Who Cares About an Ugly Website Anyway?
“Good design is good business” – Thomas Watson, Jr.
Pick your favorite website. Do you love how Facebook immediately serves up your friends’ updates and interests? Or is Amazon your first choice for effortless shopping list-making? Does the simplicity of Google’s search page make you feel more in charge of the Internet? Maybe a website makes you feel special and cared for. Or maybe the experience is so seamless that you don’t even think about it at all.
In all of these cases, it’s intentional. Companies spend a lot of time and attention to attract you to their site, convince you to stay, and make you feel good (or at least not feel bad) while you’re there.
The cornerstone of this strategy? Design.
The visual impact of a well-designed website cannot be underestimated. As we know from sites like Instagram and Pinterest, graphics and photos hold an emotionally evocative power over us that simple text does not. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the emotional value of imagery is priceless.
The good news is that it’s easier than it’s ever been for a small business or solopreneur to make a great-looking site without breaking the bank.
What is Good Design and Why Does it Matter?
While there are many differing opinions and preferences when it comes to web design (or any design for that matter), there are certain functional, objective guidelines to which all good design should adhere. The renowned German design guru Dieter Rams has famously pulled apart and analyzed the concepts of what appeals to us aesthetically and how those things are represented through design. His 10 Principles of Good Design is required reading for anyone feeling foggy about what makes something “well-designed.”
As to the question of “Why does good web design matter?”, Rams tackles this point directly in Principle #3:
“Good Design Is Aesthetic: The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. Only well-executed objects can be beautiful.”
Good design, simply, is useful design. So even if you don’t have strong design skills, or are confused with the vagaries of what goes into making “good art,” you can still create a sleek, eye-catching–and yes, useful–site by following Rams’ principles.
What do we mean by useful? Cat Townsend is the founder of The Good Alliance, which offers creative guidance and resources to small businesses and startups. “It’s all about the customer,” she says. “How do we want them to feel so they respond in a way that they do what we want them to do?”
Townsend believes that what we feel about something often has a more immediate and profound impact than what we think, especially when it comes to visuals: “They are there to engage and evoke a sense of instinctive trust. Visitors don’t think to themselves, ‘I like this shade of purple, I’ll read it.’ It’s an instinctual decision.”
Townsend notes that there is a hierarchy of what we respond to as humans, visually:
- Other people, first and foremost. We have a natural ability to detect fakeness (as well as a limited tolerance for it), and are naturally drawn to other real human faces feeling real emotions (as opposed to staged stock photos). It’s how we’ve evolved.
- Color. Yes, there is a science behind it.
- Layout. The image that seems cozy and compact to some might be seen as dark and crowded to others. Light space is better, as it allows “room to breathe.”
- Contributory factors like image quality and font type and size.
With just these four elements in mind, you can begin to see how good design breaks down into common sense, human-oriented, and very achievable elements. Is the fog starting to clear up a little?
Short and Sweet
Of course, tapping into your customers’ basic human instincts can be easier said than done. Independent design professional Sarah Bylsma recommends keeping your design strategy simple, especially when starting out.
“Keep the content short. People are gravitating more toward short tidbits of content similar to what we consume on feeds and streams. Lead with small summaries, bullet points, and highlights. Longer, more in-depth content is often necessary, but it should be an optional link to learn more.”
Simplicity can also be just a matter of knowing what not to include. Bylsma takes the less-is-more approach:
“Don’t make the common mistake of loading up your site with too many words, images, colors, buttons, and sidebars. Pick a handful of images–use only those. Pick one or two colors and use only those. Pick one or two fonts to use throughout your entire design. Remember that you’re selling yourself and your services—use simple/restrained design elements as a tool, not a distraction.”
Once again, we are reminded that we’re designing for humans and their emotional response. Simple design, a focused message, and clear prompts make it easy and satisfying for your customers. You’re clearing the way for them to get to your message or product as smoothly and effortlessly as possible.
Take a Cue From the Best
Just like shopping for clothes, it’s a good idea to surf other websites in your field and make a note of what styles work and what don’t. You should never copy someone else’s design outright, but you can (and should) draw from the qualities that work well on successful websites.
Spend a little time examining your most-frequented websites and really examine the details of their visual strategy:
- Is their navigation front-and-center bold or a little more subtle?
- Do they have a single hero image or several smaller images?
- Is the color palette limited to black, white, and neutrals, or are there a few stronger “branded” colors?
Make a short list of those qualities for your own to use when you begin designing. But remember: the design elements that make a successful site may not necessarily appeal to your own sensibilities, and that’s okay. Your website isn’t for you, it’s for your customers.
As Townsend says, the customer comes first. Make a note of how you feel on different sites and what that does to your browsing and buying impulses. Do cooler colors make you feel safer on some websites? Do darker, sharper colors and fonts give you an edgy thrill on others? None of these responses are accidental. Use them.
Large companies spend thousands, sometimes millions of dollars coming up with the perfect design to get the response they want–the “impact” of visual impact, if you will. Seeing beyond your personal aesthetic likes and dislikes to discover the usefulness of great design will help you benefit from those same perfect design ideas without spending a dime.
Make Way for Mobile
One thing you must consider, regardless of who designs your site, is mobile optimization. Put another way, your design process should include the question, “how’s this going to look on a small screen?”
Mobile web browsing has become a major consideration in site functionality, with over 52% of all website traffic worldwide generated through mobile devices this year alone, with that number certain to continue rising. Luckily, many site building platforms have built-in mobile editors that let you view your site as both desktop and mobile versions. Otherwise, making sure your web designer knows that mobile optimization is on your short list of must-haves (or even opting to design mobile-first) will keep your customers happy and your business competitive.
Don’t Ignore the Little Things
“Your website is the shop window,” Cat Townsend reminds us. They’ve come to replace not just brick-and-mortar storefronts, but also physical collateral like advertisements, flyers, brochures, and other expenses that eat up your budget (rent, printing, and mailings, etc.).
But while you might eliminate some expenses, you still need to consider the cost of your brand’s impact and your attention to detail. Sarah Bylsma concurs:
“Is it silly or unnecessary to care about things like correct font size and spacing or high-quality images if your service isn’t related to design? Nope! These little things reinforce your main message could be the thing that pulls someone in or drives them away. Like a tidy and welcoming storefront, visible and clear signage, and a front door that opens easily, it only takes a handful of seconds for a customer to notice, but it makes a big difference.”
As much as we love big ideas, we live in a world where the little things matter. From a waiter’s dirty fingernails to that extra chocolate on your hotel room pillow, it’s all in the details. And details can make a big difference.
Ready to Get Started?
If you’re a company with a design budget, the best plan for your website is to not do it yourself. “Maybe the best advice I can give to a small/startup business to hire a designer for the initial build of the website,” says Bylsma. “While it may seem like a large up-front cost, hiring a professional can save a business thousands, maybe tens of thousands, over the first few years.”
Does this mean all that research and planning you did was for nothing? Not at all. A professional web designer certainly has the skills and experience to create the site of your dreams (not to mention saving you the time and energy you need to run your business), but it’s essential as an educated and informed “client,” to always bring specifics (color palette, layout, wireframes, industry sites you’ve researched, etc.) into a conversation with a designer.
Your ideas may not always work in the end, but you should bring a concrete idea of what you’re looking for to the design table. Depending on how hands-on you’d like to be, some companies offer varied levels of design assistance, and eventually, you might even be able to establish a timeline wherein you eventually take over complete creative control of your site. Knowledge is power!
But what if you’re on a tight (or nonexistent) budget, or you’d rather roll up your sleeves and design your own site? Luckily, there are plenty of highly-affordable yet professional web building services out there to help you create an attractive website from the ground up. Namecheap’s own Website Builder, as well as other platforms like Squarespace, WordPress, or Weebly, let you use existing templates as a jumping-off point, allowing novice and seasoned designers alike to build a simple but effective website for free (or a small fee if you want to remove that service’s branding).
Choose to Look Like a Pro
The Internet is a crowded, competitive, and fluid marketplace. Customers can easily ignore your business online, and if your web design doesn’t say “I AM a professional” from the start, they could write you off completely. You could even end up being the laughing stock of the Internet.
The fact is, your website has a visual impact, no matter what field you’re in. But it’s up to you how that impact affects your customers. Don’t let something as simple as a cluttered homepage or unsophisticated font choice be the thing that prevents customers from getting to know you and your services.
Do you have a favorite design tip or resource? Please share in the comments!