Don’t just make it pretty, make it strategic

Since I started designing websites for universities and colleges in 1996, I’ve had numerous conversations about design, both with those on the inside (administrators, marketing communications directors, admissions counselors, information technology teams, webmasters and developers, designers, vice presidents, CIOs, alumni, faculty) as well as those on the outside (students, parents, the community, business leaders, consultants, people on the street).

A person’s understanding or appreciation of design usually has very little to do with their official role or affiliation.  More often, their understanding is based on their personality or, perhaps, more aptly, their personal philosophy.

I once worked with a colleague in the web industry who talked about design as purely visual.  “We don’t need to start thinking about the design yet,” he would say, “It comes later in the process,” he would insist.

But the reality is that the design is the process; it is the thinking.

As someone formally trained in fine arts (and had my first Macintosh when I was eight), I’ve often walked the line between art and design, emotional and functional.  If art is something to be exhibited and understood, design is something to be used and intuited.

One of the most insightful comments about web design came from a thirteen year old student.  When asked what would improve the design of the site, she answered, “it’s not about what the site looks like, it’s about how it feels when I use it and whether I can find what I want and have fun doing it.” Her intuition told her the same thing that designers in every field have been striving to achieve since the beginning: a seamless and positive experience.

But never has a strategic design approach been more powerful and evident than in today’s environment of high consumer expectations and an onslaught of choices.

A recent article at Fast Company points to the need for business leaders (and anyone else concerned with providing effective solutions and high customer satisfaction) to take note of a better way of operating – where strategic/holistic design takes center stage.  In The Business of Design, Bill Breen writes, “In an economy where style is king, we all need to start thinking and acting more like design.”

Strategic design thinking at the start of your college or university web redesign project can be the difference between a poorly executed, high-cost quagmire that only serves the needs of a few, or an innovative, cost-cutting solution that effectively serves the goals of many.

Perhaps in 1996, web design may have been accepted as creating layouts and page comps.  Today, strategic web design is about user research, market analysis, click patterns, visitor experience, content delivery, technology standards, concept media, mobility, personalization, rapid prototyping, and so much more.  When I talk with my clients today, we definitely talk about color hue, but we probably also discuss web standards, podcast integration, how to utilize Ajax applications, and where to feature moblogs.