When Design Is NOT Design

Somehow, in the rush to make the web into its own distinct medium, many terms have been confused. And in this space where a spade isn’t always called a spade, the words “designer” and “marketing” have lost their meaning.

Online, “designer” means a person who can program web sites so that they are fully functional. According to Webster, a designer is “one who conceives or forms original designs planned for or aimed at communication.” Webster defines “graphic arts” as “visual artistic representation.” Hmmm nothing here about computer code.

Online, “marketing” seems to mean search engine placement. When I teach Marketing 101 to college freshmen, the definition I use is this: Marketing is a combination of tactics used to communicate the features and benefits of a product or service to customers, prospective buyers, and the media.

My point (and I do have one!) is that a designer needs to understand the principles of marketing in order to clearly communicate ideas, features and benefits. That has nothing to do with coding web sites or with securing search engine placement.

Fair enough, right? But I have repeatedly heard “web designers” whine that graphic designers don’t understand the web. “They want us to do things HTML can’t do!” they cry. “They don’t understand our tools!”

In the wild west early years of the web, anything might have flown because the most important thing was to just get online. As competition for ad dollars and visitor attention becomes more and more fierce online, that has changed.

Good Sites Vs. Great Sites

And what will often make the difference between a successful site and an unsuccessful site — regardless of the quality of its information — will be how well the information is organized, how pleasing it is to the eye and how effectively the graphic design of the site communicates.

More and more graphic designers are going to play a bigger and bigger role in the web, because they have the talent of making a message easy to convey, pleasing to look at, and a snap to read. Bottom line: sites that look good are easier and more inviting to hang out in.

Yes, those who know HTML and CGI programming call themselves designers. But coding is not design. Coders seem resistant to the fact that there is a long history to graphic design and to marketing. And that history is not suddenly irrelevant just because there is a new medium.

Undoubtedly, I will now be flamed by angry coders who say I am maligning their skills. Not true! But I do think coders should be spending as much energy developing new tools that allow better images, beautiful typography, and various graphic flourishes to be possible with standard Internet tools.

The Dark Past

What sort of design were we subjected to in the early days, from coders or worse, PageMaker devotees? Lots of unreadable, poorly designed material: Brochures with six different incompatible typefaces. Pages that twisted and turned impossibly. Weird color combinations!

Thankfully, it wasn’t very long before big firms and smart smaller firms called the graphic designers back. It was clear: “Good enough” results aren’t .at least, not when you are looking for great design.

In developers’ discussion groups, those who call themselves web designers talk about the anal retentiveness of graphic designers. They rant about how crazy and stupid graphic designers are to demand perfection in a medium that is constantly changing: Why be so worried about how something looks? Who will care?

Of course, that’s an incredibly short-sighted view, and I maintain that poor graphic design has hurt the marketing efforts of sites designed by web “designers” with no clue what graphic design means.

After all, appreciation for good design often occurs at a subliminal level. We find some pages impossible to comprehend but we’re not absolutely sure why. We don’t stick around long enough to find out. We click into the next web site and hang around there if it is easier to read and better organized. The information may be of equal quality. It is the graphic design that makes us stay or flee.

Successful marketing is only possible when a strong and unique selling proposition is built into the product or service being sold. And graphic design is an important element of marketing. Soon, graphic design is going to start getting some respect. Yes, even from web designers. At least, the web designers who want to produce successful sites.

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