Web design is the skill of creating presentations of content (usually hypertext or hypermedia) that is delivered to an end-user through the World Wide Web, by way of a Web browser or other Web-enabled software like Internet television clients, microblogging clients and RSS readers.
The process of designing Web pages, Web sites, Web applications or multimedia for the Web may utilize multiple disciplines, such as animation, authoring, communication design, corporate identity, graphic design, human-computer interaction, information architecture, interaction design, marketing, photography, search engine optimization and typography.
- Markup languages (such as HTML, XHTML and XML)
- Style sheet languages (such as CSS and XSL)
- Server-side scripting (such as PHP and ASP)
- Database technologies (such as MySQL and PostgreSQL)
- Multimedia technologies (such as Flash and Silverlight)
Web pages and Web sites can be static pages, or can be programmed to be dynamic pages that automatically adapt content or visual appearance depending on a variety of factors, such as input from the end-user, input from the Webmaster or changes in the computing environment (such as the site’s associated database having been modified).
With growing specialization within communication design and information technology fields, there is a strong tendency to draw a clear line between web design specifically for web pages and web development for the overall logistics of all web-based services.
Accessible Web design
To be accessible, web pages and sites must conform to certain accessibility principles. These accessibility principles are known as the WCAG when talking about content. These can be grouped into the following main areas.
- Use semantic markup that provides a meaningful structure to the document (i.e. web page)
- Semantic markup also refers to semantically organizing the web page structure and publishing web services description accordingly so that they can be recognized by other web services on different web pages. Standards for semantic web are set by IEEE
- Use a valid markup language that conforms to a published DTD or Schema
- Provide text equivalents for any non-text components (e.g. images, multimedia)
- Use hyperlinks that make sense when read out of context. (e.g. avoid “Click Here.”)
- Don’t use frames
- Use CSS rather than HTML tables for layout.
- Author the page so that when the source code is read line-by-line by user agents (such as a screen readers) it remains intelligible. (Using tables for design will often result in information that is not.
However, W3C permits an exception where tables for layout either make sense when linearized or an alternate version (perhaps linearized) is made available. Website accessibility is also changing as it is impacted by Content Management Systems that allow changes to be made to webpages without the need of obtaining programming language knowledge.
Tim Berners-Lee published what is considered to be the first website in August 1991. Berners-Lee was the first to combine Internet communication (which had been carrying email and the Usenet for decades) with hypertext (which had also been around for decades, but limited to browsing information stored on a single computer, such as interactive CD-ROM design). Websites are written in a markup language called HTML, and early versions of HTML were very basic, only giving a website’s basic structure (headings and paragraphs), and the ability to link using hypertext. This was new and different from existing forms of communication – users could easily navigate to other pages by following hyperlinks from page to page.
As the Web and web design progressed, the markup language changed to become more complex and flexible, giving the ability to add objects like images and tables to a page. Features like tables, which were originally intended to be used to display tabular information, were soon subverted for use as invisible layout devices. With the advent of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), table-based layout is commonly regarded as outdated. Database integration technologies such as server-side scripting and design standards like W3C further changed and enhanced the way the Web is made. As times change, websites are changing the code on the inside and visual design on the outside with ever-evolving programs and utilities.
With the progression of the Web, tens of thousands of web design companies have been established around the world to serve the growing demand for such work. As with much of the information technology industry, many web design companies have been established in technology parks in the developing world as well as many Western design companies setting up offices in countries such as India, Romania, and Russia to take advantage of the relatively lower labor rates found in such countries.
Purposing web design is a complex, but essential ongoing activity. Before creating and uploading a website, it is important to take the time to plan exactly what is needed in the website. Thoroughly considering the audience or target market, as well as defining the purpose and deciding what content will be developed are extremely important.
Web design is similar (in a very simplistic way) to traditional print publishing. Every website is an information display container, just as a book ; and every web page is like the page in a book. However, web design uses a framework based on digital code and display technology to construct and maintain an environment to distribute information in multiple formats. Taken to its fullest potential, web design is undoubtedly the most sophisticated and increasingly complex method to support communication in today’s world.
It is essential to define the purpose of the website as one of the first steps in the planning process with a web design agency. A purpose statement should show focus based on what the website will accomplish and what the users will get from it. A clearly defined purpose will help the rest of the planning process as the audience is identified and the content of the site is developed. Setting short and long term goals for the website will help make the purpose clear and plan for the future when expansion, modification, and improvement will take place. Goal setting practices and measurable objectives should be identified to track the progress of the site and determine success.
Defining the audience is a key step in the website planning process. The audience is the group of people who are expected to visit your website – the market being targeted. These people will be viewing the website for a specific reason and it is important to know exactly what they are looking for when they visit the site. A clearly defined purpose or goal of the site as well as an understanding of what visitors want to do or feel when they come to your site will help to identify the target audience. Upon considering who is most likely to need or use the content, a list of characteristics common to the users such as:
- Audience Characteristics
- Information Preferences
- Computer Specifications
- Web Experience
Taking into account the characteristics of the audience will allow an effective website to be created that will deliver the desired content to the target audience.
Content evaluation and organization requires that the purpose of the website be clearly defined. Collecting a list of the necessary content then organizing it according to the audience’s needs is a key step in website planning. In the process of gathering the content being offered, any items that do not support the defined purpose or accomplish target audience objectives should be removed. It is a good idea to test the content and purpose on a focus group and compare the offerings to the audience needs. The next step is to organize the basic information structure by categorizing the content and organizing it according to user needs. Each category should be named with a concise and descriptive title that will become a link on the website. Planning for the site’s content ensures that the wants or needs of the target audience and the purpose of the site will be fulfilled.
Compatibility and restrictions
Because of the market share of modern browsers (depending on your target market), the compatibility of your website with the viewers is restricted. For instance, a website that is designed for the majority of websurfers will be limited to the use of valid XHTML 1.0 Strict or older, Cascading Style Sheets Level 1, and 1024×768 display resolution. This is because Internet Explorer is not fully W3C standards compliant with the modularity of XHTML 1.1 and the majority of CSS beyond 1. A target market of more alternative browser (e.g. Firefox, Safari and Opera) users allow for more W3C compliance and thus a greater range of options for a web designer.
Another restriction on webpage design is the use of different Image file formats. The majority of users can support GIF, JPEG, and PNG (with restrictions). Again Internet Explorer is the major restriction here, not fully supporting PNG’s advanced transparency features, resulting in the GIF format still being the most widely used graphic file format for transparent images.
Many website incompatibilities go unnoticed by the designer and unreported by the users. The only way to be certain a website will work on a particular platform is to test it on that platform.
Documentation is used to visually plan the site while taking into account the purpose, audience and content, to design the site structure, content and interactions that are most suitable for the website. Documentation may be considered a prototype for the website – a model which allows the website layout to be reviewed, resulting in suggested changes, improvements and/or enhancements. This review process increases the likelihood of success of the website.
The first step may involve information architecture in which the content is categorized and the information structure is formulated. The information structure is used to develop a document or visual diagram called a site map. This creates a visual of how the web pages or content will be interconnected, and may help in deciding what content will be placed on what pages.
In addition to planning the structure, the layout and interface of individual pages may be planned using a storyboard. In the process of storyboarding, a record is made of the description, purpose and title of each page in the site, and they are linked together according to the most effective and logical diagram type. Depending on the number of pages required for the website, documentation methods may include using pieces of paper and drawing lines to connect them, or creating the storyboard using computer software.
Some or all of the individual pages may be designed in greater detail as a website wireframe, a mock up model or comprehensive layout of what the page will actually look like. This is often done in a graphic program, or layout design program. The wireframe has no working functionality, only planning, though it can be used for selling ideas to other web design companies.
Web design is similar (in a very simplisitc way) to traditional print publishing. Every website is an information display container, just as a book is a container; and every web page is like the page in a book. However, web design uses a framework based on digital code and display technology to construct and maintain an environment to distribute information in multiple formats. Taken to its fullest potential, web design is undoubtedly the most sophisticated and increasingly complex method to support communication in today’s world. “Design Issues for the World Wide Web”. public domain. World Wide Web Consortium. 2009-06-09. http://www.w3.org/DesignIssues/. Retrieved on 2009-06-10.
For the typical web sites, the basic aspects of design are:
- The content: the substance, and information on the site should be relevant to the site and should target the area of the public that the website is concerned with.
- The usability: the site should be user-friendly, with the interface and navigation simple and reliable.
- The appearance: the graphics and text should include a single style that flows throughout, to show consistency. The style should be professional, appealing and relevant.
- The visibility: the site must also be easy to find via most, if not all, major search engines and advertisement media.
A web site typically consists of text and images. The first page of a web site is known as the Home page or Index. Some web sites use what is commonly called a Splash Page. Splash pages might include a welcome message, language or region selection, or disclaimer. Each web page within a web site is an HTML file which has its own URL. After each web page is created, they are typically linked together using a navigation menu composed of hyperlinks. Faster browsing speeds have led to shorter attention spans and more demanding online visitors and this has resulted in less use of Splash Pages, particularly where commercial web sites are concerned.
Once a web site is completed, it must be published or uploaded in order to be viewable to the public over the internet. This may be done using an FTP client. Once published, the web master may use a variety of techniques to increase the traffic, or hits, that the web site receives. This may include submitting the web site to a search engine such as Google, Bing or Yahoo, exchanging links with other web sites, creating affiliations with similar web sites, etc.
Layout is a double edged sword: on the one hand, it is the expression of a framework that actively shapes the web designer. On the other hand, as the designer adapts that framework to projects, layout is the means of content delivery. Publishing a web engages communication throughout the production process as well as within the product created. Publication implies adaptation of culture and content standards. Web design incorporates multiple intersections between many layers of technical and social understanding, demanding creative direction, design element structure, and some form of social organization. Differing goals and methods resolve effectively in successful deployment of education, software and team management during the design process. However, many competing and evolving platforms and environments challenge acceptance, completion and continuity of every design product.
Early Web design was less integrated with companies’ advertising campaigns, customer transactions, extranets, intranets and social networking. Web sites were seen largely as static online brochures or database connection points, disconnected from the broader scopes of a business or project. Many Web sites are still disconnected from the broader project scope. As a result, many Web sites are needlessly difficult to use, indirect in their way of communicating, and suffer from a ‘disconnected’ or ineffective bureaucratic information architecture.
Form versus function
A web developer / web design agency may pay more attention to how a page looks while neglecting other copywriting and search engine optimization functions such as the readability of text, the ease of navigating the site, or how easily the visitors are going to find the site. As a result, the designers may end up in disputes where some want more decorative graphics at the expense of keyword-rich text, bullet lists, and text links. Assuming a false dichotomy that form and function are mutually exclusive overlooks the possibility of integrating multiple disciplines for a collaborative and synergistic solution. In many cases form follows function. Because some graphics serve communication purposes in addition to aesthetics, how well a site works may depend on the graphic design ideas as well as the professional writing considerations.
When using a lot of graphics, a web page can load slowly, often irritating the user. This has become less of a problem as the internet has evolved with high-speed broadband connections and the use of vector graphics. However there is still an ongoing engineering challenge to increase bandwidth and an artistic challenge to minimize the amount of graphics and their file sizes. This challenge is compounded since increased bandwidth encourages more graphics with larger file sizes.
When faced with a large database and many requirements, a design group may throw far too much information for a server to manage. Alternative technology or additional structure (even another server or site) may be required to fit the demand.
Layout refers to the dimensioning of content in a device display, and the delivery of media in a content related stream. Web design layouts result in visual content frameworks: these frameworks can be fixed, they can use units of measure that are relative, or they can provide fluid layout with proportional dimensions. The deployment flowchart (a useful tool on any design project) should address content layout. Many units of measure exist, but here are some popular dimension formats:
- Pixel measure results in fixed or static content
- Em measure results in proportional content that is relative to font-size
- Percent measure results in fluid content that shrinks and grows to “fit” display windows
- Proportional, liquid and hybrid layout are also referred to as dynamic design.
Hybrid layout incoroprates any combination of fixed, proportional or fluid elements within (or pointing to) a single page. The hybrid web design framework is made possible by digital internet conventions generally proscribed by the W3C. If any layout does not appear as it should, it is very likely that it does not conform to standard design principles, or that those standards conflict with standard layout elements. Current knowledge of standards is essential to effective hybrid design.
The earliest web pages used fixed layouts without exception. In many business pages fixed layouts are preferred today as they easily contain static tabled information. Fixed layout enforces device display convention, as viewers must set their display to at least a certain width to easily view content. This width can include display of coporate logos, cautions, advertisements and any other target content. Design frameworks for fixed layout may need to include coding for multiple display devices.
Hybrid design maintains most static content control, but is adapted to textual publishing, and for readers, to conventional (printed) display. Hybrid layouts are generally easy on the eye and are found on most sites that distribute traditional images and text to readers. For some sites, hybrid design makes an otherwise cold text column appear warm and balanced. A good example of hybrid layout is WordPress, where liquid design is now optional, and movie and auditory media is stretching the envelope.
Fluid design is useful where content is delivered to an ‘unknown device’ population. Appropriate liquid code displays images, text and spaces proportional to display size. Someone with a handheld can see view and interact with the same content as someone using a large desktop monitor. Fluid display is the future for most layout projects, but let’s consider obstacles to this current direction.