Design for the Web: Fundamentals

03 May 2012

In a series of short essay-style articles looking at designing for the web, I want to go back to fundamental concepts and evaluate, as a learning experience for myself, what it is to design for the web. This is the first.

What is fundamentally different?

The first question I’d like to ask is this: what is fundamentally different about the web? What about it is distinct from creating things that are held or felt or operated?

Definitions of design abound, and I’m willing cliché when I quote Steve Jobs, on Apple’s products:

Most people think [design] is how they look. But it’s not… it’s how they work.

So what is it that is different about how the web works in comparison to any other medium?

Anything that carries a message, that is, anything that does not serve a purely aesthetic purpose, is holding information, and it is the purpose of the design to convey that information. It is the job of the designer to choose the best, or most suitable (in a lot of cases), way to convey that information to another person.

Often the information that the designer seeks to convey is structured; think, perhaps, of a train departure board at a large station. What are the viewer of that board’s priorities? First, they look for where are they going – the destination is very important, as it holds the key to all the other information. Next is the time and the platform. Other information is secondary to these.

This information is structured; the time and platform relate to the destination of a particular train, and will be many trains going to many destinations. A design that makes it trivial to finding a desitination, and associated time and platform, will be successful.

On the web we will, potentially more often, be conveying just such structured information: a database of users; a directory map; an article with headings and paragraphs. Choosing the way this is information is displayed, or relvealed, is a challenge across all media. This is not unique, but it is one half of the puzzle.

The other half is almost unique to the web; we are designing pathways, from one piece of information to another. The internet allows an uprecedented level of connectivity with others, but it also provides astoudingly fast transitions from place to place, dataset to dataset, article to article. The links between these items, the hyperlinks, are the second piece of the puzzle.

There are two obvious places where the pathways are important: site navigation and page links. For a site with a breadth and depth of information, navigation is a constant challenge; one that is not always successfully overcome.

When we design for the web, we are designing to convey structured information and the pathways to and from other datums. These pathways are, to return to our quotation, how the web works.

In the next article, I want to look at the significance of pathways and figure out what makes great navigation and information-linking design.

Thanks for reading.