The Business of Web Design

Accountability is coming to a web design project near you.

One of the integral parts of web design that isn’t as creative as the others is business: the money side of things. As a part-time freelancer and full-time web developer, I sometimes work on small parts of the overall project: wireframes, for example. Rarely does this include me in conversations about how the project will succeed moneywise. This is changing, however. I’m having more conversations every day about bottom-line results. Accountability may be coming soon to a project near you.

There is a tension between what designers can affect and what we have no control over. Because we can’t always change the ultimate success or failure of a project, we often dismiss the success or failure as completely outside the work we’ve done. I think this is a short-sighted, dangerous way to approach design. If we consider our role as designers outside of the success of the project, then we’ve discounted the value that we could potentially bring to the table. That puts us on bad footing for future projects, where we might be asked for concrete examples of how our design helped a project succeed. On the other hand, we shouldn’t take all the credit when the project turns out well. 😉

This is, I think, partly why designers have a tough time dealing with ugly design that works well. To them, it isn’t a great job designing because they would have done things much different. They say things like “MySpace succeeds despite its design“. (same thing happens with Google). However, this doesn’t address the success of the project: nobody can argue that MySpace isn’t an all-out success. Same with Amazon. Same with Google. These sites don’t even write valid HTML, for gosh sake. But they’re wildly successful…the most profitable and beloved sites on the Web. I added that “beloved” part because it is absolutely critical. You can’t talk about Google and Amazon (and probably MySpace) without people saying they love them. How can we then go on and say they’re not well-designed? I think being beloved might be the very definition of great design…at least that’s what I aspire to.

I think we’re beginning to have a conversation about what successful design really is. The social networking sites are leading the way: they’re showing that people have very different notions of what useful is compared to what designers think. (I’m definitely including myself here: I never would have predicted the rise of MySpace). What we’re learning is that we can hardly predict what will work and what won’t, and that sometimes traditional design issues like graphics and layout matter less than we thought in the success of a given site. The social aspect is huge, perhaps much more integral than we once thought.

The relationship between design and business is explained very nicely by Michael Beirut, who works at Pentagram, and who I’m learning a lot from lately. (Chanel No. 5 Lesson)

“I’ve come to believe strongly that one of the roles of design is to bring humanity, intelligence and beauty to the world of business, and indeed to everyday life. In my experience, good clients and good designers don’t see this goal as being opposed to–or even separate from–achieving business goals, but rather an integral part of it. It’s a dirty secret that much of what we admire in the design world is a byproduct not of “strategy” but of common sense, taste and luck. Some clients are too unnerved by ambiguity to accept this, and create garganuan superstructures of bullshit to provide a sense of security. Not only do designers enthusiastically collude in this process, but many have found ways to bill for it.

I measure success the same way anyone does: increased sales, better response rates, higher profit margins. At the same time, I’m painfully aware that design–especially graphic design–can only make a partial contribution to these outcomes, even at its most effective.”

My emphasis added.

Published: July 14th, 2006