How to be a rockstar designer

Web design is increasingly becoming something that can’t exist in isolation without knowledge of good user interface design guidelines and working well with developer types.

I’ve noted a difference between designers (and their designs) who have started out in print first versus those who start out in web. You can span both successfully, but have to be aware that these are two different things entirely.

People read and skim quickly on the web. They are normally there to try to achieve some sort of goal, be it buying something, or learning how to do something, or getting the latest news, then move on. The web is meant to be efficient — if I could distill it down to a single word. Any deterrent, however slight, from achieving this goal causes frustration.

Printed material is often something voluntarily flipped through at leisure, beverage in hand, or otherwise. A newspaper or magazine article, a glossy brochure filled with aspirational images and detailed specifications of your next apartment/car/SUV, or a flyer, filled with hundreds of on-sale items.

Print material is rarely judged on its ability to convert lookers into buyers; it’s just too impractical. Yes, you can ask people to mention where they saw your ad, or using a coupon, or devise some way to count success, but it’s just hard. So customer acceptance of a design is rarely measured, so its approval comes from some people from marketing in a room, the reputation of the designer, and other fuzzy factors.

On the other hand, successfully working with web takes a designer who is devoid of massive ego, and accepting of one fact – other factors drive the acceptance of your design, not you. These factors are pretty important ones: your customers (potential and existing), search engines, and developers.

Where this affects design is in some pretty core areas:

  1. Functional and obvious outweighs glitzy and abstract on the web. Remember the old days of home pages with a huge welcome graphic (often animated in Flash) and some paltry, tiny text to go to the next page where the actual website started? These are gone, for good reason. Weird, abstract, making-people-have-to-think-about-it stuff is bad.
  2.  Simplicity is back. For the most part, this is in response to Responsive Design and its ‘blocking’ of design elements to flow nicely regardless of device and making things like images and text bigger. A lot of it is also a realization of good UI/UX in terms of paring copy down to the key points by understanding how people read on the web. I think the pendulum may have swung too far toward simplicity, so it may swing back.
  3. Text is good on the web. Gone are weird buzzwords and phrases, hopefully replaced with relevant text that tells you what this website is about. Simple is good, but too simple is bad. Just enough, and relevant is the sweet spot.

If you came from a print background, some of the above would actually be counter to what you may have done before.

As a web designer, you have to design for the first impression.

As a print designer, you don’t. Unless you’re designing for a direct mail campaign, someone likely gave your print brochure to your potential customer, or he/she picked it up. The customer therefore knows a little about the product or service you’re trying to sell, and the company behind it. They may be looking for a little bit more information to make that final purchase decision or to gain a spouse’s blessing to buy it.

A web designer has to assume the person visiting the website has never been there before. The designer has to (figuratively) beat the visitor over their head with obviousness and other signals (called “information signals”) such as repeating what the website is about, what the company does, and to start building trust. Miss out on this, and the customer will either go elsewhere on their search results list, or they will start off with a slightly confused or annoyed state of mind when dealing with your site. Neither is good – first impressions count.

Guidelines:

1. Literal is gold for the web

I was once chided by a designer who once said that having a hero image of a go-kart on the home page of a go-kart track website was too literal and that maybe it should have a picture of a dog (the track’s mascot) instead.

After picking my jaw up from the floor, I explained that perhaps Boeing has airplanes on its home page (thankfully they did), and Ford has cars on its home page, and they didn’t seem to feel that these were too literal.

2. Know your target (media) and design for it

Switch your thought patterns. Use the same branding guidelines, the same images, typography, etc. to achieve consistency between your different channels, but embrace the differences and utilize their advantages. Think how different a TV ad for a company is from a print ad, and how companies that do both achieve consistency (say someone big like Coke). The web is the same.

3. Check your ego at the door

Expect review and criticism of your design from UI experts, conversion specialists, and others who pick apart websites for a living to make it sell more. You’re here to help your employer / client who’s paying your bills to make money, not to promote your own portfolio.

4. Engage with other team members

If you are splitting development duties with developers, learn something about their development environment, and what they need to build these pages (some teams might want HTML, CSS, and images, some are fine building pages on their own and just need good images or even just your PSD files to slice on their own). Understand that some design elements may be really hard to achieve so compromise may have to be struck between complete fidelity with the original design and one that is just as good and takes 20% of the time.

5. Be brave

Let your baby (design) go through usability testing and other review processes to see if it responds well with customers. Savour the gratification that comes from a great design that’s proven to work well with customers.

I’ve mentioned ego several times in this post. It’s an unfortunate yet accepted fact that good designers will push the creative envelopes and feel as if they earn their right to get all prima donna with any critique of their design. It’s a natural defensive mechanism, yet it’s a completely destructive one when you need to work as a team to benefit your client. Avoid designers like these like the plague.