The Perfect Web Designer Should Not Exist

Sep 21 2010 by Jason Gross | 49 Comments

The Perfect Web Designer Should Not Exist

The web design community is both strong and deep. We support each other and quickly find out that everyone is encouraged to both grow with, and contribute to, the community.

Certain individuals within our community will stand out as experts and will be looked upon for words of wisdom and examples of great design. But, still, to say that the perfect web designer does not exist is not a huge stretch of the imagination because we all have our weaknesses, and no one is perfect, right?

Well, I will do you one better: Even great designers don’t exist. And finding good designers is (or should be) pretty tough.

As a member of this wonderful web design community, I know it can be quite easy to get caught up with the creations of our colleagues. But this game of "keeping up with the Joneses" and searching through web design galleries for "inspiration" is a dangerous one to play. It has become all too easy to forget what really matters in web design: the users.

Unless you are designing a website for the web design community, your average user just doesn’t care how pretty your site is or how much blood, sweat, and tears you put into it.

Instead, more often than not, if someone wants to know who made the web page they are browsing, it’s because something went gone wrong and they are looking for someone to blame for its atrocious acts.

So, then, the goal of the designer is to be unremarkable. And the better you are at design, the more unremarkable you become. The perfect designer then, doesn’t exist.

The "perfect" website’s goal isn’t to make sure that site visitors see the pretty pictures, amazing color combinations, and wonderful typography. Instead, it wants to convey a message to the user.

The perfect web design is simply a structure that has been developed so that the consumer can absorb a message or complete a task as quickly and as painlessly as possible. If the consumer is focused on the design or development of a site, then attention is drawn away from that core task or message.

When your target audience is caught up on the content of your website — the design does not exist at all, or is invisible — and, in turn, the web designer and any trace of his work ceases to exist.

A perfect design (just like a good JavaScript script) is unobtrusive.

Craigslist is built on function, not design.

Wait… What?

Let’s look at this concept from another angle.

Say you are reading an amazing book, a story that you have become completely engrossed in. When you’re so enamored by the content, how many times would you have stopped in the middle of the story to admire the paper quality, sharpness of the type, and richness of the ink?

We don’t really care about the people who manufactured the book or who designed it; only when the pages of our book start to fall out or when our eyes get tired because of poor typography do we notice the design.

In this context, it becomes clear that an overall goal of a seamless user experience should be the top priority for every designer.

Sometimes this means we need to put our egos on hold. To make un-stunning designs so that people look past it and consume the content.

Any professional who makes their living (or any amount of income) on design will inevitably start out most projects with a set of goals in mind. At the start of a project, it’s easy for one to envision the latest and greatest of all websites; a true masterpiece for the web.

Unfortunately, most projects will not require you to push the envelope of design. As a matter of fact, most of your projects will consist mostly of skills and practices you are already quite familiar with.

It is important to realize that there is nothing wrong with that. Building a well-crafted site for your client and a useful environment for their visitors is a crucial part of being a web designer. Even if that means toning down the use of the Gradient tool and the Noise filter a bit.

Art versus Design

In order to become a non-existent designer, it is important to understand the distinction between Art and Design. Most designers are, by nature and by trade, creative people — and creative people will always be looking to stun people’s visual senses.

This instinct makes it pretty easy to get caught up in making web art instead of web design.

Web art is a lot like traditional fine art. It will sit in a gallery and people will come by and take a look at it, judge it based on what they see, either approve or disapprove of it based on their tastes, and move on to the next piece. Web art requires no usability testing, browser compatibility, or search engine optimization. It is open to interpretation.

A web design is almost the opposite. It shares a specific message, and the tastes of the user should not prevent it from doing so. It should be tested for functionality, for usability, for universal accessibility. And you won’t find great web designs happy just sitting around in a gallery, because it wants to be used and not just looked at.

Much like your favorite books, a web design is out there in the real world. A great web design entices the readers to engage with it.

It is important that web design works as it is expected to, and that it functions without a hitch. The creator of a web design does not stand by his work smiling and shaking hands with its viewers — chest puffed out, proud of his masterpiece.

Instead, he watches how people receive his work, searches for its weakness, and tweaks his products and workflow based on how the users use it and what stories the numbers tell him.

While producing a web design, it is important to remind yourself that taking a practical and logical approach to a problem is better than an overly creative and "artsy" approach. It’s really as simple as that. Function over form. You’ve heard it a million times.

The Stuart and Branigin site by Tuitive Group displays a great logical design for a law firm.

A Helpful but Distracting Community

There is no question that getting involved with the web design community is a very rewarding experience. The knowledge to be gained from our peers is outstanding, and we all make each other better designers collectively.

However, this same community can become a trap for our design practices. Like a bunch of sorority girls going out for the evening, designers have the tendency to see if other designers are wearing wedges, heels or flats before picking their own footwear.

Be cautious when you look to your peers for inspiration on web design. Instead of blindly borrowing a hot technique or trend, ask yourself how the site users are going to benefit from your decisions.

Fortunately, many elements of design come about with the user in mind and often serve a practical purpose within a web environment. So, really, the trick here is to pick and choose between design options that are going to be best for the target audience, regardless of how it appears aesthetically.

The Personal Legacy Corporation site by Matt Ward displays some modern techniques without sacrificing functionality or feeling.

So is Good Design Boring?

Don’t take all of this bashing of artistic-driven web "designs" to be a message meaning there is no room for beauty on the web.

The internet is full of beautiful websites that also qualify as great design. We all love spending time with beautiful people, driving pretty cars and living in nice places — so to say that an ugly website is always just as effective as a pretty one would be naive. People will always be drawn to aesthetically pleasing environments, with the web being no exception.

So good design does not come with a requirement to be boring; no, good design comes only with the requirement of building an environment for the message to live in. A message of romance requires a design that invokes passion and deep emotion, whereas a message of fun requires a design filled with excitement and enthusiasm.

It is up to the designer to create this environment using the tools of shape, color and space. The true test of a designer’s skill is how well they can spark these feelings without the user knowing that it was all on purpose.

The Raising the Village site by Amber Weinberg uses design to create an emotional connection to a good cause.

Leading by Example

Perhaps an easy example to use as an illustration of a perfect design can be seen in the perceived simplicity found in the homepage of Google. The Google search engine is one of the world’s most powerful tools of organized information. It is also the most ubiquitous and most used site in the world.

Information is what Google is all about, so how do they convey this to the user? By stripping out almost everything from their page except for the search results and by getting users out of their site as soon as possible.

It may seem contradictory to fundamental site goals for a website to want users to leave quickly, but this is exactly the focus for Google.

This practice was most recently reinforced with the introduction of instant results. Type in just a few letters into the search bar and your screen is immediately filled with results of their best guess at what you might be searching. You may debate how helpful this feature is to you, but it is hard to deny that it builds a very strong environment of learning and information-sharing — get in, find what you want, get out and explore.

Google never becomes about the design, but rather about the results and the places it can take you.

Setting a Goal

So if you do indeed intend on being a great web designer, you must give yourself a goal for every design you make. Throughout the entire process of each design, the targeted users should always be at the forefront of your design decisions. Make decisions based on how your choices will shape the experience. Pick colors that induce the proper emotion, provide elements that promote the right actions, and use space to control the pace of how your website is taken in.

We all have a lot to learn from our peers, and equally as much to share. Absorbing what the design community has to offer and providing your input in return can turn you into a good designer.

But when you learn from your users and truly pay attention to what they are after, then you can start to become the perfect designer. Then you can start to no longer exist.

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About the Author

Jason Gross is a freelance web designer focused on creating clean and user friendly websites. Jason currently lives in Indiana and can be found on Twitter as @JasonAGross or on the web at his personal blog and portfolio.

49 Comments

Khürt Williams

September 21st, 2010

Wow! This article should spark some interesting debate. Since I’ve developed (PHP/Perl/Linux/Apache/MySQL) but never designed a web site I can clearly say that my design skills are much less than perfect.

Martin

September 21st, 2010

Good article and totally agree, web designers must remember it’s about the users, not themselves.

Koko

September 21st, 2010

good post and for sure something a designer should be remind of atleast once a week
sometimes its very hard to forget that, in a web that glitters and shines all over

Mr.Shafique

September 21st, 2010

Yes! Gross i agree but same time i disagree with some of points. I am student of this but it’s really a endless top that can’t be covered in just a single article.I spent a age in this field to learning what exactly going on?

First i was a Painter artist, but it was not my destiny i got start designing for Print using CorlDraw and PhotoShop. Still it was not enough for my satisfaction, so i became a web designer. These steps was not really easy to convert i faced too many difficulties. specially to convert form CMYK to RGB.

Now when i develop pages for other designer i really feel what shit is that.

i think A designer must have development knowledge too.

and as i feel the best design structure same time is clean, easy to handle in code that take less http requests. good missive theme and relevant colors that let the visitor stay for long.

but web design is not just combination of some web components, like Nab, side bar, sub menu, posts , widgets and footer. it’s really much more than that and a designer have bundle of responsibilities.

This article can be discouraging for more 50% present designers.

Also language used in this article is little bit strict really. Designers are really a respectable. As you are also a designer. And surly you are also not perfect.

Chris Porter

September 21st, 2010

Great article. This will hopefully teach some people that having all the gradients and vector artwork on a site doesn’t mean it will work for that target audience (for example, a site aimed for senior citizens or people looking for a lawyer). Design to what feels right for the target audience and also don’t worry about what other people think especially other designers.

I bet most designers want to make a design the best in the world people they worry about what the other designer might say design wise (like the wrong gradient, or this texture don’t look right) that’s not a decent critique on usability, functionality, and if the design works for that target user.

Sydney Miles

September 21st, 2010

Great & understandable analogies! makes me see things differently through another perspective…thanks for sharing these wonderful thoughts.

Arslan

September 21st, 2010

Really nice to read this all :)

david lee king

September 21st, 2010

Nice article, and I agree. I’ve been telling people that good web design (and a good web experience) is similar to lightswitches. You don’t think about the actual switch, how it works, etc when you turn on a light … you just do it, then move on to the thing you really wanted to do in the room. And if you HAVE to think about the lightswitch, the architect and the electrician failed.

John Braine

September 21st, 2010

I get your point, but I think it should be taken with a pinch of salt. I don’t entirely agree. People can smell cheapness. I often purchase from sites that look more professional than their cheaper counterparts. Is this because I’m a web designer? Possibly, but I suspect not. And that goes for sites that I use in general; movie review sites etc.

Even with your book analogy, I think people do notice cheap paper, bad typography and a cover that isn’t great. They may not notice that they notice, but they sure notice! And will more than likely be attracted to it’s more professional looking neighbour beside it on the shelf.

Unless the eye candy is getting in the way of the useability I think the average user really does care – but like I say, they may not realise why they care.

Ryan

September 21st, 2010

Great Article. Unfortunately, far too many “clients” overlook function and focus on the design artifacts and the bells and whistles on a site – and that is why there are a TON of visually appealing sites out that generally fail at bringing in customers and users to the site (they sacrifice SEO, Usability and Accessibility for fancy graphics).

The title of Web Designer is really obsolete in these days, in reality, we are more Web Engineers. Building platforms on which to do something on. Much like with an software application – the site needs to DO something for the user first, and then look pretty. Not the other way around.

Again, great article – hit the nail right on the head.

Amber Weinberg

September 21st, 2010

The perfect web designer doesn’t exist because everyone’s ideas of perfectionism are completely different. ;)

jay harlow

September 21st, 2010

this argument is old as design itself, and doesn’t get more correct with each passing application.

design = form + function. you cannot divorce one from the other. there is a world of difference between form-for-form’s sake, and form which works with the design as part of a whole.

design (and the designer) simply cannot be transparent. that isn’t to say that designers should be front-and-center rockstars, but in turn, transparency itself is itself an aesthetic. there is a long critical discourse on the fallacy of the “crystal goblet”, and it would do you well to read up on it. or, simply read donald norman’s emotional design.

god help us if craigslist and google become the standards of great web design. that’s like saying brutalist tower blocks are the standard of great architecture.

David - Web Designer

September 21st, 2010

Nice article, i totally agree, it’s very easy to forget about the main purpose of a website and get carried away with the eye candy.

Mike

September 21st, 2010

I think that’s the point of the whole article. Good design doesn’t stop at visuals, it goes much deeper than that. Take Amazon for example – one of the most successful e-commerce sites in the world and has been for a long time. They don’t have massive pretty graphics splash everywhere and it doesn’t look particularly great in terms of visual design but it works and people realise that and keep coming back.

Everything is easy to use and find, buttons look like buttons, navigation is simple, layout is good. Not spectacular or award winning but perfect for what it needs to be. If you have never heard of it it wouldn’t grace any web design awards site either.

Apple is another example. Sure it looks good but beneath that things always work well and feel good to use.

Without that it just becomes and nice looking site you wouldn’t spend too long looking at.

Mike

September 21st, 2010

I think that’s the point of the whole article. Good design doesn’t stop at visuals, it goes much deeper than that. Take Amazon for example – one of the most successful e-commerce sites in the world and has been for a long time. They don’t have massive pretty graphics splash everywhere and it doesn’t look particularly great in terms of visual design but it works and people realise that and keep coming back.

Everything is easy to use and find, buttons look like buttons, navigation is simple, layout is good. Not spectacular or award winning but perfect for what it needs to be. If you have never heard of it it wouldn’t grace any web design awards site either.

Apple is another example. Sure it looks good but beneath that things always work well and feel good to use.

Without that it just becomes and nice looking site you wouldn’t spend too long looking at.

Josh

September 21st, 2010

A good designer has a process. No one solves a problem immediately. They have to take time to understand the problem, the client, the message, the audience, etc…

I appreciate the distinction between art and design. I touched on that concept yesterday on my site.

Matthew Wehrly

September 21st, 2010

Great article. I think the most important thing to remember is the user. That being said, I think good design can improve the function of a site and provide a significant increase to the experience of a user, there has to be a balance. Great read and comments!

John G

September 21st, 2010

I’m also in the agree and disagree camp.

Often times attempts to compare web design to other genres of design and old media, etc. fail because well, they aren’t web design and never will be.

We shouldn’t hold ourselves to comparisons with book printing or printing in general. Many of the conventions that hold up there don’t hold up on the web.

Tixy

September 21st, 2010

Text on my desktop:

“Nobody cares about you or your site.
What visitors care about is solving their problems. ”

So, I agree with you Jason.

Ray Melissa

September 21st, 2010

Very well said, what an honest, humbling look into the world of web designing. It really is an industry of patient tweaking and constant updates and changes. Great read!

Kaishin

September 21st, 2010

I agree with most of what have been said in this article, as it points out to some of the elements I talked about recently:

http://kaishinlab.com/decontextualization-kills-design/

However I do not agree with the caption “Craiglist is built on function, not design”. Design is not synonymous to gradients and letterpress; it is about finding visual solutions to real problems. Aligned columns of blue text links is a design solution as well.

Scott

September 21st, 2010

Agree that content should be king, design is so much more than just making things look ‘pretty’. Good article, thanks for the post.

Craig

September 21st, 2010

Agreed, The perfect web designer should not exist because the web is always evolving and people are always looking for improvements, so adjustments, updates and changes are required to strive for the perfect solution to the website being designed.

Joel

September 21st, 2010

There’s a point where form IS function though. As an example: I work for a product design firm. Visitors to our website are looking just as much at “What does their design look like?” as they are at direct information about our company. Therefore, striking visual design is just as much a priority as the usability.

Will

September 21st, 2010

Nice post. I think it helps when the designer can do front end or works closely with the developer. Sure google is clean but I think Apple is a perfect example of great content, a ui designed for the end user and a great looking ui.

rickey

September 21st, 2010

Aunque mi ingles no es bueno… el articulo es excelente. Desde que empece a hace unas semanas a visitar esta web.. yo he estado aprendiendo mucho…

Congratulations…. very good

Daquan Wright

September 21st, 2010

Awesome article. I think the google sentiment is the best part. Simplicity+valuable content > any amount of eye candy.

Childmonster

September 21st, 2010

Great & understandable. Hope you have more article like this

The Freelance Geek

September 21st, 2010

The challenge of completing projects on time and within budget will always make us anything but perfect.

Kristin

September 22nd, 2010

Illustrator, painter and intermediate front-end dev here. I know the difference between art and design, I do it every day. I approach my web work with Dan Cederholm’s attitude…it is a craft, and I want to be a good craftsman. My art will always be mine, my craft is for others.

I think the problem with many designers (and creators) can be ego. Unless you’re NOT creating art, if you’re creating something for an end user, you’ve got to understand it’s Not About You. It can be freeing to finally come to terms with this. Suddenly, pushback from bosses and clients to tweak design doesn’t feel like a personal attack on your genius, and you can actually get to work creating attractive, usable sites that impart content in an unobtrusive manner to the user.

Kolama

September 22nd, 2010

No one will stop in the middle of a book to admire the paper quality, sharpness of the type, and richness of the ink. But all those things are vital factors to the overall look and quality of the book. Although no one check all those things one by one as a list when they buy a book they feel the quality of it by just looking at it. The first impression of the book is also a major role when someone going to buy it.

This theory is applicable for a website as well.

simon

September 22nd, 2010

In my opinion, your core sentence is “..good design comes only with the requirement of building an environment for the message to live in”. Excellent article.

Jason Gross

September 22nd, 2010

@david lee king: Love the light switch analogy! I’m gonna hang on to that one :)

@Joel: There are of course exceptions for people who make their living through the creative process. When you want to sell people on the visuals you can create its important to have a visual experience on your site and make sure your visitors understand you are behind it. I am sure we all wish we got to work on projects like this more often!

@The Freelance Geek You have brought up a topic I have been wanting to write about for a while now! If I find time to expand on the idea and actually get some words down I will hunt you down for some (now expected) feedback :p

@Kristin Great feedback! Being able to put your ego aside and really accept feedback is a highly marketable personality trait. If you really pay attention to what people say about your work or how they react to it and approach it with an open mind you can become such a better designer.

Thanks for all of the great comments everyone!

Pete

September 22nd, 2010

In essence what you are saying is correct, however artistic and beautiful things certainly help. User experience is not something that should be overlooked at any stage as it is the core of design, but we dont just stick to the core of what we do, we want to make ourselves stand out from the rest and beautiful artistic sites certainly do that.

Edwin Sandoval

September 22nd, 2010

The good design should be holding of the idea: to communicate for to sell.

Maria Malidaki

September 22nd, 2010

Striking article :) Way to go!

Craig Pennings

September 22nd, 2010

Very insightful! I would say that there are other factors than to just having a goal to the website… you need to create an accurate representation of the company on the web. In some cases this doesn’t mean making everything white with blue links like craigslist… but incorporating great design techniques with style with personality. I can definitely agree that functionality and goals are key to a great website.

Anuruddha

September 23rd, 2010

Nice Article. Agreed!

As steve jobs quoted…
Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works

Lee Fuller

September 23rd, 2010

It’s always about the user… they are what drive us to create, so we create for them…

Adie

September 23rd, 2010

What a great post. I may even force myself to read this every time i design a new site.

Jesse

September 23rd, 2010

Great Post!

I think the take-a-way from this is User Experience. This is key to any site design.

Designer should be thinking about the users all the time. By using scenario based design, “If a user clicks x, what happens, If a users doesn’t click x, what happens” design can get close to what an actual user might do on a site.

Once up and live, test it, do usability studies, If not, use Heat maps on sites to see where the users are clicking. Compare notes based on metrics gather. Then Adjust accordingly. Do this over and over until the goal of your design is met.

One more thing…

The perfect web designer Does exist.

This designer does not have to know how to code or, have some mad crazy design skills.

He or she just has to have the skills and ability to adapt to different design situations based project goals.

If you can do that, Then you are the perfect web designer.

Andy Colclough

September 24th, 2010

This is an interesting article. Something I haven’t really thought about. Design is important, you want people to remember your site by the way it looks, but I do completely agree with the point of the website being easy to get around.

One thing that Craig Oldham said at a lecture I went to was “No designer should ever call themselves a ‘professional’. This implies they know everything about design.” Design is not something you can ever know everything about. We are continuously finding new things to develop creatively. There is no tried and tested way to design a website. Unlike a tried and tested way for a doctor to perform heart surgery. This is something we should always think about.

Martin Oxby

September 24th, 2010

Thanks for this. As a developing designer, it’s good to take in people’s views and opinions on matters of design. I’ve always taken the view that functionality is usability is of primary importance, which is good because I come more from a developer (Perl, PHP, JavaScript) perspective and background, so sometimes, although the client is always happy (as I keep working if they’re not), I sometimes critique the ‘art’ of the site, rather than the ‘design’ of it. So thanks for tweaking my perspective on things.

@Adie – probably not a bad idea!
@Andy – thanks for that perspective on heart surgery, very helpful analogy.

David

September 24th, 2010

Good stuff, it should be focused more on the users and not the designer

arnold

September 25th, 2010

Thanks, this complete my weekends. :)

Markus

September 26th, 2010

Great article! Surprising but true arguments.

Lauri

September 28th, 2010

Truly, a very fine reading! Thank you.

Sante boyd

August 8th, 2011

Nice article, i totally agree, even if i think that a good design can improve the overall function of a site, there has to be a balance, I mean that we shouldn’t forget about the main purpose of a website and get carried away with only the design.

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