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Web Design or the Art and Science of Solving Problems (Part 1)

Submitted by Jakob on 21 July, 2007 - 11:57.My Blog | Human-Computer Interaction | Usability | Web Design

I sometimes refer to myself as a web designer, a term that to many people I meet means "someone who makes websites pretty". This is a rather narrow definition and one I'd like to extend and widen and put in context with what us web professionals actually do. This blog post, the first in a series about building websites (or solving problems the way I look at it), covers some of my own thoughts regarding the trade of building websites and how a web professional or web designer thinks compared to print designers.

One of the most interesting differences between languages are how words interrelate. As the world has become more and more multilingual and people have moved, traded and exchanged ideas words from foreign languages have seeped into our own. Swedish, for example, has many words directly taken from English (and English has at least three taken directly from Swedish). One of those words is design. Compared to words like radio or tunnel, which are rather straightforward, the word design has different meanings in the two languages.

Design in English means more or less the process of creating a solution to a problem, while in Swedish design has been synonymous with the word formgivning which literally means "giving shape/form". To Swedes, the word design is about how something looks and does not encompass suitability, utility, performance or usability - all which are important aspects of a working solution. A solution which successfully solves a problem must often tackle at least one of these design dimensions. This is particularly true on the web.

Designing for the web is particularly difficult, or challenging, or rewarding depending on your attitude, since the web is a medium in flux. Professionals of different traditional schools of design, such as furniture, appliances and print will need to reconsider some of their assumptions. Some of these schools, like furniture and appliance design, need to do away with less assumptions than print designers.

Still, print designers are the ones that are most attracted to moving to the web. Even if they aren't attracted, they are often urged by colleagues and superiors to take on web work with a print designer's frame of mind. Many people I've spoken to hold the belief that the web is like a printed page so the same rules and principles that govern good print also govern good web design. A good print designer will therefore do good web design. That is a misconception.

Being traditionally schooled in print and media design is often more of a hindrance than an aid when you're building websites. The kind of static thinking preferred by print designers, which is rather single-dimensional compared to how web professionals think, will not help you build successful websites. Telling someone with a background in print design who wants to start working with the web to "forget everything you know" is a bit mean but unfortunately not entirely inaccurate.

Print designers often have a hard time coming to terms with the problems designing a working web solution poses. A typical example, something I'm sure many recognize, is when a print designer sends you a design mockup made in Adobe Illustrator and demands that everything will look exactly as in static mockup.

This is usually not possible.

In fact, even if it were, it wouldn't be desirable.

When you design for the web, and I am talking about design in the wider sense where the look of things is just one of many aspects, before you even type a word or move your pen you need to think hard on what you want to achieve. In most cases, looking at a site project is looking at a problem. Solving the problem requires an understanding of almost all factors that have an impact on the result of your efforts and these factors vary very much between traditional print design and design for the web.

Putting this in the realm of print design

  • A good print designer understands that the media is the message, and that the layout and design of a text, of an article, or CD cover will without doubt have a bearing on how that piece of media is perceived and will design something so that it supports the content, working with it, not against it since it is essentially an integrated part of it
  • A good print designer also understands the printing process, the problems with color proofing and different types of paper.
  • A good print designer considers the printed product as a whole and designs with that in mind, adapting the design to how the book will be read and used and understands aspects such as legibility and the optical properties of fonts and how these affect the reading experience.

In the realm of web design


  • The designer understands that the user will probably not ever see the same colors or fonts as the designer sees.
  • The designer understands that the user will and can literally rip the design apart, extracting the content he/she wants or needs the most.
  • The designer knows that the design and content are separated and knows what the semantic web is and that content may often appear out of context, out of control of the designer.
  • The designer understands that the behavior of the site and the dynamic nature of the web makes it almost impossible to predict how the content of a site will be displayed, presented and modified.
  • The designer understands what interaction design is and that the web site is not static but an interactive artifact whose behavior and appearance are a result of the interaction, a feedback loop between user and user or user and machine.
  • The designer is certain that utility and usability are what make a site great instead of mediocre and will consider all of his/her design decisions based on that.
  • The designer would rather die than not think that the only thing that counts is the value the site brings to its users and how the site meets its goals, everything else is second to that.

The last seven points are often hard to make someone who's used to thinking in terms of print design to understand, embrace and also advocate. Web design introduces new ways of thinking about design, from being purely esthetic and hopefully utilitarian to being a vehicle for usability.

Some interaction designers say that architecture is the classical school of design that is most similar to designing interaction, they may be right.

In the next installment of this series I'll talk about the importance of finding and establishing the goals for your web site or web project. I'll also cover the extremely useful tool called user personas, which coupled with well-written goals, can help you stay on track through the development process, from early ideas, conceptual documentatiom, to low fi prototypes, mockups, interaction and web design, programming and evaluation.

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