What is Web Design?

This is the first in a pair of posts in which I focus on two broad skill categories that are needed for making websites: design and development. I'm choosing to focus on the skills rather than the titles designer and developer because regardless of the title chosen, an actual designer or developer will possess aspects of each. Also, in these two posts I am not touching on other important disciplines that should be involved with a website project, including overall strategy, development of site content, and implementation of a marketing plan.

The question "What is Design?" — Design with a capital D — is a question for philosophers and big-picture thinkers. My more practical worldview is that the design aspect of a project includes the whats of a website and the details of how the site should be presented to end-users.

What should the website look like?

Visual or graphic design is probably what most nondesigners first think of when they hear the word design. The overall look and feel of your website should be in line with your strategy, mission, and branding. A corporate website shouldn't use a design intended for an indie rock band, or vice versa.

Standard deliverables: Sketches, mood boards, color palettes, visual comps.

How should the website be structured?

The structure of content on a website usually falls under the purview of information architecture and user experience design. On a large project, these might be two distinct roles, but for smaller projects it's not uncommon for one person — perhaps even someone who is not formally trained in information architecture or experience design — to be responsible for website structure. The main questions answered here are "How is the site content chunked and organized overall?" and "What types of content appear on what types of pages?"

A second, but often overlooked focus for user experience design is the architecture of the administrative back-end of the site or CMS framework. The back-end should be as easy and intuitive for the site administrator to use as the public site is for visitors to use.

Standard deliverables: Sitemaps, wireframes, content models, and user workflows.

How should the website behave?

User interface design (often considered a subset of user experience design) brings an additional layer of detail to the design. It can include navigation style (drop-down, flyout, accordion), the use of visual metaphors (tabs, slideshows), and other interactions that support the presentation of content and the overall function of the site.

Standard deliverables: Annotated wireframes and interactive prototypes.


These are the elements of web design that should be covered in discussions about the building of your website. What questions would you have about the what and how of your website at the initial planning or early redesign stage?

For further reading: