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To Dot Or Not
(Web design for the rest of us!)

Intro 1 2 3 « 4

Chapter 4
Visual Design: It's more than just a pretty pixel

OK, this is the last chapter of this article for good reason. While "graphic design" is important, it's not why people come back to your site. As a designer, I can create an ambiance that can help your target user audience achieve their goals in visiting your site, or help their process of discovery along in terms of finding out more about you, your business, your organization. But, it's how well the topics of the previous chapters were implemented that will make or break your site. Believe me, my "designer self" has a difficult time hearing that my highly skilled graphics abilities and pretty pictures are NOT what visitors are looking for when they hit your site.

The visual design of your Web site might be so bad as to push visitors away, but the nuances of difference between "incredible" and "OK" are lost of all but the graphic designers amongst them.

Does this mean I put less attention or less professional integrity into the graphical design of my client's pages? Absolutely not, but it helps to keep in perspective what constitutes a really good site from a lousy site... it's about experience... the "user's" experience. And the users we've tested invariably put graphical design toward the bottom of their list of criteria they use to judge Web sites by.

Is it art or is it data?
Visually, Web site pages just tend to register well enough on the user's consciousness as to be transparent to the page's usefulness. Similar to a movie's music soundtrack, the visual design is there to support the "story". But, like a good soundtrack composer, a designer's job requires talent, creativity, skill, and most of all, knowledge of the client's business model their and user's demographic.

Web designers are charged with understanding more than just graphical displays if they are to serve their clients well. While more and more WYSIWYG programs are supplying designers with built in scripting and illustrative capabilities that are supposed to turn any seven-year-old into a competent Web designer, as noted in earlier chapters, there's a lot more at stake than "cool" roll-overs or "popdown" menus.

Even if we move past the little visual gimmicks, a Web design must bring into play multiple disciplines if it is to create not only the appropriate response, but the appropriate experience for the visitor. "I couldn't find the price" or "the pages just never showed up and seemed broken" will always be more memorable to your users than, "wow, what a great Flash movie!"

And, who said deploying data couldn't be done with creativity or even artistic skill? Ask any designer of print materials and they will tell you presenting data can be the most challenging creative work of all.

Is it art, craft, technique or skill?
It's safe to say it all of the above. Few internal IT or Web departments have the budget anymore to employ someone who's only a "designer" in the true graphical sense. Web designers invariably, if they are good, bring together multiple talents and skills, not the least of which is listening.

It's really like being a custom designer of interiors, jewelry, or clothing... we have to listen to our clients and bring our creativity into concert with the client's needs. And if you're the client, you may want to have more or less impact on the design process. What you have to keep in mind though is if you have to micro-manage the design, you'll be spending a lot more time in an iterative process, and may not be coming from the best perspective yourself (remember the chapter on Usability?).

You will find a much better design solution if you can feel confident that the designer you've chosen is capable of understanding all of the myriad aspects of producing your Web site and give them some room to maneuver. Understandably, this is a dicey proposition and one not taken lightly. Certainly one taken more seriously than "I think the kid next door can do this."

As a staunch believer in "if it's worth doing, it's worth doing well," I would recommend finding a professional that embodies the talents, skills and experience that you feel is capable of representing you, your business, your organization on the Web within the kind of experience your users expect, yet with a surprising degree creativity, accuracy, and usability.


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Connie Seidel, Seidel & Assoc., and