July 31, 2015 Planning a website? How to get what you want from your web designer…

Working together :)You’re planning a new website and you have found a design agency or freelance designer that you want to work with. You have a good idea of what you’d like and the designer hopefully has plenty of design theory or natural ability stashed in their cranium. So how can you best make sure the designer produces something you will both be happy with?

Historically, you would give a designer a brief, and then (hoping that they’ve paid at least the slightest bit of attention, and not run off on their own personal design vision) they will then produce for you a set of designs that you will either like instantly, or, more often than not, iterate these in an attempt to make the design fit with your own personal vision. Unfortunately, this process could often end up with an unbalanced design that neither parties are happy with. Lengthy in time, as you are focusing ‘end result, getting caught up the copy, site structure and that picture you don’t like… The problem with this process is obvious, and can be solved by focusing on your brand feel and identity first.
Sadly we’re hardly ever in a position to spend weeks pondering on colours, fonts, photography, textures and what they communicate to the general public, but that doesn’t mean you should miss this stage out altogether, after all the websites that have seriously considered their brand are usually the ones we aspire to.

The good news is that there is an easy and cost effective way to create your look and feel, whilst taking control of the design process that in my experience, turned into a rewarding, collaborative and often vastly more creative process, which can be managed by either you or your designer.

A collaborative process

The best place to start is a short discussion with your designer/s about your business and who will be using the website. Keep this brief and high level. It might pay for you (or the designer) to create some basic customer personas, which can help keep a project focused (…I will blog about these soon).

The next stage is to create an inspiration board (see previous post), which helps you communicate your taste and what you think is suitable for your audience to the designer. The designer should also add his ideas to the inspiration board, and you should allocate a hour or so to talk these ideas through.

Following the inspiration board, you should ask your designer to produce a series of Style Tiles. Style tiling is a process being adopted by more and more designers as a creative tool and an ideal way to collaborate with the website project owners. In brief, and you can read more about the process on the Style Tile website, style tiling breaks the design process down into baby steps. The designer looks at the inspiration board and starts to think about fonts, colours and visual components at a basic level, then puts these ideas in a pre-made template and then presents these for discussion. If these concepts are liked, then a copy of the tile is made, and more detail is added, if not then another iteration is created at the same level of fidelity. Each iteration should have no more than a couple of hours design time spent on it, and the focus should be on collaboration and creativity at every stage. You must never think of the tile as an actual webpage or add real copy as these considerations are always a distraction. In my experience, the process takes around 3-5 days, and at the end you will have most of the components you need to build you site.

Added benefits of Style Tiling

I have been using this method for over a year, and because of the combination of inspiration boards and style tiles I have produced some of my best work ever, as it unlocks those creative blocks and prevents me from producing generic work. The process has vastly improved my relationship with my clients as it creates a common design language between us. There is never any design jargon or egos, we work together and create something new, which everyone can be happy with.

As you are designing components and not webpages, this process really suits responsive design as what you produce can easily be adapted to suit either media, and mobile components can be included into the final style tiles.

Finally, the processes saves so much time, compared to the cost in time and resources of producing whole finished webpages and iterating them one complete. .

The only tricky bit I can think of

As I mentioned before, this process requires very short iterations and ideally at least two meetings a day in order for it to move quickly. It can be done over longer periods, but many of us do our best work when we get our heads into a project and give it our full attention. Also, at first it is hard to lose that desire to design whole pages with real content, after-all this is a different mindset. Just stick with it, even if you end up moving into a full page design process, time spent on style tiling always pays dividends in my experience.

What next?

There should be no need to create whole pages designs, just more components as and when they’re needed (maybe with the exception of the homepage). Page structures should be done in wireframe only, using pen and paper of wireframe software such as Gliffy. If you want to test your site on users, than that is a slightly different story. If you have a good wed developer to hand, then I am starting to favour using WordPress to make site mockups, which feel more real and often faster than just creating linked visuals…

Good luck with your designs and let me know how you get on.

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