08 November 2006
Keith Williams
Keith Williams

Have you heard the one about the client's nephew who designs websites?

He is an ever-growing phenomenon, spawned by the very nature of the Internet. Fresh, keen and armed with alacrity. His skills are honed and perfected through many hours spent in darkened rooms with Dreamweaver and a clip-art CD. HTML is second nature. Javascript no longer a challenge. He has already mastered Flash and has had the beta version of the forthcoming release for months. However, in his quest for technical supremacy he has overlooked the one essential ingredient necessary to design websites design, visual literacy, an ability to be able to communicate an intended message to an intended audience with both precision and style.

He is legion.

There is a "gold-rush" mentality towards website "development" at present. An incredible number of websites are not designed. Rather, they are "put together" using technology-led tricks and gimmicks, with the latest plug-ins often mistaken for content and substance. This is an ill-conceived and short term approach to making the Internet a viable and useful resource. Technical wizardry has never been a substitute for a full understanding of visual communication.

In the early 1990s, when desktop publishing first became popular and accessible, companies (even the large companies) began producing their literature in-house, using publishing packages under the guides of people who had previously spent their days typing the Chief Executive's letters or ordering stock for the stationery cupboard. This continued for about 5 years. Fortunately, such short-termism in this area has all but ceased to be a viable business practice. Companies have since realised that a corporate identity must be exactly that a unified approach to placing themselves within their marketplace. This must extend right through the ranks. Aside from corporate standing, it gives employees a sense of pride and direction. As soon as a well thought-out identity is undermined by the post-boy's attempt to design a poster announcing that there is to be an extraordinary general meeting of the shareholders, using the ubiquitous champagne glass, bubbles and ribbon in the top left hand corner employees begin to lose the sense of the company they work for, beyond their daily tasks.

This scenario was indicative of a general DIY (do-it-yourself) approach to design and communication that became invasive throughout many business sectors at that time. To an extent, this mentality left a legacy.

The general quality of business communication has declined considerably over the past few years. Copy is now written by the technical director and never sees the desk of a copywriter or sub-editor. Grammar is, at best, shoddy. Images are often taken by So-and-so in sales. He's good with a camera, we'll get him to do it. Processed at "speedyphotos-u-like" and arriving on your desk with fingerprints all over them and dog-eared corners. Worse still, scanned at 120ppi on the scanner in the marketing department with no hope of finding an original image any longer.

A major factor for companies taking this approach was economic recession and a general unease regarding market strengths. In the process of streamlining and cutting costs, the quality of business communication was sacrificed for savings. This ethos appears to have survived, thankfully at a much reduced level, shored up by ever-increasing accessibility of technology.

Although the Internet and its development are a different issue, the DIY approach seems to be burgeoning here as well. That is not to say that the Internet should only be the domain of the design professional. The spirit of unhindered traffic of information on any given subject is one that should be lauded and protected. To advocate undermining this by imposing a set of visual rules for every new site would be counter to the rudiments of the Internet.

The area of business communication, however, has an additional set of criteria above and beyond the usual governances of the Internet; criteria which are largely ignored by a battery of website developers. Small companies springing up everywhere are charging other businesses unwarranted sums of money for websites that are patently not going to do the job. These website development companies are technology and development-driven. They approach the whole area of website creation from the standpoint of blinding with science, rather than meeting a client's needs. A website is as much an exercise in communication as any printed literature and must be approached in the same systematic way. It is naive to assume that the issues of technology and communication can be treated separately; it is equally inappropriate to design a website which is an exercise in aesthetic genius, but is static and adds no value to the Web as a whole. There has to be a balance; a site must be both functional and able to communicate its message effectively.

With the Internet in such a state of flux, this is a difficult issue to resolve at present. Technology is allowing potentially great advances, but until issues such as connectivity and cross-browser compatibility are resolved, its full potential is going to remain elusive. Further, no matter how functional and transparent that technology becomes, you still need to make people comfortable enough to want to stay and ingest the information contained in a site, irrespective of the wizardry behind it.

Until relatively recently, the Internet has been something businesses only got on for fear that the cyber-revolution would pass them by. They are now becoming more aware of the potential gains to be had from a Web presence. Only when companies no longer listen to the hype and become more educated about what the Internet really is, and what it has to offer, will things truly level out. In addition to a better balance between design and technology, this will mean that those who offer no real substance will begin to lose foothold.

Fortunately, a barely perceptible shift has already taken place. Larger organizations and companies are beginning to see that the Internet is as competitive as any other business environment, if not more so. This forces them to consider the role of both design and technology in producing viable websites. Many are already spending the time, effort and money required to produce a resource which has approachable functionality combined with a coherent corporate strategy.

In the future, all the industries committed to providing Web development services will find that they can no longer rely on just one facet of either visual or technological input, if they are to remain competitive, in much the same way printers can no longer get away with producing everything in centered 12/14 Helvetica regular, no matter how beautifully it is printed. So the legions engaged in the darkened-room approach to website design should take heed. The time is fast approaching when they will be forced to open the curtains and see what is going on outside or remain forever in the dark.

About this article

The above article is reprinted from Visual Arts Trends, with permission. 2000, Visual Arts Trends.

About the Author
Keith Williams is an honors graduate (BA) of the Birmingham School of Art and Design at the University of Central England, with a major in graphic design and visual communications. After graduation, Keith spent several years at Radley Yeldar, a London, UK-based firm specializing in annual reports and corporate literature for the financial market. Since establishing his own design consultancy, he has completed varied brochure, catalog and general collateral assignments for companies as well-known as Microsoft, Mazda, London Electricity and MacLaren Cars. Much of his work has been in the music industry, including design of CDs and related worldwide promotional material for The Beatles, Paul McCartney, Ry Cooder and Ravi Shankar. Presently, in addition to being the European editor of Visual Arts Trends, Keith's activities are increasingly focused on Web design for a varied client base, including, Correx Plastics, Bernard Ellis Early Stringed Instruments and various Local council, Government and EC-funded projects.

About Visual Art Trends
With offices in New York and London, Visual Arts Trends is an international quarterly "state of the industry" report for the creative professional. Focusing on graphic design, advertising art direction, photography and illustration, each report offers a brief, business-oriented, definitive and timely overview of industry developments that affect aesthetics, pricing, salaries, working conditions and client relations. Visual Arts Trends combines unique proprietary research with material gathered by monitoring hundreds of publications, companies, membership organizations, online sources, and other relevant sources of information. The reports review and analyzes professional trends by business category and by specialization. In addition, each report profiles client industries interviews with senior executives of leading companies and organizations. An annual subscription retails for US$29.99 and includes four reports available for download as PDF files. Visual Arts Trends is a trademark of and is published by Colonial Communications Corp.