A design battle raged in the late 1500s among mathematicians. What’s the best visual representation for “is equal to.” Lovers of classical Latin liked “æ” – a shortened form of aequalis meaning “like, equal.” But Robert Recorde, a Welsh mathematician, scribbled out two parallel lines – “because no 2 things can be more equal” – designing the equals sign that has gained increasing significance nearly 500 years later.
No, your website design will not last 460+ years. But it can make your content easier and more enjoyable to read. That’s design in the world of content marketing, publishing and websites.
When considering website design and your own site, ask, “Do people want to read this? Will people want to stay here, click on anything, take action?” These are some of the questions Kathy Kassera Mrozek, principal and creative director of Windmill Design in Minneapolis, asks when she and her team design a website. And Windmill is behind the design of the new MMPA.net website.
Web design is not the same as “user experience” or UX. “A lot of UX happens before visual design,” says Mrozek. “Wireframing and site architecture is more UX, but it can be hard to differentiate the two because UX is the design of the user experience. When we get into colors and fonts and images, most of the display of the site’s content, that’s more visual design.”
Back to that first question – do people want to read this? – a strong web-design trend today leads to “content first” design. Mrozek describes this as a site with few visual distractions. “A few years ago, many website designers used complicated backgrounds in an effort to make their sites stand out. But your brain can’t focus on all that many things at once,” she says. “Keep your design focus on what you want people to see and engage with on your website, and what you want them to do next.”
If that sounds to you like basic design philosophy, you’re right; it is. And it’s not all that different from designing content for a printed page. “Keep in mind the basics of design,” says Mrozek. “Good design principles make you more trustworthy.” She offers these basic-but-overlooked design tips:
- Use subheads to break up long pages of content
- Use proper leading and margins. (Yes, old print terms like “leading” are still used in web design, though “line height” is used in CSS language
- Keep it simple. A web page with too many things going on will send readers away
Is Web Design About Simplicity?
“Yes and no,” says Mrozek when we asked Is Simpler Better? “We are careful of the visual load on a page, as well as the actual load time for any web page,” she says. “Even though everyone’s devices are getting faster, web pages must load quickly and design impacts load time.
“There’s nothing wrong with Arial,” says Mrozek (to the delight of this editor who despises font choices). “You want to limit visual distraction and keep load time quick. And if you choose a variety of fonts, they all need to be downloaded when someone clicks to a page, and they slow load time. Plus, you need to consider the cost of font licenses. Unless a particular font is necessary for branding, keep it simple. Use Google fonts, and limit your font families to 1-3 per site.” She points to a base font such as Arial, which is most likely already downloaded on a user’s computer, including the bold, italic and other styles.
6 Questions for Mrozek
MMPA: Is it all about mobile right now?
Mrozek: Everyday, the use of mobile websites increases. All about mobile? No, but everyone with a website should pay close attention to the site’s mobile functionality.
MMPA: Do people read long-form content on mobile devices?
Mrozek: I do, all the time. As long as the design basics are covered, long-form can work well.
MMPA: How do you best design for video content?
Mrozek: The title screen needs to be enticing so people click. But you also need to make sure people can find it. Make sure to set up a video with a transcript that Google can find. For maximum searchability, make the content visible.
MMPA: I see more posts with notes such as “4-minute read.” Is that necessary?
Mrozek: Necessary? Probably not. But there is so much competition, and information like that can give people an idea of the time needed. It’s nice, I think.
MMPA: Stock photos: your thoughts?
Mrozek: Use custom images whenever possible. Having actual pictures of your products, office, and team can go a long way toward creating an authentic brand. If you have the budget, bring in a professional photographer. This can have a very positive effect on your site and create a truly custom look.
MMPA: Any homepage trends to watch?
Mrozek: We’re seeing a trend of homepage sliders going away. Analytics show that these are not really all that useful – people are skipping over the content in a slider, rather than getting immersed in multiple messages, as often intended. This design is one that pleases the stakeholder, but not the viewer. We monitor website analytics closely to gauge strength of a design and user experience. Everyone should be monitoring analytics.