It’s Pretty, But Is It Effective?

Something that comes up in my conversations with people from time to time is the role that the designer takes in the web design process. A lot of inexperienced designers seem to like to make pretty things and create designs based on an “artistic vision”. These designers are also the ones that get bent out of shape when clients request changes that interfere with that vision.

Who is at fault?

I really feel that in these cases, the designer is the one at fault. There is a difference between art and design. If you want a vehicle of self-expression to allow you to communicate your inner vision and unique point of view, then you should be a fine artist.* Design has also been referred to as “commercial art”, which I think illustrates the distinction between the two fields. Design is art that is geared towards a specific purpose, usually achieving communication between two parties: the designer’s client and the client’s customers or target audience.

Are you getting your point across?

That leads us to another term that has been used for graphic design: “visual communication”. That’s really what it’s all about, and that’s why “artistic vision” doesn’t come into it when you’re talking about design. Simply put, if you’re not communicating what you need to through the design, you’re not doing your job. At that point, it doesn’t matter how pretty the design is.

This concept is even more important when it comes to web sites. By their very nature of interactivity, web sites communicate more directly with the audience. They can engage their users and communicate, in a lot of cases, more effectively than other mediums. The key word there is “can”. It’s not a guarantee. And so there are a lot of websites, I’m sure you’ve seen some, either crammed with information clutter, or pretty but at the point of being unusable.

That’s why I feel it’s important to concentrate on making designs that are effective above all else. It’s the age-old competition between form vs. function. In my view, when it comes to websites the function needs to be in place first, and then we can dress up that functionality to make it look nice and appealing to users.

How do we design effectively?

So if there’s no “artistic vision” in the design, we can just implement every change the client suggests, correct? No, I’m afraid it’s not quite as simple as that either. Instead of things being the way they are because “I’m an artist”, we need to understand the needs of our target audience, rely on our design experience to explain the “why” behind our design decisions, and “why” the client’s changes may or may not be in line with their goals. Instead of changes being an instruction, or a battle, they become a conversation. Which is great! Conversations help everyone bounce ideas off of each other, and in the end help the design become stronger.

So in conclusion, a designer is not an artist. Web designers should strive to create web sites that are effective and functional before being pretty, and one of the best ways they can do this is by understanding the target audience, and engaging in conversations with the client that mix design principles with the client’s understanding of their market. In this way we can create designs that not only look great but are deeper in the way they address the wants and needs of their users.

Do you agree with my point of view? What do you think makes an effective website? Do you have an anecdote to share? Let us know in the comments!

*Note: it may seem like I have something against fine artists, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I am also an artist, in addition to being a designer. But art and design, while there is a little overlap, are different disciplines and need to be treated as such.
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About Karyl Gilbertson

Karyl is New Harvest Media's Creative Director. He is passionate about design, and pretty stoked about things like web standards, usability, and Wordpress too.