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Minimalism in Practice

Minimalism, the aesthetic practice of reducing design elements to the minimum necessary, is a popular design trend for modern web pages. Unless a site has a wide array of information which it needs to convey to site visitors (think, for instance, of most government websites – and reflect on how unattractive most of those sites are), it is typically advisable to reduce design to all but the bare essentials.

One extreme example of this trend, though it is fitting for the source of the site, is www.altmansiegel.com. This site, for an art gallery in San Francisco, is little more than white space, a few links at the top, and a large picture displaying one of the gallery’s exhibitions. But it works, and it even looks fairly good, though the choice of font is somewhat unfortunate.

Less obviously minimalist, though still very much so, is www.westerntriallawyers.com. This site, which promotes the Western Trial Lawyers Association, a trade organization which provides continuing education retreats to trial attorneys, does not at first blush appear especially minimalist, but that’s simply a function of its essentially sound core design. If you spend more than a few moments looking over the homepage, you’ll recognize that there is very little to the site’s design, with the most eye-catching element being a large, fluid image at the very top, showing off the organization’s summer and winter resorts at, respectively, Hawaiian beaches and western ski resorts. Aside from this, there’s little more than a toolbar and a few paragraphs of content on the homepage. This is the very definition of minimalism: reducing design elements to the essentials, which, for a site for this type of client, may be more than an art gallery.

Sidebar Variations

Sidebars are extremely useful tools for website development: they can help to organize disparate information and navigation options into a single, uniform design, and easily allow website visitors to access whatever parts of a site they wish to. There are a number of different ways to incorporate a sidebar into a website’s design, and, depending on a website’s overarching goals, different design strategies may be appropriate for different sites.

The website www.cnn.com has an extremely standard sidebar form. With four different sidebars, organized based on type of content, the site can easily organize its content for visitors to browse and read through. Because the links to this content are not the most high-value content on the news giant’s website, the sidebars have minimal design optimization, consisting of little more than bulleted lists and buried somewhat far down on the homepage. While this has the effect of deemphasizing this content to some extent, it works for the website, because it isn’t the content which is necessarily desirable to be emphasized.

The website  www.legalhelp47.com has a somewhat novel take on the sidebar. The site features its navigation and content in the same area, using short blocks of text that help guide visitors to the part of the site they seek. This approach works for the site because the navigation choices in the text blocks are, unlike those on CNN’s website, likely the most critical portions of the site and, as a result, visibility for visitors is much more critical.

Balancing Information Needs with Design Optimization

One of the most basic goals of good web design is finding a way to balance the need to convey information, which is, after all, what clients visit most websites for, with the need to achieve a certain level of aesthetic quality in order to ensure that visitors aren’t overwhelmed with navigation options or turned away by unappealing visual arrangement. One Houston attorney’s website, www.alimokaramattorney.com, does an admirable job of achieving this balance.

On the homepage, there are a wide range of different navigation options, allowing site visitors to either pursue additional information or to interact directly with live chat operators or fill out contact forms for the attorney. While the sheer number of choices that are given to site visitors as soon as they come to the homepage could easily be overwhelming with a suboptimal design format, the site’s appearance is actually quite attractive and streamlined. The majority of what a site’s visitor initially sees is simply a picture of a motorcyclist, with a navigation bar underneath and a sidebar containing contact and interactive navigation options. Importantly, these options are neither so large that they overwhelm a site’s visitor, nor so small that they have to be sought out. As the best website design is supposed to do, the site makes it simple for visitors to find what they’re looking for without losing anything in terms of professional appearance.

Multi-Objective Designs

A business’ website often must meet more than one objective. Depending on the type of business and its target market, goals such as establishing a desired image, providing useful information to potential clients, and demonstrating goods and services may all be necessary elements of a website’s design plans.

Looking at a toy store located in Austin, Texas, it is clear that all three of these goals can potentially be achieved in a single site. The website, www.toyjoy.com, is for a toy store with a wide target market of customers, ranging from small children to college-age students at the nearby university to adults. To appeal to these diverse groups, the store has carefully cultivated a whimsical, alternative image for itself, and this image is represented on the website by the eccentric illustrations in the background, as well as the written content’s tone. However, the site is also designed to allow ease of access to whatever information the customer may be looking for, largely through the incorporation of a smartly organized header and a side-bar of different toy categories. Finally, the site features a wealth of professional-looking photographic representations of the various products on offer.

Web Design For Attorneys

For business attorneys, more than almost any other legal specialty, it’s important that their website appear professional and well-designed in order to project the correct image to potential clients. For instance, the website for Slater Pugh, Ltd. LLP, www.slaterpugh.com, has a simple but attractive appearance and design elements which both facilitate easy access to the site’s features as well as simply and effectively highlighting the most salient features of the firm’s sales pitch to potential clients. Even the more mundane elements of the site’s design, such as the choice of font and background color, all work together to create the appropriate image for the business. A similar dynamic can be seen playing out in many other websites for business attorneys, such as www.cheyennelawyers.com, which takes a slightly more modern approach but maintains the air of professionalism that is required of legal professionals in this practice area.

Not all websites for business attorneys are designed with as much care, however. Some common errors I’ve seen on other sites (I’ll resist linking to them) include overlapping contact forms obscuring lines of text, poorly written or even misspelled content, and bright, visually distracting color schemes which make viewing the site an unpleasant experience. Design errors such as these can negatively affect the image that clients form about the professional services behind such sites, which can have a real, measurable impact on their performance.

Creativity In Web Design

In my experience, restaurants have some of the most potential for creativity in designing their websites, and a well-designed restaurant website can help to sell its service almost as well as anything else. But I also recognize that, in some circumstances, highly creative or ostentatious restaurant site designs are unwarranted and, potentially, even off-putting to potential customers. It’s all a matter of who the target audience is.

The website for Pappy’s Smokehouse, www.pappyssmokehouse.com, is a case in point. The website’s design, while certainly not bare-bones, is fairly minimalist in terms of creative choices. Aside from the brick-and-mortar background and the logo of the restaurant (which was designed prior to the website), very little creative effort is put forward in the website’s design. Nevertheless, it seems appropriate for the overall ethos of a down-to-earth, traditional St. Louis barbecue restaurant. In fact, I would argue that a more stylish, modern design might actually have detracted from the overall image that the restaurant wants to convey about itself.

Service-Oriented Web Design

For service-oriented businesses, the most important goal of website design must always be to entice potential customers and encourage them to consider the services being offered. However, in recognition of the different types of services that clients may be searching for and the different expectations attached to those services, a number of different approaches can be taken in order to achieve this design goal.

The website for Crowe & Mulvey, LLP, www.crowemulvey.com, demonstrates one approach that can be successfully taken for service-oriented business website. The design is sleek and streamlined, not overly cluttered, either visually or in terms of content. This helps to convey the necessary sense of professionalism expected of legal professionals. Furthermore, the scrolling bar of awards and achievements directly below the main image on the site’s homepage quickly and effectively conveys a wealth of information about the firm’s qualifications to potential clients, creating a powerful “pull” factor as soon as a visitor comes to the site.

The website for Royal Fig Catering, www.royalfig.com, takes a different approach, consistent with its difference in terms of services offered and customer expectations. The site emphasizes a visual approach, displaying prominently the types of fare offered by the company and offering easy access to the full range of menu options available. It also features simple, direct written content from the owners of the company in order to establish a sense of communication with potential clients.

Both these types of approaches can be effective for helping to sell the services on offer.

Web Design Trends to Watch for in 2013

While the basic design goal of delivering content to a reader in a way that is clear and concise will never change, the strategies for achieving this goal are slowly evolving. New trends emerge all the time, with some of them going on to eventually become standards of web design.

There is a lot to look out for this year. A lot of design experts are moving towards more simplicity on their sites. This allows them to make the site operate more like a mobile app, which people are becoming increasingly accustomed to. More familiarity with simple designs and apps allows designers to create elegant, cross-platform designs that don’t feel stripped down.

The user’s experience on your site should also be one of its main focal points. A good design will deliver the site’s message with little effort from the user, guiding him or her through the page. Of course, a flashy well-designed page is nothing without content. Having strong, searchable content will continue to be important, and might even become more important in the future.

The coming years will see a profound shift towards unifying design concepts across platforms as users continue to frequently access mobile sites and download apps.

Designing With Results In Mind

For any business‘ website, ideal design must be evaluated in terms of the business’ goals. For some businesses, a website is a way to convey critical elements of their desired image, creating an impression about the business for all potential customers. However, for many other businesses, designing and maintaining such a website is unnecessary; instead, their site is merely necessary to provide important information to potential customers in an easy, accessible manner.

Magic Carpet Golf, www.magiccarpetgolfreno.com, is a good example of this second type of approach. The design is extremely barebones, incorporating little more than a static photograph on the main page and written content on a white background. A similar dynamic occurs on each of the subpages linked from the tool bar at the top of the page. However, everything that a potential customer might be searching for in visiting the website is easy to find and understand. Therefore, while the website’s design isn’t what would typically be thought of as effective aesthetically, it serves its purpose well.

Building A Website For Your Audience

When designing a website, the central thing to keep in mind is who will be using your site. That allows you to come at the design approach from the right perspective, emphasizing usability and appearance in ways that will work for your core audience.

I like what this site, http://www.habush.com/practice-areas/personal-injury/explosion/, is doing in terms of communicating with its target audience. The purpose of the site is to provide resources and legal help to those that have been injured in an explosion accident. Therefore, it doesn’t call for a particularly flashy or complicated aesthetic design. This site has utilized a basic, clean looking template. The organization’s name and contact information is prominently featured at the top of the page, which makes it easy for the target audience to navigate through the site. The content offers a clear, detailed description of the type of help they can offer in addition to a “Live Chat” sidebar that is always present. This site makes it very easy for the target audience to start a conversation with the organization.

This is like a slightly pared-down version of some of the better government-run website I’ve seen out there. Now, granted, there are more than a few government websites with terrible design and Byzantine navigation processes. But some do exactly what they need to do, like the website for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Recognizing that people may visit the site for a range of purposes, it incorporates a toolbar at the top with links to the most important issues it covers (and the simple black and yellow color scheme is visually appealing, to boot – something that‘s depressingly rare on government websites). Below that, it also promotes some of the features that the NHTSA is trying to raise awareness about, without being too pushy on site visitors about these topics.

Both these sites seem to recognize that users are looking for information, first and foremost, and that they need to be able to access it as efficiently as possible, and they work to ensure that none of their design elements stand in the way.

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