The Case for a Designer

More and more people are taking the plunge and building a web site, and for the most part I encourage people to experiment and try it out. With the vast array of HTML editors available and the growing capabilities of the WYSIWYG sector in particular, it seems that now the web really is open to anyone. There is, however, a big difference between building a site and designing a site. When faced with producing a business site I would recommend hiring a designer, and let me explain why.

The omnipotence of the internet and the impact it has had on our lives means that the web design business is a very open and engaged one. The steady drop in prices for access and web space, and the inclusion of HTML editing facilities into practically every piece of office software has meant that there are no longer any barriers to producing content like the pros. Whether you use the extra features in the likes of Word, or dedicated packages like FrontPage, the general consensus seems to be that knocking up a web page is as easy as writing a document or presentation. The cost, ease of use and ready availability of design software means that the barriers of price, complexity and time that often stop the average person from developing products, software or services are not applicable to web design.

Although producing a page is easy, whether you learn to code HTML or use a WYSIWG editor, there are far more complicated issues afoot. The first of these is that your site may not look the same on all computers. This seems to come as a shock to some people. 95% of people use Internet Explorer (IE)[1] to browse the net, but that means IE 4, 5, 5.5 and 6. There is a massive difference in just these four browsers. IE 6 is the most popular, but the older browsers still hold a fairly significant market share and only support certain aspects of web coding, and all of them have their own idiosyncrasies. Alongside these are others like Netscape[2], Mozilla[3], Opera[4], the Mac-based Safari[5] and a multitude beside. Add to this all of the specialist browsers like Lynx[6], a text only browser, and Jaws[7], a web page reader for the visually impaired and you have somewhere near 20 browsers, and this number is growing.

Then we have the machines themselves, each operating system works differently, so what may look lovely on windows, could look horrible on a Mac, or a computer running Linux. This could be simply because the font you used is installed on your machine, but isn’t on the viewers machine/operating system, or any number of other reasons. Add to this the screen resolution. This is the number of pixels used to display your desktop. The two most popular are 800×600 (WxH) and 1024×768[8]. What looks great in the first, may look tiny in the second, and if it looks good in the latter, it may overrun the screen in the former (resulting in horizontal scroll, a web design sin).

The best method to allow cross-browser support (i.e. support for all browsers) is to use the web standards as laid down by the w3 consortium[9]. They are dedicated to developing standards for manufacturers and designers to follow that ensure everything looks the same for everyone. Now is perhaps the best time to mention then, that HTML is to become obsolete. It is now a deprecated language and will be replaced by XHTML (eXtensible Hypertext Markup Language) and CSS (Cascading Stylesheets). The idea is to separate style (fonts, text colour, layout) from content (your text and pictures) to improve flexibility. This means that many elements have become obsolete or deprecated and new browsers will not support them. Standards are an ongoing development and so one job designers have is to stay on top of what the latest ones are and adhere to them.

As I said, not all browsers implement these standards the same way, so another thing designers are forced to do is stay on top of the latest tips, tricks and workarounds that will allow their pages to look identical (and be readable) in as many browsers as possible, while looking acceptable in those that don’t support them. It is a never-ending task made easier only by the devoted tinkerers who test different methods to try and find a better, more compatible way of doing something.

Another aspect that has gained much higher importance of late, is accessibility. It has always been with us, but with the Disabilities Discrimination Act (DDA)[10] in the UK and Section 508[11] in the US, it has now become a top priority for all designers. Anyone thinking of shirking it should remember two things: the DDA makes it a criminal offence if your site doesn’t meet the act (the RNIB[12] have been threatening court action) and the UK government has estimated that the disabled community has approximately £40bn in spending power every year (in the UK alone)[13], with visually impaired users (over-50s for example) taking it to £200bn[14], a big market to ignore. Again, web standards lie at the centre of this development because sticking to standards makes your site more accessible, an incentive for both. There are other things you can implement which will increase accessibility on your site such as access keys. It stretches much further than this though, and encompasses simple things like colour choice, ensuring text size can be changed and providing alternatives to images, all of which are important in ensuring everyone can access your page.

Usability, like accessibility, is something that has grown in stature in recent years with champions like Jakob Neilson[15] bringing it to a much wider audience. Usability is concerned with how people interact with web sites (though it isn’t limited to web sites). This has been shown to have a major impact on customer perception, productivity and sales (especially for online stores). It involves simple things like screen layout, providing obvious links to further information, what to include on your site and where, as well as, ultimately, user testing. For small sites the last point may be outside the budget, but a good web designer should already be aware of many of the principles that customers are used to in a web page and have a basic understanding of how customers will interact with your site. Usability is often overlooked on all but the big sites where they can afford the development costs to run user testing sessions. Many web designers will have picked up tips and tricks over the years however, and most of them perform their own forms of testing by asking people within their community to look at and provide feedback on the site.

This moves us conveniently on to site layout. As I mentioned, there are certain things that most people have come to expect when they visit a web site. Simple things like making your logo a link to the home page, or sticking with basic design layouts like the inverted ‘L’ with links on the left and a title bar at the top. These sorts of things have evolved over the course of web development and have been chosen via survival of the fittest, poor designs don’t make it. A web designer has picked up an understanding of these things, not just from experience with designing, but from listening to other designers and reading articles on the subject (designers really do have to keep up with the game and are constantly renewing and refreshing their skills).

Lastly, you have the visual design. Designers have usually spent years developing skills in software, coding techniques and an eye for what works while applying their creative minds to the web. Many pages may appear simple, with few graphics and little text, but a web designer must have a feel for how it will impact upon its intended audience. This is an overlooked aspect of a web designer’s job, not by the designers, but by everyone else. There is a certain degree of basic psychology involved and the design often adds up to far more than it’s component parts.

As you can see, creating a web page is not as easy as it may appear on the surface, what lies beneath it is equally as important to the success of the site. A web designer’s job isn’t as easy as it looks either, it is actually a constantly changing circle of priorities all screaming for attention. Learning to balance these, while acquiring the necessary skills in code and software, and keeping them up-to-date, is a never-ending cycle. So next time you look at a professional web page, just think about what it took to get it right, and if you still think that hiring a designer is unnecessary, ask yourself if your competitors would take that risk. Not hiring a designer could be far more costly.

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