Determing a Design Direction
Posted by Andy Tyra - Dec 02, 2009
Good design, at least part of the time, includes the criteria of being direct in relation to the problem at hand, not obscure, trendy or stylish. A new language, visual or verbal, must be couched in a language that is already understood.
- Ivan Chermayeff
It is not easy to know what you like. Most people fool themselves their entire lives about this. Self-acquaintance is a rare condition.
- Robert Henri
Determining the appropriate design direction can be one of the most challenging parts of any web design project. We at BrightBridge Studios are always trying to improve our process as well as our methods of gathering the necessary information from the client.
Part of the design process takes place during the creation of the proposal; when the goals of a site are identified and the features to achieve those goals are described in specific terms. For example, it could be decided that a sequence of large photos be displayed on the home page using a jQuery Carousel. The jQuery Carousel would be detailed in the proposal and agreed upon by the client as a way to provide a good first impression and the right amount of visual impact. The bulk of the visual design process, however, takes place after a proposal has been drafted and accepted. It's then that the focus changes from how the site should function to how the site should look. It's then that we decide which photos should be used in the carousel and how large they should be displayed.
Our current protocols are the result of years of evolution and experience. Along the way, we've become more flexible and better listeners.
The core of our approach has always been to focus primarily on each client's personal preferences, assuming that they know the general sensibilities of their target audience best. We want our clients to be 100% happy with their sites and that means giving them whatever design they want, regardless of whether we agree with each design decision or request for revision. Our role as designers isn't to impose our will on the client, but to bolster and build upon a client's ideas in order to create effective products that achieve their goals.At some point, we began wondering if this was the best approach. Some clients weren't clear on the sensibilities of their target audience. Others wanted their site to have "clean lines", but weren't necessarily able to define what that meant in specific terms. This made it a challenge for us to determine the criteria for success. How could we give them the design they wanted if they themselves weren't sure what that would entail? After all, part of the reason they hired us in the first place was because they needed an expert opinion to help them navigate through a universe of possibilities.
While we continue to focus on each client's personal design sensibilities, we've become very good at adapting to their individual needs. Some clients have a very clear vision of how a site should look. Others want to defer to us. In all instances, we attempt to go the extra mile and provide our honest opinions about what we feel will be the most successful approach. We outline the pros and cons of each option while remaining flexible and humble. We may advocate one design direction over another, but we don't get pushy. We recognize there can be numerous paths to successful result and our recommendations are not the only paths to design success.
We've also been inspired and influenced by articles on sitepoint.com and freelanceswitch.com. For example, we now invite clients to be involved in the design process at the earliest stage. Rather than presenting full-color concepts as the initial sneak peak at their site, we provide clients with sketches in order to spark further dialogue. These sketches, or "mood boards" take less time than fully realized concepts and allow clients to feel more invested in the design process. It's not unusual for clients to respond to a sketch with a sketch of their own. This sort of exchange is a great way to get a concrete idea of a client's vision.
Below is the design questionnaire that we currently use as a conversation-starter. It's continually evolving, so any suggestions for improvement are certainly appreciated.
1. Contact Person and Content Administrator:
We feel that the design phase goes much more smoothly when we have one designated contact person for the project; that is, one person that provides input and feedback. Will this be you or someone on your staff?
Additionally, your site will be designed in such a way as to give you total control over the content using a password-protected content management system. It's important to consider who will be managing the content on your site. Will this be you or someone on your staff?
Who is your primary audience?
Who is your secondary audience?
Does the majority of your audience represent a certain demographic?
Can you identify specific vertical industry segments that you would like to target individually?
What sort of aesthetic do you imagine would appeal to these groups?
Do their aesthetic sensibilities differ from your own?
Does your enterprise have a logo and/or business identity?
4. Color Palette:
Do you have established colors that represent your company?
The color palette of a site should also be aimed at appealing to your target audience.
5. Inspirational Sites:
Can you give us 3 or 4 examples of sites you like and a couple of sites you don't like?
What do you like about them and what do you dislike? We'll use these to respond with other sample sites that might be useful for additional inspiration.
6. Global Navigation:
Many of our sites utilize dropdown menus in which you would mouse over a tab such as 'About Us' and get a dropdown menu containing 'Our Philosophy', 'How We Do It', 'Our Location' etc.
The typical choice is between horizontal navigation (across the top of the screen) or vertical (in the right or left sidebar). A horizontal navigation scheme is a bit less obtrusive but the vertical navigation scheme can accommodate more tabs.
NOTE: A general rule is this: 8 section tabs or less with more pages within each tab = horizontal. More than 8 section tabs with fewer pages within each tab = vertical.
Do you have photos that could be used on the site? If so, can you send us a few of your favorites via email?
Do you have a method of acquiring additional photos if necessary?
Are you comfortable using stock photography?
Any other specific preferences we should know about? When you close your eyes and imagine your perfect site, what do you see?
For example, if you hate the color olive green, or you want your site to have a rustic feel like an old book, we want to know that.