Great Design Matters

by Michael Van Houten

An unseasonably hot autumn is underway here in West Michigan and, right on cue, downtown Grand Rapids is heating up with artists and residents gathering to celebrate ArtPrize. This annual international art competition turns the entire city into an art gallery and has attracted 500,000-plus visitors for eight years running, making it the most attended public art event in the world.

Beyond all the buzz and excitement, the best thing about ArtPrize is that it gets the entire community—artists and non-artists alike—thinking and talking more intentionally about art and design. After all, this is a competition, and people are voting on what makes one work of art better than another. For some, vivid colors make all the difference. For others, it might be the scale or audacity of the work. But most everyone is voting based on their own feelings and prejudices of what good art is. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right?

For web designers like me, this entire exercise brings to mind conversations I have (or should be having) with clients during the web design process. What makes for a great website design? Why does it matter? Can’t we just launch the website and worry about design later? And why even bother spending time on it if everyone is going to have a different opinion?

Those are worthwhile questions, but the best way to define great design more objectively is to think beyond colors, fonts and images. Here are four ways to think about it differently.

Great design builds trust.
Think for a minute about your favorite coffee shop, restaurant or store. Why is it your favorite? Most likely it’s because you trust that you’ll always have a great experience there. Great design plays a huge role in that. The colors on the wall are warm and don’t distract you from your conversation with a friend. An easy-to-read menu helps you choose your fancy coffee more quickly. The boldly-colored signage makes the store stand out in a sea of traffic. Those might seem like subtle things, but they make a big difference.

Now take a good long look at your website. What do visitors experience when they visit? Are they engaged and at ease because it’s modern, clean and easy to use? Or are they made anxious by an outdated, disorganized look and feel? The answer might determine if they trust you enough to read through your site, fill out forms or even click your “buy now” button. Because if they don’t trust you to give them a good experience, it won’t be long before they’re off to another site to find what they’re looking for.

Here’s a little homework for you. If you have analytics set up on your website, ignore how many hits your site has and instead take a look at how long people are staying. If it’s a few seconds or less, that’s a good indication that they don’t trust you enough to stick around and navigate through the site. On the other hand, if your design gets their attention and engages them, your site might just become someone’s “favorite”. And it’s obvious what happens when people have a favorite place, isn’t it? They keep coming back and they tell their friends about it.

Great design gives a #!$@.
Okay, so you’ve determined that your website needs a facelift. No problem! Anyone can do that, right? All you need are some nice looking stock photos and a cool looking website template and BINGO, your site now looks “professional”. Sounds great, but guess what? A whole bunch of other people had the same idea, and now your site looks exactly like theirs. I mean I swear I’ve seen that “men shaking hands” picture somewhere before.

Sure, this approach might save you some time and money upfront. But think about what it communicates to your audience. At best, it tells them that you’re too busy or not very innovative. At worst, it says that you don’t care much about giving them a good experience. Now, I know that’s not true…I know you care about your customers. But if you really want to show them that you care, spend some time on creating a design that helps them. Use fonts that are easy to read and clearly separate headline from paragraph. Develop a color palette that is bold and calls attention to the necessary things. Make your action elements (links and buttons) colorful enough so that they’re easy to find and click. And if you’re using images, try to stay away from stock images so that visitors know you’re the genuine article. Imposters are easy to spot.

Believe it or not, people notice and think about this kind of stuff when they visit your site, even it’s on a subconscious level. So when you put more thought into your website design, it will show people that you care… about your company AND about them.

Great design tells a story.
One of my dearest friends is a fantastic writer of historical fiction. Surprisingly (to me at least), the number one rule she follows when writing seems almost backwards—show, don’t tell. In other words, don’t tell the reader everything ABOUT the story in an introduction or prologue; Let the setting, the characters and the plot come to life through the story itself.

Your website tells a story, too. But how does that story come to life? For instance, take a look at the “About Us” page on your company’s website. Go ahead… I’ll wait. I know it’s going to take you a minute or 20 to sift through all the piles of scrunchedtogether text. Do you really think other people are going to take the time read through all that? There’s a good chance they won’t and that what you’re trying to say will get lost.

Think instead about how a well-designed page could help you tell your story more effectively. If you want people to know that you’re bold, innovative and forward-thinking, say it with vibrant colors and a non-conventional page layout. If you want to say something about your many years of trusted expertise and knowledge, let serif fonts, clean horizontal lines and lots of white space tell that story. Whatever story you want to tell, just remember my friend’s simple rule: show, don’t tell.

Great design takes time.
100 points to you if you’ve been reading all of this and thinking, “Wow, this sounds like a lot of work!” You’re right on the money… it is. But if you take a look back through our previous three points, it’s evident why great design—and a great website design—is essential. Shall we review? A great website design will help you build trust with your customers, show them that you care, and tell your story. If those things are important to you, then spending a bit of extra time, effort and, yes, money on design won’t seem quite so challenging.

Your website is obviously a crucial tool for reaching your customers. If you give yours a great design, your customers will love you for it… and they might even tell their friends, too.