The role of graphic design on the web

Gerry McGovern claims that Graphic design plays a minor role on the Web. Well, it does, and it doesn’t. Graphic design is very important on the web, but I fully agree with Gerry that sometimes it is given too much importance.

Design awards, as Gerry mentions, usually give a much higher importance to the visual impact of the design than if the design actually does its job of communicating, making the site work. That is probably a result of the ad agency mentality that makes many visual designers create campaigns to win awards, not to help their clients sell their products or services.

Having worked closely with ad agencies in various forms for several years, it is my experience that it is quite rare to see a designer from an advertising agency really “get” the web. Most of the time they try to turn the web into print or TV. There are exceptions, of course, and those designers who embrace the web and understand that it is a different medium from print or television tend to make excellent web designers.

(via Mark Boulton: Gerry McGovern’s clear lack of understanding)

Update: Jonathan Snook has further thoughts on the matter: The Value of Graphic Design.

Posted on January 2, 2006 in Quicklinks


  1. Exactly. I hate those Flash-oh-my-god-interactive websites promoting various movies or games (example: They look impressive but useability sucks.

  2. I can cope with the fact that “Graphic Designers” thinking “graphic design” is an important aspect of web design - but it indeed is not “the most”. I would also challenge entry level web developers to consider the fact that just writing the html, css, and JavaScript is also not “the most important”.

    But perhaps it is a combination of fitting these two together to create an accessible - user friendly website that conveys a clear message to the user. THAT is what’s most important.

  3. I think this hits on one of the fundamental issues as the web has evolved away from both graphic design or IT companies - that of education and specialism.

    Graphic design is about solving problems using a given medium - it is just that many people, incuding many of it’s exponents, forget about this in favour of visual wizz bang. Good graphic designers with a head for the web are therefore pretty important in the process, commenting on things outside the scope of pure prettification. The real tricks are the head for the web and the good bit. A pretty rare combination.

  4. The problem is that many people associate “graphic design” with being really cool and having flaming logos and such.

    Good design communicates. For communication to work, it requires two way interaction. By that, I mean if something is impossible to use, and doesn’t communicate HOW to use it well, it is useless.

    Web design is multidiciplinary by nature. Content creation, look and feel, interaction design, database programming, etc. all play a role.

  5. It’s gotta be pretty, and it’s gotta work.

    I reckon it’s really hard to do both, cos each one is really hard in itself. So it’s pretty rare someone gets to do that, especially in commercial projects where you’ve got client requests and deadlines and things.

  6. January 3, 2006 by Benson

    Its just funny that Gerry McGovern feel justified to critique web design, when “web content management solutions” is almost as empty as it sounds. Some of us do have to emphasize the importance of good design (and improve on the bad) to clients and awards like these pushes those limits.

    Gerry may have valid points on effectiveness and usability issues, but if we don’t try to experiment when clients gives the flexibility then when would we? Maybe the branding calls for “moving web navigation”. Who knows, it might just working with its target audience.

  7. January 3, 2006 by Martin Smales

    The marketing department at my university tends to favour design over functionality.

    Sometimes it may use TIFFs for images, always use Macs and lots of marketese.

    Clearly, the marketing department needs a bit of education that the web is a medium that is much more than print, which it is accustomed to.

    Fortunately, the universtiy has a corporate IT department that knows what its doing, and telling the marketing department all about the web.

  8. At the company I work for, whenever they decide to redesign the company website (which happens at least twice a year since no one ever seems to be able to successfully use it), the responsibility is given to the artists in our company.

    No one else gets to see the new site until it is almost complete, at which point we get shown a flash filled, music playing, moving navigation monstrosity. The funny thing is that even though they ask for suggestions, if you suggest less flash or easier to use menus, the reply is “we can’t change that now”.

    Then of course another 6 months down the line someone realises that the site isn’t having the intended effect, and requests a redesign; which gets given to the same artists that did the first one.

  9. I think it’s important to have the mix. Just like any medium, I think the web needs to have straight-forward and not-so-straightforward ‘applications’. It keeps things interesting and inspiration can be gathered from both.

    The more a medium is ‘pushed’, the more interesting it will be and the greater longevity it will achieve (IMHO).

    For example, some people might come across a very aesthetic book in a library and put it down cos they don’t ‘get it’ whereas others will pick it up because it sparks their curiosity - it depends on your taste, etc.

    Of course, the important thing is to find the appropriate balance for the application.

  10. As someone who started on the “engineer” side of computer science (assembly programmer on IBM mainframes) I can say without any doubt that graphic design matters on the web. If you don’t believe me then get a copy of Lynx and use it as your primary browser for a month and see how your views change.

    Graphic design adds a visual and emotional context to the purely cognitive text on the site. This visual information is a massive part of communication even though it is usually not recognized as being important. It is the online version of reading body language when communicating face to face. I do not remember the actual numbers off the top of my head but I know that the majority of communication is not what is directly read or spoken.

  11. January 4, 2006 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Of course visual design is very important. The problem is when it is created by designers who do not understand that really good graphic design looks good and communicates well. Much of the design that gets awarded is nothing but annoying bling-bling that hides the message instead of promoting it.

  12. …Much of the design that gets awarded is nothing but annoying bling-bling that hides the message instead of promoting it.

    I agree with everything but one part Rodger. I honestly believe that the people who design those sites know exactly what they are doing.

    I believe that they are using very basic marketing techniques to draw a crowd while also covering up the fact that they have nothing important to say.

  13. (Gosh, his web site really blows me away. It’s always cool when you disable styles and nothing happens.)

  14. I completely agree with you. There is no use in a great designed site if one can’t understand where and what he/she should click to get to where he/she wants. But I must say that according to some research women pay much more attention to the design than men. Hence if it’s a women oriented site I guess design plays a very important role then.

  15. I was working for a web site design-development company (1997-1998). It was a new company and has a lot of graphic designers and programmers. I saw that most graphic designers learnt the Web. They learnt what the Web is. They became web site designers instead of graphic designers. Graphic design plays a major role on the Web. People close their browser window or jump another site when they see a poor designed site. They think that “Good design=Good Site=Most of the time better content”.

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