Design Rant:
Good design isn't just skin deep

Last week, a client asked me to redesign a site I'd designed for him about a year ago. His business had changed direction and his site needed reflect that. I don't believe in redesigning sites just for design's sake, but if you have something different to say, it makes sense.

He started to tell me about sites he liked, and that was fine—it's good to look around and see what appeals to you. But when you do, you have to figure out why they appeal to you, rather than because they "look cool" or you personally like the way they look.

Don't "think different," THINK DEEPER.

Unfortunately, he started to rattle on about things like, "A really first-rate site always has two things in common—the first is a fake 3D effect on the graphics, and the second is pictures of people."

I was stunned. I felt like someone had lit a match to my toes.  The more he blathered on, the more I felt like a tea kettle on high heat. I could feel the flames licking at my bottom and I was starting to boil. I knew it wouldn't be long before my whistle went off at a deafening pitch.

When he started in on, "And they all have those Java headline scroll-y things," I heard myself (in what can only be described as an "out of friendship experience") saying, "Stop!"

"You're confusing cosmetics with concepts. Mistaking cliches for content," I said, at a pitch that could be heard by dogs three counties away.

I couldn't believe that this person, who's usually quite smart about things, could overlook the real point of design—to support the content. "That's just superficial! A laundry list of web cliches never leads to a good site." I heard him clear his throat. I paused. He said, "But everyone else is doing it..." and I heard myself talking like a parent, "If everyone else was jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, would you do that, too? If you do the same thing on your site, you're just a lemming."


"Difference is part of the message—as in "differentiation." You want your site to stand out from the competition, rather than look like the competition. All the sites you showed me look basically the same. I didn't notice their name or logo, I just saw a lot of pictures of people surrounded by faux rounded edges. I couldn't tell them apart, and I couldn't tell what their purpose was."

People pictures are standard in advertising, because supposedly, people love to look at other people. But while people may attract attention, they can also draw your attention away from the point of your message, and then they become distractions, which is what they were on all the sites he showed me.

He'd hit a nerve and I couldn't stop myself, "The most important thing to remember is that good design is NOT skin deep. It starts with you creating a convincing, concise message, and building a visual from that. Otherwise, the site is meaningless."

I shouldn't have blamed him—even professional designers can make the mistake of creating something that looks cool instead of actually saying what needs to be said. He said, "I like blue—and see how many of use them blue? That must mean something..." he sputtered. I cut him off—"it means that they're afraid to do anything original and specific to what their message is."

He was so quiet now I wondered if he was off drowning his sorrow in hot fudge while the phone receiver lay on his desk with my voice talking into thin air. I figured I might as well finish, and hoped that he was listening.

"What you must do is create and condense your message." Be very clear about 1) What's in it for the visitor and 2) Why they should choose you rather than someone with a 3D/people picture site.

I waited for him to talk, or to hear tell-tale sounds of chewing. He replied, "I can do that." I said, "I know you can." And that was that.

It's not difficult, it just requires that you think below the surface. You can do that. I know you can.



Gary Priester's new template for NetObjects Fusion 4 and 5 features a retro camera-leather background and cool rollover buttons reminiscent of tags on professional photo gear. The template can be used by amateur and professional photographers, or anywhere a retro photo look is useful. Includes tips for getting the most out of the template.


An important part of design is appealing to your "target audience." In this case, the target group are teens, and Gary's makeover features a colorful and fun site design for this teen-help organization's Web site. The request was amusing for the Makeover Maven, who late into his fifth decade, still thinks of himself as a teenager trapped in the body of a person who continues to age! See Gary's makeover here.


Q & A

A reader wrote: "I created a site and did a local publish to my hard disc so I'd have HTML files. But when I zipped the files to send to my colleagues by email, the pictures and navigation buttons disappeared. What am I doing wrong?"

When you ZIP a site, you have to be careful to include all the directories under the main one—and the files in the proper directories. When you look at the files in Zip you should see the "path" on the right, and it should contain all the paths that are actually in the site.

How to do this with WinZip:

  • In Windows Explorer, RIGHT click on the folder containing the site (and the sub folders).
  • Choose ADD TO ZIP
  • In Zip, make sure to CHECK "RECURSIVE FOLDERS" This saves this folder, and all the folders under it—and retains the file structure.
  • When your recipient UNZIPS it, they need to make sure to extract "USING FOLDER NAMES."

When the files are in the right directories, then the site will work correctly! It's also important to ZIP this way when you want to save NetObjects Fusion templates—which also contain folders and require that the right folders are in the right files. If you don't have a ZIP program, I recommend http://www.winzip.com . For the mac, go to www.aladdinsys.com and download stuffit and unstuffit which also handle ZIP files.

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I found Matthew Levine's site a while back, and followed the links on his site to his page on MP3.com. I listened to his music there and was very impressed. His songs, especially "Hidden Word," were beautiful and moving. I realized I probably would never have heard this music without the web, so I asked this talented composer to share his knowledge so other musicians could find this convenient way to share their music—and sell their CDs. Matthew wrote:

"Want to make your music available to the world? Maybe sell some CDs while you're at it? Create your own "station" where web surfers can download or stream your music onto their computer? MP3.com is the King of all web sites for independent artists with over 30,000 in its roster, partially because MP3.com does for free what other sites charge artists for. Whether you have thousands of fans or just your mother, there's a place there for you.

You, the artist, maintain all publishing rights and set all prices. The non-exclusive contract can be terminated at any time. MP3.com splits the income from CD sales with you 50/50. MP3.com prints, inserts, duplicates, ships your CD and collect the money for you. MP3.com sends you a checks every quarter as long as what they owe you is more than $50.00.

So what is a D.A.M. CD? Relax. No need to get huffy. It stands for Digital Automatic Music—an audio CD that contains .mp3 files. This can be played on your computer, or even in a regular audio CD player. And the MP3 files can also be played on the new breed of MP3 players.

The CD also includes a useful program for your computer, whether Mac or PC based, that plays your D.A.M. CD and includes lyrics and other information you uploaded to your account.

All you need to do is create .mp3 files of your compositions. You do this by downloading one of several encoders. Start at http://software.mp3.com/software/ and click on your computer platform in the upper left hand corner.

MP3.com sold one of my CDs to someone in Switzerland the other day for $9.00 (I set the price). I didn't have to do anything. Then, a company in Indiana wanted to buy a larger quantity of CDs at a lower wholesale price. I just logged into my Artist Administration area, changed the price to $6.00, and viola!--instantaneous "storefront" management! After the company purchased a few dozen CDs, I then changed the price back to $9.00.

If you are interested in signing up as an artist, go to http://www.mp3.com/services.html and click the "getting started"

link near the top of the first category (MP3.com Features for Music Fans) and later click the "Artists Community" link near the top of the second category (MP3.com Features for Artists and the Music Industry).

And don't forget to listen to other artists music at http://www.mp3.com . If you have the time and the patience, no web site comes close to providing the services that MP3.com does."


When genius designer Chuck Green (http://www.ideabook.com and http://www.efuse.com/Design/chuck_green.html ) recommended a package of clip art, I thought, "Well, if this is good enough for Chuck it's good enough for me." As always, Chuck was right. http://www.nvtech.com 's Image Task Force is a truly amazing collection of clip art that's so good it doesn't look like clip, just art.

Really, the artwork is so good, and comes in such an amazing range of styles (from high-tech to handmade) that you can get just the look—and subjects you want and end up with a totally professional look on a practically non-existent budget.

The package comes with terrific graphics manager software that lets you search by subject, keyword, even style. You can select any image then find more images of the same style or topic. (Tip: Choosing images of the same style helps you present a more consistent image—and makes your graphics look more professional—as if one artist created them all).

The graphics manager lets you change colors of graphics to fit your design, and save them in web formats easily (no other programs are needed).

You can download their excellent image organizer for free—then download seven groups of free art. Once you do, you will certainly want to buy the entire package. For a mere $39.95, you get over 35,000 top quality images.

I highly recommend this collection, to designers—and non-designers alike! http://www.nvtech.com


Almost everything we know in the world can be described in just 26 letters—isn't that amazing? Yet these 26 letters come in an almost endless variety of shapes—shapes which help add an emotional impact to your words.

Doyald Young taught hand lettering for 26 years, and created logos for some of the most well-known companies in the world, from Disney to Max Factor, and from Liza to Xerox.

His site, http://www.delphipress.com shows samples from his two educational and inspirational books, "Fonts and Logos" and "Logotypes and Letterforms," and even has a section on education, where you can do-it-yourself, following assignments from well-known teachers.

Mr. Young's books are thoughtfully designed and beautifully produced. What's special about them is the way they show not just a finished logo, but the comps or variations that came before it. It helps you see how the logos were designed—and the thought behind them. It also lets you see that sometimes the designs you think are best aren't the ones the client choose (something every designer's own web site should do, too).

His section on fonts in "Fonts and Logos" is a great introduction to classic faces he admires—a tour through type from his perspective.

If I could make one suggestion (and who's going to stop me?), it would be that he could offer sample chapters in Acrobat PDF format—which would give site visitors and potential book buyers even more of a feeling of the actual book—and complete sample chapters for browsing.

One of the problems with Amazon and other online booksellers is that you can't get a real feel for books and their content. So book authors should consider having their own sample chapter or chapters to give potential buyers the ability to actually see and read the content. This can be a powerful book-selling tool.

So if you're interested in type, visit Doyald's site—and buy his books. You'll learn a lot from this master.


Every once in a while I see some really interesting technology—which may have a practical use along the line, but right now is entertaining (and hey, that can be enough). It's kind of like one of those fun demonstration science museums.

Take a look at http://sodaplay.com/constructor/index.htm where

you can play with pre-built two-dimensional models made out of springs and masses. You can play with gravity, friction and spring strength. I know, it sounds kind of technical, but it's actually simple and fun to play with. You can even build your own models (something I have yet to do correctly myself, but it's still interesting).

Mostly, it's fun to see how computer simulations can work. Try it, you'll like it. (Thanks to Isabel for reminding me about this.)

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One Final Word

You can do it.




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