7 Secrets Graphic Designers Won’t Tell You about Effective Website Design

Ever had a run-in with a graphic designer who promised you a brilliant design but all you got was a big mess?

No, you’re not an expert, but you know what’s good and what’s not. You also know when you’re being taken advantage of. All you wanted was a website that would help you succeed online, and what you got instead wasn’t worth the pixels it was painted on.

And what’s worse is you have to start over. You’ve lost months of time, burned through thousands of dollars, hurt your business reputation, and gone through the emotional turmoil of it all, and now you have to do the whole thing over again.

It’s scary, because let’s be honest. What if Take Two is just as much of a nightmare?

Well, we’re not going to let it happen again. Here are some secrets many graphic designers won’t tell you, and knowing them can save you a bundle of both time and money:

Secret #1: Pretty doesn’t count.

Yes, you want your site to look nice and create visual impact with visitors, but good looks don’t bring in sales.

A great tour guide does, though – and that’s your website’s job. It presents your business to visitors and welcomes them, showing them around and introducing them to points of interest they should definitely see before they leave. As tour guide, your website has the task of providing visitors with the right guidance to direct them to where they want to go – and to where you want them to go as well.

Is it bad to be pretty?

No, I wouldn’t go that far. If you can have both a beautiful design and get results, then go for it. If you find yourself having to choose between one or the other though, stick with getting results. Winning design awards may be nice, but it doesn’t pay the bills.

Secret #2: You don’t need a redesign.

Imagine you’re standing there wondering how to be more appealing to the opposite sex. Ask a hair stylist, and he’ll say a great cut. Ask a makeup artist, and she’ll say a makeover. Ask a confidence coach, and… You get the picture.

So what do you think happens when you ask a graphic designer how to improve your website?

Exactly.

Remember, your design is just one piece of a bigger picture. What if your message is wrong, and you need a copywriting overhaul? What if your brand image is pulling in the wrong target market? What if your marketing strategy has holes in it? What if there’s an issue with your product or service?

You can’t afford to ask 12 specialists their opinion – you’ll end up overhauling every element of your business!

Ask a big-picture specialist for help – someone who can analyze several elements of your site and pinpoint the problem area. These experts know all the elements, understand how they work together and how much weight each carries in the conversion equation.

You might be surprised to find out there’s nothing wrong with your design at all, and just a fast copy tweak or a new marketing strategy does the trick. Bravo – you saved yourself thousands of dollars!

Secret Number #3: You don’t need to spend a fortune.

People say you get what you pay for, and sometimes, that’s true. But it’s not true that you need to spend your life savings on a good website.

There are too many designers out there preying on your ignorance, charging exorbitant rates for their own profit. They blind you with techspeak and fancy coding terms.

Don’t put up with it.

Decide your budget and find graphic designers who can work within it. Look for designers that fit the style of site you’d like for your business. Visit other sites you like and see who designed them. Ask for quotes, take your time and shop around.

It’ll save you thousands of dollars.

Secret #4: Maintaining a website isn’t expensive.

Many business owners get ripped off on this one. Since graphic design and website development is usually a one-time expense, unethical providers try to loop you in as a customer they can bill every month for recurring charges.

Expensive charges. Charges that don’t need to be.

Web hosting? You can pay as little as $5 a month these days – why pay more?

Maintenance? What maintenance? Oh, the upgrades that might come along every now and then? Well, opt for WordPress or another content management system that lets you do your own upgrades just by clicking a button.

Changes to content? A content management system wins again. Login to your site, and in two or three clicks, you’re updating your prices, changing your copy or adding a new page all by yourself.

When someone offers you an upsell maintenance package, ask what they’ll do for that money. Then go to Google and find out just how easy it is to do what they’ve offered you.

Not interested in maintaining your site? By all means, hire someone to do it for you. Just be sure you’re not being overcharged for quick and easy jobs.

Secret #5: You don’t need to be totally unique.

It’s true that you need to stand out these days and look different from all the rest. The problem is that some designers take it a little too far, and they design you a site that’s so unique it breaks all the rules – and not in a good way. Your stunning site ends up being a confusing experience for visitors.

Designers need to create sites that follow web conventions and usability rules, because these are the ultimate guides to navigating your site quickly and easily. If you break them, you’ll confuse your visitors.

For example, consumers know they’ll generally find an RSS or email opt-in on the top right of a site – it’s always found here. Logos are usually found in the top left of a site, and navigation bars are usually found below header areas.

Shun conventions, and you’ll create a visitor experience that’s similar to walking into an alien world. Nothing is where it’s supposed to be, everything is backwards, and it’s confusing at best.

And what happens?

People leave. Your website becomes crippled and ineffective, all in the name of being unique.

Secret #6: Branding is a special skill, and not all designers do it well.

Another little secret?

Most designers aren’t skilled in developing brand identities. They’re good at developing graphic design that reflects your brand identity, but if you haven’t supplied them with that crucial information, they’re just assuming.

They’re assuming your target market, and what appeals to those ideal customers. They’re assuming the values of your business and its marketing message. They’re assuming its personality and the type of experience your customers will have when they work with you or buy from you.

You know what they say about assuming, right?

It’s far better to work with a branding specialist to your developer your identity before you hire your designer, or work exclusively with graphic designers who understand branding and can develop a site that reflects your brand identity. Otherwise you’ll just attract the wrong kind of people, and the entire website will be a waste of money.

Secret #7: Design Isn’t Just about Photoshop. It’s about Psychology.

This is the biggie.

The secret to a great website isn’t in having a pretty design and some compelling content. The real secret is in psychology and consumer behaviour.

A graphic designer needs to know color psychology and the associations people make with specific shades and tones. He needs to know what imagery will appeal to people, the type of people it’ll appeal to, and why it appeals to them. He needs to know what’s going on in people’s minds when they land on sites and as they navigate through yours.

Are smooth curves better than concentric circles? Is IBM blue the best color, or is deep red a better choice? What will draw people to the right or the left? What emotional state should the site create? Should the design be modern and simple or colourful and bold or soft and comforting? Where do a person’s eyes travel, and what will make them stop?

Good designers know all this and much more. They understand that their goal is to influence a visitor’s psychological state of mind and perception of your business. The more designers know about how people behave, what makes them take action and ways they react to different elements, the better they can implement persuasive strategies into your site.

Then they build you a site that captures interest, holds it, and brings you sales.

Isn’t that what you want?

About the Author: Need help turning a bad design experience into a great one or want to work with a top team ready to bring you success? Contact James Chartrand at Men with Pens.

  1. It’s the truth, all of it. The most important “secret” though – I believe – is the first: pretty isn’t everything.

    Too many business owners, bloggers, etc. think that shiny graphics and a lot of drop shadows will make their website effective, but those pretty effects won’t do magic.

    A clean, usable, and simple website is all you need. Add a splash (but just a little) of pretty and you’re set.

    • James Chartrand Aug 27, 2010 at 8:42 am

      This comment made me grin – some of the least usabile sites I’ve seen are those made my graphic designers. They’re *real* pretty… but it’s hard to find the info that visitors are looking for!

  2. I represent the big picture thinkers you speak of–we often go back to the brand/orgs core offering before defining strategy, tactics and tools.

    I’m with you on almost all of this, except for two points:

    1. After doing this for 12 years, I can tell you that nothing is as easy as it ‘should’ be. It’s great that pixels are easier to change then print, but there’s no substitute for trial and error. Fixing one thing often breaks two others.

    2. After being platform agnostic for for most of our existence, we’ve gravitated to WordPress because it does 80% of what 80% of the population needs out of the box, including intuitive administration.

    I can tell you that it’s downright irresponsible to suggest that clicking that little “update” link will pop you into the next version joyfully.

    That, and many of the other amazing features of this remarkably robust yet accessible platform are accidents waiting to happen.

    I do hope your audience reads this before blindly following your over-simplification.

    • James Chartrand Aug 27, 2010 at 8:40 am

      Oh, I agree with you that upgrades need to be done with “just in case” best practices in place. It only makes sense to have backups of everything before clicking that button… but it’s true that many people forget that step.

      On point 1, I’ve not had the personal experience of fixing one thing and breaking two others, but I’m sure that it does happen, especially on sites that were born of crappy coding. We’ve seen *that* happen, for sure.

      On point 2, we develop WordPress ourselves, so we’re on the same page here! :)

  3. There’s one thing i think you’ve danced around a bit, but never really landed on. To me, all design, web or whatever else, is about presenting the content the best way. While i always strive to make my designs beautiful and unique, the number one goal is always presenting the content in the best and most easily consumed way possible. Whether it’s copy, photographs, or multimedia, a good presentation of the content is just as important as the content itself.

    • James Chartrand Aug 27, 2010 at 8:38 am

      We’re probably on the same page about this – I believe that content and design and a whole bunch of other things work together to present one full message to the visitor who lands. It has to work together as an entity.

    • Methinks content is often the red-headed stepchild.

      Most people know they need a decent design, and they know they’re not designers, so they hire someone.

      Most people know they can’t code their own sites, even in WordPress, so they hire someone.

      Then comes the content, and most people think they know how to write about what they do.

      My experience, both personally and professionally and in looking around at what’s out there, is … not so much.

      It’s a real shame when people take a good design and implement it with fuzzy, confusing content.

      It’s HARD to write your own content. It takes me about twice as long to write my own content as it does to write my clients’.

      Content is so, so important, and it’s often given less attention than it deserves. And that’s sad.

  4. indie_preneur Aug 27, 2010 at 8:23 am

    Your points are valid, but the way you present them sounds as if you’ve been burned a few times. I don’t like the way you make point #3 — it doesn’t have to cost a fortune no, but it does money to get a decent, converting website. Statements like this I feel lessen the job that do. If you’re worked with designers who ‘prey on your ignorance,’ then I’m sorry to hear that. Neither myself, nor any designer I know would do such a thing, clients needs (and budget) are always number 1, albeit sometimes a bit misguided from their ultimate business goals.

    • James Chartrand Aug 27, 2010 at 8:37 am

      I haven’t been burned myself – I own a web design agency.

      But I have had many clients come to me with some pretty heartbreaking stories about money they’ve lost and time they’ve wasted… so this article was written on their behalf.

  5. You could also add:

    Pretty doesn’t bring you traffic.
    And
    You need to add website analytics to the site.

    You can have the prettiest website out there, but if no one knows it’s there, is it doing you any good? Many of the award winning designs take no account for whether the site cab me found or not. Way too often I come across sites that have the same title on every page and it’s just the company name. Or they have a designed a roadblock for search engine spiders into the site.
    When choosing a design company ALWAYS ask how they are going to make the site functional for SEO.

    As for website analytics. How do you know what the ROI of your website is if you are not tracking what is happening on the site?

    • James Chartrand Aug 27, 2010 at 12:00 pm

      Oh GOOD one. There are so many people who believe that traffic happens of its own accord, and that they don’t have to do much marketing.

      But that’s not true (as you know). You *always* have to market your site and work on helping drive traffic to it using whatever tools you can.

  6. Seriously awesome post!

    #4 made me cringe a little bit. I always offer my clients a maintenance package, but I think it’s a decent deal.

    For $100/month, they get:
    -Hosting
    -Regular backups
    -Priority Support
    -Email setup
    -2 free hours of my time
    -A 50% reduction on my hourly rate

    I do this for a couple of reasons:
    -Otherwise I end up doing the extra work anyway, for free. So I’m trying to mitigate my losses a bit.
    -Recurring revenue is extremely nice in the feast & famine world of freelancing.
    -I keep a better eye on my clients’ sites, and keep in touch with them more.
    -It encourages them to keep working on their websites vs. just launching and then forgetting about it.

    However, I used to work for a web agency that didn’t really offer anything of value considerably more, so I think your point is still valid.

    Cheers,
    Chris

    • Last line should say “…didn’t really offer anything of value but charged considerably more…”

      Editing fail.

    • James Chartrand Aug 27, 2010 at 12:02 pm

      Now, see, that sounds fair to me (and even low, actually), and you’ve added on some nice perks as well – this totally seems a good deal to me.

      But I’ve seen people charge $150 a month for far, far, FAR less. Shameful, that!

      • Yeah – that sounds totally reasonable.

        I’m with James on #4 and I can’t believe how many providers absolutely RIP businesses off. Like, big time.

        But your maintenance package looks like excellent over-the-top service at a very fair price.

    • LaVonne Ellis Aug 27, 2010 at 12:08 pm

      Damn, I’ve only been charging $25/mo. Time to raise my rates!

    • Chris,
      Your maintenance package sounds super to me. I can “do” many of the basics, or figure them out, but having the time is another matter. Heading off to check out your site! :-)

  7. Marlene Hielema Aug 27, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    Despite some of the comments here, I think this post is a good overview of the process of hiring a designer. Similar things can be said about hiring photographers, writers or any creative contributors.

    This part really resonates with me though:

    “Most designers aren’t skilled in developing brand identities. They’re good at developing graphic design that reflects your brand identity, but if you haven’t supplied them with that crucial information, they’re just assuming.”

    I spent a ton of money on a photography portfolio design a couple years back and the designer never asked me anything about my target market, brand identity etc. I’m embarrassed to say this but to be honest I was too stupid at the time to know I had to tell her. I originally hired her because she did nice book design.

    Recently I had another designer create a site header for me, and the first things she asked were all the important marketing questions so she didn’t have to guess. That freaked me out at first, but then I realized I really needed to nail down that information for myself too!

    Through this experience I now know that my part in the design process is just as important as the person putting down the pixels.

    • James Chartrand Aug 27, 2010 at 12:05 pm

      That’s the thing: Customers aren’t *supposed* to know that this information is crucial, and I believe that it’s the service provider’s job to ask.

      Take photography, for example. I recently had a photo shoot done. “Here, go,” I said, thinking it was fairly simple. A dumb photographer would’ve started clicking. The photographer I had stopped me and said, “Well, now, hang on. Where are these going? What mood do you want to create? What are you trying to highlight to people? What message do you want to send?”

      Made all the difference for perfect shots.

  8. Love the open and straightforward insight! Thanks!

  9. Shawn Christenson Aug 27, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    I just want to say I love all your points, and you illustrate them wonderfully. #7 is a great way to end it too.

  10. I did an overhaul with my website with my husband who is a web content master. I’m not. I’m just, state the facts please. He likes everything perfect and pretty and in order. I couldn’t have done it without him. I wish I knew as much as him about how to do this website design stuff. I couldn’t imagine trying to find someone to fulfill my vision on a website without his patience. O, what it would have cost me…

    • James Chartrand - Men with Pens Aug 29, 2010 at 8:14 am

      The hallmark of a really good service provider is always a person with patience. It costs nothing to have, and its value is priceless. :)

  11. Hey James, thanks for the informative piece.

    Re #2

    “You might be surprised to find out there’s nothing wrong with your design at all, and just a fast copy tweak or a new marketing strategy does the trick. Bravo – you saved yourself thousands of dollars!” <– or you've just spent money for someone to tell you that you don't have anything that's wrong with you ;) Guess it's like what Mark Suster said: Consultants use your watch to tell you what time it is.

    Re #5

    Any advice on how to learn these conventions? Or just by observation of other major / successful sites?

  12. I tried to subscribe to your news letter with my gmail address (5yo email) and get this message:

    The email address you have entered appears to
    be invalid. Please enter a working email address. We won’t spam you. Honest!

    Huh ?!

  13. According to my experience iterations make any design useful. Most of time i just start basic designing on paper and then start building html layout. After couple of iterations it become useful. Usefulness which include speed, navigation is more important the anything else.
    I read some where
    1. speed is a feature keep improving in every release.
    2. Release is a feature, keep releasing.

  14. But can’t a very pretty website have a large emotional impact on the visitor? That impact *could* be large enough to translate to sales, but I’m no expert :-)

  15. All well and good to have valid concerns about website design. Certainly, a design shouldn’t be merely “pretty.”

    But I must admit I find statements like: “Design Isn’t Just about Photoshop. It’s about Psychology,” patently offensive. I’ll be the first to admit that some BAD “designers” are just Photoshop (or Illustrator, or Dreamweaver, or even CSS hand-coding) monkeys, but that isn’t design! Design is not the same as art, although it involves art. Graphic design, like architectural design and packaging design, etc., is about finding efficient solutions to problems. For example, problems like How To Attract The Target Audience Visually (In 3 Seconds Or Less).

    This article is ridiculous. It assumes (and you know what they say about people who make assumptions, right?) that Graphic Designers are not educated in marketing, branding, psychology and design history (E.G.: what’s worked in the past). It’s an arrogant, unintelligent near-rant posing as advice.

    But the worst part of this article? The part that really irritates me? Is the part where throughout the entire piece the author equates Graphic Design with Web Design! As though they’re the same thing! In today’s technological climate many graphic designers have become web designers, and vice versa, but they’re still NOT the same thing.

    Educate yourself on that point, if nothing else, please.

    • Lindsay M: This article was created to educate anyone who is considering hiring a designer, so that they are aware of these really important sales-related concepts that “most” designers either overlook or ignore. Something tells me that you are probably guilty of the same behavior since you do not link to your website. And frankly I am NOT surprised based on your low self-esteem.

      I must say that I always get a little chuckle when I read a comment like yours. If you really were somehow offended by this article or any other article for that matter, you might want to consider taking medication for your bipolar disorder. Additionally, you should be aware that you are most likely making it a living hell for your significant other, by always finding random stuff like this to be offensive.

  16. There are too many designers out there preying on your ignorance, charging exorbitant rates for their own profit. They blind you with techspeak and fancy coding terms.

    Don’t put up with it.

    • You just have to find the right person who stays fair and honest with you. They’re out there ;)

  17. This is spot on and better than similarily titled articles. As a designer, I struggle with the “pretty doesn’t matter” because I -can- do pretty, but pretty isn’t always the best solution. So I go with something far more simple, but then people don’t think I’m a good designer because it doesn’t look pretty. Alas. But, we’ll get there. Meanwhile I’m doing a presentation on topics much like this and wanted to validate what I’m saying, so … thanks for the article :)

    Also, I noticed this: ” to your developer your identity” — probably ought to be “to develop your identity.” I realize this is an older article, but clearly some people out there (me, for example) are still reading it. Cheers,

    V

  18. Initially I was rather annoyed by this article, however, after reading through the rest of it and all the comments, I have found some useful information.

    As someone who knows and practices graphic design and web development (web design is sub-category of graphic design after all..) it offended me to read that Pretty doesn’t count. Pretty most certainly does count, and it most certainly does convert sales. Having a pretty, elegant website instils confidence in the users of said site, amongst many other things.

    The way you’ve worded this “secret” makes it sound as if it’s acceptable to have a website that doesn’t look good, moreover, that you can ‘get by’ with a site lacking in graphical impact. Don’t get me wrong, I know what you’re talking about, but what you’re talking about is simply poor design. If a website is designed in such a way that makes it difficult for people to use, then it’s simply a bad design. Web sites are not photographs or posters or pieces of art and anyone who designs websites that treats them like this is quite simply a poor designer.

    As for your examples of 4 ugly sites that perform well, I find this to be incredibly naive. Let’s take one of your example, Google. If you tell someone to go and Google something they instantly associate Google with a specific set of values. They know Google, they trust Google because of their branding identity, their reputation etc, this is why they have so many users. It’s got nothing to do with what their site looks like. Not to say what they’ve done with their site is ineffective at all.

  19. A very annoying problem with this article is that it revolves around web design. Web designers are NOT graphic designers. It’s like writing an article about “problems with doctors”, but being specifically about Radiology.

  20. Hey,

    Excellent post. you have explained a great point. These are really secrets which Graphics designers will not let you know.

    Thank you

  21. Loved all the points raised in this article. A handy reference for all out there looking to choose the right web designer to partner with.

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