Without doubt, content is the heart of any good website – after all, people usually come to a website for the content, not the design. But that doesn’t mean that the design is irrelevant – indeed, the design has several important roles to play.

Creating a distinct identity

A great Web design should be a unique one. It should reflect the off-line brand as far as is possible, and be cohesive – which is to say it should all ‘hang together’ well as you browse from page to page, so that on every page visitors are still experiencing your brand. This is clearly different from a website merely being pretty for its own sake – many websites look good, but don’t even remotely tie into off-line marketing such as advertisements and brochures.

Making content easier to find

Design isn’t just there to look good and make people go ‘wow’. The structural design of the website should be focused on making content easy to find. Of primary concern is the navigation. It’s been recognised that there isn’t any such thing as an ‘instinctive’ user interface – only an interface which we can use faster because we’ve already learnt the underlying concepts. Most Web users expect website navigation to be in familiar places, for example. It might be avant-garde to use a floating menu palette that hides itself when not in use, but users will have to learn how to use it. This means that it takes more effort to use, making it hard to find content; some people may never even find what they are looking for. So while navigation design needs to be visually distinctive, it also needs a degree of familiarity. This is neither a contradiction nor a creative compromise: it’s merely the necessary framework for good Web navigation.

The layout of the page should also make content easier to find. Because Web visitors visually scan pages looking for content, rather than reading from top to bottom, the page needs to be broken down into distinct visual elements. (This is, of course, not true for visually impaired website visitors, but that’s another story.) This design approach is true of many types of communications, not just websites – for example, magazines use text columns, headings, images, captions, sidebars and so on. Web pages should use similar techniques to create visual variety, breaking down the content and making it more accessible.

Sometimes clients are insistent that all pages should be short in length, or contain little text. There’s no need to be so draconian – one of the great features of Web pages is that, unlike printed pages, they can be any length. This is to be embraced – pages should be as long as they need to be, not restricted by artificial limits. With good design, long text needn’t be daunting – though it usually works well to restrict longer, more detailed pages to the inner levels of a website, so that people can drill down from simpler pages to get more detail if they need to.

Engendering trust

One of the key issues for website visitors is whether they trust a site. This judgement is made in less than a second of first visiting a site – so while people may say that ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’, this is something that we all do. The role that design plays here is to engender trust – to convey the stature and personality of the organisation; to look like a solid business. Without design, this would be difficult, if not impossible. website visitors may not express how they trust a site, more that the site ‘looks good’ – but that is actually a key part of why they stay on a website, use it – and keep coming back.

Great design is a sound investment

The role of good website design can’t be overstated. For some companies, the website is a ‘tick in a box’ and every effort is used to save money by using commercial templates or not even having a design as such. For them, the website becomes a self-fulfilling negative prophecy: because they don’t have high expectations of their website, they don’t invest in its design; because they don’t invest in its design, the site delivers poor results.

A great design welcomes people, it helps them to find what they’re looking for and it gives them the confidence to buy from you. That’s got to be worth investing in.