Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Role of Designer as Educator

by Sherry Holub

I belong to a number of online news and discussion groups and recently the topic of websites came up within a particular group. This led to many group members posting a link to their business website. Of course this wasn't meant to be a critique, but I couldn't help but silently evaluate the sites I visited. One person mentioned how many people loved their site and that they always receive compliments on how professional the site is or how easy it is to navigate. I visited the site and found something I would best describe as, "1998″. By that I mean that the design was laid out in the way websites were about 10 years ago. Not only that, but there were a multitude of fonts (I counted over 4, included some very non-web-safe fonts being used as text and not image-based), a multitude of link colors (3), and just about every product category had a different layout (images, buttons, and descriptions all in different places). There was no consistency and I found the products pages somewhat confusing. The person admitted that their accountant was the one who had set up the website. That was enough to explain everything about the lack of design to me. However, my confusion still hung off the supposed fact that the business owner receives compliments on the website.

I decided to delve further into my own research of this phenomenon. I started with analyzing the industry of this business, which happened to be natural personal/beauty care products. There are some very large companies in this industry such as, Burt's Bees, Tom's of Main, Jason, etc. But it seems that the majority of companies are not large, with many independents (and "mom and pop" operations). Of course, cost does factor in to an equation like that - large companies usually have large marketing as well as design budgets, smaller companies may not, leading them to believe they must do it themselves.

So the obvious was now out of the way, but there was still the question of what is deemed to be "professional" by the clients of a particular business. For over 10 years I've tried to study the habits of the web user while also striving to evolve design for the web and stay on the cutting edge of what's hot. There are many standards that lead to a website in which users are more likely to stay, and in the case of ecommerce sites, buy. There is also color theory, imagery (photos, etc.), and basic design principles that can be used to lead the user's eye around the page. Does the average web user have a much lower expectation of websites than myself, being the professional designer? Could business such as the one from the online group mentioned above be receiving "compliments" from friends and relatives that are screwing their perspectives of what is professional?

Well, yes.

As I think about the many clients I have had, I realize that I have often played the role of educator as well as designer. I do believe that even the folks that might have a notion of what professional is can raise their expectations once a designer takes the time to explain why something may be more effective. I have dealt with clients who absolutely demanded to have 18 different fonts on their page or a red background with blue text or any other manner of design "no no's" and have helped them to understand how a better design choice would ultimately lead to their business (and their website) looking more professional (and potentially increase their sales). I have also had to gently take the reins away from friends and relatives of the business owner and steer them back on the course to a great looking website or printed materials. And I have even had to break up "committees" and force someone at a large company to make an executive decision to not only reach the goal of a professional design, but also remain on track with the development timeline.

I do believe that the responsibility to educate clients about great design resides with the designers themselves. If no one steps up to alert a business owner that a visual or layout choice may not be right for their website or marketing materials, then they're likely to be unaware of the potential they could have or the business they may be missing out on.

About the Author

Sherry Holub received her degree in design from UCLA in 1995. She is now the Creative Director and Lead Designer at Southern California firm, JV Media Design ( Sherry is also a member of the NAPP and the International Academy of the Visual Arts.