What is design?

Web design is many things, there are also many things which it isn’t. I can’t say I’ve heard them all, but I’ve heard many.

It’s an artform, right?

This is one of the most common comparisons, and I can see why. Design requires an understanding of many artistic principles such as white space, colour theory and composition. It is also an expression of the designers feelings (psyke!). If a designer is trying to express themselves whilst making a website for somebody else, they have no right charging their client. Self expression is not part of design. Design works towards the website’s goals, it is not the materialisation of a dream that the designer had the night after the kickoff meeting.


Sure it is, most design problems require a creative solution. But programmers also need to think creatively about how best to structure the back end, project managers need to find creative ways to make sure that projects run smoothly and always have the right person on the right project. Design is definitely a creative process, but don’t forget that most disciplines should be if done properly.

…A Craft, then?

Design is a learnable process which has to be constantly worked at. Contrary to popular belief, designers don’t sit and wait for inspiration to strike and then frantically articulate their unique vision before it leaves their flakey fairie brains. It is a process: it is iterative, and it is objective. That’s right, I said objective. If a client raises an idea or a concern the designer needs to be able to address it in a well-reasoned reply or design iteration. It’s of course a two way street: ‘this color doesn’t work for me’ is not objective feedback.

Best left to the experts?

No matter how much experience a designer has, they can not sit in isolation and create something that they are sure the client and their users will like. A good designer knows the right questions to ask and how to act upon the answers. Sure a more experienced designer knows the process better, and has made a few mistakes they know to avoid – but they do not accumulate a shortlist of things which *always* work.

The outer layer?

Getting closer, but it’s not a layer. There is obviously a lot more to a website than the design component, I’m not even going to pretend to dispute that. Developers and BAs are responsible for an incredible amount of a website’s success and are smarter people than I am. The distinction is that design is not merely a veneer which is slapped onto the exposed bits of a site which visitors see. Design’s roots run deeply into the bedrock of any successful site. A good designer was there when decisions were being made, not shipped in when it’s time to colour in a finished solution.


Good designers need to know how to communicate. They often have the best chance of knowing how to solve a problem; but a smart designer knows not to discount feedback from people who don’t design.

The solution?

Think of a wheel. It is a feat of design, but also of engineering. It would have taken strength and motor skills to carve that first wheel. Its motion can be calculated by mathematicians and physicists, and it affects the lives of people who have no interest in any of these disciplines. When the first wheel was created, design begun in the minds of people when they realised that there needed to be a more easy way to move things than to drag or carry them; not when it was time to decide what colour this new invention should be.


Even fresh faced designers have spent a great many years looking at things. They develop a sense of what works where. Everything (yes, even copperplate gothic) has a place, but a good designer spends time thinking about what belongs where best. The result of the design process is never the one-and-only solution, it is the best solution for the project and all its needs.

Permanently changing.

The people, products and companies which web design represents are not static, so why would their website be? Not only does the information in any particular website need to change sooner or later, the way that this information is delivered changes rapidly. Constantly evolving code and device capabilities mean that site behaviours which are common now were not even possible a couple of years ago. The only thing that remains somewhat constant are the mistakes you’ve made which you should keep in mind in the future. Things which succeed can only be repeated so many times before they get stale.


And I don’t just mean it’s aesthetically simple to look at. If you need to renew your car registration online it shouldn’t feel like a chore, nor should it feel like an achievement. It’s something which you want to do as quickly and painlessly as possible. If you are looking for information, a well designed site will allow you to navigate to it quickly, and showcase it well when you get there. Think for a moment about all of these little things that have had to considered correctly for somebody to say “That’s a good website” after using it. I guarantee it takes more than a few nice typefaces and some nice imagery for somebody to make this comment. They have to have had a good experience, pure and simple.

Somewhere between annoying and downright dangerous if done wrong.

Continuing from our example of car registration, let’s imagine the person who is renewing their rego has previously mainly used the internet to forward funny emails to their children and to research where best to go for their upcoming retirement holiday. Here, poor UX decisions and design cues are no longer a nuisance: they are the difference between online renewal and being forced to physically go to the RTA (or DMV for those so inclined) and stand in a stuffy waiting room with those clocks whose hands just don’t seem to move. While this example affects the lives of others beyond a simple online session, it is still in the realm of inconvenient. What happens when the design process of life support software or flight monitoring are not created with their end user in mind? When only seconds are available to find life-saving information, well thought out design is vital. Good design is not a nice-to-have, it is a responsibility.

Much more important but less wondrous than many people think.

I apologise for bursting the bubble of anyone who thinks designers are inspiration driven little imps, but designers are more than that. They are normal people who try their best to make beautiful things which change people’s lives in ways that they won’t notice.

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