As creative a field as it may be, web design is nevertheless bound by certain time-honored rules and best practices, and abusing them can jeopardize a site’s design and usability foundations. While designers should always strive to create experiences that are unique, innovative and visually striking, sometimes, thinking too far outside the box can yield more brickbats than bouquets.
These ten commandments of web design are good rules to always abide by — but I’ll be the last one to tell you not to break them once in a while:
1. Thou Shalt Not Sacrifice Usability in Favor of Visual Attractiveness
Every website, even the humble personal blog, has a purpose and a message. Good web design should serve to enhance the experience of delivering that message, not shroud it visual razzmatazz that doesn’t serve the site’s purpose. Far too many web designers get carried away and abuse the tremendously powerful visual tools at their disposal to create online experiences that can take the visitor’s breath away, but also leave him scratching his head from a usability point of view. If it comes to a toss-up between usability and design, always favor usability. Your audience will thank you for it.
Try this: Usability Rules for Content Sites →
2. Thou Shalt Use the Right Tools and Technologies for the Job
Knowing which tools to use to complete any particular job is essential to create an exciting, usable, and stable experience. While many trade voices might declare Flash use to be absolutely inexcusable, the best web designers know that even a technology as universally deplored as Flash has its occasional, particular uses. Deploying a stunted HTML5 and CSS3 solution when Flash can deliver the “wish list” would be dogmatic, just as sticking Flash into pages where a quick HTML5 workaround is easily available would amount to poor design.
Before embarking on any design project, carefully peruse all the tools at your disposal and use them judiciously.
3. Thou Shalt Not Flood Your Site With Colors
Bathing a website in colors with scant regard for color harmony or color theory is a great way to kill a good design. The colors used in a site must serve a purpose; frivolous use of a variety of vibrant hues purely for the purpose of visual volume ought to be avoided. Great designs can be built with just three to four colors, provided they are sufficiently contrasting/complementing.
4. Thou Shalt Make Your Site Load Fast
Quick page load times are crucial from both a usability and SEO perspective. Studies indicate that a mere 0.5 second delay can impact revenue by as much as 20%. Further, Google has started incorporating page load times in its search algorithm, heavily favoring fast-loading sites.
As a web designer, you should strive to reduce page sizes as much as possible. This includes, but isn’t limited to using a suitably fast web host, compressing images, optimizing code, deploying code compression technologies, and caching page content.
Try this: Web Design Speed Series →
5. Thou Shalt Keep Your Site Clean
Visual clutter can make a website appear excessively noisy, negatively affecting user experience. Strong background patterns, over-eager use of different fonts, an over abundance of dense imagery, and scattering too many navigational elements across the page are just a few ways to make a website look noisy and unclean.
The new Boston Globe design serves as a good example of a clean, content rich website that doesn’t negatively impact user experience.
6. Thou Shalt Explore More Fonts
The days of limiting your typographical choices to the default Arial, Times New Roman, Georgia and Verdana are long behind us. With current browsers, it is possible to experiment with hundreds of different fonts without harming the user experience. It is time to shed the 1990s conservatism and explore typograhpical choices that can bring a page alive.
7. Thou Shalt Embrace Social Media
No website is an island, especially in the social media world in which we live today. The very notion of the internet depends on interlinking pages and sharing information; a web designer who doesn’t embrace social media is only digging his career an early grave. Ensuring that a page is easy to share across a wide range of social media properties is a vital skill every designer should possess.
8. Thou Shalt Build Sites for the Largest Possible Audience
This commandment could be alternatively titled: don’t create sites for Firefox and Chrome alone.
As a web designer, your aim should be to create a web experience that is accessible to the largest proportion of users possible. This means that you’ll have to find ways to make your site look good and function well in outdated browsers such as IE 7. Granted, limiting your audience to Chrome and Firefox alone will remove most compatibility hassles from the design process, but it will also mean depriving yourself of half the internet’s users.
9. Thou Shalt Design with SEO in Mind
Google, Yahoo and Bing are some of the biggest sources of free, targeted traffic. To create a website that doesn’t match-up on the SEO chart would be almost suicidal. Designers need not be SEO experts, but they must know the fundamentals of search engine optimization to ensure that the site can rank as well as possible in the SERPs. This includes ensuring appropriate use of heading tags, linking the site so it’s easy to index, and using relevant Alt, Meta tags, etc.
10. Thou Shalt Design for Users, Not Advertisers
A majority of websites are commercial undertakings, often funded by advertising. But that doesn’t mean you should sacrifice usability and usefulness to pander to the whims and fancies of advertisers. As a web designer, your users should be granted a much higher priority than advertisers. Remember — the advertisers only want you because you have users. Alienate the users, and the advertisers won’t stick around for long either.
You should strive for a design that achieves a balance between keeping users as well as advertisers happy. Plastering the primary content area with annoying animated ads is the quickest way to alienate your user base. While intrusive advertising may aid your bottom line in the short term, in the long run, it will adversely impact your site’s brand image and user loyalty.
Try this: Creating Content that Sells →
Just as in all other industries, you must follow certain rules when you are a web designer. The ten commandments I’ve outlined above are some of the most fundamental rules to keep in mind as you create beautiful, functional and profitable sites for your clients.