WOOF! Newsletter

June 27, 2012

Inside the Mind of an Award-Winning Web Designer

We're taking a break from our usual fare in WOOF! this month. Instead of a big informative article on web design, we went straight to our own award-winning web designer, Mike Woodburn. And asked him what's happening with web design.
This month's WOOF takes a deep dive into the mind of Mike Woodburn, PlanetMagpie’s lead web designer. You've seen Mike's work before – he designs the layout, graphics and branding for our clients' websites. (Maybe yours?) His designs have helped PlanetMagpie earn five WebAwards in the last three years, including one for PlanetMagpie’s own website.

Not only is Mike a great designer, but he has a lot of insight into the web design industry. We asked him a series of questions about his work. Mike told us a lot about what goes into his designs. And where he sees the Web heading in the next few years.

1. "What does your job entail? What services do you provide for our clients?"

A website often has only a matter of seconds to convince a visitor that they are in the right place. My job is to make sure we’re successful in doing that. My specialty is quickly conveying a company’s primary message through efficient use of branding, typography, imagery and animation, while also providing an intuitive user interface so that visitors find what they are looking for easily.

The visual style I come up with always needs to represent the identity of a given company as an integrated part of their branding and marketing efforts. I help clients realize their vision by translating ideas into a tangible, visual form. Often my design services extend beyond the website too, into such areas as print advertising, brochures, signage, email campaigns, etc.

2. "What changes have you noted in the web design field, in the past 5 years?"

Wow, where do I begin?

The web has evolved constantly since the beginning, but the last 5 years have seen the most significant changes. From social media to video, mobility, content management systems, richer styling capabilities through browser support of CSS 3. It’s an exciting time for web design.

It's not super obvious to the end-user, but for designers, little things such as having hundreds of fonts to choose from, instead of having to use graphics to display less common typefaces, have been tremendous. Designers just getting into the field are lucky in the sense that they really have few limitations. Although I admit that things are quite a bit more complicated than they used to be.

I remember when I had to design static content for 256 color screens at 640x480! These days it seems like the biggest obstacles are not really on the technical side, but simply time and budget!

3. "How would you say the user's experience on the Web has changed?"

Probably the single biggest factor that's changed is mobility. For most of us, the web is on our phone, wherever we are. It happened so gradually, it's easy to forget that Internet access was exclusive to the home and office for a long time.

Also, improvement in search has been really huge. People don't even call it searching anymore; they say they'll "Google it" and that speaks volumes about what that company has achieved. Most of the changes were incremental and usually unannounced, so I think we all just take it for granted. But the ability to find relevant information online is exceedingly easier than it was only a few years ago.

The other big one, of course, is social media. I think it's kind of funny to see how Facebook is being used, now. It's really become a sort of portal to the Web for a lot of users – oddly, very much like AOL used to be. I never would have predicted that. I guess the biggest difference this time around is that the content is determined by you and your friends, as opposed to hired staff.

4. "Where do you think web design is going in the next decade?"

I think we'll have to focus on addressing the differences in interaction with websites when using touch interface, versus traditional mouse/keyboard input. Right now we're struggling with things we've taken for granted, such as rollover effects. Rollover on a tablet doesn't really exist!

We might have to accept that the user's experience between standard and touch interfaces will be inherently different, and address them individually. I think we'll begin to see mobile sites treated as the primary way users reach you, rather than a full-size computer screen.

For me, as a designer, that isn't something I'm very excited about simply because it’s a smaller canvas to work with. On the plus side, I expect others will soon be adopting Apple's approach to high-resolution screens, so we'll eventually be working with a resolution comparable to high-end print, despite the smaller display.

5. "What technologies are the most fascinating to you, from a usability standpoint?"

The most exciting area to be designing user interfaces right now is the tablet. Graphical user interfaces have always been based on metaphors for real-life scenarios, such as the "desktop" on Mac and Windows computers. And you essentially used a remote control (the mouse) to drag and drop documents around the screen.

We all got used to it, but using a mouse wasn't a purely natural or intuitive way of moving and selecting things. Now, with tablets, the "remote control" is no longer needed. We can literally move items around on the screen the same way we interact with things in the physical world.

That really hit home for me when I watched my 2-year-old nephew using an iPad with more proficiency than my parents use a desktop computer! We're naturally wired to manipulate and interact with our environment this way. So, to design interfaces with that type of touch input is pretty exciting. The way entire panels can be moved on and off screen with simple swipes really changes the way we approach that canvas.

6. "What questions do you most often receive from prospective clients? From current clients?"

The most common question I get is, "So when can we see the design?"

I'm usually the one asking all the questions! When I come into a new project, the most important thing that determines my ability to succeed is finding out what the client's goals and expectations are.

Sometimes that's easy, as the client will be full of ideas and able to express them. Beyond the immediate scope of the website, I also like to ask about their company, what makes them unique, who their competition is, who their customers are, the successes they've had, the areas they've failed, & where they hope to improve.

Even beyond the business side, I'll find out what kind of personalities work at the company, how they see themselves, what their tastes are, their outside interests, what they think is cool, fun or exciting.

7. "Are designers even necessary anymore? We have content management systems, design templates, lots of clip art & stock photos for sale...why would a business hire a designer now?"

There's actually a positive shift in the perception of how important design is to a company's success. More than ever, how a company is perceived online will impact whether or not someone wants to do business with them. So it's an area that successful businesses tend not to skimp on.

Content management systems allow companies to control their own content, but that content still needs professionals to write & design for it. Templates are a great starting point, but if a company finds that an un-customized template can faithfully represent their company's brand…then that company must not have a unique identity or message to convey. I've never known that to be the case for a successful business!

Stock photos are good tools for designers, but they still need to be used in an effective way. Which often requires creative cropping, manipulation and typography treatments so that they no longer look "stock," but rather an integrated part of a company's unique visual identity.

8. "What do you do outside of work? Do you aim for relaxation, or have your own projects?"

My pursuits outside of work often end up like work in themselves! One example is a conceptual/satirical rock band I started with my friends 11 years ago. It's taken on a life of its own; we're about to go on our third UK tour in early July. The band allows me to be creative in a lot of different ways – writing lyrics, helping compose music, editing promo videos, coming up with on-stage jokes and skits we perform between songs…great for keeping my creativity fresh!