Rethink the website design process

I recently came across a question on Facebook: “Website designer, manager SEO all in one suggestions?” The very framing of the question reveals a kind of uncertainty, dread, and frustration sometimes associated with websites.

As a partner at a design studio based in Brooklyn, NY, I work with clients ranging from major universities and healthcare corporations to smaller nonprofits and startups. At the beginning, our clients often have a misconception about what a website is and how to design one affordably.
Our view is that a website is simply a container for communication. When clients come to us for web design, we recommend taking a step back and assessing their holistic visual language and the voice in which their organization is communicating with different audiences. We suggest beginning the design process with new photography and an updated visual identity.

A visual identity is a distinctive yet flexible kit of parts that includes a logo, typographic system, color palette, icons, images, and copywriting. It is the set of visual symbols that identifies an organization and creates competitive differentiation. In our view, it is crucial that organizations work closely with designers to develop a visual identity as the first step towards a website.

With that context in mind, our two most frequent pathways for recent website designs for small and medium-sized businesses and nonprofits have been:

1. Visual Identity + Squarespace Website

A Squarespace website is easy to create and maintain. A designer can help you set it up and to customize it with your organization’s distinctive visual identity, photography, and copywriting. Squarespace is very image-driven which is why we include photo shoots in most of our design projects. This route does not require a web developer as the designer can make simple changes to the CSS code to achieve a website that looks custom and sophisticated.

2. Visual Identity + Custom Developed Website

Initially developed for blogs, Wordpress has become a very popular and widely supported platform for custom coded website. It has all kinds of powerful plugins (Calendars, Searchable databases, etc) for advanced needs. A Wordpress site is visually and functionally more flexible but requires a web developer. A variation of the Wordpress option is the Shopify platform which works well for online storefronts.

Often, a smaller budget forces a client to work directly with a web developer or to hire a freelance designer. This is understandable. However, it is important to remember that your website is your address on the internet and the first impression that your visitors will have. Working directly with a developer is like bringing a construction team to a building site and trying to get them to build something. It can be messy and it can waste time and money. A designer is able to provide a synthesized and coherent vision. With this vision in hand, the web developer can focus on their strength — happily and efficiently implementing the website design.

As far as Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is concerned, it is our belief that certain website developers or designers simply sell this outdated concept as an added feature. However, with today’s advanced search engines (…Google) all you need to do is to ensure you have complete and consistent content on your website. Google will make sure it is picked up. Sometimes it takes a couple of weeks, but that’s all there is to it.