What is web design?

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Web design is a term that has been so overused lately that the original meaning has been somewhat lost as is the case with so much web terminology out there. In this article I will aim to break down the question of’ ‘what is web design’ and explore the traditional meaning and then the modern slant on it.

The true meaning

The traditional and true meaning of web design is the discipline of using graphic design principles (images, icons, illustrations and text etc.) to create the look and feel for a website, that’s it! This doesn’t include web development, online marketing or any other discipline that seems to have been wrapped into the term lately. In fact, the true definition of the term doesn’t actually involve arriving at a final, fully functioning website at all.

Web design, in it’s true meaning results in two potential methods being used to describe the design of the website:

  1. the website design described as a mockup image, or series of mockup images via Photoshop, Illustrator or other similar graphic and web design tool. These will exist purely as static image mockups and will not be fully interactive representations of the final website.
  2. the design of the website is actually converted into interactive HTML pages, usually based on Phtoshop mockups as above. This involves a more technical skill set and frontend development techniques being used to deliver mockups that more closely represent the final website

Both of the above methods use graphic design techniques to arrive at a website look and feel branded for the company in question. The full production of the website has not been acheived at this stage as we have only created design mockups. This allows the web designers to concentrate their attention to detail on those crucial graphic design principles vital for creating a convincing and professional image for the company in question.

The modern interpretation

Most modern interpretations of web design have somehow come to include the development and production of the website as well. This often causes confusion as the general public often expect production and design as a full service offering bundled together, whereas your traditional design agency will use the ‘true meaning’ as above, often resulting in a mismatch of expectations. Even on our website here at The SeedMill, we have become part of the problem and are using the term web design in a similar manner (the modern interpretation) as a label to encompass web development, website engineering, web production and digital marketing. Luckily we can do all of this. However, not all web design companies can.

Because of the way the term is misused we have to bundle the services together all under the same roof in order to match client expectations as everyone else does, further perpetuating the misinformation. Therefore, the reality is that the meanings of those words and services have almost become synonymous with one another and are now commonly summarised as web design. All of this is resulting in the definition of web design shifting into something more wide ranging as time goes on.

To further confuse the picture, website design is often combined with other supplementary design practices and services such as logo design, illustration, video design and digital marketing, including SEO (search engine optimisation). However, again, as with the production side, these are also additional related design services (with additional costs attached) and not to be confused with the core practice and result of web design itself. Again, the term web design is stretched as people often tend to expect other supplementary services to be thrown in and design companies fail to correct this assumption.

Really, the modern interpretation of web design can mean anything depending on the web company selling the service and their own knowledge, mixed with those expectations of the general public. It’s a loose term and this is okay as long as a good solution is provided and everyone is happy that expectations have been met.

So, what’s involved in the traditional definition of web design?

a picture of written javascript codeIn essence, the design of a website will normally encompass a few project phases, such as:
  • Discovery and research of the business needing the website, their industry and their customers
  • Sitemaps in order to plan the structure of the website
  • Wireframes often similar to sketches to plan layout and information architecture
  • Mockups or style frames to express the design of the website in terms of colours, fonts and images
  • Interactive mockups (if it has been agreed to supply full HTML mockups)

The above outline describes a full design process and depending on the budget available a number of the steps can be skipped. The first ‘discovery’ phase can be broken down into a large number of constituent parts depending on the size of the project being undertaken. Because of this, the planning behind medium to large scale website projects is not dissimilar to that of a small scale civil engineering project. This has a direct effect on the costs behind a web desig project.

Why does web design cost so much?

This is a question I am often asked. The answer is that it should cost a good deal of money if you want a thoroughly researched and diligent solution to be provided. As with every industry,  a good quality solution is often desired but rarely met. The costs should have to take into account the amount of research and project management involved.

A good web design company will have to take a series of technologies and a whole lot of research into consideration before designing a website.  Simply knowing modern graphic design principles is not enough. Web designers need to have a deep understanding of the technology, the business and its industry as well. All of these points have such a direct effect on the design and production of an effective website that actually performs.

As mentioned, not only should the web designer should have a good handle on the individual business and therefore their business strategy, but also a whole swath of technology. The necessary knowledge involved in both the design and production of a new website is now vast. Modern web designers have to have good knowledge of topics such as:

  • Usability (lately coined as UX)
  • Responsive web design (often termed as RWD – the practice of designing for mobile and tablet computers)
  • A content management system (such as WordPress, Drupal etc.) modern XHTML standards
  • CSS (which is progressing rapidly)
  • JavaScript (including jQuery)
  • Social media, design marketing etc.

At the very least a good modern web designer will need to know the limitations of the above (especially responsive design and creating search engine friendly websites) and where this can be stretched or complied with. Taking things further, the more knowledge that a web designer has in the above, the easier they will make the production and development process for the web developer who takes the website beyond design and into production.

In summary, a good understanding of the above mentioned technologies will allow the designer to effectively create design solutions for any scenario. They will be able to tackle projects centred around content management systems, e-commerce, micro sites, brochure sites, marketing sites or whatever a business requires. Accumulating this knowledge and expeirence can take many years and a whole lot of work. The experience and technical knowledge required often makes it very difficult for print focused designers to easily transition across into web design, often meaning that web design specialists have to be employed by agencies.

Can the costs be reduced?

So, when you take the above factors into account it’s easy to see why modern day websites are becoming very similar to civil engineering projects and the costs often reflect this. We are seeing that the increasing complexity behind web projects and web design in general is pushing prices up for anything but the smallest brochure style websites. However, for those smaller projects, off-the-shelf WordPress themes and pre-packaged solutions can be used to significantly reduce the costs of building a fully bespoke website. These packages reduce the need to have the technical knowledge.

This is the bright light on the horizon for web design and the web in general. Namely, there are well developed resources and tools out there in the form of content management systems(such as WordPress) and other software that can really help to reduce the time it takes to deliver effectively designed websites. Adobe are desperately trying to improve their design software (Photoshop, Illustrator etc.) to become more relevant to designers who specialise in this area, also reducing the necessary technical barrier.

In summary, these technologies are helping designers to reduce the amount of time that they have to concentrate on the technical aspects of designing websites, freeing them up to then concentrate on more critical and expressive factors that are determinate in the success of a web project as a whole.

As many web designers out there, I am waiting for the technology to evolve to the point where my focus can be far more heavily placed onto business intelligence and the actual visual strategy behind delivering a web design as opposed to wrangling with technical knowledge. I am looking forward to the day that design software can largely remove the technical issues. To my mind everyone then wins. The customer faces smaller costs and I can concentrate on the more enjoyable aspects of creation and brand design.

Ray Dale

Brand Strategist. Web Designer. Web Consultant. UX Designer. WordPress Specialist. Creative Director. Co-founder of The SeedMill. With 20 years of commercial experience in web and design industries, Ray is fascinated with all forms of design and business strategy, whether that is web design, video or data driven design. Having worked for small design agencies and large corporate companies, Ray has seen all sides of the web design and marketing industries. With a head full of ideas & strategies and a skillset that is rare to find, Ray is extremely passionate about helping businesses to achieve growth online through strategy and design.