Designing for the web in 2015

An introduction to the Dsgnday speakers and topics

Next week Dsgnday, a great conference on web design and user experience, is taking place again in Amsterdam. Key speakers include well-known names in the digital design industry such as Dan Mall, Simon Collison, Stephen Hay, and delegates from NetLife Research and Adobe Typekit. Their talks will address issues designers are faced with today and therefore have great immediate relevance.

As the host of Dsgnday this year, I thought it would be interesting to also make a digital introduction. What does it mean to design for the web in 2015?


The role of designers

Conventions, standardization and data-driven design are bringing us to a point where we are almost designing for the web like machines. Not only in design, but also in the field of coding this trend is on the rise. And so Simon Collison very rightly poses the question: How can we remain needed? What is expected of designers now? According to the designer of Fictive Kin it is becoming harder and harder to provide only one answer to a problem. Designers are expected to think of flexible solutions. Collison says it helps to work with components and to learn to deliver modular products instead of designs as a whole.

All in all, designing for the web has become an increasingly abstract undertaking. The output is expected to direct the project and to straddle the traditional walls between design, content and code. A strictly visual design no longer achieves these goals, and is even less effective in our increasingly multi-device world.

So what is the role of the designer? What do I make?

Dan Mall, a highly experienced Creative Director, is the perfect man to answer this question. He has worked at Big Spaceship and Happy Cog, New York agencies that I, as a simple Dutch boy, love to keep track of.

According to Mall, one of the possible roles for designers is to create a manifest. A manifest is a collection of straightforward statements about creative direction and the design choices to be made, and helps to weigh the various considerations of a project. This is a working method I am also seeing more and more often. The American government for example recently launched a manifest that is to be used by all government agencies in designing new services.

The U.S. Digital Services Playbook

The tools of the designers

Developments such as responsive websites and the new emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration have made the requirements designers have to meet more and more abstract. In response, increasingly abstract deliverables are expected from designers. Mall offers a visual inventory that contains concrete tools for abstract issues as a download.

Style Guides

One example of such a concrete tool is a Style Guide. Because how else can you keep your design manageable when multiple designers and developers are working on it? The evidence for how important style guides are becoming to designers can be found in the community. Entire websites and even a weekly podcast are devoted to the subject. One of the experts in this field will be speaking at Dsgnday: Susan Robertson.

According to Robertson, Style Guides help to keep the visual design clear and reproducible, even without a complete design. In her article on A List Apart she points out that a Style Guide has advantages not only for designers and developers. Style Guides can also be the one-stop location for product owners & marketeers to make modifications and discuss iterations. One example of this is the Lonely Planet’s fantastic Style Guide which is powered by Rizzo.

Better typography

Typography obviously plays a huge role in these Style Guides. According to Bram Stein, developer at Typekit, typography has a rich history that was partly lost in the transition to web. Better technological possibilities, offered by services such as Typekit, are giving designers more and more options on the web now. The Dutch site Blendle is a sterling example, creating an online house style for each of its publications with matching typography.

Yet Stein says there are still many possibilities in printed media that cannot be used widely on the web yet. He hopes that things like justifying text and advanced text layouts surrounding photography will become more available for the web in coming years. He has recorded an overview of what is and what is not supported on StateOfWebType.com.

The designers’ design choices

All of these new options are not necessarily making the life of a designer any easier. For every design choice you make, there are dozens of counter options and alternating interests. How do you put a stop to an endless discussion about the color green? Ida Aalen of NetLife Research advises to focus on the Cores. Cores, (similar to McGovern’s Top Tasks), are the points where company goals and user objectives overlap.

According to NetLife Research, a small survey can already reveal what the Cores are. And what is the main discovery? Often, for the majority of users only a few Cores are essential. By defining these, designers gain clearer priorities (and therefore a clearer mandate).

Being persuasive without being deceptive

The designer can achieve these goals in various ways. Terms such as Persuasive Design are not unknown to those keeping up with market news. However, designer Stephen Hay warns that there is a fine line between persuading and deceiving users.

Hay says misleading people is unnecessary and often comes from a fear of losing users, misplaced performance anxiety or an excessive emphasis on metrics. A flawless User Experience, simplicity in use, good customer service and lucid communication are, according to Hay, easily as effective in persuading and retaining users. Without running the risk that users leave when they discover they have been deceived…

Design for everyone

All designers strive to make their design suitable and successful for all users. Nonetheless, even in the most accessible sites, large target groups are sometimes overlooked, with problematic results. Geri Coady sees that colorblindness is often ignored for example, even though this is relevant to a large part of the population and leads to serious usability problems. She devoted an entire book to this subject called Colour Accessibility.

Coady says a design can be made accessible to the colorblind without having to sacrifice aesthetics. By not only working with color but also with shapes and text, website sections can remain visible for many forms of colorblindness. Are you curious what your design looks like to the colorblind? Using this simulator you can see how it looks to people with various types of colorblindness.

Example of Colour Blindness on the web. Source: Colour Accessibility op 24 Ways

Accessibility, however, is not only about limitations. Design challenges also come from unexpected sources, such as tech savvy kids. In her years of study with children, Trine Falbe learned that their interaction with the interfaces can be wildly different than that of adult users. Research shows that the current generation of children under 7 uses mainly touch screens and apps, and no browser based applications or websites. Also, the motor skills that would allow for good typing are not fully developed until they are ten years old. How does one design for children? According to Falbe, it helps to not place too much emphasis on text and search, and to use more buttons, images and icons.


Naturally this selection of Dsgnday subjects touches on only a handful of the trends currently developing in digital design for web. What, in your opinion, are the other visible trends in web design that have been developing in the last few years?

Dsgnday venue in Amsterdam. Interested? Tickets still available.

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Article also available in Dutch on Marketingfacts.nl