Visit a website for the first time and almost immediately you form an opinion about the site from its appearance. If the site is clean, uncluttered and appears professional, you’re likely to trust it intrinsically and be encouraged to explore it further. In contrast, chance upon a site which has a migraine inducing array of clashing colours, fantasy fonts with missing or misaligned elements and you’re unlikely to stay for very long. The almost instantaneous conclusion you reach is the result of assimilating information about all the elements that make up the web page, from font sizes and faces to colour palette and page layout. Perhaps more importantly, it is the manner in which these elements interact that determines whether a web page appears as cohesive whole or a jarring mess. Get just one element wrong on an otherwise perfect page and you can shatter the fragile illusion of a professionally designed website. So what really matters when it comes to designing a professional looking web page?
Aim for a constrained layout
Look at a magazine or newspaper layout and you’ll appreciate the value of compartmentalisation. Divide the content of your web page into boxes or columns and constrain everything in an HTML element with a fixed width, to keep it neat and tidy.
Stick to a restrained colour palette
Less is more when it comes to colour choice, so pick four or five complimentary colours and stick with these for everything but the images. Some unusual colours combinations, such as mid-blue with orange or deep red with grey, work particularly well on the web and so it’s worth experimenting until you find the colour palette that works for you.
Remember, white space is free on the web
Avoid overcrowded layouts by increasing the whitespace within and around elements. Increasing the margins and line spacing can dramatically unclutter your pages and, unlike in print media, white space is free on the web.
Minimise the use of different fonts
Aim to use only two or three different fonts so that your pages have a unified feel. Sans serif fonts are easiest to read on the screen and should be used for the main content, but serif fonts can be useful to differentiate text such as quotes. Reserve monospaced fonts for code snippets and avoid fantasy font like the plague, unless you’re designing website for the under fives.
Keep your font sizes in check
It may seem counter intuitive, but research shows that reducing the font size means that visitors will read your website text more attentively and retain more information. Try decreasing all your font sizes by about 10% and enjoy that feeling of space and calm that ensues.
Aim for consistent layout between pages
There’s nothing more annoying for your visitors than involving them in games such as ‘hunt the navigation’. Aim to be consistent with the placement of key elements on every page of the site, so that your visitors know where things are without having to search for them.
Signpost clear routes around the site
A ‘linear path’ is the buzzword for providing a clear route through the website, along which you shepherd your visitors towards your, not their, chosen goal. Even if you lack the sheepdog instinct, you should ensure that there is clear, intuitive navigation and plenty of contextual links within and around the text to guide visitors to other areas of interest.
Add images only if they add visitor value
Cheesy stock photographs and graphics have been the downfall of many otherwise excellent looking sites. Before you add any image to a site, ask yourself whether it provides the visitor with any valuable information not conveyed in the text. If it doesn’t, don’t use it.
Avoid over animation
If you’re thinking about including animated elements in your website, you’ll be governed by both practical and aesthetic considerations. The practical concerns are for the health of your visitors, as blinking text or flash banners can induce epileptic seizures. Aesthetic considerations are much more subjective, but if you want to include animated elements, ensure that the implementation is not over intrusive.
Less is more
Giving general tips is one thing, but the ability to design professional looking websites is a learned skill, which may take considerable time to acquire. As your ability increases you will become more self-critical, so that you may not feel you’re progressing, even though you’re coming on in leaps and bounds. However, there will come one of those eureka moments when you start producing clean, uncluttered professional websites. For almost everyone, that moment of realisation comes when they discover that you’re more likely to improve a website by reducing or eliminating elements, than by cramming extra things in. When it comes to web design, less really is more.