At one time or another, we've all stumbled across a website so ugly that we wondered how it was ever allowed to be published online. Yet, although taste is subjective, there is far more than just personal style and flair to consider when designing your website.
Tried and tested beats fancy and new
The most successful website in the history of the world is Google. Yet 95 per cent of the homepage design is an empty white screen with a simple box in the middle and two buttons. Good web design is about function, not style. And function relies on simplicity.
Many of the world's most successful websites conform to very similar designs and layouts because they work. People are familiar with their structure and know how to use them instinctively. Visit any major online retailer - Amazon, Zappos or Appliances Online to pick just three - and you'll see many elements and design choices replicated.
It might seem unoriginal to use a similar menu design as hundreds of other websites. But only in the same way that it's unoriginal to have four wheels on your car. Functionality is always more important than flashy design. Knowing which button to click to find the right product or service is far more important than impressing customers with cutting-edge coding tricks.
Before you start on designing your website, look again at the websites you visit most often. Not the sites you think are prettiest or cleverest, but those sites where you spend the most money or the sites you habitually return to because they make it easy to find the right information. Then consider their designs. How do they function? What is the menu like? Where are the various elements - the copy, the images, the sidebar - placed on the page? Learn from the experts, follow best practice and avoid showing off.
Words and pictures
A picture says a thousand words. Nowhere is that more true than online.
Our brains process images faster than words, providing cognitive shortcuts to understanding what the webpage is about. So, make sure your images support your key message. Don't be too abstract or esoteric. Can someone tell you sell wine by a glance at your home page? If you sell exclusive designer homewares, does the design of your website convey the same level of sophistication and style?
For the same reasons, avoid long blocks of copy. People don't read text online in the same way as we might read a magazine or brochure. We scan the screen for headings and keywords for a quick précis of the information and just as quickly skip on to the next page on our websurfing journey for information. A good webpage helps the reader achieve their goal quickly.
Colours: Less is more
Instead of exploding a paint factory on your website, use colour sparingly and strategically. Place it to draw the eye, highlighting the most important buttons or headings.
Similarly, minor elements can be made less prominent. It isn't uncommon for websites to grey out secondary buttons and features so as not to distract from the more vibrant, eye-catching 'Buy Now' buttons or key sales messages.
It's also no accident that white is still the most popular website background. Black text on white offers the best contrast and is therefore easier to read. Definitely avoid textured backgrounds or colours that make your words less clear.
Web design templates
Not all of us can afford to hire a designer to create a masterpiece of online beauty from scratch. Instead, you can use a proven and tested web design template. A template will drastically reduce the chance of a web design disaster while also speeding up production. Many web agencies offer a much cheaper web design service by customising and building your chosen template.
But, even with no budget you can still find free templates available. For example, if you decide to build your website using the free WordPress software, there are currently thousands of free templates you can choose from.
Just don't customise your template too much, or you may reintroduce the same design disasters you hoped to avoid.
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This article represents the views of the author only and not those of American Express.
Jonathan has worked within, and written about, the technology industry for many years. Before going freelance as a writer in 2012, Jonathan had worked for Netregistry (web hosting) and Ninefold (cloud computing). Jonathan has won awards for his articles on online business for Nett Magazine and his over-opinionated blog Atomik Soapbox. He continues to write for Chief Content Officer magazine.