I’m very pleased to be able to feature a guest post today from Mario Schulzke, who is the founder of IdeaMensch.com. Mario has made his name online interviewing famous and not-so-famous people to collect their best ideas about business, creativity and life. Please make him feel welcome by adding your comment at the bottom of this post. –Pamela
Good web design is important, differentiating, potentially overwhelming to create and something you simply cannot get around if you’re trying to start just about anything online.
Despite the atrociously high keyword density of the word ‘design’ in this post, let me tell you that I am not a designer.
I am a digital marketer for some very large brands (Mario runs the Digital Strategy practice at WDCW) and am the founder of IdeaMensch, where I’ve interviewed 450+ awesome people — ranging from folks like the founder of Craigslist, to a Penn State junior founding a nonprofit connecting homeless youth with shelter animals. And lots of amazing people in between. People like Seth Godin, Gary Vaynerchuk, Nancy Brinker, Steve Pressfield and Daniel Pink.
Below I’ll share with you what I’ve learned about designing digital properties. And if you’re not a Fortune-anything marketer with a ginormous budget, please read on, because, well that’s not what good design is all about.
Good design is more important than ever
Since you’re a reader of the articles on this website, you recognize and appreciate the importance of design. Why is good design so important? Look around. Everyone is starting something. There are millions of websites, blogs, apps and ideas out there — and good design is a necessary differentiator in not only catching our attention but in keeping it.
Building anything online is about either functionality or content, with design being the layer that people interact with. Design is also your brand.
Andrea Scher and Jen Lemen, the co-creators of Mondo Beyondo, made that point so relevantly in their interview with me:
“Great design is the key to grounding really good ideas. There are millions of great ideas, great content, etc. but without beauty and a simple, graceful form, those ideas don’t land.”
Michael Bungay-Stainer, the editor of the recent bestseller End Malaria and Senior Partner at Box of Crayons confirmed that point:
“Content is now ubiquitous and that makes it worthless. Design and making things beautiful is where value gets added. So whatever you’re working on – how can you bake in design to make it elegant?”
Knowing that good design is important is one thing, but what excites me is how attainable good design can be.
Good design doesn’t have to be expensive
I have spent much of the last ten years managing the process of building websites that cost six-figures. Six-figure websites that you can now create yourself with a WordPress template for under a $100. That’s good for you, good for WordPress and bad for guys who are really good at managing six-figure corporate America web projects. But seriously, there is no excuse to have a shitty looking website anymore.
The playing field has been leveled, which is what Seth Price, the founder of Turly Tag, was very excited about:
“The barriers to entry for bringing an idea to fruition have been reduced greatly. Lower computing and programming costs, crowdsourced design and the ability to test ideas in an open marketplace almost instantly. I see a time when entrepreneurship will be a part of every family’s life. Not a replacement for traditional employment but an enhancement. We all have ideas, now there are fewer excuses.”
And even if you have no clue how to take a WordPress design and bring it to life, there is plenty of help available. I understand why some designers aren’t necessarily excited about the rapid growth of various crowdsourcing models, but you can’t really argue with the benefits.
Scott Gerber, the author of Never Have a Real Job, told me:
“Crowdsourcing is a wonderful thing. No longer do business owners need to hire only one vendor for a project — they only need to pay for one! The fact that I can tap some of the world’s top creative talents by visiting a site like 99designs and have many world-class iterations of my project in less than a week astounds me.”
Good design starts simple
One of the easiest ways to fail with your new website, service or product is to try and have it do too much at once. Just because you can think of another feature, another button or another function doesn’t mean your users or consumers will use it. More often than not, adding “more” to your core functionality or design will make your job harder and dramatically increase the odds of driving your consumers away from what you actually want them to do.
That doesn’t mean your business or website should “only do one thing” but it does mean that you should do one thing really well before developing the next. Eric Ries’ Lean Startup Movement talks about always launching with a Minimum Viable Product and many of us are fans of various 37Signals software products, which are built around the concept of “less is more.” The same holds true when it comes to design.
When I asked Mark Hendrickson, the co-founder of Plancast, how he brings ideas to life, he said:
“The short answer is through hands-on development and design work, wherein I’ll take an idea and then try to build the most viable simple version of it as quickly as possible. Then I’ll see how people use it and either develop it further or switch over to another idea based on what I learn.”
Phil Michaelson told me about his experience launching KartMe.com.
“In launching KartMe.com, I’ve learned that simplicity of the product is crucial. Every feature adds complexity to not only the end user experience, but also to the jobs to be done by our graphic designers and programmers. Now every time a member requests a new feature, I try to find a current feature to remove.”
Whether you’re designing a product or a website, my advice is to start with something very simple and then evolve it. That’s what I did when I started IdeaMensch, which pretty much launched as a carbon copy of the now defunct Press Box WordPress Theme. Once IdeaMensch had gained some traction, I decided to have a developer recreate the theme with a different theme platform because I liked some of the built-in functions. Once we grew and expanded our content beyond just interviews, a freelance developer created a custom theme built on that same platform.
One last point. As you develop your website project, do follow basic design principles. Thanks to amazing people like Pamela, there is plenty of easy-to-understand and very helpful design information out there. Pamela’s recent on post on basic design rules was a great refresher for me and led me to revisit the use of colors on my site.
Because just like with everything else in life and business, you can always improve or refine a design.
But the most important thing is that you start.
What lessons have you learned about design? I’d love to talk about it in the comments.
About the Author: Mario Schulzke is the founder of IdeaMensch, a community of people with ideas. He’s also the Senior Director of Digital Strategy at West Coast ad agency WDCW. Mario commutes between a small town in Germany and Los Angeles, constantly brags about the one Ironman he did and is a passionate supporter of the “It’s Ok To Be A Cat Guy” movement.
If you know someone you’d love to see interviewed on IdeaMensch (yes, even yourself), shoot Mario an email at mario at ideamensch dot com.