Monday, March 12, 2007

Qualities of a Good Web Designer

Many “web designers” these days are actually graphic designers far more proficient in print media than web media. Sure, they will tell you that they are well versed in web design, and might even tell you that there is little difference between graphic design and web design. Sadly, most of them actually believe this. And therein lies the problem.
Web design is a wholly unique thing unto itself. The resolutions, color pallets, sizes, and layouts are entirely different between print and web. And the construction methods are completely different.
When dealing with print media, it is heavily graphic oriented. Often event the content of the print material is embedded in graphics, or special fonts. On the web of course, the exact opposite is true. A skilled web designer will know the idiosyncrasies of different operating systems and browsers versions. How the page code is built is the primary art when building a web page. It takes true skill, experience, and knowledge to build a page that looks attractive, is coded properly to load quickly and to be indexed well by search engines, and to display well on different browsers and OSs.
So what should you look for when trying to find a good web designer? To the uninformed this can be a rather tricky proposition. But with a little education and a few things to look for, you can minimize your risk.
In order to help you identify what to look for in a web designer, I have created the top 5 things to look for when searching for a web designer.
1. Ask to see examples of their past work (their portfolio). This is probably the most important. If the web designer in question cannot produce any past work, cannot produce any work that they did entirely on their own, or produce work that is questionably their own, then don’t be the guinea pig for this designer to cut their teeth on. When you look at their portfolio, do you like what you see? Do the designs look clean and professional? Is the layout effective? Is it easy to navigate and use the site? These are important qualities to look for.
2. Ask them how updates to the site will be made. For the most part you’ll be better off if you have the ability to update the website yourself through some sort of Content Management System (CMS), or other control panel type interface that you have access to. This will allow you to make changes to static content. If you will need to pay the designer every time you want to update some copy on the site, it will not only be more expensive for you, but you will most likely not be able to update your website in a timely manner.
3. A good web designer will be able to build the site using modern HTML and cascading style sheet techniques. Most people seeking out a good web designer will not have any real knowledge of these things. But if you ask them how they generate their HTML, and they tell you they are using some sort of software package to do it, then you’re probably not going to get very efficient HTML. This may or may not be a huge deal for your website, but it does separate the good designers from the rest of the crowd. Additionally, you will want to be sure that your designer is using cascading style sheets (CSS). If you ask them if they are using CSS and you get back a stare like a deer in the headlights, then you’re probably not dealing with someone who has a good grasp of how to properly build a web page. CSS allows a good designer to quickly make system-wide changes to a site by simply making a single change. This is critical to a professional, modern web design. Ideally you will find someone who is well versed in the most current web design standards and creates good HTML that will work in all modern browsers.
4. This criteria depends heavily upon what you are trying to accomplish with your website. These days you really don’t have a website if it doesn’t serve some sort of purpose, and actually DO something. The days of brochureware are long gone. So you need to determine what sort of features you want on your site. Do you need highly interactive features that might require Flash? Do you have highly specialized needs that will require custom programming? Will you be tracking or providing any information that will require a database? Will there be any users or security features? Will you require any e-commerce? This list could go on nearly forever. This is something you should have a good feel for going into your project. When you discuss your project with your web designer, is he or she able to give you the features you need? Can they recommend additional features, or offer interesting ways to solve your problems? If you’re looking to make your website functional and effective, you will want to work with someone who knows a thing or two about building designs for dynamic websites. If you need someone who can also provide the programming and development for your site, you will need to go through a whole new set of questions. But even if you’re simply looking for a design, if your site is dynamic and interactive, you will want to find a web designer that has knowledge and experience building good designs for these types of websites.
5. Lastly, you will want to make sure your website performs well. For the purposes of this discussion that will include page load time and search engine indexing. If you are visiting sites in your prospective web designer’s portfolio, and it seems to take longer than the average website does to load, that should raise some warning flags. This indicates that they probably aren’t using good HTML coding techniques, and even worse have given no consideration to the performance and user experience. It should be obvious to the designer that the page loads slowly. Perhaps they have overloaded it with graphics, or don’t understand how to properly prepare graphics for presentation on a web site. Additionally, tied to this, is how well the site is indexed. A good web designer will code the page in such a manner as to maximize the website’s content for search engine indexing. An experienced person could simply look at the web page source and determine this. But if you are not comfortable with that, you could try doing a few simple searches in some search engines. Are you able to find the website in a web search? Of course this varies based upon keyword competitiveness, how much marketing they have put into their site, the site’s age, etc. But that’s a whole new topic in itself.
These are just 5 guidelines that I would recommend to take into consideration when trying to find a good professional web designer. These are by no means the only criteria to consider, but as a web developer I find it appalling that some people claim to be a web designer just because they can create a good looking print document in Quark. I’m sure these people are very skilled at doing that. They just don’t understand the specifics of building a good web design. And I’ve had too many customers come to me with websites they overpaid for and were under delivered on.
So don’t be fooled by some graphic designer posing as a web designer. Even those that think they are a web designer because they have graphic design skills. Those are the most dangerous breed. And they will kill your website and your budget long before you even realize it.

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Jeremy Hoehn is president of Bitwise Logic, Inc. - a professional web site development company based in Eden Prairie, MN which creates highly interactive websites and custom web applications for small to large businesses.