Thinking Outside The Chunk

Back in 1995 when I began my transition into web design and development, and there were literally thousands of sites on the web, every single one was designed in a way which accommodated the means to build the site – by the chunk. And there was a huge battle between designers and coders, much like today. Though I only hear it whispered in storage rooms and alleyways, the battle builds between traditional web designers and those specializing in W3C compliant CSS-driven CMS sites.

Thanks for the memories

In the beginning God created chunked web sites, where there was always a chunked graphic for the logo, chunks for the buttons, chunks for photos, and chunks for separation borders or rules. Then in 1996 David Siegel came out with his book, “Creating Killer Web Sites” and he proselytized the notion that not every chunk had to contain a complete graphic element and, to create more sophisticated designs, one could simply slice the graphics where ever was necessary to accommodate the building of the site. What a concept! It changed everything.

Prior to the acceptance of the splicing concept (yes, there were actually those who denounced design as a needed commodity for the web, including Jakob Nielson), web sites were designed by marketing-savvy print designers and built by technicians, while content was written by whomever fell lowest on the totem pole and was squeezed in where it was most convenient. This was not a work process conducive to effectively selling products and services successfully, and the battle raged between designers and coders. I argued then what I argue today: as David Ogilvy wrote in one of his books, “You can’t bore consumers into buying your products.”

Don’t Taze Me, Bro!

Today, I see the cycle repeated with the advent of CSS W3C compliant sites. Marketing-oriented designers struggle once again to think outside the constrictive chunk and attempt to create sites with design-restrictive code. And these designers wait, once again, for the pivotal WYSIWYG software tools which will allow site-builders to think outside the chunk and build creatively while writing compliant code in the background, as eventually was made available for HTML.

The same arguments are being made today among web development professionals. These arguments sound shockingly just like the ones I remember just after 1985, when desktop publishers (boo-hiss-boo) proclaimed that, armed with a Mac and some handy dandy Pagemaker software, they could create their own marketing pieces as effectively as any ad agency, design boutique, or designer/writer team. I attended conferences where those battle lines were drawn and the arguments raged, with desktop publishers sitting on one side of the conference center aisle and the rest of us sitting on the other side. Really, I was there.

So I argue today with technicians, armed with their code, telling me they design web sites with headers and sidebars and maincontent areas, shove it into some CMS for easy accessibility and portability, win awards on their novel use of the code, and call it a successful web site. I believe clients will eventually get the reality-tazer they need, shocking them back into looking for more marketing-oriented web design.

My web design litmus test

I would ask the same questions of today’s technicians I asked of desktop publishers 20 years ago:

1. Is the marketing tool you created (web site, intranet, microsite, e-blast) actually selling your clients’ products and/or services?

2. Do you understand that unique visitors and quarterly sales results are two different measuring sticks and, ultimately, only one matters to our clients?

3. Have you researched the target audience demographics and how have you reflected that information in your overall design, GUI, navigation, content, stickiness, etc.?

4. Should every client really have a web site with CMS? Should every client, with little or no understanding of effective web content, navigation, GUI, and SEM be given free reign to create and change their own content?

5. And how does what you’ve created fit into your clients marketing plan? Does each element of the marketing plan work to drive potential customers through the sales process? Who or what is driving that train?

Now I know I’m offending some of you reading this and that is exactly what I mean to do. With all our titles and labels so blurred it’s hard to tell what real skillsets anyone may actually possess. I read more and more on-line job postings calling for “Experienced designers… with 2 to 4 years experience… with proficiency in this laundry list of software… and proficiency in the following laundry list of coding systems and languages…” and I think, “This company is looking for a coder – not a designer.” It’s my desktop publishing nightmare revisited.

In summary, I believe clients will transition into focussing more on the net result of how their web site helps sell their products or services, web designers will once again be sought out for their marketing skills, and technicians and designers will come together once again through training and advances in our software tools.