March 01, 2003 | Category:

Graphic Vs Web design

Most web designers are terrible at web design. There, I said it. I’m not talking about the people who put up personal sites full of animated gifs that they stole from the thousand other personal sites that came before, or the small businessmen who get their wife to design a logo in their copy of Paint. I mean “professional” web designers.

Now, let me clarify slightly. The web designers who are terrible at web design are the ones who trained as graphics designers and jumped on the net bandwagon, thinking that it’s a graphical medium so the same approach always works. It’s not. Let’s say it loud and clear: graphic design and web design are very different disciplines, despite some similarities in function and possible conveyance.

Graphic and web design both share one key thing in common: they both aim to convey information in the best way possible. By this, I mean that not only is it important that the subject is understood by everyone, but is also accessible to everyone. And there lies a key difference; graphic design passed on as web design is not accessible and does not convey information well.

Imagine we have “Munky Cola”, the newest soft drink to enter the market. So new, in fact, that the manufacturers have yet to establish any real brand identity for themselves. They hire a design team to come up with a brand and marketing scheme. Being a traditional team primarily, they first create a logo for the company. This is a fine first step. A logo is a very simple way of getting immediate recognition for any brand. It can and should be permuated across all media.

Next, they create a series of graphic designs to be used as adverts. These centre on the brand and making it stick in peoples head; something funny or, perhaps, abstract. This is a fine second step. People now recognise the brand and associate it with a product or idea.

Then, they take their existing graphic design ideas and blindly transform them as closely as they can to the web environment, with some information or widgets related to the product/brand in some way. (By widgets, I mean tiny games or toys that the user can play with). This is a bad step. Using widgets is fine, they help strengthen a brand, but using the existing graphic design is bad web design.

Why? Websites are different, they serve a different purpose and must be treated as a different medium. What works for graphic design (abstract advertising) will not work on the web. Web users want information, they want to go beyond the elements of graphic design they’ve already seen, they want interaction. This is a key difference. Graphic design is a one-way medium: people can see it but they can’t do anything to it, they can’t be part of it. Web design is two-way: we can use it to convey more information about a project and, more powerfully, create a sense of community around it.

Think carefully about that last bit: a community means a constantly growing and returning audience. You can’t buy that kind of interest (whether you’re selling something or not). You also start to get a project which generates its own content. No need for a new graphic design every other week.

That takes care of the usability side of things. In terms of actual design (raw and dirty mark-up), it’s just plain wrong to treat a website as an example of graphic design. Sure, it should convey brand identity, but it shouldn’t be a graphically based. Using tables and all manors of redundant mark-up to get an image to sit just right on a site is missing the point. A web page is essentially a document (largely, just a piece of text) with special tags around parts of it to logically separate chunks of it and give certain parts meaning. This can’t be achieved through graphical means.

There’s a lot more to this, but I’ll leave that for another day. Just remember, next time you design a web site, make sure it’s a web site and not a graphic design.