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What Is Design?

  |  March 29, 2001   |  Comments

Has design gone wrong on the Web? Young designers believe the hype that style is all that matters. Gerry believes Web design should be centered around content. Some call it information architecture.

If you designed a door with a doorknob two inches off the floor, you would soon find out your design would not work. If you designed a car with a steering wheel in the back seat, you would soon find out your design would not work. If you designed a chair with a seat made of brittle glass, you would soon find out your design would not work.

This is a critical problem with design on the Internet. We don't get that overwhelming feedback that we get from watching someone trying to use an item we have designed. This results in a situation where flaws that would become immediately obvious in a physical design often go unnoticed in an online design. (Of course, the person who's trying to use that Web site notices them!)

But what is design? Design is about creating something with a purpose. A door is first and foremost something that allows you in and out of something. A car is something you drive that helps you get from one place to another. A chair is something made for you to sit on.

Has Design Gone Wrong on the Web?

The problem with Web design is well articulated by Jeffrey Zeldman in an article for Adobe. He warns about how style is becoming a fetish on the Web. "Many young Web designers -- and let's face it, most Web designers are under 30 -- view their craft the way I used to view pop culture," he writes. "It's cool, or it's crap."

Design has gone wrong on the Web, where young designers believe the hype -- that style is all that matters in design. But that's not the way design works.

Nike may now stress marketing and stylish design. However, Nike has been in the business of designing running shoes since 1964. Long before Nike embraced style, it embraced solid, functional design.

Benetton is a style champion, sure. However, Benetton has been knitting jumpers since the early sixties. Long before Benetton advertised, it made clothes that didn't fall apart the third time you wore them.

Web Design and Information Architecture

A product can function without a distinctive style. It cannot function without a good design. On the Web, the obsession with visual style is actually damaging design. Young, inexperienced designers are missing the point of Web design. They need to learn the true craft of Web design, not some surface sheen.

Nike and Benetton had initial success because they were masters of their craft. The craft of Web design is not visual, graphic-oriented design. Rather, it is design that is centered around content. Some are calling it information architecture.

Information architecture is about helping your readers quickly find the content they want. To achieve this, Web designers need to:

  • Create simple paths through large quantities of content.

  • Create Web pages that are fast to download.

  • Translate business strategy into classifications/links that customers understand and can intuitively navigate through.

  • Understand how people read on the Web and how they like to navigate.

  • Create search processes that deliver accurate, descriptive results.

  • Relentlessly focus on the function of the Web site.

  • Actively seek feedback from the people who read the Web site with the objective of constant improvement.

  • Recognize that in a text-based content environment, the style resides in the content itself, not the graphics that surround the content.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gerry McGovern Gerry McGovern is a Web consultant and author. His most recent books are Content Critical and The Web Content Style Guide, published by Financial Times Prentice Hall.

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