Why You Need Design

Last week Paul Scrivens (aka. Scrivs of Drawar fame) posted We Do Not Need You To Design Anymore, in which he asks if web designers are still needed and what value we add over cheap and generic logos and themes.

I think Paul’s main reason for writing the post is to get web designers to think about the question so we can provide reasons why we are still needed and valuable and that’s where this post comes in.

First a quote from Paul’s article that I think sums up best what the article is about.

We know that award winning design doesn’t make or break a website because a website is so much more than that. As long as the content is there and the site does exactly what the user is looking for, the aesthetics of the site could be the 87th most important thing to focus on. So this is why I ask the question are web designers really needed anymore?

There are a number of ways the above quote misses the point when it comes to what design is and what the value of design is.

Typgraphic desgn of the word aesthetics

Design is More Than Aesthetics

The first thing wrong with Paul’s post is it seems to indicate that design is aesthetics and nothing more. Now I know Paul knows different and he’s said so many times.

Still there it is in his post as a reason why you don’t need design. Aesthetics are one aspect of design and one that quite honestly adds more value than most want to give it credit for. I’ll get back to this point later in the post. For now here’s a definition of design.

Design transitive verb – to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan

Design is a plan to solve a problem. If you make a decision to do something prior to doing that something, design was involved. Many, many decisions go into the design of a website that have nothing to do with aesthetics. Where to place the navigation, how will calls-to-action stand out, how to arrange elements on the page so they best communicate the message the page wants to convey.

For the last couple of weeks I’ve writing about information architecture.

Both posts are 100% about web design and yet neither post ever mentions aesthetics. In fact neither post discusses how any part of your website should look. Web design is far more than aesthetics.

Anyone who tries to equate design and aesthetics as one and the same simply has no understanding of what design is.

Paul is right in regards to people ignoring a lack of beauty in a site if the content is what they want, however to say that means no design is necessary doesn’t follow from that. Before someone can determine if the content on a site is worth reading, they need to find that content, that content needs to be legible and readable, the site as a whole needs to be usable, all of which fall under the domain of design.

He says right in the quote above that as long as the site does what the user wants it doesn’t need design. Who exactly is making sure the site does what the user wants? A designer, that’s who.

Key over the word success

Nothing is Necessary for Success

I realize the title of this post says you need design. The truth is very little in life or business is absolutely necessary. A lot of different things go into business success. No single one of them is necessary.

There are businesses that have been successful that didn’t put much into the design of their site. There are also businesses that have been successful without putting much into marketing. There are even businesses that have done well without putting much into their product. Anyone remember the pet rock? How about the chia pet?

  • a business that is successful without marketing would still be more successful with marketing
  • a business that is successful without a quality product would still be more successful with a quality product
  • a business that is successful without a good design would still be more successful with a good design

With all the aspects that go into success you can get some of them horribly wrong and still succeed because you’ve done some other things so well. If your content is so good, then yes people will work through a bad design to get to it. Will all people put in the effort? Probably not.

While you might be successful without great design, you’ll be more successful with it.

Craig’s List is often cited as an example of a site that’s done very well despite a lack of design. A few things to keep in mind about Craig’s List. When the site was first launched, web design in general wasn’t all that great. Think about what the web looked like 10 years ago. Craig’s List might stand out as a site that isn’t designed now, but when it launched it wouldn’t have stood out as much.

More importantly when it started there was no other site like it. It was a remarkable site, really the only one of it’s kind. It’s content was so good because there wasn’t anything else like it online. Craig’s List filled a vacuum.

Does your site have content that good in a market with no competition? How many sites have managed to mimic Craig’s List and its perceived lack of design and become as successful?

I’d also argue there’s more to the design of Craig’s List than first appears. What is the site? It’s a list of classified ads moved from the newspaper to the web. In the paper those ads were long lists under different category headings that spanned several pages.

When moving to the web it made sense to maintain that paradigm. It was well understood and being little more than a list of links to classified ads made Craig’s List instantly understandable.

As much as people have criticized Craig’s List for a lack of design over the years, I’d argue it has a much better design than people give it credit for. The site is easy and intuitive to use and understand. It isn’t pretty, but then again design is more than aesthetics.

Envelopes from the cororate identy design for Add Value

The Value of Design

Over the summer 37 Signals redesigned the Basecamp home page to see if they could improve it. Once the new design was complete they ran an A/B test against the existing design to see which generated more clicks to the signup page. The new design resulted in 14% more click throughs.

Last summer they redesigned the Basecamp account screen and saw a similar increase in account upgrades.

This past winter Conversion Rate Experts optimized a landing page and increased subscriptions to SEOmoz by 52%, resulting in an additional $1 million in revenue over a 4 month period.

The above are hardly isolated incidents. Here are 21 case studies in conversion rate optimization and a quote from the post.

From conversion perspective, design of a website is the most important aspect amongst all variables involved.

Design matters. 37 Signals was doing fine as was SEOmoz before redesigning. Both sites were successful. Both sites also saw significant improvements through design changes.

The reason you need design is because you want to make your site and business better.

Additional Resources

Each of the articles below offers some additional thoughts on the value of design.

Illustration of a gas station from Top Value Saver Book

How Do Clients View the Value of Design?

A couple months ago I asked is design a commodity? and within the post asked if clients and users valued design. Some do. Most probably don’t.

Unfortunately many outside (and some inside) the design community equate design with aesthetics and see them as one and the same. Many small businesses tell themselves they don’t need to spend a lot of money for a pretty site. Those who feel this way will hire the cheapest designer or buy the cheapest theme. They don’t see the value in design.

Fortunately there are plenty of businesses that do see the value. The October 2010 issue of Fast Company is their Masters of Design issue. The featured article Making Over McDonald’s focuses on McDesigner Denis Weil and the company’s $2.4 billion commitment to redesigning the franchise.

The company’s European and Asia-Pacific regions have already seen success with the new styles: Second-quarter sales in Europe, for example, were up 5.2% year over year, an uptick the company credits in large part to revamped stores. Over the past two years, Weil has tested modern renovations throughout the United States, in such varied locales as Manhattan, Los Angeles, and Kearney, Missouri. In July, the company reported a 6% to 7% sales jump at U.S. stores that had been redesigned. Weil adds that when McDonald’s puts enough refurbished stores in a market, customers alter their perception of the brand: The new look even makes them more likely to try new menu items.

McDonald’s is seeing success with redesigned restaurants. Granted McDonald’s is wee bit larger than the typical small business a freelance web designer calls client, but the point is some companies, both large and small, do see the value in design.

Those that don’t see the value won’t become your clients. Those that do see the value will maximize the revenue their business takes in.

Providing potential clients with A/B and multivariate testing and offering them case studies of how design changes resulted in an improved bottom line will help more of them see design’s value.

And Yes Aesthetics do Matter

Early in this post I tried to make the point that design is much more than aesthetics and that those who see them as the same are missing the point about what design is. Still aesthetics do matter.

In 2006 researchers at Carleton University in Ottawa conducted studies to discover how quickly people form opinions about web pages. Their conclusion is in the title of their research paper, Attention Designers: You have 50 milliseconds to make a good first impression! (PDF).

WebsiteOptimization.com summarized some of the findings of the paper in their post First Impressions Count in Website Design.

Think about it. 50 ms, 1/20th of a second. How much can you take in in such a short amount of time? It’s certainly not enough time to read any content. In 50 ms all you can take in is a quick visual of the aesthetics of a site. In 50 ms and with nothing more than aesthetics people are making value judgements about your website and consequently your business.

An aesthetically pleasing site can make or break your site by creating the frame in which everything else is perceived. Your aesthetics create a context for your content and they help define the experience of your audience.

Halo around a statue

The Halo Effect

The halo effect is a cognitive bias where the perception of one thing influences future perception of other things about the same object. Someone takes in the aesthetics of your site in 50 ms and forms opinions and makes value judgements. Those opinions and judgements then begin to influence everything they think about your site from that moment on.

From the Carleton University study:

…the strong impact of the visual appeal of the site seemed to draw attention away from usability problems. This suggests that aesthetics, or visual appeal, factors may be detected first and that these could influence how users judge subsequent experience…. Hence, even if a website is highly usable and provides very useful information presented in a logical arrangement, this may fail to impress a user whose first impression of the site was negative.

Aesthetics matter and they may matter a lot. They may matter to the point where they can make or break the success of your site. People find things to be more usable when those things are more aesthetically pleasing. From the A List Apart article, In Defense of Eye Candy:

Researchers in Japan setup two ATMs, “identical in function, the number of buttons, and how they worked.” The only difference was that one machine’s buttons and screens were arranged more attractively than the other. In both Japan and Israel (where this study was repeated) researchers observed that subjects encountered fewer difficulties with the more attractive machine. The attractive machine actually worked better.

The more aesthetically pleasing ATMs worked better than the less aesthetically pleasing ATMs. Aesthetics may not be all there is to design, but aesthetics do matter.



Design matters and you do need it. Yes you can succeed in spite of poor or even no design, but a good design can and will improve your success. No matter what the current state of your site a better design will improve that current state.

Need is perhaps too strong a word, since you can always overcome doing something poorly by doing other things very well. That doesn’t mean you should ignore design. Success isn’t about any one thing. It’s about doing as many things right as possible, design being one.

Consider how sites like 37 Signals and SEOmoz saw significant improvements in their bottom line through changes in design. A free theme won’t improve itself. Neither will a $99 logo.

Both might be perfectly fine and acceptable when starting out as they allow you to focus on other aspects of your business, but neither negates how design can improve your business.

Consider too how people will make instant judgements about your site that influence every other judgement they subsequently make based solely on an initial impression of the visual design. What do you want that initial impression to be?

Maybe you don’t need design, the same way you don’t need marketing or even a product. But ask yourself if you’re really better off without any of them. Are you really better off without design? I don’t think so.

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  1. Very well thought out article. I must offer some caveats to the article i wrote first before I respond here.

    1) It was actually written months ago, but I did a transfer move and it didn’t quite make it over so it got reinserted. This is why you don’t get to see the discussion, which was wonderful unfortunately. It’s my fault for not labeling it as so so it makes sense for you to say I wrote it last week.

    2) The article was meant to get designers to think exactly like you have done in this response. Designers just assume that people should pay them to do a website because they are there to design websites when that isn’t the case. Most business are capable of putting something of their own up and it working just fine for them.

    “While you might be successful without great design, you’ll be more successful with it.”

    You somewhat agree with me there when you say that. A site is always designed no matter how ugly it appears on the surface. What I’m saying is that if a business gets a crap designer to do their site for cheap it might be ugly and work horribly, but if people use it they will see it as a success and feel they got a good deal.

    If you are a professional designer that wishes to get paid you have to prove your worth over this mindset. The point of my article was to show designers that people think like this so they need to do a better job of explaining why they are trying to sell their services at a premium.

    I’m glad you wrote this in response as it only goes a bit further in helping designers overcome the obstacles they will encounter.

    • Thanks Paul. Am I right that the post had actually been live before? I could have sworn I’d read it a few months back and I was debating that “last week” description when I wrote this. I couldn’t find any earlier date though so went with last week.

      I do agree that we sometimes we assume everyone else should know the value of what we do. I decided to respond to the post this time around, because it is something I think about a lot. How do we as designers get others to understand the value we can add. There really isn’t any reason people should understand what that value is. Most are going to see design and aesthetics as the same thing and it’s something we need to set straight or we let our industry further slip into commodity status.

      By the way I like your new design and I always appreciate your posts. You have a way of getting me to really think about topics I sometimes take for granted. Since day 1 Drawar’s been near the top of my list of feeds.

  2. Yeah you are correct in that it was definitely live before. When working on the new Drawar I had to change the data structure and that meant moving posts to a new table and I made an error with a couple of the posts. Unfortunately this was one of them and you just happened to pick it out ;-).

    The most successful designers, from a business standpoint, understand the importance of selling what they do. They know how to explain clearly to their clients the benefit of the services they are trying to offer. Designers that struggle on the business end of things don’t understand this yet.

    Glad you like Drawar, wish I had your ability to be as thorough with my articles, but my brain must be smaller. I crap out too fast. Been reading you for about the past 6 months and you always bring the insight which is greatly appreciated. Continue to keep up the good work.

    • Funny. Here I wish I could sometimes write more like you do and get posts written faster. I guess the grass is always greener, huh?

      I thought I’d been feeling a bit of deja vu about some of the posts in my feedreader the last couple of weeks. Fortunately I enjoyed them so I don’t mind reading through them again. And at least one of your republished posts gave me a topic for today.

      Sorry I don’t participate in the forums as much as I’d like. There are so many interesting conversations there, but time is keeping me away for now.

      Totally agree about the importance of selling. I run a small business forum and the question of why spend money on a custom design comes up all the time. I don’t know that I’ve done my best answering when the question has come up. Part of the reason for this post was to help me answer those questions in the future.

      I know as designers we’d rather design and not have to sell as much, but it’s just as if not more important if we want to have successful businesses.

  3. Steven, Thank-you for a thought-provoking essay. The availability of easy-to-use solutions, like premium WordPress themes, inexpensive graphics that can be inserted into those frames, and the abundance of tips and hacks on the Internet seems to have promoted a DIY attitude toward design and usability. However, a lot more goes into making “content” usable and useful to the reader. The situation reminds me of learning quantitative methods over a decade ago. New statistical software made powerful analytical frameworks accessible to anyone who could import a data table and click a few buttons. Some of my professors spoke of the “old days” where the expense and limited availability of CPU time on mainframes meant that they had to make sure that their data met assumptions and that the programming syntax was watertight before running an analysis. In other words, they understood the data and analyses from every angle. Your post made me aware of the value that skilled web designers bring in making content meaningful to the reader. It seems one of the things you are referring to is the semiotics of design and experience.

    • Thanks Greg. I hope I didn’t give the impression I think themes and other DIY products are bad. I think they can be a good starting point. They don’t compare to custom design, but purchasing a theme and customizing it a bit can get you started online.

      Later when you can afford to put more into the design I think it’s a good idea, but early on it’s more important just to get online.

      Interesting about learning quantitative methods. It does sound like a similar situation. It’s funny too, because lots of times I actually try to do something in what I know is a less productive because it helps me better understand what I’m doing. The extra time in doing gives me a chance to observe a few things I may have missed and also to think more about the what and why of the task.

  4. 50 Milliseconds! Even less time than thought to make the first impression. How boring life would be without design. With so much clamoring for attention, simple elegant design is a breath of fresh air. Also, I never shop from a site that does not look professional. Good article!

  5. Great post and fun to see you attack it from so many angles. Stats, approach, theory, goals … and endless links to support it all. Thanks for the time you put into this, it’s a great read.

  6. Thank you for your research and time to write this article. I totally agree and support your view. The importance of design is often so underestimated.

    Recently I tried to google “how to build a website” and got an amazing tutorial “Build a website in 7 easy steps” (among hundreds of other equally simple tutorials) that explains it all…. No wonder people read it and think that if they can build a site using Microsoft Word, there is no need to pay for a design.

    • I agree about design being underestimated. I think in part it’s because many people only notice a design when it’s not working. When it is working everything just works and the design stays out of the way.

      True about all the tutorials. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad that they exist. I know I learned a lot from tutorials when I was getting started. It is easy to see why people think design is easy though after reading some.

  7. Amazing read. lots of great links!
    I can use so much of this article in my communication with clients.

    thanks and keep up the good writing Steven.

  8. Amazing!! I absolutely loved your post. Very much enjoyed it.

    Lots of good info and research done.

    I must say, this is and old post but amazing!

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