Brian Miller on Principles of Successful Web Design

Brian Miller speaking at HOW Design ConferenceSay hello to Brian Miller author of the best-selling book Above the Fold: Understanding the Principles of Successful Web Design. He’ll be speaking at the upcoming HOW Interactive Design Conference, and you can find him on Twitter.

You may not know Brian Miller personally, but you probably know his work—in fact, we’ll guess that “Above the Fold” is on your shelf right now. Miller runs an eponymous design studio in Norwalk, CT, and his position on the executive board of The Type Directors Club hints at his traditional design cred.

Like many print designers, he’s self-taught in web design, making great use of all those “traditional” skills and theories. We recently chatted with Miller about making the print-to-web transition, about whether “the fold” still applies and about the great feedback from his HOW Interactive Design Conference session last month in Washington, DC.

Tell us about what you’re up to these days.

My background is in print design, and I worked as a print designer at the beginning of my career. But I was the guy who was willing to raise his hand and say I’ll do the web design, even before anyone else was. For a number of years, I did about 80% print work and 20% web, and then in the late 1990s, the ratio flipped. To this day I do about 80% web work and 20% print work.

I worked in-house at Gartner Inc., the technology research firm, and while I was there I got a masters in design management from Pratt. That allowed me to think about design as a more strategic asset, and it allowed me to start my own business, the Brian Miller Design Group, in 2009.

My friend Alex White co-authored a book called Really Good Logos Explained, and over beers one night, I told him that if his publisher was ever looking for “Really Good Websites Explained” to give them my name. The next day, I had a call, and that’s how “Above the Fold” got started. It was the No. 1 best-seller in My Design Shop in 2011, and it sold out; it was selling on Amazon and eBay for like $900. The book has been picked up by more than 40 college classes, so I’ve started a student web design competition.

Above the Fold Web Design Book cover“Above the Fold” outlined the principles of successful website design. Is the fold (i.e., the upper segement on a web page that’s viewable without scrolling) still a relevant construct in web design?

Whenever my client says, “Make everything visible above the fold,” we have a lengthy conversation …

You’d never write a book and put the plot twist on the cover. Clients want to tell the punchline first and expect people to still keep reading. In classic storytelling, you build, build, build to the release.

I’m absolutely in favor, ironically, of not buying into the above the fold concept and instead guiding the user down the page.

Like so many gurus in web design these days, you’re formally trained in print design and self-taught in web design. For print designers making the transition to digital, what design principles apply across both media?

Everything that they understand about effectively communicating a message they can take into web design. The barrier for most people is that they think that they instantly have to start coding—which is kind of interesting because when you sit down to design a logo, you don’t think about running a Heidelberg press.

I’ve coded websites, but I don’t do that for clients. I have experts who do that. Coding isn’t an add-on talent for designers.

What I preach is that effective communication is the same no matter the medium, and it’s a function of learning the nuances and understanding the variables inherent in the web.

Looking around at the landscape of the web, what catches your attention? What are you excited about?

What’s cool is that we’re moving to the point where the web is more of a utility. We’ve had information sites, and social sites, but we’re moving toward utility, where a website can be a complete application.

And the role of the browser is really impacting how we interact with the web. As always —but it’s magnified now—you have to focus on the user, their needs, expectations and what they can get out of the experience. It’s beyond simply finding information. Something can be completely transformed by a website.

You spoke at the Washington, DC, HOW Interactive Design Conference. How’d that go?

Unbelievable. It was such a thrill. My book sold out onsite on the first day, which was a great feeling. I was exhausted after my presentation, but I peeled myself off my hotel bed and went down to the networking happy hour, and I couldn’t even get to the bar because so many people stopped to talk to me. They said, “Your talk was the best—I learned so much. I had a full hour, and the feedback was that people could absorb what I had to say. It was really fulfilling.

Hear more from Brian Miller and our roster of stellar web design expert speakers at the HOW Interactive Design Conference October 28–31 in San Francisco. Learn more about the program and register now.