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Working with a web designer: help us help you

I’m a very retrospective person, particularly when it comes to how I do business. I’m always looking back at projects, looking for what I could have done better and making changes to my planning process along the way. During this retrospection, I find myself coming back to the design process far, far more often than any of the other steps. There’s a million reasons why this portion can become so sticky, but that’s only indirectly why I’m writing this. This post is about helping me help you to come up with the best design we possibly can.

Design is just one of those things, isn’t it? First of all, it’s hugely relative … to a point. There are rules – alignment, sizing, consistency, contrast, etc – but even adhering to those leaves you with a near-infinite number of combinations of colors, fonts, shapes, photos, and sizes, all of which have fans and foes. What looks clean and elegant to one person can look boring and uninspired to another.

On top of that, design has to actually do something, it has a goal. Some of the best-looking web sites out there are hard to use, incompatible with various devices, and disturbingly hard to maintain. On the web in particular, looking good is just one component of a long list of requirements.

Oh, and let’s not forget to mention the pink elephant in the room here: budget. Maybe, just maybe, given an infinite budget and a due date of “at some point during your life,” perfection is possible (doubtful). But that’s just conjecture and, besides, it’s not the reality. There are limitations to how much money someone can spend, how long they can wait, and how long a designer can look at the same mock-up without ending up in an institution.

Despite these obstacles, there is a path of least resistance and it’s our job to find that path. So where do we start?

First, “I’ll know when I see it” is not a valid strategy here

I’ve read a few stories lately about how Steve Jobs worked with designers when he was alive. It sounded like complete and utter hell, all due respect. They would bring him something they spent long hours perfecting and he would dismiss it immediately. They would iterate and come back only to have it dismissed again. This would happen ad infinitum until he finally saw something that was just right and it would be shipped.

Say what you will about Apple products but this kind of design process only works when you have a few billion dollars in the bank. During your typical web project, there’s just not enough room to re-re-re-design with little guidance until something falls out of the process. You’re not Steve Jobs and we’re not making Apple money so we have to find another way.

The key is guided feedback

There are some people who come to us with exactly what they want outlined, explained, and ready to go. This type of situation is the exception, however, not the rule. Much more often, clients come to us with a vague (or missing) idea of what they want and need us to come up with something for them. This is definitely the place where a designer can shine but, without the right information to start with, we can easily end up going down the wrong road.

In the end, it’s our job, as designers, to get the information we need from you. With no background in design or web development, you probably don’t know what’s possible, you aren’t sure what will look good, and you’re not willing to write a vague novella trying desperately to get down on paper what you see in your head.

So, let us be your guide.

1) Abstract Feedback

Before we paint picture in our heads of what you want and set up specific restrictions on what you don’t, it’s important to know about what this concept is all about.

Who are you and what do you do?

Same question for individuals as for companies: what is this thing all about? This is an intentionally open-ended question and it helps me to hear someone describe it rather than just read an existing About page.

What makes you great, better than other people/companies doing the same thing?

The best sites are designed to communicate more than just good aesthetics. If you’re a fun, exciting company with a personality, your site should say that visually. If you’re an established group of professionals with a notorious attention to detail, your site should exude those qualities.

2) Additive Feedback

This is the feedback that will add up to create the backbone of what we design for you. This is describing where we can go with the sites and the kind of things that you would like to, or must, see in the mock-ups. We create this picture with the following questions:

Is there an existing color scheme, logo, or font that we need to work with?

It’s important to know what the boundaries are. If there’s an existing brand in place that is not going to change, that limits what can be done. Knowing this ahead of time is critical.

Show us a few sites, magazines, or posters with a look that you really like. Bonus points for examples in your industry or niche.

This is the classic designer question: show me a few things so I can come back and say “but you liked this one!” All joking aside, this question is meant to put you in a mindset of critically evaluating what you’re seeing to get out of “forest” mode and start picking out trees. Accompanying each of these examples needs to be some reasoning behind why it’s appealing (remember math class? show your work). Is it the color, the size of certain elements, the photography?

Which of the following words best describes the look you want – modern, classic, minimal, dark, light, loud, retro, corporate

This is a simple exercise that gets me thinking along the right lines for the site. Each of the words above should cue a picture in your mind of a piece of design you’ve seen before. We might not have the exact same definition for these words but a general sense here is more than enough.

Are there any design cues that you absolutely must have?

If you have to have red in your site, we need to know that. If there’s a font you’ve seen that really communicates something to you, show us so we can incorporate it somehow. There’s nothing worse than getting requirements after a design has been created.

3) Reductive Feedback

This type of feedback is the other side of limitations: what you don’t want. Using the picture we created above, we need to take pieces away and set limits to where we can go and where we can’t.

Are there any design cues that you absolutely don’t want?

If you hate the color yellow and serifed fonts make you queasy, let’s get that down on paper so we don’t scare you with the first iteration.

Show us a few examples of sites in your industry that you don’t like.

Similar concept as the question above. We want to pick out elements and styles that don’t represent what you do or who you are. This question can be tricky to get right because some people pick universally terrible sites to pick apart. The best kind of example here is one from an established brand or player in the industry because there is a good chance that these sites had specific design decisions made.

Are any of the following words off-limits – modern, classic, minimal, dark, light, loud, retro, corporate

Choosing words that don’t describe what you want can be just as helpful as ones that do.

Putting it all together

With the abstract, additive, and reductive feedback above, we’re able to start thinking about what this site is going to look like. There might be more questions but I see the above as a solid starting place. So, now it’s your turn:

Designers: What questions am I missing? What did I go astray?

Design clients: Is this overkill, in your mind? Are there any questions that you don’t understand?

Authored by: Josh

Josh Cunningham is a life-time geek with a passion for creating great things on-line using standards-compliant, modern techniques and open source software. Josh spent the first 6 years of his career supporting, teaching and documenting mobile technology before moving out of state to pursue a degree in chemistry. He came to his senses before graduating, however, and starting learning WordPress and front-end engineering, building up a client base before he had received his degree. For the last 6 years, Josh has been teaching, learning, designing, building, and writing about the web.

One comment

  1. PJ Brunet commented on January 16, 2012   —   Link      Reply

    I once had a picture framing job, this man with a thick accent was looking for an “ohh-wurl” frame. He had to say it five or six times before I could tell he was saying “old world” style ;-)

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