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Duh-sign of the Times

Web design isn't about flashy graphics and features. The best sites appreciate the value of simplicity.
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Web Awards: Design

Effective Web design is not about creating flashy graphics and piling on the features. The best sites appreciate the value of simplicity.

Three very different Web sites took top honors in the Design category this year. One, a scooter manufacturer and marketer from New Hampshire, got the judges' attention by creating a strong brand image and an easy-to-use format. Another, a Massachusetts-based information portal for network-storage professionals, got high marks for its clear organization. The third, a ceramics wholesaler in Boulder, Colo., won praise for its warm color palette and minimalist display of its product line.

A scooter retailer, a techie news site, and a ceramics catalog. These very different companies had the same philosophy when it came to creating a Web site. Each followed the golden rule of Web design: Keep it simple. That's an important message for growing companies to think about as the Internet enters a new phase in its evolution. People are starting to rethink what "Web design" means, taking the time to be thoughtful about design rather than just getting the site up and running. The bottom line: there's a lot more to good Web design than just images, colors, and fonts.


FIRST PLACE: Nova Cruz Products LLC

Our judges gave high marks to the Web site of Nova Cruz, purveyor of the Xootr brand of scooters, for its strong identity and judicious use of Flash animation.

"Talk about user-centered design. These guys rock. The whole site felt both useful and fun. Well-designed menu structure, great legibility, effective use of space, and a prominent call to action. (They have a big Buy button.) The Flash movie of the Xootr was useful and entertaining. I loved the photo gallery and the poetry. It felt like sincere fan fare, not affected." --Harley Manning

"This may be one of the better uses of the splash page -- to show the product in large size. Nice color and design for the navigation menu across the top -- edgy, yet bright and readable." --Bill Demas

"The home-page design does exactly what it is supposed to do: it guides the user toward scooters. The scooters are positioned in a clean, fun, urban environment -- perfect for this product. I like the recurring urban-transport motif, and the fact that the design drops out of the way on lower-level pages (while remaining absolutely consistent with the look and function of the home page) is actually a plus for me." --John Hartnett


SECOND PLACE: TidalWire Inc.

TidalWire's informative site for the network-storage industry won points with our judges for making its rich content easy to navigate.

"A superb example of simplicity of design accomplishing realistic goals. The simple, clean icons and color combinations easily divide the page into the three main product areas. In this case the icons actually have something to do with the content, unlike some other sites. Simple, clean, and effective." --John Hartnett

"As far as a portal site goes, this one is quite pleasing to the eye. It seems like they actually considered the overall design and didn't just hack it together like most info-driven mishmashes. These concise nuggets of information are just right for the Web." --Jeffrey Harkness

"Generally well-thought-out design, with good use of color-coding tabs and grouping information together into the most important high-level categories." --Bill Demas


THIRD PLACE: Mosca

A wholesaler of Italian ceramic dishware, Mosca garnered praise for its simplicity and its beautiful color palette, all complementing the company's product line.

"Beautiful, good catalog site. Very clean. Great color palette, which goes with the Italian motif." --Jeffrey Harkness

"Saying 'thank you' before a visitor registers, explaining what you will do for registrants in exchange for their information, having an opt-in check box for the mailing list, and having a brief, optional survey with an open-ended question -- all those features convey the impression that the company treats its customers with respect." --Bill Demas

"A minimalist, design-oriented site. This site accomplishes its goals very well by placing the products in a gorgeous 'upscale' setting. Great use of color. Simple, effective navigation that works exactly as it should." --John Hartnett


State of the Art

Design guru William Drenttel, a founding partner in the new-media design firm Jessica Helfand-William Drenttel, in Falls Village, Conn., spoke recently with Inc reporter Kate O'Sullivan about Web design.

Inc: What do you think about Web design in general these days?

Drenttel: I think we're at a regrouping phase after the mad rush, where half the stuff didn't work very well because it was getting built so fast. Now companies are trying to retool things to make them work right. Most companies these days are not investing a lot in new design. They're trying to make the sites they have work better.

Inc: For a small business with a limited budget, what are the most important elements of Web design?

Drenttel: I think that people need to limit their ambitions and make sure they build something that they're able to maintain and service and run. The biggest problem people have is that the scale of their sites quickly gets out of hand. It's easy to build a Web site that's bigger than you are.

Inc: Which Web sites make good models for small-business owners?

Drenttel: If you're in the scooter business and you look at other scooter companies, that teaches you something. But a lot of the most effective, well-designed Web sites are going to exist in sectors where they care about design, places where design is part of the communication and the brand identity, such as Pottery Barn or the Museum of Modern Art. Ebay and Amazon are about selection, so it's all navigation, it's all search, it's "how fast can I buy?" And those become the criteria for success. I think that's a terrible model for a small ceramics manufacturer or a scooter company to emulate. In either of those cases the way that MOMA shows its product is more relevant.


What Matters Most

Clement Mok is a renowned independent design and business consultant. According to Mok, as the Internet shakeout continues, smart companies are starting to refocus their Web sites by getting back to basics.

Inc: What do you think about the state of Web design these days?

Mok: People want to optimize their existing investment. Certain features and functionality are no longer worth maintaining and so they get eliminated. So sites are actually clearer and more usable than they were a year ago.

Inc: Do you think Web sites are better designed than they were in the past?

Mok: Better is relative. Web sites are more focused and simplified and more integrated into the overall business strategy. However, on the visual design side certain things have just gotten more pedestrian. It's partly because there's a limited amount of money, so the effort is more focused on maintenance. That means you don't have a lot of innovation. Striking that balance between design and functionality is what's going to be so important as we move forward.

Inc: What are the most important elements of a well-designed Web site?

Mok: Usefulness. And usability. Does the interface allow the user full control? And desirability. Does it engage beyond its initial use? What are the hooks that will keep you wanting to reengage? Is it the brand, the editorial voice, or the visual appeal? A great Web site provides a balance among those attributes.

Inc: What are the critical things to do when designing a site?

Mok: Set realistic expectations and watch out for "feature creep." You need to consider the market and the business every time you have a new feature. If what you want to add is so important and you have limited development resources and dollars, what are the implications? What should you give up? It's almost like if you add one new feature, you should probably delete or delay another one.


A New Attitude

Bill Hill is president of MetaDesign, a San Francisco-based design company. He talked with Inc about how his clients' expectations regarding Web-site design are changing.

Inc: What do you think is going on with Web design these days?

Hill: What we're seeing is a renewed emphasis on traditional elements of design rather than this feeling of "just get it out the door." For a while it was just "get it out and make it cool, because we're competing with everybody out there." Now clients are saying, "It's gotta work."

Inc: What do you think people designing Web sites will be focusing on now?

Hill: People will be looking at things like information hierarchy and navigation, and they will be trying to connect with users' needs and trying to understand them rather than just giving them whatever technology can deliver.

Inc: Do you have a pet peeve about the way Web sites are designed?

Hill: Sites that try to do everything for everybody at all times. They end up with a cacophony. Banking sites try to start selling you loans, and you just want to check your balance. We have clients that say, "We want to have every new product in the company advertised on the home page." It's just ludicrous. What would the New York Times be like if you had advertising on the front page? I don't think people would trust it as much. I think we're really going to have to have some realistic way of looking at what the user needs.

Inc: For a small business with a limited budget, what are the most important Web-design elements to focus on?

Hill: Who are the users? Really. Be realistic. Don't say, "Well, everybody." Do some work to categorize the types of users. Think about what you are going to do before you have designers do it. Once you have a business plan in place, it will be a lot more likely that a designer will actually effect change.


The 2001 Inc Web Awards

The Best Small-Business Sites in America
The 2001 Inc Web Awards: Winners
A Web Strategy Runs Through It
Traffic Magnets
Duh-sign of the Times
Home Groan
Many Happy Returns


Please e-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.




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