How Web Developers Achieve the Right Look for a Website

By Kathleen Taylor, Bud E. Smith

As experienced web developers know, the look of a website is produced by a number of elements: the colors used, singly and in combination; the layout of major elements of each web page like the header, left and right rails, and footer; the amount of white space; the fonts used and how they work (or don’t work) together; and all the other visual elements combined.

Many website demonstrations for senior executives are actually over in a fraction of a second, even if they actually go on for hours. That’s because the senior executive doesn’t like the look of the website at very first glance. They may or may not know this themselves, and they may or may not tell you directly that it’s a problem. But the project, in its current incarnation, is probably doomed if senior executives don’t like the look.

This is a huge problem because the look of the site actually ends up determining, and being determined by, a myriad of things about how the site looks and works. There are some combinations of text and graphics, for instance, that just won’t fit well on a page together if the central content column is narrow. Articles that seem too long when a large font size and a narrow central column is used may look just fine with a smaller font size or a wider central column.

The person in charge of the website project is usually responsible for the look. That’s why graphic designers are so often in charge of these projects, even if other skill areas might seem more important — and why designers who can code well enough to implement their own ideas, or competently lead others in implementing them, are so valuable.

Other team members also have a lot of input into the look of a site, both in the initial design process up front and in the many “small” implementation decisions that end up determining how the planned-for look really appears on the actual site. This tends to make the look better — but also results in widespread disappointment, even shock, if senior executives question or even reject it late in the game.

There are three major things you can do to prevent senior executives from killing your projects, or forcing a painful major revamp, late in the game:

  1. Get senior executives involved in choosing the look up front.

    Develop options for their approval and present them. Implement the choice enthusiastically and without major changes, unless you get approval up front for the changes as well.

  2. Keep showing the look to senior executives as the project progresses.

    Remind people who will sign off on the project what they’ve already approved. Get any negative feedback in early, while you can still act on it.

  3. Gather evidence that people exposed to the project like the look.

    Ask everyone who tries the website what he thinks of the look. Record the comments. Tweak things where needed. Present the feedback you get to executives as part of project updates, and again in approval meetings late in the game.

Every time you take one of these steps, you make it more likely that the website will have a look that executives like, and you also build trust in your own judgment, openness to criticism, and willingness to adjust. All these factors make it more likely that you’ll be able to get your project over the finish line without being ordered to start over — and that you’ll be able to recover quickly if you are.

To understand how the goals of a website can be implemented in its look, consider these websites. The U.S. Department of Defense (or “The Pentagon”) is all business.

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The U.S. State Department (as close as the U.S. has to a “Department of Peace”) has an open and inviting layout.

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Finally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which could be called the “Department of Food”) is friendly, but provides lots of information per square inch.

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Each website uses an image clearly relating to its mission. And each has aspects that somewhat fit the public image of the department involved — the Pentagon’s is dense and seemingly factual; the State Department’s is more welcoming; the Agriculture Department’s is somewhere in-between.

Consider writing down some ideas about how changes to the web design and content for each government department could better reflect its mission and role.