12 Steps to Creating a Professional Web Design
Before we share some of the necessary steps used to create a professional web design and website, the following question must be addressed: What constitutes a "professional web design"? More often than not, a web designer or web design company claims to offer professional web design services for their clients. However, should they be promoting "web design services" rather than "professional web design services"? When measuring the professionalism of a web design and website, one must take into consideration a number of factors/steps:
- Multi-stage web design process
- Project collaboration tools (if project has more than one person involved)
- High-quality design
- Attention to detail
- Current web design technology (CSS)
- Well written, interesting, grammatically-correct content
- XHTML and CSS validation (clean code)
- SEO (Search Engine Optimization) friendly
To put it simply, what separates professional web design from web design is whether or not a designer or web design company takes into consideration the above items when designing and building a website. Other than paying for a respected companies name and reputation, the items listed above are why professional web design services tend to cost more than regular web design services - you're getting a lot more than a website - you're getting the total package of web design professionalism that will surely shine through once the website is completed and released to the public.
The good news is, you don't need to hire a professional web design company or professional web designer if you want a professional web design and website. Although there is a great deal of work involved, if you'd like to attempt to do the heavy lifting on your own, then the following professional web design tips will help you create a professional web design and website.
Note: You might be wondering why a professional web design company would give away their process and professional web design "checklist" for free. The answer is quite simple: there is only so much time in the day, and unfortunately we can't professionally design every website in the world. The more high-quality, professional websites there are in cyberspace, the happier we as professional web designers and lovers of websites will be. To be blunt, there is just way too much junk out there.
As a supplemental resource, visit our H2O Playlist on Professional Web Design. We've added some of our best articles, as well as other resources which will help you build a better website.
Let's get started.
We've already written an extensive article on the basics of a professional web design process, so we're just going to list some of the article's key points for the sake of avoiding redundancy.
Stage 1: Conceptualization and planning (flowcharts)
When designing a website, one should not begin the process inside of a text editor (BBedit) or website builder application (Dreamweaver, GoLive, etc). Instead, the process should begin on a piece of paper or within flowchart software. According to Wikipedia, a flowchart is:
a schematic representation of an algorithm or a process.
In layman's terms, a flowchart provides a visual chart illustrating the structure of your website. How many main navigational items will your website contain? What will these items be called? Will there be any pages contained within the main pages? What will they be called? By planning out your website using a flowchart, you get a head start on:
- Information organization
- Determining the volume of content required
Stage 2: Modeling (wireframes)
In the modeling stage, static "wireframe" mockups are created for each unique web page. To create wireframes, one may use either:
- paper and pencil
- mockup software such as Adobe Photoshop or our personal choice, OmniGraffle Professional
These wireframes contain a bare-bones skeleton which illustrate the layout of a particular web page. Where will the logo go? Where will the content be located? Will there be breadcrumbs? Will you have a login box? Each of these questions (and many more) are answered in the modeling stage. A few things one should take into consideration when creating wireframes:
- be sure to include all important elements that will be used (logo, navigation, content placement, images/video placement, login box, search, breadcrumbs, etc)
- reference the flowchart which you created in Stage 1
- don't use graphics - wireframes are meant to be bare-bones: boxes/circles/ovals which illustrate the placement of objects
- only use text to label the elements, don't use body text (thats for the third stage)
- focus on clean, well-organized, user-friendly layout; avoid cluttered layouts
Stage 3: Execution
The third stage in our professional web design process includes:
- Creating the graphical user interface (GUI), also known as the design
- Creating the content
- Converting the web designs from images into code (markup) which web browsers use to present your website on the Internet
In the final stage, reference both the flowcharts created in Stage 1 and the wireframe mockups created in Stage 2 to create the final page layouts and designs. The design should be finalized in Photoshop or whatever image editing software you choose to use because it is a pain to make changes to the design once it has been converted into markup (code).
Trust us, process makes perfect
Following a well-structured web design process is by far one of the most important steps that many web designers choose to neglect. By following a web design process such as the one we've just described, you increase the likelihood that your website will be well-organized, easily navigable, and user-friendly. If you're going to skip any of the items in our professional web design checklist, make sure that the web design process is not one of them.
Note: If you are the only one working on your project, then you can skip this step. Project collaboration tools are only recommended for projects which have two or more people involved.
Communication is one of the most important elements in a project. When multiple people are building a website, there usually are quite a few e-mails sent back and forth between one another. The more e-mails exchanged, the longer it can take to find a certain e-mail and the easier it can be to misplace important bits of information. This was one of the biggest problems that our professional web design company faced when we first began - there wasn't an easy way to organize the e-mails, attachments, milestones, etc.
Thankfully, after a little bit of research, we discovered a project collaboration tool called Basecamp. Taken directly from the Basecamp website:
Projects don't fail from a lack of charts, graphs, stats, or reports, they fail from a lack of clear communication. Basecamp solves this problem by providing tools tailored to improve the communication between people working together on a project.
Basecamp (and project collaboration tools like it) allows multiple users to access a website which stores all of the messages, milestones, file uploads, to-do lists, time it takes to complete parts of the project, etc. that are associated with a project. No more sending e-mails. Everything is securely stored on the Basecamp servers. The only e-mails you will ever receive are notifications whenever something is contributed or changed within a project.
Basecamp has packages available that can be tailored to suit your needs. If you only need to use Basecamp for one project at a time, then you can signup for free. Unfortunately with the free version, there are no file uploads allowed. However, for a measly $12/month, you can control up to 3 projects at once, have 250 megabytes of file upload space, have unlimited people and clients, have a real-time chat that can easily be integrated into Basecamp, and much more.
When it comes to project collaboration and communication, nothing beats a web application like Basecamp. If you're serious about your project and want to have the best communication possible, then you must try Basecamp. A project collaboration tool such as Basecamp is especially useful for a professional web design company which handles a number of projects and clients at any given time. For project collaboration, there is simply no better way to communicate.
Who and what determines a "high-quality design"? There isn't one answer. Often times something that is appealing to one person may be extremely unappealing to another. Despite this fact, there are several things that a high-quality design should have:
- Balance. Balance refers to the equal distribution of the heavy and the light elements on a single page.
- Unity. Unity keeps all of the similar elements in the website alike and those that are diverse further apart; everything should be pulled into one integrated whole.
- Emphasis. Emphasis involves the main points where the eye is drawn into the design; also known as "focal points".
- Contrast. Not just color contrast, but also contrasting shapes, sizes, textures, and even typography.
- Rhythm. Also known as repetition, rhythm brings internal consistency into your web design.
Since this is a broad topic and cannot be fully covered in this article, you can read more about the five basic elements of web design.
In addition to these five basic elements of web design, information overload is often times one of the biggest killers of a website design. Designers sometimes forget the saying "less is more" and somehow seem to believe that the more information that is stuffed onto one page, the better it will be. Don't become a victim of information overload. Keep your layout as clean as possible. Give different topics their own dedicated web pages. One of the biggest causes for information overload is not successfully planning out your website layout through the use of flowcharts and wireframes, discussed above in Step 1: Multi-stage web design process. Remember: white space is not necessarily a bad thing. As a matter of fact, white space is your friend, especially when creating a professional web design. Successful professional web designers learn how to use white, negative space to their advantage, and make it a key element of the design.
When professionally designing a website, every little detail is thought out and planned. Should there be a line above the headers, and if so, why? If you use rounded corners for your main body, should you be consistent and use rounded corners for everything else? Does your logo look better with a reflection underneath? The only way to answer any of these questions is to experiment. Sometimes the best results come from accidental experimentation. Don't always be happy with the first design. Work to improve upon the design and go through a few revisions, each time asking yourself "What can be done to make the design look better?", be more consistent, and most importantly, give your website a stronger identity and image.
When we say "detail", we're not just talking about graphic design elements. No, graphic design is just the tip of the iceberg. We're also talking about typography (font faces i.e. Arial, Verdana, Trebuchet MS, font sizes i.e 10 pixels, 12 pixels, 18 pixels, font weight/style i.e. bold, italic, font placement), the use of negative space, and other elements of design.
Attention to detail is important because it is oftentimes the details in your design which make your website stand out from the competition (or from other websites in general). People get bored with the same old design - give them something different, unique, and attractive, and they will come back and visit. Heck, they may even become inspired by your design.
Remember: Less is more. Use details, but don't abuse details.
CSS - also known as cascading style sheets - replaced table-based website layouts years ago. The problem is, a lot of web designers are still using tables to create their designs. Not only is this unprofessional, but tables just plain suck. Here are a number of reasons why using tables for your web design is a bad idea:
- Tables slow down your website. Everything inside of a table's cell is loaded before being shown to the user. This is especially apparent for people using dial up connections.
- Tables make messy code and add unnecessary junk markup. File sizes are increased due to the excessive lines of code which means slower load times. Also, having to sift through hundreds (sometimes thousands) of lines of code just to make a change isn't a lot of fun.
- Universal layout updates are difficult and time consuming when using tables. Making universal edits with tables involves opening each file, sifting through the code and junk markup, and making a change (again, on each page). Often times with CSS, all one must do is open the stylesheet and change a single value.
- Tables should only be used to show data, not be used to design websites.
- Tables limit your creativity and design. Table layouts are limited to boring, grid-based layouts. With CSS, you can place anything anywhere. The layout possibilities with CSS are endless.
- CSS will save you time and increase your revenue in the long run. Updates and edits are much easier using CSS than tables. Because of faster load times, fewer visitors are likely to become impatient and leave. Longer visits = more browsing, more ad-clicking, lower bounce rates = more money for you.
- Display your CSS website on tons of high-quality CSS Showcase websites. Tons of exposure if your website is featured. Table-based layouts are not welcome.
Some people will argue that table-based layouts are better than layouts which are built using CSS. However, oftentimes the person arguing that tables are better than CSS is the person who spent thousands of dollars on a table-based layout. Despite what anyone tells you, table-based layouts are inferior to CSS and should be avoided at all costs.
To read all about CSS, visit w3schools.com. Again, to be blunt, if your website is created using tables, it is not professional web design quality. Start using CSS stylesheets today and keep the tables in your spreadsheet application.
One thing that greatly compromises the quality and credibility of a website is poorly written, grammatically incorrect, misspelled content. This kind of content is unfortunately present in an extremely high number of websites - especially "professional" company websites.
If you don't know how to write, then hire someone to write the content of your website. You'll thank yourself later. Even if you do know how to write, mistakes are easy to make. Run through your content a few times to confirm that everything makes sense, is interesting, and is spelled correctly. You'll look more professional and people will take what you have to say more seriously.
Website usability is extremely important. According to usability.gov:
In general, usability refers to how well users can learn and use a product to achieve their goals and how satisfied they are with that process. Usability, as defined by Joseph Dumas and Janice (Ginny) Redish, means that people who use the product can do so quickly and easily to accomplish their tasks. Usability may also consider such factors as cost-effectiveness and usefulness.
If website usability is poor, then people can easily become frustrated and leave your website. A great deal of importance must be placed on website usability if you want your web design to be of professional quality. It is usually poor usability which separates the regular websites from the professionally designed websites. Usability is the most important element of a professionally designed website.
- Accessibility. Without accessibility, you run the risk of being sued. For example: a disabled person who cannot use a "conventional" browser can sue you if your website is inaccessible to them. Although validation doesn't necessarily guarantee accessibility, it is an important component of exercising ones due diligence and is reason enough that you should validate your website's XHTML and CSS.
- Cross browser compatibility. The more validation errors your website has, the higher the chances are that your website will not look the same in all web browsers. We will cover the importance of cross browser compatibility in the next step.
- You look more professional with a valid website. Again, like having interesting content free of grammatical errors and misspellings, having a valid website makes you look more professional to your visitors. It tells them "Hey, I care about my website's image, I took the time to validate it".
If you're building a website for the first time, then you may find that your website has a lot of validation errors. Don't worry, this happens to the best of us. The more websites you build and the more time that you take to learn the rules of validation, the fewer errors you will get and the easier it will be to validate your website.
For more information about XHTML and CSS validation visit W3.org.
Perhaps the most difficult, time-consuming aspect of professional web design is making sure your website is standards-compliant.
Taken directly from Wikipedia:
Standards-compliant is a term often used in describing websites & user agents' (often web browsers) relative compliance with web standards proposed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
In layman's terms, if you want your website to be considered professional, then it must look and function the same in all major browsers. In addition, achieving interoperability lowers costs to content providers since they must only develop one version of a document.
As mentioned above, creating a standards-compliant website will take a good deal of time and can even involve using basic hacks in order for certain elements to appear the same across all major browsers. Major browsers include: Internet Explorer 6 (IE6 -PC), Internet Explorer 7 (IE7 - PC), Firefox (PC and Mac), Safari (PC and Mac), and Opera (PC and Mac). These browsers control the majority of the browser market share and therefore the website which you create should be tested extensively in each of these browsers to ensure standards-compliance. In addition, XHTML and CSS validation (as mentioned in Step 8: XHTML and CSS validation) are extremely important when programming a website to be standards-compliant. Validate your website, validate your CSS stylesheet, validate yourself (okay, you can't validate yourself, but if you could, would you?).
Website optimization is another crucial factor that must be taken into consideration when professionally designing a website. Website optimization includes:
- Image optimization. Next to audio and video, images can severely compromise the speed in which your website loads. Always compress your images using Photoshop or your favorite image compression utility. By compressing images, you decrease the size of a file which allows a web page to load quicker which ultimately decreases the chance that your visitor will leave your website due to long load times.
- Audio/Video optimization. Another major annoyance which screams "unprofessional" is having enormous video and audio files embedded in your web pages. Try to use Flash Video (.flv) compression for your video files and (.mp3) compression for your audio files. Not only are the file sizes smaller than using (.avi) or (.mpg) for video or (.wav) for audio, but the video/audio loads faster which means other elements on your web page will load faster, too.
- Clean code (just say no to tables). In case you skipped Step 5, do not use tables when designing your website - use CSS (cascading style sheets). Tables have a ton of junk markup which will slow down your page load time, increase file sizes, and make editing and updating quite difficult.
- Validate your XHTML and CSS. Although covered in Step 8, XHTML and CSS validation is an integral part of professional website optimization and therefore should not be skipped. Validate your XHTML and CSS.
Professionally designed websites should be designed with a solid SEO friendly foundation. To make your website SEO friendly:
- Don't use Flash. If you must use Flash, make sure it is used sparingly. Flash content is not crawlable by search engine spiders and therefore the content located inside of Flash files cannot be indexed in the search engines such as Google, Yahoo, MSN, or Ask.
- Don't use Frames. Search Engine Spiders have a difficult time crawling through a website that uses frames. Many Search Engine Spiders will receive the following message when visiting a website designed using frames:
“Sorry! You need a frames-browser to view this site.”
- Keyword Research. Optimize your web pages by including keywords relevant to the content on your website. Use keyword research tools such as Wordtracker or Overture to find the best, most relevant keywords for your content.
- Researched Keywords in Title of web pages. Arguably the most important element in SEO, make sure that your title tags include the keywords found in the keyword research stage.
- Researched Keywords in URL. Be sure to include the researched keywords in the title of your web pages as well. For example, if a page on your website is about energy drinks, make sure that the file is saved as "energy-drinks.html". Use dashes instead of underscores, if possible.
- CSS Navigation/CSS Stylesheets. CSS navigation guarantees that your website navigational text is crawlable by search engine spiders. CSS navigation also loads very quickly and anyone will be able to view the navigation using any browser.
- Researched Keywords in Anchor Text. For hyperlinks inside and outside of your website, be sure to include the researched keywords in the anchor text of your hyperlinks. This helps search engines better determine what a particular page is about and will help that page rank higher with the researched keyword(s).
- Images: ALT tags, no text in images. Not only are ALT tags required for XHTML validation, but they are necessary components of web accessibility. Try to avoid placing text inside of your images since search engine spiders cannot crawl image text. However, if you must place text inside of an image, use the text inside of the image as that image's ALT tag. Search engine spiders can read ALT tags, just not the text inside of images.
Try not to use Flash Intros on your website. Most people hate waiting for Flash Intros to load, hate being forced to sit through them, and hate being surprised by the sound that many of them have. Do not create your website using only Flash. Again, what about the users who do not have Flash enabled on their computer? That could be a potential client, customer, or reader who you're missing out on because of an unnecessary technological limitation.
If you're going to use sound effects, make sure that they only play if the user enables sound on your website - never force sound effects onto your visitors. Nothing screams "unprofessional" like having a sound effect play each time a navigational item is rolled over or even worse, when the visitor lands on the home page of your website.
The recipe to professional web design
These 12 steps make up the majority of the recipe which many professional web designers live by when designing websites. Of course, knowing the things that you know after reading this article and actually being able to create a professional web design are two very different things. However, as it does with anything, practice makes perfect. Now get out there and start building a professionally designed website! And hey, if you can't do it yourself, go to Google and search "professional web design". CHROMATIC is in there, along with many other highly-respected professional web design companies.