The web design community is both strong and deep. We support each other and quickly find out that everyone is encouraged to both grow with, and contribute to, the community.
Certain individuals within our community will stand out as experts and will be looked upon for words of wisdom and examples of great design. But, still, to say that the perfect web designer does not exist is not a huge stretch of the imagination because we all have our weaknesses, and no one is perfect, right?
Well, I will do you one better: Even great designers don’t exist. And finding good designers is (or should be) pretty tough.
As a member of this wonderful web design community, I know it can be quite easy to get caught up with the creations of our colleagues. But this game of “keeping up with the Joneses” and searching through web design galleries for “inspiration” is a dangerous one to play. It has become all too easy to forget what really matters in web design: the users.
Unless you are designing a website for the web design community, your average user just doesn’t care how pretty your site is or how much blood, sweat, and tears you put into it.
Instead, more often than not, if someone wants to know who made the web page they are browsing, it’s because something went gone wrong and they are looking for someone to blame for its atrocious acts.
So, then, the goal of the designer is to be unremarkable. And the better you are at design, the more unremarkable you become. The perfect designer then, doesn’t exist.
The “perfect” website’s goal isn’t to make sure that site visitors see the pretty pictures, amazing color combinations, and wonderful typography. Instead, it wants to convey a message to the user.
The perfect web design is simply a structure that has been developed so that the consumer can absorb a message or complete a task as quickly and as painlessly as possible. If the consumer is focused on the design or development of a site, then attention is drawn away from that core task or message.
When your target audience is caught up on the content of your website — the design does not exist at all, or is invisible — and, in turn, the web designer and any trace of his work ceases to exist.
Craigslist is built on function, not design.
Let’s look at this concept from another angle.
Say you are reading an amazing book, a story that you have become completely engrossed in. When you’re so enamored by the content, how many times would you have stopped in the middle of the story to admire the paper quality, sharpness of the type, and richness of the ink?
We don’t really care about the people who manufactured the book or who designed it; only when the pages of our book start to fall out or when our eyes get tired because of poor typography do we notice the design.
In this context, it becomes clear that an overall goal of a seamless user experience should be the top priority for every designer.
Sometimes this means we need to put our egos on hold. To make un-stunning designs so that people look past it and consume the content.
Any professional who makes their living (or any amount of income) on design will inevitably start out most projects with a set of goals in mind. At the start of a project, it’s easy for one to envision the latest and greatest of all websites; a true masterpiece for the web.
Unfortunately, most projects will not require you to push the envelope of design. As a matter of fact, most of your projects will consist mostly of skills and practices you are already quite familiar with.
It is important to realize that there is nothing wrong with that. Building a well-crafted site for your client and a useful environment for their visitors is a crucial part of being a web designer. Even if that means toning down the use of the Gradient tool and the Noise filter a bit.
Art versus Design
In order to become a non-existent designer, it is important to understand the distinction between Art and Design. Most designers are, by nature and by trade, creative people — and creative people will always be looking to stun people’s visual senses.
This instinct makes it pretty easy to get caught up in making web art instead of web design.
Web art is a lot like traditional fine art. It will sit in a gallery and people will come by and take a look at it, judge it based on what they see, either approve or disapprove of it based on their tastes, and move on to the next piece. Web art requires no usability testing, browser compatibility, or search engine optimization. It is open to interpretation.
A web design is almost the opposite. It shares a specific message, and the tastes of the user should not prevent it from doing so. It should be tested for functionality, for usability, for universal accessibility. And you won’t find great web designs happy just sitting around in a gallery, because it wants to be used and not just looked at.
Much like your favorite books, a web design is out there in the real world. A great web design entices the readers to engage with it.
It is important that web design works as it is expected to, and that it functions without a hitch. The creator of a web design does not stand by his work smiling and shaking hands with its viewers — chest puffed out, proud of his masterpiece.
Instead, he watches how people receive his work, searches for its weakness, and tweaks his products and workflow based on how the users use it and what stories the numbers tell him.
While producing a web design, it is important to remind yourself that taking a practical and logical approach to a problem is better than an overly creative and “artsy” approach. It’s really as simple as that. Function over form. You’ve heard it a million times.
A Helpful but Distracting Community
There is no question that getting involved with the web design community is a very rewarding experience. The knowledge to be gained from our peers is outstanding, and we all make each other better designers collectively.
However, this same community can become a trap for our design practices. Like a bunch of sorority girls going out for the evening, designers have the tendency to see if other designers are wearing wedges, heels or flats before picking their own footwear.
Be cautious when you look to your peers for inspiration on web design. Instead of blindly borrowing a hot technique or trend, ask yourself how the site users are going to benefit from your decisions.
Fortunately, many elements of design come about with the user in mind and often serve a practical purpose within a web environment. So, really, the trick here is to pick and choose between design options that are going to be best for the target audience, regardless of how it appears aesthetically.
So is Good Design Boring?
Don’t take all of this bashing of artistic-driven web “designs” to be a message meaning there is no room for beauty on the web.
The internet is full of beautiful websites that also qualify as great design. We all love spending time with beautiful people, driving pretty cars and living in nice places — so to say that an ugly website is always just as effective as a pretty one would be naive. People will always be drawn to aesthetically pleasing environments, with the web being no exception.
So good design does not come with a requirement to be boring; no, good design comes only with the requirement of building an environment for the message to live in. A message of romance requires a design that invokes passion and deep emotion, whereas a message of fun requires a design filled with excitement and enthusiasm.
It is up to the designer to create this environment using the tools of shape, color and space. The true test of a designer’s skill is how well they can spark these feelings without the user knowing that it was all on purpose.
Leading by Example
Perhaps an easy example to use as an illustration of a perfect design can be seen in the perceived simplicity found in the homepage of Google. The Google search engine is one of the world’s most powerful tools of organized information. It is also the most ubiquitous and most used site in the world.
Information is what Google is all about, so how do they convey this to the user? By stripping out almost everything from their page except for the search results and by getting users out of their site as soon as possible.
It may seem contradictory to fundamental site goals for a website to want users to leave quickly, but this is exactly the focus for Google.
This practice was most recently reinforced with the introduction of instant results. Type in just a few letters into the search bar and your screen is immediately filled with results of their best guess at what you might be searching. You may debate how helpful this feature is to you, but it is hard to deny that it builds a very strong environment of learning and information-sharing — get in, find what you want, get out and explore.
Google never becomes about the design, but rather about the results and the places it can take you.
Setting a Goal
So if you do indeed intend on being a great web designer, you must give yourself a goal for every design you make. Throughout the entire process of each design, the targeted users should always be at the forefront of your design decisions. Make decisions based on how your choices will shape the experience. Pick colors that induce the proper emotion, provide elements that promote the right actions, and use space to control the pace of how your website is taken in.
We all have a lot to learn from our peers, and equally as much to share. Absorbing what the design community has to offer and providing your input in return can turn you into a good designer.
But when you learn from your users and truly pay attention to what they are after, then you can start to become the perfect designer. Then you can start to no longer exist.