turn it down. I vote to turn it down. By turning it down you will find that it weeds out clientele you dont want and therefore will bring you the work you love doing.

    I also agree with Dan that you should do more write ups like this Mike. People need this commentary.

  17. Piotr

    Im going to tell a little thing about steering designer in the way i want it. Yes im a customer who wanted website made. And yes i did steer my desinger to some extent.
    The reason is simple. No matter how long i tell my designer what type of clitents are my clients and so on, he will never understand them like i do.

    Often as well i see a designer putting newsletter optin box or other important from marketing pov piece of website in a completely wrong place, thus hurting the conversions.

    Its just too few of you designers know things more than just graphics and coding. You also need to know or have someone to cooperate with that knows about conversion and marketing.

    Not having anything against desingers or so, just saying WHY from a customer perspective so that you understand. Maybe ask your customers more on WHY they want you to do certain things and then disagree with them, instead of just disagreeing with them because they dont have design and art experience.

    Just my two cents.

  18. P. Ziecina

    Great article, the major problem is that many web designers/developers even now learn their trade from ‘very old’ books and articles, (and out of date video tutorials) which all show basically the same design, (and end up looking the same) .

    Even worse are the graphic designers that produce a site with PhotoShop, (or some other graphic program) and then ‘proclaim’ that they do web design/development.

    Unfortunately as I have also experienced many forums aimed at web designers/developers reinforce this view, just the mention of ‘progressive enhancements’ or “none standard layout’ will often send the members into a state of frenzied posts proclaiming – “css rule xxx or yyy will not work in browser xx, and should not be used until zzz condition is met”.

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