Writer and developer Patrick McNeil has written the ultimate guide for anyone planning a new website. His book, “The Designer’s Web Handbook: What You Need to Know to Create for the Web” is written in a clear, conversational tone that makes planning your project a breeze from start to finish. You can read the whole book in an afternoon and McNeil’s carefully chosen examples help send his concepts and suggestions home. McNeil also does a great job of referencing and providing links to a great number of sources.
The book follows the natural progression of planning a site and conceptualizing content to thinking about design and production considerations to choosing a CMS to things you should think about when it comes to maintaining your site. His advice is sharp and practical and he points out a lot of details that can be easy for the newbie designer or developer to forget.
The book, one of several by this author, is a culmination of topics and suggestions from his blog, Design Meltdown. It also includes four great extras in the appendixes, including a guide to understanding WordPress from teacher, designer and developer Jesse Friedman and a list of other books worth consideration.
I took away five key concepts from reading. Planning for standards is key, understand your site goals, don’t mess with critical parts, organize, and maintain and measure results.
Takeaway No. 1: Plan for standards
Web design and development is filled with ever-changing standards, but understanding and accepting them in your design scheme will make your life easier and help your project come together faster. McNeil highlights and provides detailed information about some key web standards that serve as a great guideline for sketching out a site plan.
Accept and build for standard ad sizes if you plan to have advertising on your site.
Think about all the different platforms where your site will be viewed and how you will accommodate them (or if you plan not to). Consider the website and mobile site differences employed by Small Studio Design above.
Determine the type of content management system that suits your needs – installed or hosted.
Takeaway No. 2: Understand your site goals
Make sure you understand the type of website that you are trying to build. Is it for you or a customer? What are the overall goals of the site – e-commerce, entertainment, news, blogging, educational, application, mobile, or even some mix of these?
Develop the parts of each different kind of site as necessary and don’t overlook the details. (A secure checkout, for example, is necessary if you plan to do business on your site.)
Takeaway No. 3: Don’t mess with critical parts
Every successful website includes certain design components – headers, branding, primary and secondary navigation, search functionality, account information, menus, footers and social media. Make sure to include all of these in your design.
A website that looks fantastic but is not usable is no good at all. This is a point that McNeil stresses several times.
Think about placement of critical parts of your site as well. The logo should be at the top left of the homepage, login information tends to be at the top right, main navigational tools are across the top and submenus are on the left-hand side of the site. McNeil says the placement of these critical components should be honored to make site use easier for readers.
Takeaway No. 4: Organize
Put your design prototypes together in a way that is easy for you (and others) to understand. Build out drafts using folders with labeled classification of parts.
Use common and appropriate file formats (McNeil explains this is pretty good detail) so that a finished design is not a nightmare for the developer, even if the designer and developer are the same person. Understand your font choices and accommodate for fonts that are not considered universally safe (McNeil has a list of those included in Chapter 8.)
Think about templating as you go. Build parts and pieces that you can reuse on other parts of the website. Streamline common design parts into a single piece that can be reused.
Takeaway No. 5: Maintain and measure results
Once your site is complete, you have to keep it alive. Continue to add quality content (the top website traffic driver) and update your site. Ensure that links and other elements such as flash components, videos and slideshows are working (and that they work across multiple platforms and browsers).
Then setup an account to measure your sites success. Analytics and tracking do not have to be super-complicated. Set one or two goals that you consider measures of success – what do you want people to do on your site? – and track those results using programs such as Google Analytics or Reinvigorate.
One of the hot words in the web business these days is “SEO” or search engine optimization. Use this to your advantage. The No. 1 tip from McNeil? Come up with a great URL.
McNeil’s book is not a how-to guide for how to create a successful website or even web design. It is a guide to creating and developing and complete website from start to finish. It works as a checklist of sorts as you plan a project.
His suggestions are on target and the examples are beautiful. He supports his theories with common sense and backs up suggestions with real world sites to check out. (If nothing else, the resources McNeil shares are phenomenal.)
This book is a must-have for anyone planning their first major website project. It would also be a great resource for anyone who is new to the world of websites, from maintaining and keeping up a site to thinking about a redesign. More experienced designers and developers can find use for the book as well – there are a lot of sites that could benefit from implementing some of McNeil’s suggestions.
“The Designer’s Web Handbook: What You Need to Know to Create for the Web,” by Patrick McNeil (2012). 272 pages. Retails for $35 ($15 Kindle). Find more info on the author’s website: The Designer’s Web Handbook.