The Value of Graphic Design

Gerry McGovern writes of how graphic design plays a minor role on the web. Whether we choose to believe it or not, design is extremely important when it comes to web design. It communicates and it facilitates.

“Nobody would ever be allowed design road sign navigation that moved. However, when you design moving web navigation you win design awards. Why are so many graphic design experts still clueless about the Web after all these years?”

Moving navigation can be quite effective in making the site easier to use. For example, having the navigation grow in size as you get closer makes it easier to hit. Fitts’ Law comes in to play here as larger items shorten the time required for a user to acquire the target.

And comparing web navigation to road sign navigation isn’t really fair. They serve two different purposes. Road signs, for example, aren’t interactive. You don’t click on a road sign to determine where you want to go. Now, a door is interactive. You push it to say that you want to go inside. Imagine if the door moved for you as you got close to it.

A site can be overly graphic and still be unusable just as a site can be plain and unusable. That is why it is important to understand the objective of the site. What is the content? What is the audience? What is the message?

The Purpose of Design

Design is meant to be used as a facilitator. You use design to assist the user in the task they are attempting to accomplish. If they need to find information, you’ll likely utilize tools such as navigation or search functionality to accomplish this. Things like layout and typography allow you to highlight information that is more important or to minimize things that may be less important.

Often times, “designers” forget that they are supposed to be making things easier. A common example of this is removing underlines on hyperlinks. They’ll argue that it doesn’t look as nice but they don’t replace one visual cue with another, leaving links next to impossible to find on a page.

The Value

It may not seem obvious but design adds credibility. Some people sometimes don’t get as it is so subliminal. As a result, they underestimate the value of design. Think of the products you buy or the stores that you shop at. Have you ever hesitated on a purchase because of the way it looked?

It’s not just the technical skills required to build a web page but the knowledge of what works and doesn’t work for users. Admittedly, this was likely the true point of McGovern’s article but it’s important to highlight that what works for one situation (E.g.: content-driven sites) doesn’t always apply to other situations (E.g.: brand campaign).

The best design exists when you don’t even realize it’s there. That might explain why Google or Skype are rarely cited as examples of exemplary design.


Published January 03, 2006 · Updated January 03, 2006
Categorized as Design
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14 Comments · RSS feed
Jeff Croft said on January 03, 2006

All very well said, Jonathan!

Ara Pehlivanian said on January 03, 2006

I agree, very well said.

Good design never gets in the way of content and vice versa. When function and form work together the result is as beautiful as it is functional and neither one gets in the way of the other. You see it all the time in nature.

Cody Lindley said on January 04, 2006

I think you may have missed the point, and maybe you know that already. However, in my humble opinion the author calls out graphic design specifically (obvious from the title). In other words, he specifically is speaking in consideration of traditional graphic designers and those who design for the web like it was a traditional media vehicle. In your comments I believe you are using the term ?design? in a nebulas fashion to speak about something the author was calling out specifically.

Truth be told, it?s a rare bread who actually made the leap from traditional graphic designer to intelligent and savvy web designer (Interaction design, IA design, UI design, Navigation design, Information design). Typically in the past a graphic designer was never considered competent in creating a software UI. It?s just a shame today, that because someone knows Photoshop, Illustrator, or Quark they are fooled into believing they understand how to create UI?s for the web.

Personally, I think his point was that people who are trained in traditional graphic design are not actually trained to create visual elements for the web that facilitate understanding by way of UI?s and navigations. After 7 years in this industry I whole hearty agree with this. Most of the visual web designers of today are multidiscipline, but not usually specifically disciplined in traditional design. In fact it?s amazing how many programmers turned designers are being touted as great graphic designers. I?m guessing a lot of these well know names never created a 45 page catalog in Quark.

said on January 04, 2006

Gerry doesn't seem to really know what design is all about, judging by its article.

His article's assumptions:

Design=Moving things and
Moving things = Bad so,

Peter Flaschner said on January 04, 2006

Allow me to play devil's advocate for a moment Jon.

The role of design on the web varies with the intented purpose of the site. While Google and Skype's designs are exemplary for their purposes, they would not stand out if their purpose was to elicit an emotional response.

Design (whether on the screen or the page) can play a number of roles. One of those roles is as faciliator, as you mention. Another, equally important role, is to act as an emotional catalyst to help bond reader and writer.

Or to think of it another way, one of the roles of design is to add the non-verbal cues (facial expression, intonation, volume, physical presence, etc) that are lost in the translation from personal communication to straight text.

Jonathan Snook said on January 04, 2006

Thanks Peter. You were hardly a devil's advocate. If anything, I think you expanded nicely on my points. Emotion is yet another purpose of design.

Cody: I agree that those coming from traditional media are often ineffective at designing for the web but to argue (as I believe that Gerry has) that overly graphic sites with video or movement have no place on the web is incorrect. Unfortunately, the emotional response (as Peter has so nicely elucidated) of these sites that win the CommunicationArts awards have more impact despite their sometimes lacking usability.

Chris Murphy said on January 04, 2006

Ok, I?ve gotta get this off my chest: it irks me something fierce when I read people imply that modern web designers being superior to traditional print designers. This is a fallacy that?s been promoted like ignorant propaganda by equally ignorant or at the very least ? narrow-minded individuals. There are more than just a rare-breed of Print designers who are excellent and gifted Web designers in this constantly evolving industry. I see this FACT everyday when I come go to work. The majority of our best Web Designers have all stemmed from previous Print Design backgrounds.

The term ?Graphic Designer? is the actual nebulous term here; in fact it?s more of a misnomer than anything else. University and Colleges and other trade schools advertise their courses and course packages under the umbrella term ?Graphic Design? or ?Commercial Design? and promote its graduates as ?Graphic Designers?. My point here is that the term actually encompasses both Print (traditional media) and Web (modern interactive media) under the same label ? semantics aside, there is a distinction, and it should be made note of: ?Print Designers?, those specializing in traditional media; and ?Web Designers?, those specialized in interactive media. Thus, ?Graphic Designers?, encompass both. The only grey area here is really amongst web designers who, more often than not, sit the fence between development and design. I won?t even get into the idiocy of all the various labels people are ascribing themselves these days.

Now, back to the point of this posting: Print designers ? acknowledged publicly or not ? make up some of the best designers in the Web industry. This is true for the following reasons:
1. Current educational standards amongst universities see less time focused on essential print fundamentals (color theory, typography, layout, design illustration, etc.). Few graduates from these programs are ill-equipped to excel in the industry and fall into one of 2 categories: production designers for agencies, production designers for web. Print designers are better equipped for designing for usability as they HAVE the essential fundamentals to understand that traditional skills (as mentioned previously) play an important role in designing well for the web. They also understand their tools a hell of a lot better than non-Print designers.
2. Print Designers by trade ARE multi-disciplined, meaning they are better inclined to pick up new methods of executing their work and vision than someone used to developing varied skill sets. It?s important to note that Developers who make the transition or sit the fence between design and development fall into the same category as said Print Designers ? they are by training multi-disciplined.
3. Traditional Print designers and their work have GREATLY influenced the direction and the creative executions that are seen on current sites ? if it were up to some developers, a single column layout with a left navigation would be more than sufficient to deliver the contents of a eZine; whereas a 2-3 column layouts are becoming one the latest trends as the technology improves. How much longer until we see Printed annual reports being delivered in an electronic format using all the same layout techniques and typographic treatments used in print?

That last statement might be a tad inflammatory, but the reality is not far off at all.

It boils down to one fact: Web Design ? whether you want to ascribe labels to yourself such as ?UI designer?, ?IA Designer?, ?Navigation Designer? ? has heavy roots in Traditional Media. Design is an evolutionary process and the reality is that the Web Design is catching up to Print Design not the other way around. We?ve spent centuries perfecting mass distribution of information through design; perfecting the media and methods by which it is distributed ? not to mention the means to generate appropriate responses (emotional etc) to said media. The Web on the other hand, is a relatively young technology that has spent the last quarter century trying to catch up. I hope that puts things into a little perspective.

Chris Murphy said on January 04, 2006

Small Note: I mis-typed in one of my points:

1. Current educational standards... Few graduates from these programs are ill-equipped to excel in the industry and fall into one of 2 categories...

should read:
1. Current educational standards... Few graduates from these programs are WELLl-equipped to excel in the industry and fall into one of 2 categories...

Ben Darlow said on January 06, 2006

Interesting points both here and the source article (plus of course Roger Johansson, whose posting alerted me to these articles).

The problem, I would say, is that despite around 10 years of maturing, the web is still in its infancy and unlike other mediums is still rapidly changing and evolving. As it does this, the people who create content for it are also continually refocusing their skills and so the term 'web designer' remains a nebulous (sorry; that word keeps cropping up) and variously interpreted description for a profession that - depending on the employer and their objectives - can entail such things as programmer, information architect, psychologist, graphic designer, sub-editor and many more.

It's pointless trying to debate which job is more 'skilled'; print or web design, as both are skilled industries with very different skillsets, although there are naturally areas of crossover. But all of this is digressing wildly from the subject of the importance of design in web development.

Design, graphical flair, aesthetics or whatever other term you want to use for it is an essential part in creating a satisfactory user experience. You only have to sit a computer-inexperienced individual in front of a Mac and PC and you'll be able to gauge the response to the eye candy OS X offers. Where many designers (and clients, by their expectations) fall down, is in allowing design to dictate the function of sites. There is a degree of feedback between form and function, so it would be wrong to state that the former should always follow the latter, but it seems to me that the best way of involving designers in web projects is to ensure that they come from the web side of the fence, rather than the print/advertising agency side.

Cody Lindley said on January 09, 2006

@Chris Murphy ? If you were responded to my comment here (I?m not going to assume, but it seems obvious), I would point out that I never even came close to insinuating that modern web designers are superior to traditional pint designers. You interpreted something I just didn?t say.

My main point and I believe Ben Darlow highlighted this best, is that there is a clear line between the two professions. Those in the trenches of building complex website have acknowledged this division for sometime now. The semantically reasoned comment you posted here is based on assumptions, more than what I actually wrote. Also, I never made a single statement that was absolute. However, you responded with absolute statements.

Also, I think you?re kidding yourself if you really believe that the term ?design? is less nebulas than graphic design. At a certain level I am sure that graphic design becomes nebulas (what doesn?t) but sorry, graphic design describes a particular field of design. It?s two words that describe something more specific than non-specific.

As for your statement that web design is catching up to print design I believe that is like saying basketball is catching up to baseball. They are both sports with similarities but also very different. I commented based on the differences, not the similarities. Besides, if the web was playing catch up it wouldn?t be as you stated, ?a relatively young technology?. Traditional graphic design is not a technology!

Last, I don?t really appreciate the notion that I might be narrow-minded or ignorant at the very least. I?m just another Joe, with an opinion. Just like you.

Chris Murphy said on January 09, 2006

I guess I should have pointed out that my comments were aimed at Gerry McGovern ;)

Cody Lindley said on January 09, 2006

@Chris Murphy - My mistake then. It must just be a coincident that your comments seemingly address certain aspects of my comments and not that of the words Mr. McGovern wrote. In fact upon reading your comment again, in my opinion your thoughts are a little bit from left field in regards to a direct response to the topic Gerry wrote about. But hey, that?s just my opinion. I take it a face value that your comment was indeed directed at Mr. McGovern no matter the obviousness of its context here and in regards to the statements I made.

St?phane Tourangeau said on January 24, 2006

Impressive as always Jon. Keep up the great work!!!

Ada Gustafik said on February 05, 2007

Hey there!
Here is another article on similar topic.

I'm currently employed by ibm and looking for some articles (as yours) to support my comming presentation about the importance of web graphic design and it's consistency over the milions of pages we have...

Thanks for help!

Sorry, comments are closed for this post. If you have any further questions or comments, feel free to send them to me directly.