Don't Decorate, Communicate!When
you're designing a web page, it's easy to get sucked into the detail.
With your 'design' head on, concentrating on crafting and perfecting
style elements, it's easy to forget to step back and see things through
the eyes of your users.
Your users aren't interested in giving your design work marks out of
10. They just care about getting all the relevant information, in as
little time as possible, and then moving on.
So how do you give your readers the
stuff they need in the way that they want?
For a start, you can draw on the
experience of traditional print designers.
After all, they've been tackling the
same challenge for decades - in press ads, in brochures, in leaflets,
in mailings. And over that time, they've established some pretty sound
1. Remember how brains work
There's nothing our brains like so
much as order and meaning. It's what they search for from the moment
they encounter anything new - and that includes your web page. If
brains can't find the sense and order they need, they soon grow
exasperated and give up.
The best print designers know this.
They've also learned that, the more elaborate the design, the greater
the risk of confusion. That's why they usually steer clear of fussy and
Instead, their layouts have a
'quieter' feel, with all the individual elements directed at letting
the page information unfold as easily as possible. Headlines, subheads,
body copy point size, pictures, colours - all are used to 'signpost'
the route the good designer wants the reader to take through the
material placed before him. A route that's guaranteed to leave him
feeling better informed, and better served, at journey's end.
Does this approach make a difference?
You bet it does!
In over 20 years, I've lost count of
the times I've seen a more restrained, reader-focused design for an ad
or brochure outperform a flashier, supposedly more eye-catching
alternative. In most cases, the content has remained the same. It's
just the way the content is laid out that's different.
2. Remember how eyes move
In our culture, we're trained from
the moment we start reading to scan from left to right, starting from
the top left of the page and working down to bottom right. We develop a
natural rhythm as we do it, with our eyes moving swiftly to the end of
each line, then skipping back to the start of the next.
Oh, and by the way, our eyes don't
like to have to constantly readjust their focus. It just leads to
So far, so obvious. But it's the
obvious that's often overlooked, particularly by designers who want to
'create an impression' by doing something radical, such as running the
main headline around the page margin, or by making interesting shapes
with the body copy.
I could go on, of course. I could
talk about startling use of contrasting colours. Or reversing out large
chunks of text. Or running it over a picture. Or experimenting with
lots of different typefaces and point sizes. Or dotting illustrations
all over the page.
All these stylistic touches may look
really cool. And result in something you'd love to hang on your wall.
But that's not the goal, is it? Your aim is to make life easier for
your reader. Yet, too often, the kind of visual tricks listed here do
exactly the reverse. They disrupt natural eye movement. They strain the
eyes by asking them to jump around the page, from element to element,
with the need for lots of re-focusing along the way. They frustrate the
brain in its instinctive quest for logical order and meaning.
I've seen many over-excitable,
over-designed print layouts fail miserably when they leave the rarefied
atmosphere of the design studio and enter the real world where the
readers live. And, equally, I've seen genuine commercial wonders worked
when those same layouts are placed in wiser hands.
In one case, for instance, a
loss-making full-page press ad featuring a large slab of reversed-out
body copy was transformed by the simple act of running the text in
conventional black on white. The freshened-up ad - with nothing else
changed - then brought in over a quarter million pounds-worth of orders
on its very first outing.
On another occasion, I saw a product
brochure achieve a 543% - yes, 543% - increase in response after a
design 're-vamp'. The main changes were to switch from a sans serif to
serif typeface (easier to read) and to remove a number of small
pictures from the right margins of the pages (on the grounds that, in
this position, they might be distracting the reader's attention at the
wrong moment and preventing his eye from returning back left to start
reading the next line).
"Fine," you may think. "But that's
print. What's it got to do with designing for the web?"
Actually, everything. Because what's
been happening design-wise in print - the successes and the failures -
is being repeated right now on-line. Just take a look at a dozen or so
web pages, selected at random, and I think you'll see what I mean.
3. Above all - remember you're here
to communicate, not decorate
If you only want one guideline, make
this it. Because, frankly, for all the reasons already given, there
really is nothing more irritating to readers than design for design's
This isn't to say your web page
shouldn't use all the design elements and special touches that create
style, pace, flair, excitement, intrigue, emotion. Of course it should!
But these elements must always be relevant and appropriate, and not
distract from a clear, coherent whole effect.
Remember this, and you'll vastly
increase your chances of creating effective online design - a design
that draws attention to the message, not to itself - a design that will
serve your web site visitors rather than dazzle them.
In my experience, this is good
business sense. Especially if you want to turn those visitors into
customers. Because they can't give you money while they're rubbing
their eyes or scratching their heads.