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Chapter 1: What Is Web Design?
Web Design Themes
When discussing Web design, we see similar themes come up over and over again. Whether it's the political struggle between a corporation's marketing department and information technology group over site ownership, or a graphic designer trying to convince a client of the appropriateness of a particular look or multimedia technology, these themes are at the heart of the matter. These issues often result in rather heated discussions among designers, as well as between designers and their clients both inside and outside corporate Web teams. While there is no simple answer to some of these issues, they are relatively easy to describe.

Generally the major themes behind modern Web design include:

  • Designer needs versus user needs
  • The balance of form and function
  • The quality of execution
  • The interplay between convention and innovation
In the abstract sense, these themes are not at all unique to the Web medium. Artists like Leonardo DaVinci certainly struggled at times to balance the desires of patrons and even his viewing public with his own needs. Commercial artists producing something like a magazine advertisement or billboard have to balance the demands of visual look with successful and clear communication. Execution varies in any discipline, but in one as young as Web design, the effects are more evident. Lastly, the rules of convention and the desires of innovation are as common as the struggle of a young person rebelling against convention, the middle age designer discovering the wisdom of the masters, and the old designer trying to rediscover his or her innovative youth. Despite the general nature of these themes, their specific details vary with each medium. It will be valuable to introduce each here before we encounter them later on. We start with the most important issue first: user-centered versus designer-centered site design.

User-Focused Design
A common theme of Web design is the focus on users. Unfortunately, a common mistake made in Web development is that, far too often, sites are built more for designers and their needs than for the site's actual users. Always remember this important tenet of Web design:

Rule: YOU are NOT the USER.

What you understand is not what a user will understand. As a designer, you have intimate knowledge of a Web site. You understand where information is. You understand how to install plug-ins. You have the optimal screen resolution, browser setup, and so on. When you build your site around your own visual characteristics and skill levels, you often will confuse the actual users of the site. You must accept the fact that many users will not necessarily have intimate knowledge of the site you have so carefully crafted. They may not even have the same interests as you.

Given the importance of the users' interests and desires, it might seem appropriate to simply ask the users to design the site the way they want. This seems to be a good idea until you consider another basic Web design tenet:


Not everyone is or should be a Web designer. Just as it would seem foolish to let moviegoers attempt to direct a major motion picture on the basis of their having viewed numerous movies, we should not expect users to be able to design Web sites just because they have browsed a multitude of sites. Users often have unrealistic requirements and expectations for sites. Users will not think carefully about the individual components of a Web site. In summary, users are not going to have the sophisticated understanding of the Web that a designer will have.

That said, the key to successful, usable Web site design is always trying to think from the point of view of the user. User-centered design is the term given to design that always puts the user first. But what can we say about users? Is there a typical user? Does a "Joe Average Internet" exist that we should design our sites for? Probably not, but we certainly should consider certain traits, such as reaction times, memory, and other cognitive or physical abilities, as we design sites. An overview of cognitive science helps us understand basic user capabilities; we will discuss this topic further in the next chapter. Remember, however, that while users may have similar basic characteristics, they are also individuals. What may seem easy to one user will be hard for another. Sites that are built for a "common" user may not meet the needs of all users. Power users may find a site restrictive, while novice users find it too difficult. Users are individuals with certain shared capacities and characteristics. Sites should take account of the relevant differences while focusing on the commonalities, as stated by the following Web design tenet:

Rule: Design for the common user, but account for differences.

Lastly, we can see that the differing needs of the user and the designer raise an issue of control. Control over a visit to a site is an unwritten contract between the designer and the visitor to how the experience will unfold. Often, sites provide little user control, forcing the user to view content in a predetermined order with little control over presentation or technology. Rarely do we find the exact opposite occurs, where the site gives users ultimate control over visitation, allowing them to choose what to see and how to see it and even allowing them to add to or modify the site's contents. However, most sites do allow the user some choices and the ability to control experience, but always under the influence of the designer's requirements. We'll revisit some of the general ideas of control and user experience throughout the book.

Next: Form and Function

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