Thursday, 2 June 2011

The Purpose Of Design

Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it''s decoration.

He's right, of course, but does anyone truly understand the importance of that statement?

Jeffrey Zeldman

Jeffrey Zeldman
Any web designer who takes the idea of standards in design seriously ought to subscribe to Mr. Zeldman's blog because he and his coterie of ├╝bercool creatives have been working on setting standards in web design since 1995. His Wikipedia article describes him thus:

Zeldman co-founded The Web Standards Project (WaSP), a group of professional website designers dedicated to disseminating and encouraging the use of the standards promoted by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). He is also the co-founder, with Eric Meyer, of An Event Apart, a design conference "for people who make websites." He is the co-host, with Dan Benjamin, of The Big Web Show, a podcast about the web and online publishing.

The principle

The principle in question can be applied in any design area, including graphic design. It particularly counts in business cards because they are the primary means of exhanging business details, especially at shmooze-fests like the North West Business Show.

Business cards

Designers often seem to forget the importance of relevant content on business cards, possibly because it''s such a small canvas to work on. However, a lack of personalization could cost a company business because, as I was told by Salford 100 Venture at a marketing course, people buy people. When you receive a business card from a representative of a company, whatever the service they offer, you want to be able to get in touch with the person you spoke to, the relevant contact, if you will. If the designer has failed to ask for such basic details as the person''s name, phone number and extension, and direct email address, they''ll have to put the generic "" on it, which may cause a business-to-business email to end up being sent to spam by a well-meaning gatekeeper/administrator because it''s not marked for the attention of anyone. And what about the people who might want to avail themselves of the services on offer?

"May I speak to the person who deals with...?"

*Receptionist assumes it's a sales offer, not a sales enquiry, makes an excuse and drops the phone*

How many people do you know who want to deal with a faceless corporation? Put a name with the number, people! But there''s always the website, right?

Website landing pages

One of the most amusing experiences I''ve had recently was checking out the website of a company whose rep had looked down his nose at me for being a one-(wo)man-band using freeware and Dynamic Drive for my web design projects and outsourcing the work I can''t do myself. Everything he had tried to impress upon me about his company being bigger and better than I could aspire to was utterly undone by the lack of "About" information on his website. And the spelling errors. But the lack of information was just staggering. The vibes given off by the site are all "you don''t need to know who we are, just pay us and trust us to do a good job." I''m sure they do, but I''ve no idea who they are.

It''s ironic that this guy insisted that to work for him I''d have to sit in his office and work with his team because he likes to know who he''s dealing with. They offer web design services.

Back to basics

I''m astonished to report that a large number of companies in the CREATIVE and DESIGN industries seem to have forgotten or ignored the most basic principles of presentation, to wit, ye olde corporate identity. Wisegeek explains it thus:

The first aspect of corporate identity has to do with branding. The logo is often the center of company branding, since it is an easily recognizable symbol which sets the corporation aside from other companies. Branding typically also includes a color scheme, and a general look and feel across a product family which makes all products recognizable... Consistency of branding is a large issue, as consumers may reject products with entirely different design schemes.

I''ve known that since 1989. Why does a design company targeting high-end clients have a different logo on their website to the one on their business cards and Business Show stands? They''re not alone in this. And don''t get me started on the companies that offer web services and don''t have naked domains enabled. Especially those who offer hosting. It''s relatively easy to rectify this. Most webhosts do this by default, so I''m always surprised to find websites that won''t work without the www. in front of the web addresss. and work perfectly well without the www. Okay, so that''s more of a development thing, but they overlap in my skillset and the services I offer and it''s part of the overall user experience.

Other content no-nos include the over-use of corporate jargon with little or no explanation. The design of textual content is about more than font styling. The words themselves must have meaning to as many readers as possible. If, after reading several pages of a particular website you still have no idea what they actually do, that''s a double failure because only people in the know will understand them and those who don''t may not be inclined to take the time to learn.

Page sizing and positioning is another important issue. Readers shouldn''t have to scroll horizontally to read the page or see the content shoved to the left of the screen. It''s shocking how many sites I''ve seen that offer advice about the internet have been uploaded with no consideration for the way the content is presented.

User experience

The whole point of design, its raison d''être, is to communicate an idea either with or without words. Look at these images and think about the message they give out:

I designed my own logo to incorporate my initials and to give viewers an idea that, without words, would tell them a bit about me. The idea behind the use of symbols or images and/or specified text styling or colouring is to fasten the idea of the company in the consciousness of the viewer. That''s why rebranding is risky and often meets with resistance. The text style or image you''re accustomed to associating with the company you knew are so different you don''t recognise it any more. It''s as if the company no longer exists and a new one has stolen its name. Two principles are at play here:

  • if it ain't broke, don't fix it

  • KISS: keep it simple, stupid

Designers forget that at their peril, and when they do they either over-complicate or aim for style over substance when they should be styling the substance. The trouble with style over substance is that it may look pretty but it makes for a poor user experience. You're either frustrated when trying to find information or confused and convinced you have landed on the wrong site because the card design and web design are so different.

If I want to see pretty images, I''ll browse a gallery. On a website, I want information, and I want it to be relevant and make sense. The same applies to business cards and promotional literature — anything where design is applied.

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