Patrick McNeil on Great Web Design

Patrick McNeil recently joined HOW Interactive Design as the site content director. It’s the extension of a relationship that includes Patrick’s two published HOW books (The Web Designer’s Idea Book, Volumes One and Two), a third title forthcoming, the Web Designer’s Idea App and a role on the advisory board for HOW’s Interactive Design Conference, where he’ll also be speaking this November. We recently caught up with Patrick when he had a few moments between book deadlines.

What’s keeping you busy these days?

I am excited to be finishing up my third book, The Designer’s Web Handbook, a friendly guide to the web for designers. I am also fortunate enough to be working with HOW on HOW Interactive Design, a new community focused on helping designers embrace the web. I also write frequently for various blogs such as WebDesignerDepot.com. I guess you can tell where my passions lay!

Tell us about the Web Designer’s Idea books and the new app. What inspired you to write those books, and how did the app come about?

The Idea Books are a spinoff of my blog DesignMeltdown.com, which was entirely inspired by a school project based on a book by Steven Heller. That was the inspiration source for the books, but it seems I am just really passionate about collecting, analyzing and talking about design.

The Idea App is an iPad app that combines the contents of my first two books. It contains over 1,200 examples of beautiful design as well as all of the information written in both books. My favorite aspect of the app is that it is fully catered to the iPad, it is not simply a direct recreation of the books. Instead, the content was restructured and made to work for the digital interface.

You spend tons of time online looking at websites—good ones and terrible ones. What are the characteristics of the sites you think are well-designed or successful from a user standpoint?

I do spend countless hours surfing the web for all of the articles and books I write, and I find that the most common feature of sites that drags them down is a lack of polish. I find that the more time a designer (and the development team) takes to polish a design to perfection, the more incredible it is. This lack of polish tends to show up in the smaller details that can be easily overlooked. While I do have my favorite styles, there is no magic bullet and just when I start to consider an approach hopeless, I find an example that demonstrates it can work tremendously well, if the details are all accounted for.

Your education is in art, and you’ve spent your professional life on the technical side of design doing coding and web development work. Since you live in both worlds, what’s your advice to help designers create great working partnerships with developers?

Yes, I did go to art school, but I actually started off on the technology side, so I’m even more conflicted than you might realize! The designer-developer relationship is incredibly important and can be improved by simply staying involved. Both sides should attempt to be involved beyond the limits of what their role appears to be. For example, designers should make themselves available as their designers are being created. This way, they can help prepare assets for things they overlooked (because you will always miss something). And on the flip side, developers have to be willing to involve designers and even seek to work with them to understand the implications their designs have on the production of a website. More than anything, the best thing is to truly appreciate the other for the value they can bring to the project. Working together is the only way to the best results. In many ways, this is a lot of what my new book attempts to address.

At the conference, you’ll be looking at web trends to dissect what makes really successful designs. What’s the best design trend you’re seeing on the web, and what’s the worst?

The best trend for me is that the web community is finally letting go of one aspect of web design that is still rooted in print: The assumption that a website should look the same in all situations. For as long as I’ve been working on the web, the singular goal has always been to get a site to look the same across all browsers and platforms. In contrast, we now find that sites are being designed to suite the device and environment of the user. This is most clearly seen with the notion of responsive design. I believe that we will see even more of this coming down the line as technology evolves and the web finds its way into more and more situations. Some obvious ones I see include things like cars, televisions and micro screens like smaller phones.

The worst trend—is bad design a trend? I would say the worst trend is when designers blindly latch onto a trend, layout formula, style or theme only because they like it. When the design of a site is firmly connected to the needs of the site, the result is so much better.

What’s the biggest false assumption that print-oriented designers make when they first try to create a project for the web?

One of the biggest mistakes I find is when they approach each page of a website as an original creation. While you can put special styles into individual pages, they need to rely on similar layout patterns and common styles so the site can be efficiently coded. When a designer creates a unique layout for each page it’s more like they are designing posters. The really hard part with these situations is when the designs look so good hanging on a wall during a group review that it’s hard to demonstrate their flaws. But when the site is actually coded, the flow and functionality is usually poor.

As you scan the technology landscape, what are you seeing that really excites or intrigues you?

I really love that the web is being fully optimized for various platforms. Apps for phones were all the rage, while the mobile web was somewhat ignored. But the mobile web is catching up, and people are building some incredible websites optimized for phones and tablets. I love seeing that a website can be made to interact and feel like a native app.

What’s your favorite:

  1. website?
    I honestly have no idea how to answer this. As a producer of content, I find that my most frequently used sites are more for business, and my consumption of content is a bit haphazard. I do tend to latch onto various sites as they leverage my favorite styles and development techniques; a current favorite such as this is MoreHazards.com.
  2. mobile app? 
    Evernote is my favorite, one of my most frequently used mobile apps. I’d be lost without it.
  3. book?
    I go broke buying books; right now I am reading The Hunger Games. Professionally, I have been reading Mark O’Brien’s A Website That Works, which is really changing how I view and think about websites.

Learn more about Patrick McNeil’s session at the HOW Interactive Design Conference and register now!

This post originally appeared on the HOW magazine blog.

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