The Design House

From Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 and beyond…(yawn)

Design, of course, is much more than web design, but no doubt you’ve already discovered that teh Netz is eating up as many designers as you can throw at it (om nom nom) and still hungers for more.

Personally, I sometimes miss the days when the phrase “web design” was itself an oxymoron — the days when it was up to programmers alone to make the Internet look halfway decent. Some had design training, some had instinctive talent, and many just didn’t care how it looked…as long as it loaded in an hour or less and didn’t crash.

I was designing an auto loan refinance website recently when the thought struck me: we have so many options nowadays; it can be an overwhelming creative endeavor to simply choose from all the stuff that is already available…let alone developing good design from scratch.

Which brings up a good point to think about: why are so many web pages so similar in appearance?

Is it the “Anna Karenina rule” (“All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”)? Is there really only one best way (granted, with many distinct variations) to design a site?

Terribly designed websites have a certain charm, if they actually work. I’ve seen at least one site that was proud to have received and ugliest site on the web award…though the traffic that went along with the award could certainly have influenced the satisfaction.

Or is it simply that imitation is far more promising a route to success than innovation? By and large, the web is not over-stuffed with uniquely creative people (gasp!).

There are a handful of real artists, a major city’s worth of talented and creative design ‘engineers’ and ‘tweakers’ (in the knob-twiddling sense, rather than the illicit drug-using sense!), and then millions of assorted copycats, hacks, disinterested jobbers, and assorted cobblers.

If you, like me, belong closer to the bottom of that list than the top, you’ll probably benefit from browsing these pages. And if you’re closer to the top, stop wasting your time and go back to making our world a more beautiful place!

With website design, the single most important aspect of any site that consists of multiple pages is the navigation.

And really, when it gets right down to it, nearly any website should have more than one page. Even Google, possibly the most singularly-focused big name of teh webs, needs navigation on its main page (though much less than in previous years, when it briefly adopted the Yahoo ‘loads of links’ format).

Anyway, unless you are presenting a single element (centered and near the top is probably the way to go, perhaps wrapped in a big logo), you’ll want to present separate pages linked by a user-friendly navigation structure. There are many great ways to do this, luckily, but even more terrible ways — that are nevertheless regularly used.

The typical web navigation cliche is the icon menu. This practice bloomed during all the Web 2.0 hype, especially with various hover effects, but has shown fairly constant growth ever since expanding bandwidth actually began to allow graphics. Crappy designers love it but shouldn’t, whereas creative designers are now avoiding it but maybe shouldn’t. An example of a site moving away from the icon technique is seen here: Revlon wigs – e-wigs.com now incorporates a text only menu and has seen visits respond accordingly.

Here’s an example where text navigation is essential: medical tourism. Note that this site is entirely dynamic, with the numbers of member facilities and service providers constantly growing. This means that any other technique would require constant upgrading in order to properly represent the membership, while simple text based navigation can be called directly from the data.

Application of web navigation with text and design was best demonstrated at an Invisalign Las Vegas conference where audience members were given tablets to follow along with speakers from Hansen Orthodonics. With a few clicks and a couple drags the audience was given a full tour of the diagnosing and procedural protocols for Hansen Ortho’s “Smile Make Over” as well as how Invisalign braces actually work. In a less interesting and engaging when trying to explain and demonstrate the new ways to rehab a person’s smile.

Practical considerations will often determine whether you should go for icons over text; the downside is that text loads quickly and the chance of misunderstanding is lessened. On the other hand, economical icons don’t take up much bandwidth and have more potential for universal recognition (it’s no longer necessary for a traffic light to have the words “stop” and “go” on the lamps, in any language). Or in this case, corporate gifts, icons/images with text to give you a better display of the products offered.

And please remember that each page will not be equally important. You may think the designer credits belong right next to the home page, but very likely your employer will disagree! A hierarchical navigation structure has definite plusses and minuses…chances are you can get away with throwing many minor links away from the main menu. But make sure that anything that you want to guide people toward exists as part of the major design elements.