A Redesign Isn’t About Design

May 4, 2007

Topics: Web Development.

As often as not, when I’m confronted with a redesign project, the reason behind it is “I’m tired of this look” or “this just doesn’t look modern.” Well, that’s fine. After all, if you redesign your website, the reason for it IS certainly closely tied to the way it looks. However, in my mind, just changing the appearance of a site is not sufficient reason to do that kind of work.

A website redesign is about creating a better website.

One of the services I’ve done for people for quite a while is WordPress installations. These are people who already have websites and want to add a blog — I simply install WordPress for them and create a theme which clones the look and feel of their existing site. It’s not an incredibly challenging job, so I can offer it quickly at a pretty reasonable price point. (These projects have little to do with website usability or accessibility, and a lot to do with paying the mortgage, by the way. Don’t look for these sites. They’re not up to my standards in most other respects.) As a result, I’ve now been doing this long enough that I’m getting the occasional blog redesign. Businesses have had their main website redesigned, and they’re coming back to me to have the blog matched to the design.

Sometimes, this can be a very depressing task. It’s not necessarily that the old site was fantastic — but my central principal behind ANY redesign project is to improve the site. It should have higher quality code, better accessibility, better search engine optimization, better marketability and a better design.

And sometimes, these redesigned sites just don’t have ANY of these qualities. Why was the site redesigned? What drove this change? I know the answer, to some degree — a new marketing director may have been hired and felt that they needed to put their stamp on the site, for example. But it’s frustrating enough to implement WordPress patched into somebody’s sloppily coded, transitional, hack-filled CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) site — converting the same site over to a table-based site with nominal use of CSS and no Doctype at all 6 months later is just maddening.

This is why, when I’m hired to redesign a website, I always start the process by talking with the client about what we should improve. I want to make certain that we’re both clearly aware of all the diverse changes which will be made besides the most apparent shift in visual appearance. If a site hasn’t had a functional improvement as well as a visual improvement when I’m finished with it, I feel disappointed in the project. I’d like the site owner to understand the degree to which their site has been changed.

I don’t feel the need to go into a highly technical conversation on every semantic decision, of course. However, conveying a basic sense of the importance of accessibility, standards, usability and search visibility to the client (as well as any other -ilities that come to mind,) is something which I consider to be well worth the time.

Have something to contribute?

« Read my Comment Policy

28 Comments on “A Redesign Isn’t About Design”

  1. A site’s redesign is a challenging process. The first task is to understand the reason why the client needs a “facelift”. After having the answer, the “how process” can be started…

  2. I like readability and usability first then design.

  3. Beware of the desire/trap of the over-designed re-design. The client wants a re-design and alot of designers and clients alike will over-design the re-design in the hopes that more is more. Sometimes the re-design was in order due to an over-designed original. Just my 2 cents. Found you from DIGG. Nice article.

  4. You most certainly can have an ugly (but usable) design, and make lots of money. Go ask Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist.

  5. Have to confess…I’ve never spent much time on Fark. I can see those ads you’re talking about, though…pretty blatant.

  6. For a glowing example of how NOT to re-design a site, see Fark. I wish I had an example of the way it used to be, it was a very clean setup was easy on the eyes. Then they re-designed the site specifically to accommodate a giant square ad in the upper right hand corner of the page and now there is always a giant margin of totally wasted space running down the right hand edge of the page.

    I thought about installing a greasemonkey script to reformat it, but then I realized that it wasn’t worth it. Now I digg.

  7. I’ve generally found that a little patience and some time giving an explanation with solid examples will take you a long way with a client. Yes, clients are frequently ignorant of the development process. Well, that’s to be expected — it’s one of the reasons they’re hiring somebody else! Finding the way to make the questions crystal clear to the client is a burden of responsibility which has to rest on the shoulders of the designer.

    It’s the client’s responsibility to understand how their business works, and make the developer understand their business needs. Everybody needs to be involved to effectively share their expertise.

  8. @Viktor Tolbaum,

    No, the biggest challenge is, and has always been, developer ignorance. If developers spent some time understanding users and designing their products around the actual users need, it would be a lot better.

  9. This is good, simple advice that is too often ignored. Maybe things have changed in the decade since I last delved into web work for hire, but I doubt it — back then, the principle challenge was client ignorance.

    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    “There is no such thing as the Jamijama.”

  10. man i so totally agree with you

  11. I could of course argue that this very post would have more credibility if it were based on a site that looked different – that’s the reality of the judgemental world we live in.

  12. I like analogies.

    A website that does not meet the standard/s Joe mentions is like Budweiser and the ones he likes to build (and some others of us also) are Pilsner Urquell.

    It does demand a more educated consumer – and this is a challenge I have not yet fully overcome myself – you need to gain leverage and positioning in the eyes of the consumer/s one way or another – this way they will want to follow your lead (think of all the major vendors like M$ that have released essentially beta products, requiring significant patching after release – and most people put up with it – this is leverage. If you code really well than you wouldn’t seemingly need as much leverage as you have less cons to mitigate).

    At the same time, there is an every longer tail (growing niches and creating them) and with the right message we can shop for these better clients (as they shop for us).

    A little idealistic but for some of us it is not easy to compromise – it’s just the way we are made.

    I feel your pain Joe.

  13. I don’t really think that I’m dismissive of design — I think that design is important. For most projects, however, I don’t think that design should be the sole motivating factor. Create a gorgeous design, by all means — just don’t implement it as a single giant image with server-side image map navigation.

  14. And that’s a pretty good analogy. However, I think it’s also fair to say that an Aston Martin is fundamentally a well-designed car. There’s relatively little need to change the inner workings of the car. However, to extend the analogy, if you were to take the body of an Aston Martin and put it on the frame of a Yugo, you’d still be driving a Yugo. Although you may have the look you want, you still have a car which is barely worth the name. This is more closely related to what I’m talking about.

  15. Joe, a good (and successful) business will embrace and appreciate both aspects – design and usability; if you representing clients you need to have their best interests at heart and be open to both sides of the coin, you seem a bit dismissive of the aesthetic side of things.

  16. I’m no expert on cars, but I’d like think, that things have changed, as far as the instrument panel, electronics, and safety features, much like a website should change overtime to meet the demands of it’s visitors.


  17. For a good analogy – the inside workings of an Aston Martin haven’t really changed for the last decade, for the most part all the motor and moving parts are the same as the were 10 years ago – however the faรงade has taken on a completely different form and continues to evolve every year or so to ensure it stays fresh, modern and relevant; and of course so as to continually appeal, excite and sell to customers.

  18. @jp: Well, I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree, then. Your business clearly functions in a very different manner from mine.

    @Jess: Sounds familiar, eh? Well, it’s hardly an unusual circumstance, I’m sure… ๐Ÿ˜‰

  19. wow sounds like my job ๐Ÿ™‚ good post…. most clients can’t even appreciate the fact that you understand “accessibility, standards, usability and search visibility” as oppose to some hack job done by so called “web developers” who really have no business making websites in the first place.

  20. Thats exactly what you said.

    You say “in my mind, just changing the appearance of a site is not sufficient reason to do that kind of work [a redesign]”

    I am saying your wrong, so very wrong – if young freelance designers are reading this it’s like telling little kiddies it’s OK to play in the road so I want to clarify my point.

    If your customer base thinks your site looks like a pile of crap then changing it to a design that appeals to them makes perfect business sense – and that’s as simple as it gets really.

  21. You know your utterly wrong – a person can have the most functional website in the world but with a poor design it wonโ€™t win many hearts and minds or pounds and dollars.

    And, to be blunt – I didn’t say in any way that a poor design was a good thing. I said simply that changing the design of a site shouldn’t be the only reason for redesigning it.

    I won’t argue that people judge on face value first of all — but why should somebody redesigning ugly website stop thinking once they’ve got a new look? If you’re going to do the labor of redesigning, you should also consider the fundament.

    Despite the fact that I don’t altogether agree, I do appreciate your thoughts. Thanks!

  22. You know your utterly wrong – a person can have the most functional website in the world but with a poor design it won’t win many hearts and minds or pounds and dollars.

    Likewise a great working website in one design can target and appeal to one demographic, whilst a fresh lick of paint and a design overhaul can reach a wider more rewarding demographic.

    Couple this with CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) which makes it very easy to update and change the look of a website without touching anything else and you have yourself a very powerful tool for refining and targeting clients.

    Fortunately or unfortunately depending on who you are, people are fickle they judge on first impressions and at face value – they also buy and spend on these impulses and your average consumer doesn’t really give a shit if your website is semantically correct or not.

    The issue is more about technical people such as yourself trying to be designers – and failing miserably and designers such as myself trying to be technical and may I add failing miserably – this was fine in the 90’s but ya aint gonna cut it these days and I mean that in the most sincere way.

  23. @ Judah: Thanks!

    @Ryan: It’s always good to have knowledge of a “backup” piece of software if problems arise with the main resource you use. For myself, I do have a couple of other things I’ve used — but I still find that the best solution is to know one piece of software extremely well. If you know the vulnerabilities, you’re better able to plan for them. I use a very finite list of plugins, as a general rule, and give them a trial at my own website before moving them onto any client site. Gives me a chance to find the problems in a situation where I’m not putting a client at risk.

    …you are delivering what they need (which may be different from what they want)…

    Almost certainly is… ๐Ÿ˜‰
    I don’t know that I’d say that I plug WordPress, really — usually, I’m installing it at client request.

  24. I am in complete agreement with you stance on identifying the clients’ needs. Even if you are only adding a new element, like a blog, you still want to have that working relationship with the client to ensure you are delivering what they need (which may be different from what they want) plus you can offer your own experience on other element of their site because, as you pointed out, they have an effect on the smaller piece you are working on.

    As a side note, I used to plug wordpress a lot, but not really so much anymore as the number of security vulnerabilities that have been popping up lately. Most of them pertain to plugins and such, but I’m beginning to seek out alternative blogging software for my clients should the security issue continue to pose a threat.

  25. Awesome article!

    Clear, concise, cogent and on the money!

  26. I kind of enjoy projects where the goal is to maintain the existing design but convert to semantic, valid HTML (HyperText Markup Language). It can be kind of a fun puzzle to try and figure out how to reproduce a design with completely different underlying structure from the original. It’s only enjoyable, however, when the existing design has at least SOME value to offer.

  27. A redesign for me is pretty much a full build from the ground up. I won’t restyle a bad site or essentially put a cute costume on a cow. I will turn down that type of job. As far a fixing a site, to think about going in a correcting someone else’s horrible code doesn’t appeal to me — and I often turn down that type too. Heck, I don’t even care to reuse some of my own older works (if someone points and says I want that). Thus, for me, I’m always striving for a fresh build (matching a look and feel the client likes, wants, and/or needs, of course, but on a new foundation). I have a personal policy to try my best to make my next site better than my last, so that is my incentive.

  28. mmm yeah def have to agree with your points and esp that a re-design should be about improving the website and not just including the look and feel…

    What I hate which has only happened once so far (thankfully) is that they change their mind on the new design once you’ve just finished it and then they expect you to redo a new one without any extra charge ๐Ÿ™‚