“Nothing useless can be truly beautiful” – William Morris
William Morris wouldn't have known it, having lived in the latter half of the 19th century, but in our opinion it's an observation that clearly illustrates why you shouldn’t trust a design agency to deliver a website for your business.
Since an online presence is now pretty much a given for every type of business, the answer to the question ‘Why does a business need a website?’ is likely to be ‘That’s a very stupid question’. We’re not in the habit of basing our blog posts around very stupid questions, however, so perhaps we should explain.
When we ask why you need a website - whether that's a brand new one or a revamp - what we’re really asking is what you want that website to do, because if your answer is that you just want your website to look amazing, then by all means go and find yourself a design agency to work on it.
These guys will doubtless be able to create a website that looks good, and they may well initially win you over by showing you a portfolio of equally dazzling sites produced for previous clients; complete with tasteful colour schemes, menus that fold out/roll up/fade-in and out in exciting ways and aesthetically pleasing fonts and illustrations.
However, if you go to a design agency and the very first thing they do is unveil a visually stunning, highly impressive portfolio then our advice would be to back slowly out of the door while saying ‘No thank you’ politely but emphatically. In other words, if their pitch for your business is based entirely on how amazing your new or improved website will look then don’t just back out slowly - but turn and run.
Because we’re here to tell you that you simply shouldn’t trust a design agency with the creation of your website.
Lots of very good people work in design agencies, and they produce lots of exceptional work. But we stand by what we say, and one of the reasons we’re so convinced of our stance on design agencies and websites is that we spend a fair amount of our time performing rescue and resuscitation on websites belonging to businesses that did put themselves in the hands of a team focused purely on design.
Designing in a Vacuum
What we tend to find, when we’re working on websites like these, is that we’re having the same conversations with our clients over and over again. Yes, the website looks contemporary, and slick and stylish and all the other words their agency promised to deliver; but they've come to us to work some kind of magic on it because, in the simplest terms, it actually doesn’t deliver.
And this brings us back to the ‘why’ question we asked at the start of this post. ‘Why do you want a new or improved website?’ is simply another way of asking what you expect it to deliver for your business.
In precise terms this is going to vary from case to case but ultimately it can be summed up in the single word ‘money’.
More specifically, you want, as a bare minimum, a return on the investment involved in having the website put together in the first place. This might mean more contracts for an engineering company, more sales on an ecommerce site, more visitors to a tourist attraction, more time spent interacting with a gaming site - you can insert your own example - but the point remains the same.
The job of a website is to help anyone arriving there to understand your business, decide if it offers what they’re looking for and – crucially – find that exact thing they’re looking for quickly and simply.
The issue with websites which are the work purely of a design agency – as opposed to a digital agency or a digital marketing agency – is that they tend to be designed in a vacuum. We have some fantastic designers here at Red Evolution, for example, who can create visually stunning solutions for our client’s sites, but they always work hand in hand with our strategists, our marketing experts, our content providers, and our developers.
This holistic approach means that everyone is contributing to a solution that has the sole intention of adding value to your business. Often, clients who've gone to a design agency tend to find themselves saddled with a beautiful waste of time which does nothing to:
- Attract visitors.
- Turn those visitors into customers.
Like many things that are quite complex to achieve, the real key to an effective website is very simple to summarise, because a website is effective when – and only when – it does these two things.
Who’s to Blame?
This is an easy question to answer – it’s the design agency surely? Well yes and no. They may have delivered a website which ultimately isn’t fit for purpose but they’re a design agency that’s just done some top-notch designing. The other stuff – the added value stuff – is often outside their field of experience or expertise - or both.
To put it bluntly, they don’t know what they don’t know. They know design, not content creation, SEO, coding, content management, user experience and so on. And the fact that they can get away with creating what seems to be a high-quality website without knowing about the vital behind the scenes stuff is, in some ways, a reflection of the wider digital sector.
Some of the platforms which are available –Squarespace, Wix, HubSpot, WordPress for example, have democratised the process of designing and building a website, putting the building blocks in anybody’s hands. For their customers, they've effectively removed the geeks from the equation - which everyone who isn’t a geek naturally loves.
What can’t be democratised, however, is the kind of knowledge and learning that comes from working with a business in depth and the experience gained from building and evolving many websites. That’s the kind of thing we do at Red Evolution, and when someone brings us a website which hasn’t delivered what they were hoping, we can often tell it was the work of a design agency.
Many design agencies were established in the age of printed media, delivering products like catalogues, leaflets, business cards, posters, and flyers; and while the visual skillset this involves is transferrable to the digital realm, a designer of even the highest calibre is unlikely to have any of the other skills needed to deliver genuinely effective websites.
We’d also point out, albeit very politely, that the clients themselves were at least partly to blame. The entry bar for the industry as a whole has been set at a pretty low level, and clients need to be able to spot the signs of an agency that's managed to limbo-in underneath that bar.
We’ve already mentioned a few of the red flags to look out for. An emphasis on the visual splendour of a portfolio is one. A vocabulary which hinges almost exclusively upon words like ‘style’ and ‘contemporary’ and ‘aesthetic’ is another.
However, trumping this, a lack of curiosity about the nature of the business is perhaps the most blatant signal that the emphasis will be all wrong. As a client, you should insist the process of a website build starts by sitting down and talking about your business and about exactly what you want the website to achieve – not simply what you want it to look like.
For a good example of this principle in action pay a visit to Amazon. Is it stunning? Does it take your breath away with its style and visual impact? We’d say no. Does it, however, make it incredibly easy to buy stuff? Yes it does, and that’s the primary purpose of Amazon, with everything from the search bar to the menus and the tech behind one click purchasing being placed in the service of that purpose.
Which helps to explain why, in May 2022, 2.4 billion people made unique visits to Amazon, making it easily the most popular ecommerce site in the US. It’s not designed to look good, it’s designed to work.
The same applies to a site such as Airbnb, which is relatively low-key in visual terms but works in such a way that any visitor only has to enter a few very simple details on the home page – where, when and how many, basically – before they find themselves scrolling through a tempting smorgasbord of possible destinations. That ease of use, rather than any aesthetic impact, is the hallmark of great web design.
Partnership and Process
The people designing your website should talk about it in terms of it being a partnership and a process, one which moves through discovery - identifying your business goals and what the website needs to deliver in order to support these - and what the scope of the design and build will encompass in order to deliver those goals.
There will then follow content strategy, planning and creation - with an emphasis on content that will engage and convince potential customers - then ensuring the content is optimised while also satisfying Google’s thirst for ‘helpful content’. It's a road less travelled but worth the journey.
Then you'll have a firm foundation for all the visual elements. Any roadmap for the project should also include an extensive period of testing and retesting, fixing problems and making the kind of iterative changes needed to maximise the impact and effectiveness of a website prior to launch. At each point the question should be ‘Does it work?’ not ‘What does it look like?’
If you’re someone from a design agency and you’d like to point out just how wide of the mark you think we are then please get in touch, and the same applies if you take in this blog post, look at your bright, shiny, stylish but not very effective website, and think ‘Hang on a minute…’