The Details That Matter

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, the graphic arts industry was populated by full-time illustrators, production assistants and compositors. With only composing sticks for laying out type, straight edges for defining grids, a human proofer to catch spelling mistakes and an arsenal of X-acto blades for making edits, these guys lived and breathed detail. Mistakes were costly. It was a trade position that required lengthy apprenticeship; job security depended on getting all of the little things right.

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While many of the tactile skills needed for our new generation of PC-based web design and development are radically different, a critical eye for detail is as relevant as ever. In fact, because of the lower cost of entry and increasing commoditization of design, that eye for detail is not only necessary for staying afloat in the profession, but a requirement for success.

The functional details are different than the ones with which our forefathers wrestled. Most of us do not own goggles to prevent spray adhesive from getting in our eyes or loupes to gauge dot gain at a press check. We do, however, have to deal with the endearing idiosyncrasies of browsers; we all run into the same double margin bug and inconsistent JavaScript support. These are quantitative, documented issues. Good website builders like you and I avoid these altogether simply by writing better code. But the details that can kill a project faster than a fly against a windshield are more subversive: the ones that, in hindsight, should have been blindingly obvious.

It’s never just about design#section2

Only the luckiest website builders actually build websites all day. Most of us are also part-time proofers, project managers, usability experts, design critics, navigational architects, therapists for copywriters, and general go-to experts on all thing interweb. We are responsible for not only testing in different browsers, but for knowing which browsers our audience will use, and why. We have to sit in on conference calls and listen to people criticize our work and ask the same question nine times. We are responsible for checking the consistency of link treatment. Button design. Form functionality. Whether little decorative flourish A matches little decorative flourish B. We have to pay attention to a lot of stuff, and a lot of it falls well outside the sphere of design.

After working in numerous design departments and managing of a diverse creative team, I’ve learned that the best employees have distinct habits. These employees:

  • re-read the project brief before clarifying outstanding questions with the project manager or client,
  • communicate with project stakeholders to catch any mid-project scope changes—and, more importantly, understand why these changes are happening,
  • challenge changes they don’t agree with, and defend their positions objectively and pragmatically,
  • pass work to colleagues for a peer gut-check before a formal review,
  • spell check, then reads everything again to catch the errors spell cheque doughs knot,
  • read everything again for language nuances, such as consistent point of view, active voice, and parallel structure,
  • study relevant market trends and understand the competition,
  • suggest details that improve the piece, from adding clearer alt text to switching out images, to altering the grid in ways that allow content to breathe,
  • know which battles to fight and which to avoid, and
  • recognize and work on the details that help them get better at their jobs…and then go on to get better at their jobs.

Invest for the long run#section3

When design deliverables go wrong, it often leads to Old Testament, end-of-the-world stuff—fire and brimstone, rivers and seas boiling, cats and dogs living together. Every finger lands squarely in the face the designer. And why not? It is every designer’s responsibility to ensure the 100% satisfaction of the client, and that means delivering work in which every detail is thought through: top to bottom, inside and out.

In practice, though, there are two types of people when it comes to paying attention to detail: those who say they reviewed their work, and those who actually reviewed their work.

Website designers and developers who consistently fall short of expectations, who let little details slip through, ultimately develop a bad reputation. For the corporate employee, choice projects go to others and promotions are few; for the freelancer, client referrals dwindle. Perhaps most deflating, however, is that colleagues no longer take you seriously in peer design reviews. When people expect you to miss the details, the road to redemption is long.

The black comedy of it all is that few people celebrate designers when they get it right. We are, after all, expected to nail it perfectly every time. We juggle all of the tiny pieces of the great project puzzle, and after it goes live on the web, then it’s on to the next project. There is little short-term glory in being perfect, but there are long-term rewards for being consistently great, and good managers look for that consistency across the careers of their employees.

The little things lead to success#section4

When designers and developers think about the details of the project, they must think critically and analytically. The best solutions come from both sides of the brain, built from both the how and the why.

To be truly great, we have to understand the motivation of our clients, maintain constant two-way communication with shockingly uncreative people, get a firm handle on copywriting and how that craft exists symbiotically with the visual element, and foresee how the finished whole will be greater than the sum of the bits and pieces we spent hours obsessing over. All of these factors cascade into the final product.

Creative professionals who can see all angles of a project are the ones who ultimately succeed in the industry. They win awards, get promoted, and make money, but most importantly they develop a reputation for caring about detail, for putting a personal and deliberate effort into making sure all of the tiny things are in place to make the final product perfect.

42 Reader Comments

  1. I’m in the process of trying to build a reputation for myself and so while I’m trying to build that reputation, my rates are designed to be “enticing”. As one of those who enjoys paying attention to the details that matter, I feel I’m giving a better service for less money than many of my local rivals and it should be an easy sell.

    The difficulty for me lies in trying to make potential – and even existing – clients understand this. That there’s a difference between a designer who sees design as making a site look nice in their browser of choice and one who takes a holistic approach to all aspects of accessibility, usability, semantic structure and browser interoperability as well as aesthetics. These are quite nebulous concepts to sell to people who just want to “get on the web”.

  2. Great job of describing the challenges perfectionist designers face on a regular basis. We know how important web standards are; how much more effective we can be when content is separated from presentation and behavior — but trying to explain that to most folks is difficult at best.

    I have been fortunate to work in a corporate environment, surrounded by people who value good design, for the past 14 years. Not everyone understands things like unobtrusive JavaScript, or how important interaction cues are (subtle touches like :focus for form element, etc.) — and I don’t expect them to. They might not be able to fully communicate why they like something — but that’s OK. It’s my job to deliver the best product possible, if someone really notices the nuance, well, that’s a nice bonus.

    Thanks again for a great read.

  3. I’ve spent the last two years convincing my ex-boss that the details really do matter. He was the type that would put a site up, and then decide he wanted the same design on another site, so he’d copy all the code, and start tweaking things in DreamWeaver to match the new site. It would damn-near give me a heart attack,”Stop doing things half-ass” I’d say. After we had 50-75 sites and were making changes to them often, he saw the importance of getting the details correct early on. If you change something into spaghetti and then try to change that spaghetti into something else, the result it not pretty.

  4. I think you have really nailed the over-arching difference between successful, progressing designers and those who simply maintain the status quo.

    In your statement of qualities around the best designers I think you are highlighting something very important. Being a “detail-oriented” designer is about so much more than the visual, it is about communication.

    Being able to articulate and understand the details of an important project is a must. Designers need to provide detailed criticism (or support) that transcends visual subjectivity. We must understand what our clients are imagining and exceed those expectations.

    All of these things require being a detail-oriented communicator as much as (if not more than) one’s eye for visual details.

  5. Great article. I have found that clearly defining everyone’s expectations helps remove some of the pressure of everything landing squarely on the designer’s back.

    You left out that we are in many cases expected to know nearly every CMS system, programming language, web application and why your boss is not getting email right now.

  6. Thank you everyone for your comments so far. I do agree that communication is what separates day-to-day designers from truly successful designers. And yes, unfortunately, the knowledge requirement list for web designers and developers these days is disparagingly long.

  7. Yes, the bar _is_ set high, and many (most?) of the people who matter from a business perspective _are_ “shockingly uncreative” (very well put, btw); how is this really different from the state of the onion say, five years ago? This isn’t meant as a slap against the article; we *do* need reminders of just this sort on a depressingly regular basis.

    What _is_ changing, at least for some of us, is that the clients are starting to understand the value of “doing things right”, and it’s no longer consistently impossible to get them to pay for same. This is being driven, as much as by anything, by new, “alternate” browsers and platforms. I met with a prospect recently who had just launched his company’s site last November; he was absolutely livid that it was completely unusable from his iPhone or his CFO’s BlackBerry. All of his professional circle use handheld “Web-capable” devices; he sees trends as well as anybody and understands that non-traditional (non-IE-on-desktop-Windows) usage is only going to keep growing.

    The original article implies that the obsession with detail from the print design days is inconsistently applicable today, while pointing out that the people who still _have_ that eye are (generally) the stars of our craft today. I believe that that inconsistency will continue to diminish rapidly as clients become immune to the “get-on-the-Web-thingy-*NOW*!!!” snake-oil pitch. When they start casting a (reasonably) objective critical eye on our work, and demand the benefits that _only_ consistently come from good, clean design and development work, then those of us who have worked to maintain high standards through the Dark Ages of the Web will be the ones who come out on top.

    It makes for a nice gospel, anyway.

  8. Nothing bothers me more than someone who pretends to have reviewed my work and says it is perfect. Web design is too difficult to get it right without a few iterations. Please, just tell me you don’t want to help.

    P.S. I read the first 4 chapters of your book (so far) and I find it very useful.

  9. I think good attention to detail extends further than web standards and the technical side of things. It is evident in things like good file structure and organisation. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve worked on someone else’s project and spent 25 minutes trying to find the original vector version of the logo, which I’ve eventually located buried deep in a folder somewhere. I’m generally regarded at work as being a bit obsessive over how I store everything (separate folders for PSD, AI, Source images etc), but it makes things so much easier when it comes to finding things.

    Things like that help create the distinction between those who flourish at their job and become respected, and those who constantly seem like they’re treading water.

  10. Good article; I have to agree with pretty much everything you say. Though a little grammar mistake found its way into one of your paragraphs.

    “Good website builders like *you and I* avoid these altogether simply by writing better code.”

    “You and I” are the objects of this sentence so it should be “you and me”.

  11. Very useful information, gonna incorporate this list into project checklists… it’s good to have reminder, and a standard for everyone who is working on the projects.

    ~ Aaron I

  12. Following on from Mr McNickle’s point (#13) I searched for and did not find the “Aha! Gotcha!” which pointed out that the _very many_ grammatical errors and typos in this article are completely intentional and an ironic doff of the cap to the subject matter.

    They stand out immediately since ALA articles are (as a rule) faultless in these matters. Was this proof-read at all?

  13. @Mark Poulin I’m happy to see that you brought up Kevin’s book. It’s called Web Design and Marketing Solutions for Business Websites, and while some people will already know many things in it, it’s really thorough, a good reference (e.g., how do you deal with press releases on a business site?), and great to have on hand when supporting a point you’d like to make to a client.

  14. Excellent read! From a freelance capcity I have to say that attention to detail is the most demanding part of my job. Not burden though, I relish the detail but find it very frustrating when a client cares _less_ about the detail & quality of their presence than I do.

  15. @Simon — Great point on maintaining intelligent file structure. I know everyone has their own methodology for archiving information, but what drives me crazy in team environments is when the teammembers themselves do not stick to their own guidelines. This frustrates everyone. I also obsess over clean directory structure, and disdain the minutes I waste tracking down a source image.

    @Bedges — Please e-mail me (kevin at graphicpush dot com) these grammatical errors. I do not pretend to be perfect, and I always want to learn from these mistakes.

  16. I thrive on the details of a project. Sometimes I have to leave tasks that I find enjoyable – programming – to others on my team so I can distill elements of a project. I do this so I understand what is involved and so I can communicate what is being built to stakeholders.

    If I can paint a picture of what is being created so that a developer unfamiliar with the site and a manager “get” what needs to be done then I reward myself by geeking out with as much coding as time affords.

    Sometimes I get concerned that directing a project by focusing on details, doing things correctly and thoroughly are not as visible as the tasks done by genius programmers. In the end I realize that projects need all aspects done well and doing my part is crucial.

  17. And again web design is portrayed as the logical grandchild of graphic design. Why is that so? What makes everybody think it is like this? This perspective was stiffling the development of the web for years and i would love to see it vanish. Just because it happened in the 1990s that the people who by accident had computers to run Pagemaker and Quark also suddenly had access to the web and continued to put their “focus on detail” into a medium totally unfit for it, it does not mean that web design can learn anything from classic graphic design. Just because one can export web sites from Adobe products does not mean the web is about graphics design.

    Where is the article that describes web design’s connections to engineering, industrial design, computer science, interface design, architecture and so forth?

  18. This small line: “know which battles to fight and which to avoid” and most of the others, hit the nail on the wall.

    I have a boss who makes me code in tables and design them in CSS. Instead of having one header for each page, he creates multiple header to be consistent with the dynamic pages. Lastly, his web application has security holes that he does not bother fixing: to him he has clients that are gullible and easy money. Now, I am not crying here, but I code and design in standards and faster in Div. I also have good ethics. My boss on the other hand goes against every principle I have. But, what can I do? He pays me. So I shut up and work it his way. “That is avoiding a fight to get me fire”, even though the way I do thing is better and faster (In my opinion).

    Lastly, there are other small things I would fight on him and win. Such as having a dark color font on a dark background or so.

    But whatever the boss tells you to, you would always want to avoid the fight to get fired unless you have had it.

    Then by all means choose the best decision that fits you: fight or flight 🙂

  19. Most clients are on a budget, and its hard to spend a lot of time on making every little thing perfect. Especially when you know that explaining it won’t get you anywhere. The temptation is always to cut corners and make it work just good enough so the client is happy. This is true in every industry, its just that websites make it easier to do.

  20. “Only the luckiest website builders actually build websites all day. Most of us are also part-time proofers, project managers, usability experts, design critics, navigational architects, therapists for copywriters, and general go-to experts on all thing interweb.”

    “…therapists for copywriters…” love it!

  21. Kevin
    All of this hits home for me. Most of my clients give me a general idea of what they’d like and then let me run with it. They EXPECT that I will cover all bases and get it right.

    Occasionally, I run in to the opposite client. The one who has a complete vision and particular style they are looking for. While more demanding, and difficult, they do make me better. I have to be much more buttoned-up – as the phrase goes – and that helps with other projects as well. It’s always a learning process.

  22. Thanks a lot, great article. To me, the “It’s never just about design” part was spot on. Just triple the options and it’s my job in a nutshell. 😉

  23. I specifically love how you make reference to the constant two-way communication with shockingly uncreative people.

    I am a first year web designer and enjoyed this article.

    Thank you

  24. That was spectacular. Sitting here in my dark dungeon at 4am, coffee and hotpocket in their usual places, feet raised on my electronics toolbox and post-it notes filling my periphery, I can’t help but shed a little tear. Someone out there understands my pain.

    I’ve been working the angles since bulletin boards were hip. Those many years ago I thought myself clever, something akin to a Samurai but without so much blood and a far less impressive wardrobe. There were even a few years where I had others believing the same thing… we were pioneers with light sabers and tricked out vespa’s.

    Those days are gone. Now I’m the office curmudgeon… the cranky croc that sits by the watering hole just waiting for some enthusiastic accounting personnel to line up in my sights. I spend my days as a heat shield; deflecting harmful solar flares from clients and management so that my younger counterparts can produce with a regular consistency.

    A better day is coming friends… keep the dream alive. Keep it slim, keep it functional and by all means, make it pretty. What is a Samurai, without a cherry blossom to appreciate?

  25. Firstly, I like it because I agree with it thoroughly. It matches one of my favourite axioms – there is no magic pixie dust, success online depends on doing many small things well.

    Secondly, while it is framed in design terms, for a design webzine, its principles are much broader. You could swap the word “designer” out and put in “editor”, “author” or “online consultant” and most of it would still hold good.

    Thirdly, it encapsulates so many of the key parts of professionalism – attention to detail, self-critique, peer review – in a very readable article.

    Well done!

  26. It is, of course, more work to pay attention to details, to finish every last piece of work to a competent level. Doing less means getting it done faster and cheaper, of course, but then you have a cheaper result, and what’s the point, then?

    And there’s the other point: that clients and others involved in the process may not (and likely wouldn’t) have the whole picture, so it’s crucial to educate them in whatever way that’s easiest for them to grasp, so that they can provide their end in an informed manner.

    Yeah, it’s work. But if you want high quality craftsmanship …

  27. I’ve always been about the details. It’s good to see others feeling the same way.

    All to often I get clients looking to get the project done rather than taking the appropriate time to research & plan.

  28. It is vital to have all aspects of design. The small details are what people look for, it makes you stand out from others and therefore make people more aware of your talent and service.

    People sometimes over look the smaller details, forgetting that people do in fact notice them. That little extra effort made creates a far more impressionable outlook on you.

  29. RE: Phil, the first poster. What you ask says a lot about you. People who don’t know what you should be asking just want more for less and don’t care about anything that sounds like it might involve learning something new. Do what you have to do to get that portfolio fodder but don’t ask the proprietor of Bob’s Butcher Mart to care about semantics or the separation of presentation and content structure.

    If you lowball yourself when talking to other developers and web professionals, however it suggests that whatever your claims to the contrary are, you don’t take pride in your work or you’re just not competitive. Entry level IS a bargain to them if your work is good and your turnaround time is decent.

    So know your targets:

    Bob’s Butcher Mart, because you need the portfolio – ask for a very reasonable flat rate so you don’t have to sweat going over his budget and put as much time into it as you have available. Explain the reason you want a flat rate. It’s win/win if they didn’t need a site yesterday.

    A boutique with developers and design pros looking at your resume and portfolio – entry level. No less or they’ll wonder how much you really know about what you’re doing or whether you don’t have some problem they haven’t ferreted out in the application process.

  30. I agree that the details can make or break a project, but I also agree with some of the comments made by Erik Reppen. The market you target will play a major role in the level of project detail and price. If you are focusing on entry level small business sites, most small business owners won’t be sweating the details. They will want a nice web site at a reasonable price. The larger projects like redesigns or a platform transition will be a situation where design element details will become a factor.

  31. I’m also trying to build a business and temporarily cut my prices to entice new customers. After a few months with meager results I actually reversed that strategy and increased my price to about even with my competition. I found that I had better business and a better class of clientele with the higher rates. More people retained my services after a consultation. They are expecting to get what they pay for.
    “Phoenix Arizona Law Firm”:

  32. I don’t take pride in your work or you’re just not competitive.
    “Wartrol Review”—Finally-the-Truth&id=1551904

  33. Interesting Article and Comments… I was hoping to see more comments on the arguments/decisions that we must make for Search Engines and Sales Conversions.

    I know that I have no talent in design and pay professionals to do it, but spend a great deal of time working with or influencing the designs to be search engine friendly and improve sales.

    Scott Jacob

  34. Making internet it’s for those who like it. ‘Case it’s something that don’t stop to change, you have to keep constantly studing, looking for ways to make tools more acessible, more usable. I think this make the professionals of internet meticulous with details. But, one point that has to be viewed it’s our bosses. Who sometimes doesn’t understant about internet, but about time and money. And for them time is money. And instead of many want to be efficient and fast, I think time, a good time, research and patience it’s impressidible for every project. Even more whem you, like me, work in a small advertisement agency where there is only one person responsable for the design, for the programtion, for checking usability, and all the things that ivolves the internet projects. We have to learn every day how to show our bosses that details are very important in internet. And details are time.

  35. I understand that you are offering your service at an introductory rate but in business the fastest way to lose clients is to change price. If you have a client that has been with you since the introductory price and you are expecting referrals you will be known by price then quality. I would do this only to build a portfolio of some sorts because it is a marketing expense

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