How Important Is Art Direction To The Success Of A Website?

Is art direction necessary on the web? How important is it to the success of a website? Most sites don’t give consideration to art direction. Should they?


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Last week I started a discussion about art direction. I defined, or rather reported the definition of art direction as the vision, the concept, the delivery of a message with emotional impact.

I then offered a definition of design as the execution of art direction. Again not my definition, but one I shared. I continued with reasons (this time mine) for why the current state of design online is perceived by many as boring and whether or not a lack of art direction is the primary culprit.

Today I want to offer more thoughts about art direction. Despite its benefits, is art direction something we need to do for the sites we create? How important is it to the success of the site?

I want to address both questions today. I’m not sure I have great answers or even any answers, but I want to share some thoughts to help both of us answer the questions for ourselves.

My Experience with Art Direction

I don’t read a lot of print magazines anymore, however even just a few years ago I was reading a lot of them. I always enjoyed the magazines and articles that had interesting aesthetic treatments.

I didn’t read the articles for the aesthetics, but the latter did increase my enjoyment, reading the former. The aesthetics added interest visually and often communicated additional information or reinforced what was written.

I may not have liked how an article was art directed. I may not have agreed with the concept or the specific design decisions made to execute the concept, but I still enjoyed the visual difference from one article to the next. They enhanced my experience and helped build a stronger connection with the magazine.

Sometimes a visual theme might be carried through an issue or carried across issues as part of the magazine’s masthead and brand. I enjoyed these too. I like seeing an interesting cover with a familiar masthead and I’ve purchased one magazine over another because of the way it looked when the content was equivalent.

It’s easy to see how art direction can be beneficial. It helps make an emotional connection between reader, the content, and the content creator. Art direction delivers an emotional impact.

On the other hand…

When I write it’s almost always in a one or another markdown editors. They all have interfaces that strive towards the minimal. I’m typing now in Ulysses, which is the app I’ve used to write every post and podcast here for the last couple of years.

You can open the app full screen and see nothing, but an empty sheet to type on. That’s about as minimalist as it gets and it’s hard to see where art direction might have entered into the design.

I don’t write full screen. When I write, the app is a blank sheet with a relatively thin menu bar across the top. The menu bar offers a few controls with a flat design aesthetic and very little color.

Within the app, I get to choose a theme for how markdown displays when I type it. The theme doesn’t control the menu bar, just the words I type. Some color here, a little bold or italic over there. The app as I use it, is rather minimal where aesthetics are concerned.

I’m sure Ulysses’ designers wanted it to look good. I doubt there was any thought to art direction. I doubt the person who created the theme I use thought about it either. I know I didn’t when I installed the theme and tweaked it.

I’m not sure if the minimal design evokes an emotional response in me. I know I like how it looks and there’s no question the look makes me want to use the app more. The minimal aesthetics enhances my enjoyment of the app. I’m not crying or laughing, but I suppose my liking the app is in part because it evokes some emotional response in me.

Is the app art directed in any way? It was likely designed according to a unified vision, but again I doubt the phrase art direction was ever part of the design process, at least not what we typically think of as art direction.

We tend to think art direction means more imagery, more illustration, more visuals. We don’t usually look at a minimal aesthetic and think art direction. Some people probably think boring and sterile.

In the case of Ulysses (and other markdown editors), any extra imagery and illustration would get in the way. They would be detrimental to my experience to the point where’s I’d find another editor to work in.

Of course most of my markdown writing apps (I have and I do use several) look pretty similar, especially when they’re reduced to the writing pane only. There’s little in their aesthetics to differentiate one from another. I could probably place a few next to each other and you wouldn’t be able to tell which app is which.

I can see how someone would look at them all and say the designs are boring and they all look the same. And yet I prefer them this way. They would be far less useful if they included more imagery and illustration.

Can a Minimalist App Be Art Directed?

Can apps that are sparse on aesthetic details be art directed? Because they’re so minimal there’s not much to work with. Still a splash of color here or there, a few icons in the apps chrome, some good decisions about type and one app can differentiate itself from others.

Assuming these decisions in type and color and icons came from a single vision and concept, perhaps to express the app as playful or sophisticated, was it art directed?

I think so, though I suspect most wouldn’t because there’s no imagery, no graphic eye candy. I also think many would criticize the apps as boring thinking that choosing colors and type is not enough to remove the boring label.

So even after spending time last week talking about the definition of art direction and its connection to design, I think there will still be some interpretation of the definition or at least some will perceive the definition as open to interpretation.

With an app like Ulysses (or any other markdown editor), some people will have their personal preferences for how it should look and will choose or design a theme for the writing pane. Some might choose the dark or light mode and leave it at that. It’s similar with code editors.

That’s not art direction, but it does allow people to choose their own look. The effect is similar to what art direction should do. My chosen theme enhances my experience because I get to see text presented according to my taste. It builds a stronger connection between me and the app and quite honestly the company behind the app.

Content or App

For years the distinction between something being a website and something being a web app had been getting smaller. Most sites or apps do a little of the other at the very least. It isn’t so much a binary thing as it is where something sits on the scale between site and app.

Most every website is part app. Does it have a contact form? It now has app functionality. In the case of something that’s more app than site, the focus is usually on helping visitors complete tasks. Is an emotional impact necessary for that? Probably not, though I’d argue that anything that can increase the positive experience is worth doing.

Still you’d likely be more focused on helping people complete their tasks. For many things that means staying out of the way. Minimal works well to help people be more productive.

Then again people who feel a positive experience or an emotional attachment using an app tend to use it more, get better using it, and are ultimately more productive with the app.

Observing myself I find I like consuming content that has been art directed. I enjoy the different aesthetics in magazine articles and would enjoy seeing more of it on the web. And yet much of my reading of websites occurs in a feed reader where the design of the site is stripped away. Maybe you use Instapaper or another read it later service that also strips away everything except the content.

We’re not necessarily going to notice art direction when it’s present because we may choose to consume a website’s content on the website. I also can’t remember the last time I complained that a novel I was reading wasn’t art directed enough?

When it comes to using apps I prefer less aesthetics. Get the fundamentals right or give me control of basic things like color and type. I do care what an app looks like, but I usually prefer the minimal aesthetic, which typically makes things easier for me to work in the app.

In fairness I happen to like minimalism, so it’s possible I’m responding to the aesthetic. I don’t think so, though. I think there is something to visual eye candy getting in the way. Why do people want distraction free writing apps and why do they prefer reading with the visuals stripped away in the first place?

How Important is Art Direction to the Web?

I’m not sure I answered the question of how important is art direction to the web yet. Again I like art direction. I would like to spend more time with the content here and add visuals to enhance the verbal communication of the writing or recording. It’s hard work. It’s more work.

I think of a typical ecommerce site. Which would serve it better; helping potential customers find the products they want quickly or making sure they feel an emotional impact browsing the site?

The former is more beneficial in the short term. Ideally helping people find what they want will lead to more sales. The latter might be more beneficial in the long term as it strengthens the connections that lead to loyal customers. The benefit is harder, though not entirely impossible, to measure.

If I had to invest in only one though, it would be making sure customers find what they want. My priority would be to make the site as usable as possible.

Think about Amazon. In all the years it’s existed, never once have I thought how wonderful the site looks. I don’t even know what it looks like at the moment (I took a look after writing that, so now I know). I just type into the search box and find what I want.

I think the site has more often been an eyesore over the years than a work of art. I feel absolutely no emotional connection to the look of the site. It’s never stopped me from using Amazon.

Think about Craig’s List. I think it’s pretty clear there’s no art direction there. Craig’s List is probably one of the most visually boring sites ever created. Designers everywhere want to redesign it. I can’t say it’s hurt the site or business at all. Would more aesthetic consideration for Craig’s List make a difference? I doubt it and have argued against it in the past.

The point of art direction is to decide on the right message with the right emotional impact. Done well it will create more loyal customers and lead to strong connections with an audience.

I suppose it could turn some people away. There’s nothing wrong with that as the emotional impact you attempt to convey won’t resonate with everyone and can potentially cause some people to leave. Still I think we’re generally better with that trade off.

Do you need to art direct everything? No. There’s not much you truly need to do beyond breathing, eating, drinking, and finding shelter; and everything encompasses a lot of different things.

However, I think it makes sense to develop a concept for every site. I think it’s important to think about the message you want to communicate and whether or not it will resonate with potential clients and customers. You want to do what you can to enhance the experience for people visiting or using your site.

I think that vision should serve as a guide for the design decisions. I’m not sure you can even make a design decision that isn’t entirely subjective and arbitrary if there’s nothing to guide your choice; if there’s no concept leading the design.

I don’t think that means websites have to start using more imagery and graphics. Choosing colors, type, and layout in harmony, with an art directed vision is enough. I imagine it would still lead the same people to bash the perceived lack of creativity, though.

While an adherence to unifying the fundamentals probably does fit under the definition of art directions, I don’t think it would satisfy those questioning if current practice results in boring design.

Maybe they would be satisfied by better type and color selection, but I don’t think so. I think the dominant perception would still be that sites look the same without the imagery and illustration.

I suspect that to satisfy those questioning the results more art is needed. They want more visual communication, whether it’s an illustration or a combination of images. They want more than color and type setting the tone and mood.

Closing Thoughts

The goal of art direction is to enhance the experience, further the communication, and deliver an emotional response. These are all good things to do.

Before you think about what typeface to use, what layout should hold the content, and what color scheme will work, you should have a concept. You should think about the emotions, the feelings, you want visitors to connect with the site.

You should think about the strategy or the site and business. You should think about the big picture. What are you communicating and what visual and verbal concept will tell the right story to achieve the site goal’s?

Once you have the concept in place, you can execute it with your design falling back on the art direction (concept) when in doubt. Your execution can be minimal, though it might be boring to some. It can also be highly illustrated, and filled with imagery and graphics. I think something like flat design can be art directed. Someone else might think illustration and imagery are necessary.

Most of the apps I prefer to work with are sparse on aesthetics. Someone possibly developed a concept and thought about the emotional impact of color choices, but in general they lack what most of us consider art direction.

It generally makes for a better app for me without all the extra aesthetics. The sparseness also increases my enjoyment. The lack of anything you probably think of as art direction is what’s enhancing the experience for me.

In fairness, a minimalist aesthetic does suit my taste so maybe this is a perfect example of how art direction is important, but I suspect it’s because the minimalism helps keep the app out of the way while I use it.

I would like to see more art on the web. I want to see more creative websites that push the envelope. I think the result would be the creativity filtering down to more and more sites. Most sites wouldn’t be art directing under that scenario. They would still be copying, but copying from better templates.

At the same time I know most sites don’t need to be beautiful works of art. Quite honestly I don’t care what Amazon looks like at all. I only care that I can find what I’m looking for quickly and that Amazon continues to present the information helpful to me in making a purchase decision.

I think all of this boils down to a couple of things. What do you consider art direction? Is it enough to make design decisions according a vision or concept even if those decisions never get beyond the basics of type, layout, and color?

If it is enough, then yes every site should be art directed. If it isn’t and art direction requires the imagery and illustration, then no, I don’t think every site should be art directed. Some would probably suffer if they were.

Second what is it being designed? Will it be consumed more or used more? With the former I like to see additional aesthetics. With the latter I don’t. Just make it easy for me to do what I do and get out of the way.

I’m still not sure I answered the questions I posed, but I hope my thoughts help you answer them for yourself. Ultimately I think every project is unique and some would benefit from art direction, while others probably wouldn’t.

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