the role of design in a website

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Design is not as important as usability when it comes to web development.

I’ve been trying to articulate this idea for some time now. It may be unpopular and many may disagree. I also don’t mean to disrespect designers or downplay the importance of their work. Rather, I am trying to impress upon future clients that content must come first, before we work on the design of a site.

Now I think I’ve finally found a good way to make this argument.

Design for a website is more like a book than a poster. The goal of the design of a poster is to attract attention, to draw someone’s eyes to the poster and make them take in the details. Whereas a book’s design is almost entirely about usability. Certainly character can be expressed with the selection of a font or colours used, but this is a playful element of design and does not function like the design of a poster. This, of course, does not address the cover of a book, which acts more like a poster. It’s aim is to attract attention. But I would argue that a website does not have a cover. When you visit a website, you are already there. It’s as if you are within the book, not looking at the cover. Only posters and promotions for a website can act like a cover.

Again, I make this argument because I’ve worked within organizations that have a lot of creative people. When discussing the development of a web site, they are always focusing on the design and they experience great dissatisfaction with a site if it has no strong design or simply looks bad. This may be appropriate at some point, but certainly not at the beginning of a project. Not when the content is still being gathered. Not when the social media strategy is still be developed.

Finally, to hit the point home. No one will leave a site if it has a bad or no design, but they certainly will if it is confusing and does not function well. They also may never find your beautifully designed site if you don’t spend the appropriate amount of time and effort improving the content and the way it is accessed. So content first. Design second.