Understanding Web Design

by Jeffrey Zeldman

123 Reader Comments

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  1. To me, this article illustrates what the consenus would agree to be ‘what web design is’, not what it should be. It ticks the right boxes, it validates the job descriptions of hundreds of thousands of professionals who are (my words) ‘doing the right thing’. But what a seriously demoralising thought that is. Is this it?

    There seems to be a big backlash against a moniker of ‘New Media’. It IS new. What… 30 or 40 years old? Against the printed word which is many thousands of years old? TV is still new media (even if it is stale) – the possibilities it affords haven’t yet been fully realised.

    And to draw a big line in the sand between ‘Professional Associations’ and the ‘Web Community’ only condemns the wider audience to a flatter, more constrictive view of what web design can be. We can learn from both, can’t we? I do agree that many sites are (pardon the pun) paper-thin and have no underlying substance. All style and no… you get the picture. But there’s no difference from existing print media or traditional broadcoast media in that comparison. Does the pursuit of a consistent-with-print visual expression condemn a website to ‘bad web design’?

    The whole notion of ‘web design’ in this article is reduced to nothing more than how a designer completes his or her project within a specific set of artificial web-related constraints (i.e. what constitutes ‘good’ web design in 2006-07). If I follow the line of thought here, I can put together a social networking site that ‘encourages human activity’ and ‘changes gracefully over time’ – it fits in a 1024 × 768 layout, can be viewed over a mobile phone or a TV and also feeds me with information to my feed-savvy browser every 10 minutes. Oh, and it retains its identity. Really? That’s it? That alone is good web design?

    Rubbish. ‘Web’ design really is no different than poster design or book design or any other media because that’s all it is – media. And designers should be challenging those who create the media to make it evolve and refine it and grow it to allow them to deliver better messages. You get better design if you understand your medium, but that alone doesn’t equate to ‘good’ design.

    I believe what’s being argued for in the article is better ‘interactive’ design – irrespective of the media. But I still think the ‘old school’ print designer has a huge well from which to draw when it comes to solving design issues relating to the messages as well as the medium.

    There’s too many examples of ‘fixed’ website constraints (‘boxy’ layouts, typeface choices, etc) in this article that bely a design aesthetic that’s too tied to the technology. For all its warts and ungodly efforts that Flash has given us it has also given us the freedom to explore outside the grid and there are many examples of wonderful designs that DO work at an aesthetic and functional level. I’m not necessarily endorsing Flash as an end-product in itself but it does demonstrate that the web doesn’t need to be JUST HTML

    Shouldn’t the web change to suit our message rather than vice versa? Shouldn’t ‘web design’ be less self-conscious about technology and more on the content itself?

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  2. Web arcitchture is not just about the design of your site, but also how it relates to the other sites in your community. It’s actually very similar to how cities have banking districts and garment districts as well as various ethnic communities.
    Google has had to become aware that your relevance on a subject comes from people who link you as well as the people who you link to as sites build a community based on mutual interest.
    Being a designer, a design blogger, and information architect, I have to balance, design, content, and usability to give people an experience that will make them want to revisit my site over and over. I may never win a design award for my site, but the trade off is blog is probably much more widely read than almost any design award.

    Kellis Landrum
    Editor-In-Chief
    www.neublack.com

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  3. Thanks for that article… This and “A Dao of Web Design” are great references to send to print designers who think that their background automatically qualifies them to do web.

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  4. Dear #83, not sure if you are a designer. Speculating you are not? Just to give you a nudge. Design isn’t something new and web design surely isn’t. I’m not sure if you are the judge at what makes a “good” web designer.

    I come from the days of print and I think it has made me a better designer than those that have only ever designed for the web. There is something to be said about people with experience. I am sick of young people that think web 2.0 was discovered yesterday. Anyone can be a designer, an architect, a programmer. All you need to do these days is google what you want to learn and do it. In the old days it was all about figuring things out the hard way!

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  5. In regard to the article its important that more business people understand that their websites should be designed properly. Its easy for some designers to pull the old wool over the eyes on some issies but now business owners can just ask some simple questions to know if their sites are being designed right.

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  6. Far too many sites have style and no substance, a pretty path to walk but nothing there when you arrive. I would include the definition of a web designer as someone who concentrates harder on the end material as they do on the visuals and navigation. In that sense a lot of rubbish online can be attributed to designers and suits who think web design is little content and a lot of glitter, that you have to lure surfers, getting them excited about branding and all that marketing crap.

    I think good design is the other way around, especially as “bad” design can be forgiven if I can find the stuff and see it quickly with the necessary details. Good design has good content at the end, something unique to read or look at. The content itself must be part of the design and be a major part of that process. I think the architecture analogy can apply here but I would twist to say that having great engineering means nothing if you have trashy tenants living in your so-called grand palace.

    My experience from building sites is that it the html code comes last and one of the very first questions I ask myself/clients is: what content have you got for your site?

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  7. The most important part of a design is for me the usuability. It is not enough when a website just looks great. If the user cannot find the important content at first glance or if it takes just too long to load the whole site because of big files, the designer did something wrong. A webdesigner should never forget that he normally doesn`t design a site for himself but for the users.

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  8. “Web design is the creation of digital environments that facilitate and encourage human activity; reflect or adapt to individual voices and content; and change gracefully over time while always retaining their identity.”

    I like the idea that the web is its own medium.  The opportunity, is that it has less constraints than “traditional” media.  A newspaper is going to be a newspaper.  A book, a book.  A magazine…well, you get it.  A web site can be on a computer monitor. Your 50” plasma.  Your blackberry.  A web site can be static.  It can be rich with typography.  It can be purely video.  Or dynamic flash. Or it could include all of the above.

    I think we struggle with what web design should be—because it doesn’t sit still long enough to be defined.  Once we define it, it ups and changes. Web design in general is beautiful.  It’s a great medium. 

    I like the definition because it allows the web to live, to be flexible.  Web design today isn’t what it’s going to be tomorrow.  It’s the medium that will push design.  Nicely done.

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  9. I very much enjoyed this article. I like the comparison to Architecture and often compare it to Industrial Design myself.

    Recently I met with a Graphic Design firm that wanted to hire me to code designs they furnished. I tried in vain to explain that interface and web design requires a different approach.

    There is a quote by Buckminster Fuller that I love to use:
    “When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”?

    This works for me on so many levels. Design is about solving problems not about pretty. Good Design solves a problem and makes a thing of beauty at the same time.

    Scientists call it “The Elegant Solution”

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  10. really they this article some great points , this is a must read

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  11. I have tried to explain this idea a hundred times. Now, I’ll just send people the link. Thanks for a great article.

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  12. “Web design is the creation of digital environments that facilitate and encourage human activity; reflect or adapt to individual voices and content; and change gracefully over time while always retaining their identity.”

    So THAT’s why I do what I do ? Huzzah… enlightenment is on its way! :)

    Brilliant article.

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  13. I work with page layout full time for a local newspaper and am just getting into web page design (two years into it).
    Boxes and grids are a part of day to day life for me.

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  14. Jeffrey,

    DWWS opened my eyes. I was an ill-equipped print designer merely treading water in the world of web design until I found your book. Thank you.

    However, because I am so passionate about this topic, and plead with my print colleagues and professors the very same spirit your article presents, I was very disappointed that the only examples of good web design you offered were those blog templates. Though you and I can appreciate them, they fail to communicate your point, rather, they discredit you to the audience you are writing to, the one’s who already “don’t get it.”

    It would be fabulous if you could update the article to include examples that might resonate better with that community.

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  15. Great article!

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  16. Dang. Appreciated.

    Particularly the challenges when talking to print designers; I’m quite sure the ones I’ve spoken to think we aren’t really designers … and don’t often get the differences between the two media. It takes quite a bit to begin to get through to them, and that’s only after they’ve created websites that don’t really work out well.

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  17. Good article. I am a Graphic Designer turned web designer and it was and still is a transition I am getting used to.  One has to understand the way most of our audience thinks. Many people who see the popular sites are not necessarily thinking on the same field as web designer and architects. Many don’t understand the techniques, the time, the agony, and the strife we use to design and build websites. Many do not care. Just as long as they work is all they want.  One can try to design and no column, no boxy layout and fail miserably mainly because they are too hard to navigate and too hard to find the information being seeked. Many people enjoy the “eye candy” of the site. Many could careless. If you are designing for the general public boxy and columns are going to be the norm because they organize everything.  If you are designing for designers or artists they may enjoy the challenge of a non-boxy site.  Until then the only way to make your site “unique” is to design it unique.  Graphics help in that sense but architecture, usability and programming and whether it actually works will ultimately be the deciding factors of good web design.

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  18. In my oppinion Last.FM represents the holy grail of good web design. The interface is beautiful without detracting from content, the functions are slickly usable and intelligent, the advertising is useful and non-invasive, the text content is easy to read and split into optional depths, the user focussed content generation is the most amazing I have ever seen. Bring it on!

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  19. I know I will be using this a lot

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  20. Useful insight, thanks for sharing.

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  21. What is the point of this article, the bottom line? All you said is that you have nothing to say.

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  22. Truly. Huh? Is this nothing more than a rant? Let me summarize your article…

    These other guys (who are not really qualified to have an opinion) will try to tell you ‘Web Design’ is about ‘A’. Well I’m here to tell you its really about ‘B’.

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  23. I think you could have covered a lot more.

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  24. Hi Friends!
    Web Design is a place where you explore your self a lot in the way of your creativity.I think in a website a logo is very important as it is a identity of your website so it should be created with lot of creativity.What you think guys? Please give your suggestion on this…

    Regards
    Smita

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  25. Thanks for the suggestions, you went into detail on this one and did a thorough job

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  26. I appreciate this article because I feel it covers a growing issue that has not been addressed. However, because it is such an abrasive attack on those who often make design decisions, it will be difficult for me (as a junior member of a small agency) to support the argument and pass along to those who need it the most.

    How can I communicate this idea to senior members without coming across too arrogant?  The problem is not with your idea but the communication of this idea.

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  27. Thanks so much for the insightful article.  This explanation is like something out of Mad Men.  Well written and dead-on.

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  28. Let us as web designers make this point in 20 words or less. Then, maybe the guilty will read it. That would be effective design.

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  29. Hey Thanks for the read on Web Design! The part where it mentions about the people who know the least about Web Design make the most noise…SO TRUE! I find myself in the same boat. I am a beginner in the web design area, and I have found myself to living up to making some noise because I am so inexperienced and so very new.

    Also, thanks for the great Web Design definition!

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  30. Every time I’m asked what I do you and I say “I design websites”, I’m sometimes frustrated with the response I get, because, people outside the circle just don’t get it. Cheers to your article.

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  31. Why is the architecture for a good web design ignored and mis-understood, I will never understand. Good point brought up in this. Still, a large majority of clients do not understand or do not want to understand the fact that we design is
    a creation of digital environments that facilitates human activity. Very true and excellent words : “Great web designs are like great buildings”.

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  32. What a great article. I’ve been a fan of ALA for quite a while but only now, and due to this fine post, have I felt the need to sign up and post an highly deservered appreciative comment.

    Part of the ongoing challenge of any web designer is precisely this daily role of educating others (clients) on the ins and outs of web design and hopefully making them understand it better and realise it’s more than just logos and colours.

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  33. For years the major misconception is that Flash-based applications are SEO-unfriendly and can’t be indexed by search engines. And that’s the myth Flash expert Todd Perkins dispels in this highly anticipated new Adobe Developer Library book.
    Deborah Sidrs
    Kitchenware Reviews

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  34. Graphic designers generally seem to think they can design for web a well as they can for print but it really isn’t the case. The two are very different. … top article!

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  35. I get it, this article is dated, but on my quest to understand better our designer’s p.o.v. of content vs. design and design vs. content from a designer to a copywriter to the client and back again, this article is helpful. Especially when making the architecture comparison. Building from scratch or even a superstruct…either way, the final structure must be built, maintained and join together form and function.

    But I do want to address how the designer, Kevin, here at Overit Media (overit.com) describes how his job relies on mine (when I write copy) and mine on his in order to deliver to both the client and content consumer:

    “Designers shouldn’t be held fully responsible though. Finding good typographic solutions should be a collaboration between the designer and the copywriter. The quality of the content will certainly be a factor in how effective the end product is. Content and typography must play hand in hand. One without the other will surely fail.

    Good content accompanied by bad typography is rendered completely ineffective simply because no one will be attracted to read the content. Similarly, bad content accompanied by good typography will also prove to be useless; although people may become engaged, they aren’t learning or getting anything from it. These two elements must work cohesively in order to be successful.”

    Agree? Disagree? Indifferent?

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  36. A really interesting article – I think it gets every designers goat when poor practices are implemented (although I do think designers rarely explain why it’s important). One thing that REALLY gets my goat is when designers who swear by vertical grids complete disregard horizontal grids. You get lovely sites aligned to grids but the downward flow is often far too over-spaced and it nauseates me to see people throw away great designs like that. HELLO!!! LINE-HEIGHT???! :p

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  37. This article gave me just what I wanted and it also had some of the vocabulary to my thoughts.

    I think its perfect for people going to build a their own site and also for clients.

    I would surely share it with my peers and @ school bulletin board.

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  38. great deal of information… thanks of sharing

    Steve

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  39. First, thanks for a truly great piece of writing.

    Second, why is it that our job as web designers is so difficult to quantify? Moving pixels around to create information which, in reality, does not even exist in the real world – and is lost temporarily with the press of a ‘shut down’ button…

    It is, in fact, a reflection of our Brave New World – a virtual world where things that do not really exist can be moneterised more and more. Hence our working environment is virtual, and our Job Description is as fleeting and insubstantial as the work we produce.

    So what is the saving grace of this New World? I think it is that the representation of an idea – creative or intellectual – becomes the focus. The value of our work is not the end result (that is virtually undefinable!), but it is the idea it conveys. The creative or intellectual ideas and thoughts are our product. The virtual tools of the trade (Photoshop et al) are the means to convey our experience and ideas. So we are moving from being designers to being conveyors of these ideas – in their new virtual medium.

    Designer is too small a word for it. The Brave New World needs a Brave New Word.

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  40. I have always been fascinated by this two words.“Web” which involves alot of coding and to some people alot of gibberish.then o the other hand “design” which is all about creativity.Most people calling themselves web designers are usually gifted in one or the other.Its quite hard to find someone well gifted in the two fields

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  41. This was such a good article back in the day, it would be great to see this author release an updated version which takes into account conversion rate design and true usability.

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  42. It used to be enough to consider web design just as architecture. I think now with all the social media and search engine marketing, it’s like advertising, PR and networking for your real estate property :P

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  43. I am new to designing and glad to read such a great article. Optimized and creative designers are been clicked by the users, if we want the maximum return on investment, so we must have powerful design.

    Some of the tips shared by you are excellent. I will follow these lines in my next project.

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