It is not surprising that the Internet revolution is often likened to the Gold Rush. The stampede into Internet business has created a whole new industry made up of companies and individuals with wildly varying experience and backgrounds.
Web design is one of the most explosive areas of this new territory, and, as with other areas of Internet consultancy, it is not necessarily the design fraternity that is reaping the most rewards.
According to New Media Finance, a specialist newsletter reporting on the Web sector, some design agencies command client budgets in excess of pounds 300,000 for a Web site. These top agencies might be capable of generating annual turnover of pounds 5m over the next two years.
New Media Finance also claims that the size of the Web design sector could be worth pounds 100m, assuming that there are around 100 dedicated Web design agencies.
Scott Ewings, creative director of Crown Communications, believes that any design company not including the Internet in its remit does so at its peril. According to the Design Business Association, fewer than half of its 240 members offer Web design services, so it seems that technology-based companies are picking up a considerable amount of Web design work, rather than the traditional design agencies.
Web design has been driven by technology from the start, explains Daisy Cresswell, head of new media at design and communications agency Imagination, where the multimedia department has grown rapidly from six to more than 20.
‘Traditional designers are scared of the technology,’ she suggests. ‘As a result, there’s a hell of a lot of trash out there.’ But Cresswell believes that Web site design should be the domain of the traditional designer, rather than the computer programmer. ‘As the Web develops in terms of its design, and as more well-designed sites come up, it might encourage more design agencies to think about moving into new media,’ she says.
With so many companies offering a Web site design service, it can be very difficult for clients to know which company to choose. One way is to look at the design company’s own Web site. This was a tactic remembered by Eventer Design Group when it decided to create its own online presence.
‘Prior to designing our site, we had a good look at other design and multimedia companies’ sites,’ says David Ward-Streeter, Eventer’s managing director. ‘Overall, we found them uninspiring, with blocks of text, no movement or any interaction – a bit disappointing for what is supposed to be an exciting industry.’
Eventer’s Web site was designed around a ‘virtual agency tour’, which included a conference room to view the company’s work, a press cuttings folder, even a kitchen to read postcards from the staff and reviews of recommended bars and restaurants.
According to Matthew Bagwell, a new media designer at Imagination, clients need to find people who are capable of managing their brand within relevant media. ‘A lot of technology-driven companies are able to offer Web solutions, but they might not understand brand management,’ he argues.
Bagwell believes that the very best Web design can be simple, with fast delivery by using uncomplicated graphics and informative, strong text.
‘We understand what the user requires, rather than gratuitous eye candy,’ he adds.
In the future, says Bagwell, what you might see is a continuing convergence of traditional disciplines into Web media. ‘This includes online television, channel Web sites, more animation and video. In short, a more interactive environment.’
Arbiters of taste
Not surprisingly, companies from a traditional design background see themselves as the arbiters of good taste and aesthetics. They often view the Web as the province of marketing and are concerned with designing critically-acclaimed sites which are often reviewed in the Internet press.
But traditional design agencies have only recently become more aware of the Internet’s potential, suggests Richard Mellor, creative director of Hyperinteractive. ‘People from design backgrounds are learning the skills or teaming up with the right people to do very pertinent and ideas-oriented work,’ he says.
Hyperinteractive built the D&AD (Design and Art Direction) Web site.
‘Its audience is visually the most critical you can imagine, and certainly the most seasoned,’ says Mellor.
A Web site needs to have clarity, as users will be a mixture of Net novices and more experienced visitors. Ease of use, in the form of well-planned and well laid-out pages, is important.
Good navigation around the site is necessary to allow users to find what they want quickly – making it a pleasurable, rather than a frustrating experience. A well-designed site directs users to the information they need, while both branding the company and opening up the potential for new business.
Content is the key to good Web site design, with text and graphics integrated to maximise the effectiveness of the message – although Nigel Salter, director of new media at design company Stocks Austin Sice, believes that strategy is sometimes more important than visual content.
‘Some of the best-looking sites are among the most confusing and least effective,’ he argues. ‘Define who you’re trying to speak to and what you want from it.’ This might be difficult for some clients who have little idea of what they want or need from the Web. ‘Everybody feels they must have a presence, but ask them why and they say it’s because other companies do.’
Lack of strategy and a clear idea of the site’s purpose are a common failing.
Designers need to take on board the challenges of the Internet. Site ‘hits’ are very short, with an average visit lasting just eight seconds.
Something can be visually attractive, but the message is lost simply because it is not responding quickly enough to the user’s request.
Also, the palette of colours available on the Internet is limited compared with the print medium; downloads of graphics can be slow and visual representation is on a computer screen, not an A4 page.
Jeremy Keohane, head of new media at Bamber Forsyth, insists that many Web sites are just linear reproductions of printed articles, such as annual reports. Even a year ago, it was not unusual for companies simply to scan in their brochures and use that as their Web site. ‘Whereas corporate literature can be persuasive in nature, with the Internet you have to be more informative,’ says Keohane. Understanding the power of new media as a communications tool is the name of the game.
The traditional design sector’s new competitors in the new media arena are gathering rich pickings from the blue-chip companies that approach them to design their Web sites. AKQA has designed sites for BMW, Microsoft, and Durex. Ajaz Ahmed, director at AKQA, believes that one of the reasons for the company’s success lies in focusing on the marketing value of the Internet: ‘Relevance, reliability, performance and engagement are among the most important elements in successful Web design – and this equals brand value.’
New Media Factory is part of a new breed of Web design firms which are merging new technology with design. According to Beverley Nolan, its marketing consultant and project manager, the company creates three basic types of Web site.
First, the basic site which acts purely as an online brochure and costs around pounds 5000. Further up the price scale, at pounds 10,000 to pounds 20,000, greater technical capabilities are added on – such as a database, which is very useful for companies needing to store large amounts of information. For the top price of pounds 40,000, New Media Factory provides a Web site that can deal with online commerce transactions.
The Web is growing at an exponential rate, perhaps reaching 200 million users by the year 2000. This means an abundance of opportunities for Web designers who are quick to realise the Internet’s potential. Some traditional designers might have been unwilling to take on the mantle of the anorak, but there are many easy-to-use software programmers which dispense with the complexities of programming. In the future, designers will be called upon to create sites which are not only visually appealing, but also information driven.
If this golden nugget doesn’t appeal to those from a traditional background, then new media companies will gladly pick up the pieces.