5 Tactics for Better Web Designs

Volume 2 of The Web Designer’s Idea Book includes more than 650 new websites arranged thematically, so you can easily find inspiration for your work.

Patrick McNeil, creator of the popular web design blog designmeltdown.com and author of the original bestselling Web Designer’s Idea Book, has cataloged thousands of sites, and showcases the latest and best examples in this book. The web is the most rapidly changing design medium, and this book offers an organized overview of what’s happening right now. Sites are categorized by type, design element, styles and themes, structural styles and structural elements.

This new volume also includes a helpful chapter explaining basic design principles and how they can be applied online. Here, Patrick offers 5 tactics for designing successful websites.

I’m frequently asked to critique web designs and advise creative professionals on how to produce better work. Often, I find that people are exclusively focused on the aesthetics of their design, and it can be incredibly difficult to communicate the fundamental issues with the work. I’ve found that it’s seldom the person’s creative skills holding them back, but rather, they fail to embrace some fundamental concepts when it comes to producing beautiful and  highly functional web designs. As it turns out, the work that captures the most attention is not only stunningly beautiful, but also incredibly functional. So I’ll share 5 tactics to help you meet both goals.


Time and again, I’ve seen web designers overlook several key principles. Many of them focus solely on creating original works of art, and while it’s a great goal to produce fresh and beautiful designs, you can’t forget the fundamental concepts that make the web work. If you incorporate these web design tactics into your process, you’ll achieve better results.

Which brings up the question: What results are we shooting for? I’m talking about web designs that function so well that our clients love us because the project solves their real business problems and has a positive impact on their bottom line. And better results for the client also means improving your own bottom line.

Web Design Tactic #1: Measure It
How can we even begin to talk about how to improve results if we aren’t measuring them? The more attention you pay to the analytics for the sites you produce, the better in tune you’ll be with real-world results. You may be asked to design a website, but not be involved in its development and launch, and you may not get any information about the site’s performance after it goes live. So I encourage you to ask for access to the stats package your firm or your clients use.

Site analytics will give you important information about the site you’ve designed. For example, you’ll find out if that fancy contact form you created for the client is working. Traffic data will tell you if very few people sign up for client’s mailing list, so you can tweak the page to improve response. If you aren’t paying attention to the stats, you aren’t paying attention to the results.

Web Design Tactic #2: Focus on Usability
This is the most overlooked aspect of web design. I’ve encountered so many design comps that have completely neglected to consider how the end product will function. Usability is the practice of ensuring that your designs are not only beautiful but easy to use. Once you consider how the site will be used, you’ll find that some of those creative ideas you had don’t make much sense. Putting the main navigation at the bottom of the page isn’t a smart option, even though it makes the page look prettier in Photoshop.

For the ultimate primer on usability, pick up a copy of Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think.

Web Design Tactic #3: Improve Planning
If we want our web sites to function better, then we have to reconsider our project planning process. It all starts with site maps and wireframes. Going through the process of creating a site map forces you to consider how the site content of the site flows, and how the user will find what they’re looking for. The sitemap allows you to design with purpose; don’t start the design without it. I recommend the site mapping tool Mind Meister.

Another critical tool is the wireframe. While site maps plan the content of the entire site, wireframes focus on the architecture of one page at a time. You might think that rough sketch you drew on a napkin qualifies, but it doesn’t. The wireframe isn’t a rough sketch that you can rework later, but a thoughtful and realistic plan for how you’ll lay out the content on each page. When you get to the design phase, you’re essentially putting a skin on the wireframe—and not planning the content at the same time.

Web Design Tactic #4: Listen to Your Developers
Yes, I’m a developer, not a designer. But I’m not being snarky when I ask you to pay careful attention to the feedback you get from your developers.
First, you’ll understand the impact your design decisions have on the production process. The more you understand the implications your designs have on the site’s construction, the better you can shape your designs make the best use of the project’s budget.

Second, you’ll see what’s missing. Did you design error messages for the forms on the site? Did you design a simple e-mail template for messages generated through the site? Did you design for the various states of buttons and links? The developer will need all these detailed elements.

Web Design Tactic #5: Focus on Business Needs
This one’s the most important: Listen to your clients and focus on their business needs. It can be tempting to use client projects as our own personal creative outlet, but your clients have real business problems that need practical and functional solutions. Build your reputation on being a creative problem solver and not on making pretty, dysfunctional designs.


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