Never Mind the Process, Here’s the Finished Website

Praise be to Karen McGrane, who dared to defend Lorem Ipsum. Her article couldn’t be more timely, as the festering sore that is the Cult of Content-is-King-and-Design-is-Just-a-Decorative-Sauce-on-the-Content-Entree has started to bleed profusely. And it’s pissing me off. As is the alarming thought trend that all deliverables should mimic the final product.

On content

Content is important. After all, it’s content people who come up with job titles like Content Strategist, which pretty much means One Who Thinks About Content. Which content, for whom, when, where, why, how… It’s absolutely necessary, because clients don’t do it. Not at the level that it should be done.

Paul Rand, one of the most well-respected designers this world has seen, called design “a method of putting form and content together”. If you would agree with this statement (as I do), you can infer the role of the designer as the one who must successfully combine two components: form and content (the designer will first busy herself with the form component). These two are not mutually exclusive. They are separate components which share a common goal and should be developed on a parallel track to one another. This, however, does not mean that they should be reviewed by the client together at every stage.

On clients

Two quick facts about clients:

  1. Many don’t know what they want, and when they do, they don’t know how to communicate it
  2. Many lack the imagination to “see through” design sketches

These are the reasons we are hired in the first place. But these two facts have paved a dangerous path across the lawn of the creative process. An alarming number of web professionals today seem to advocate making preliminary deliverables mimic the finished product– the more accurate, the better.

This is, well, stupid.

It’s not stupid if don’t track your hours. It’s not stupid if you don’t care if or how much you are paid for your work. It isn’t stupid if you don’t mind doing twice as much work for nothing. Your clients will love you for it, and you’ll be doomed to continue doing it for the rest of your career.

On designing in the browser

When Andy Clarke first started talking about “designing in the browser”, I thought it was a great idea. Then people started misinterpreting this to mean “executing the creative process in the browser”. If Andy really designed in the browser, his designs would be shit. What he was of course referring to was the execution of a design idea in the browser as opposed to a tool like Photoshop, which doesn’t communicate Web Things the way a browser does. He strives for more realism in his deliverables. He’s simply working based on the two Client Truths listed above. And if you’ve ever done designs in Photoshop, you’ll know that applying client changes to those documents is akin to cutting off your own fingers one knuckle at at time. HTML is much easier.

That said, there is certainly a place for Photoshop sketches. It’s possible to put together a quick visual impression of a website in far less time than it would take to work out in HTML. I’m referring to the basic idea of a website, an impression of the design language, intended to gauge if we are on the write track before spending many more hours mocking things up in HTML, which is, in fact, templating. I am not referring to creating finished static design visuals. These are the bane of the web designer’s existence, and should be avoided at all costs. If you really understand your client’s needs, that means you’ve done your homework, and you’ve actually designed before the browser. Otherwise: baby steps.

On communication

Imagine that your job was to drive your client somewhere. They aren’t quite sure where they want to go, but a lot of sun would be nice. And perhaps water. You could drive them to California, but once they hear about Florida, they might prefer that and demand that you drive them there (at your cost, because you’re the one who chose to go ahead and drive to California).

A better way would be to communicate with the client, asking them if they prefer dry heat or humidity, surfing or Spring Break parties, earthquakes or hurricanes. Based on this information, you could show and tell about both places, help them weigh the pros and cons, and help them in their decision. Then drive. Only then.

Making websites is a process. Creativity is a process. Pacing and leading clients is a process. You’re not going to eliminate frustration by trying to come up with real content, a polished design and working browser functionality on the first go. You will lose money, though, and perhaps your sanity.

There’s a reason for storyboards. But wait, shouldn’t Pixar just go ahead and build and render the complete movie so that the studio execs can see how it will really look?. Then, if they like it, it’s done! Yeah, right. Good luck with that.

There’s a reason that advertising teams consist of an art director and a copywriter: design and content. They’re bed buddies. But these teams pitch ideas, and then work them out. That’s why we have wireframes. That’s why we have Photoshop. That’s why we have Lorem Ipsum. And that’s why we have, most importantly, good old pencil and paper.

On balance

Here’s what I think: some web professionals want to focus more on deliverables than on people. But guess what: it’s all about people. We need to help our clients along and communicate with them. If you want good deliverables the first time around, the answer is not to use “real” content and a design which is in fact finished HTML/CSS/Javascript in a real browser. The answer is to ask focused questions, discover the pressing problems, to introduce your client to your potential solutions to those problems. Give them tidbits: here’s an impression of how the site could look visually. Here are some things you might want to consider concerning your content. Work your way up to real content in a real browser. When done right, that point can come quickly.

It’s too much to show a client all these things at once in the very beginning. There are too many factors, and it’s impossible to tell which factors will influence their opinions at that moment, which makes revision a nightmare at best. Of course content and form should each be developed with the other in mind. But consider presenting separately at first. Yes, that could mean that Lorem Ipsum is an option. That could mean that Photoshop is an option. That could mean that a sketch on a napkin, with a good, old-fashioned explanation of how things work, is an option. When you know enough, put form and content together.

On bed buddies

And forget the content versus design war. They need each other. In the words of Paul Rand, “when form predominates, meaning is blunted. but when content predominates, interest lags.”

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