What is web design?
In general when people speak about web design they are talking about the entire process of designing and building a website and taking it live, not just the design aspect. Because ultimately what you want is a website, not a design for a website that you still have to find a developer to make for you. So when you engage web design companies or freelance web designers you are generally dealing with someone who is going to design and build a website for you and deliver a live working website, and hopefully be available to support you with maintenance and changes going forward.
Some background about web design
Strictly speaking though, web design is just the first part of a process where your requirements are determined and the website that you need is specified and designed to fulfil it’s purpose for your business. On larger projects this design process is more in-depth and includes planning of the information architecture, pages, functionality and the journeys that various types of visitors take through the site to reach certain goals (like making and enquiry, or buying a product). This is called User Experience Design (UX) and it usually includes some level of user testing and iterative refinements of the interface design. This kind of design is usually delivered in the form of a Wireframe with a functional specification. This is a semi-functional prototype – it looks a lot like a real website, and you can navigate your way around it but there is no functionality or back-end with actual data. It only serves to communicate clearly what the website should look like and how it should work.
This design (wireframe and/or functional specification) then needs to be costed and then the website can be developed (or built) according to those specifications. It is quite inconvenient to start a website project not knowing what the final finished working product is going to cost you as the client. So generally web design is quoted based on packaged standard solutions for smaller projects. For example “Basic company brochure website” or “Standard Ecommerce store with up to 100 products and a single payment gateway”. On larger projects there will usually be a fixed cost for the planning and design phase and an estimated project cost range estimated within a certain degree of accuracy. What the total project ends up costing depends on the detailed functionality determined during planning and design and how complicated this is to develop. So it is usually only possible to determine an accurate project cost once the design wireframe has been finalised.
How web design works at a small web design agency vs. large web design agency
The approach taken to web design and development depends on the type of service provider you choose to work with. If you are working with a small web design agency or freelance web designer then you will probably find that they come from one of two backgrounds. They either have a technical background (and they are more of a developer or software programmer) or they have a creative background (and they are more of a graphic designer sometimes with some front-end coding skills). The developer type of individual will want you to specify what content you want on your pages and how you want them to look; but he will be more technically proficient and able to make more complicated custom functionality. The designer type of individual will be comfortable to help you figure out what you want on your pages and how to present it; but he may hit technical limitations if your functionality becomes non-standard or very complex.
If you are working with a large web design agency, especially one with a few awards under it’s belt you can expect to pay a premium. A large agency will assign a team of people to contribute different skills as required on the project. The design and planning phase of your project will include a copywriter and a designer (maybe even a UX designer). Then their design, once you have approved it, will be handed over to the developers, which may include separate programmers for front-end and back-end depending on the complexity of your solution. You will also more than likely have an account manager and/or project manager to guide you through the process and communicate with the team.
It is also worth noting that creating your content (written text, artwork, photos) is a project on it’s own and not included in the web design part of the job. User experience design is a specialised service and also not the same thing as web design. If you need help with content creation it is advisable to work with a web design company that can offer these services or include a marketing consultant or writer in the process that can help you to plan and create the content you want on your pages to achieve the best possible result.
The state of the art of web design
Internet technology changes constantly and it changes fast. The state of the art website technology today is plug and play. There is a wide choice of platforms (called Content Management System or CMS) that can be used as a base framework for delivering basically any type of website you need. Unless you are a company like a bank, with very specific security requirements and legacy in-house systems to integrate with, or you are a tech company developing the next Twitter or Uber App, then you can probably make the website you need to take your business to the next level using off-the-shelf software components. This is going to cost you about one-tenth of what it would cost to custom develop this functionality from scratch.
All of these CMS platforms follow the same basic model: there is a core system that runs the website and includes the ability to extend functionality using add-ons or plugins. Some examples of platforms like this are WordPress (by far the leader with 60% market share as it runs over 30% of the websites on the internet including giants like TED.com and the NY Times), Joomla, Drupal, and many many more. Some of these platforms include ecommerce functionality as a default (like Magento) and some of them treat it as an add-on. Some are available only as a cloud-hosted software solutions that you pay a subscription for (like Wix and Shopify) and some are available as paid or open-source software that you can setup on your own hosting server (like WordPress). The distinction is more technical than practical, and which CMS is best for you depends as much (if not more) on who you are asking for advice than what you are trying to create. Because the truth is that every web development company has their own preference of platform and technology and this is what they like to work on.
What are the most important web design considerations to you, the website owner
While everyone will be able to add another few item to this list, because of your unique requirements, these are the big really important common things that should be in your list of requirements:
- Responsive: This means that your website design is fluid and it repacks itself to fit onto smaller screens for mobile devices and still be usable without things hanging off the side of the screen. At least half your traffic is coming from mobile devices these days so responsive design is the standard.
- Easy to edit: You at least want to be able to make basic edits yourself without coding knowledge. Even if you would rather have someone else edit and update your site for you, changes will be faster (and therefore cheaper) if a Content Management System has been used.
- Flexible for growth and change: Your business is growing and your requirements are changing. If you need to add a booking system or ecommerce store to your website in the future you will be better off if you have a platform in place that accommodates modular extensions without starting from scratch.
- SEO and content marketing ready: As soon as a new website is live you will want to make sure it gets visited. Improving your organic search ranking is a big part of establishing your online presence. In order to establish your position in the search results (or reduce your cost per click on paid search marketing) you are going to have to establish the relevance and authority of your website on particular search terms by regularly publishing unique written content.
- Not locked in: If you need to move to a new developer or agency for any reason you should be able to do this without problems or high costs. For this reason anything that is custom built and is undocumented is not a good plan, because any new developer taking it on will first need to make sense of what has been built. Your domain registration and hosting account can (and from your point of view as the client, should) be set up in your name using an email address that you have access to.
- Does not cost you more than it should: Custom developing something from scratch will cost 5 to 10 times more than setting it up off-the-shelf software for a CMS. So if this option is available and provides the functionality that you need there is little benefit to be gained by recoding the wheel from scratch.
Our approach to web design
We offer a packaged approach to web design and development that suits the budgets of most small and medium enterprises. Our approach is creative first. We will work through the content you have available and make suggestions about what needs to be created or improved. We will avoid custom development or keep it to a minimum. Our flexible framework and systematic approach allows us to take you through a streamlined design and live prototyping process to create the best possible presentation of your offering without adding unnecessary cost and overhead to the project. Your website or online store will be responsive for mobile devices, SEO-ready, expandable and CMS-enabled so it is as easy as possible to maintain and update going forward. After your new site goes live we can help with maintenance and establishing your online presence either on an adhoc or retainer basis as needed.