What is Design?

Understanding What Design is in Terms of Building Websites

woman laying beside technology
Image courtesy Peter Cade / Iconica / Getty Images

I’ve been working in the web design field since 1995, and what makes me laugh is that until now, I never really thought about what that meant. What exactly is "Web Design"? The web part is pretty obvious—we’re on it. If you’re not sure what the web is, you should check out the Net for Beginners site. But what is design? If you ask ten people to define design, you’d get ten different answers.

Dictionary.com has 17 different definitions for design.

The ones that seem most relevant to our work include:

  • to prepare the preliminary sketch or the plans for (a work to be executed), esp. to plan the form and structure of: to design a new bridge.
  • to plan and fashion artistically or skillfully.
  • to intend for a definite purpose
  • to form or conceive in the mind; contrive; plan
  • to assign in thought or intention; purpose
  • an outline, sketch, or plan, as of the form and structure of a work of art, an edifice, or a machine to be executed or constructed.
  • the combination of details or features of a picture, building, etc.; the pattern or motif of artistic work
  • a plan or project

But beyond the formal definitions, there are also the loose meanings that teams working on Web pages assign to the word, including:

  • the person or team responsible for making a site "look good"
  • the look of a website as a whole
  • the look of an individual Web page
  • the work of building a website (as oppsed to planning it or writing content for it)
  • the person or team responsible for coding the website
  • the way the website "works"
  • the images and icons required for a website

What Parts of a Website Can Be Designed?

The User Interface

When you design a user interface you are creating a structure for how the website will be perceived intellectually. It includes things like the theme or metaphor of the site - how readers will know what to click and what path to take through the site.

It also includes information architecture to classify and structure the site.

The Visual Elements

When you design the visual elements of a website, you are building the look and feel of the site. This includes the graphics, color, styles, and layout. Things like the elements of design and the principles of design.

The Site Structure

When you design the site structure, you are designing how the site will be built. This is the HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and any programming you do for a website. Most of this type of design is informed by the decisions made for the user interface and the visual elements, but it’s just as important a design step as the other two.

Who Does Design

While the work of a Web designer has changed dramatically from when I started, ultimately, a Web design team is going to include people who do many different things (or who wear many different hats). Design work includes (but is not limited to):

  • information architects
  • graphic artists
  • marketing professionals
  • user interface specialists
  • HTML, CSS, and JavaScript authors
  • PHP, database, and other language programmers

So the next time you say you’re going to go out and "design" a website, think about what you mean by that. What are you really going to go do?