Great creative design people are worth their weight in gold, and I’ve been lucky to work with a couple over the years. Unfortunately, sometimes when you’re involved with a web project, you don’t have access to great designers. Lots of companies are tasked with building websites without the benefit of a creative director, a role typically found in a good agency, but not necessarily available to companies that need to do their own work and can’t or don’t want to spend the money on agency design. I don’t have a graphics design background myself, but have scoured the web for resources to help inspire me when I need to roll up my sleeves and give creative direction.
When you find yourself in this position, it’s important to remember not to reinvent the wheel. There are thousands of great design examples on the web already, and some basic design principles that will help get you to an effective, functional design that’s also easy on the eyes. For over a decade, I’ve periodically perused designs showcased at coolhomepages, a site that exists for just the inspirational purpose I’ve described. Another site that ranks high in Google search results for ‘cool website designs’ is The Best Designs. Check out these resources when you need a little inspiration.
Next, here are just a few basic design principles to help guide you…
1 – Spend time thinking about the purpose of the site you’re designing for.
The primary primary purpose will often help you choose a few potential screen layouts that will work well. For instance, a content-heavy site that will have extremely high levels of traffic may be best designed with little in the way of bells and whistles, and a lot in the way of basic black text on a white background. Think Huffington Post. On the other hand, a company that sells products for the home needs a design that is more image-heavy, but still doesn’t take away from the products themselves. See Design Within Reach – a basic white background, well-organized links in grey text, and images only of the products they sell. An independent artist, however, is going to want to create a site that showcases her work, but conveys some more emotion in presentation and color scheme. I personally like the simplicity of Maya Kabat’s website, a Bay Area artist whose choice of background color, font style, size, placement, and color evoke a feeling of depth and warmth, while still offering decent contrast with or complement to her paintings and drawings. Simple controls to navigate without effort help keep the user’s focus on experiencing the art itself, as opposed to thinking much about how to interact with the website.
2 – Figure out what kind of personality your site should have.
Is your product or service technical, whimsical, informational, playful, fun, serious, or some combination of these things? Of course, there are many other adjectives you can consider in your list, but settling on a few that are core to your service or message may help point you towards color schemes and fonts. TiVo is a brand with a lot of personality, and they created TiVo, the character, who helps convey fun and playfulness. TiVo appears on every screen on the company’s site, and would help convey their personality regardless of the design direction they took on the site in general. An additional element that plays a supporting role, though, can be found in the cartoon bubbles used to represent feedback from users of the service. You can also buy a stuffed TiVo doll, and even slippers, an antenna ball, and other TiVo branded products. For a contrasting example, look at kohls.com. Kohl’s is a retail brand that is very well known for sales and discounts. Load their homepage, and you’ll see that they feature discounts like crazy on the home page. This communicates their personality and priorities the second you see the site. Look past that, though, and you’ll also see soft colors and a focus on women’s products, because they know their primary demographic is women, and they want to reflect a feminine personality.
3 – Do as much as you can on behalf of the user.
No matter how advanced technology gets, or how comfortable with it the general public is, nobody wants to spend time digging a zillion levels deep into a website to find what they’re looking for, or to be presented with completely unnecessary error messages when they submit a form. One of the biggest offenders I still see all over the web is the phone number field. I get supremely irritated when I enter my phone number with dashes only to be told I needed to enter it without any punctuation. It is so easy for the programmer to strip out certain characters before the form is submitted to the server, it just screams laziness and lack of consideration for the user. If you have access to information about the user that is browsing your site, use it. Pre-fill fields on forms and make it easy for people to navigate the boring parts of your site. Amazon does this well. They offer an address book so you can save any address you ship to and just select it from a list next time you order. Their quick checkout allows you to use default payment and shipping information so you can skip all those painful steps of filling that information out when you check out.