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3 Pivotal Design Lessons Learned from 450+ Interviews

branding and design lessons from many peopleI’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 Big Brand System, 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.

Simple.

What lessons have you learned about design? I’d love to talk about it in the comments.
brand building depends on good simple designAbout 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.

Pamela Wilson

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23 thoughts on “3 Pivotal Design Lessons Learned from 450+ Interviews”

    • It’s cool to see your text transformed into a post, isn’t it?

      You gave me lots of elements to format, and the end product is visually interesting. I guess the page is a good example of the power of design, too. 🙂

      Thanks so much for all your insights, here, Mario. I believe good design + well-executed marketing can make a huge difference to a young company, and it’s really great to hear from so many others who feel the same way.

  1. I LOVE checking out other website designs. I have no talent in the actual coding though (wish I did)!

    I spent so much time and money tweaking & re-tweaking my site. I’m very pleased with it now & I get a lot of compliments, so I guess it has paid off.

    My site is a mish-mash of a bunch of different sites I love. I would search the web for ideas and take notes along with jotting down the links of the pages I liked most. Then I had my designer go to work on it… that’s another story too though. I’ve had several different designers along the way as well.

    I’d suggest keeping tidy notes on all aspects of your design. Get really clear on it and know it’s not going to look perfect over night. It’s a work in progress! (always)

  2. Simplicity is the rule I have to keep in the forefront of my mind.

    Your advice to start simple and evolve from there is spot on. Being severely analytically (i.e. my brain likes to complicate things) I am not a natural designer, though I recognize a good design when I see it. Having as few elements as needed on a page makes testing peoples’ response to the design much simpler.

    Sidebar: I hope I’m not the only one who smiled when I read “Wong, Doody, Crandell, Wiener”

    • Jesse, thanks for your comment. And you make a very good point about analytics as well, which I considered integrating but ultimately left out. There is a fine line between trusting your gut and letting data guide your design decisions. For me, it’s a constant series of compromises which I couldn’t figure out how to articulate. And none of our interviews talked about it. 🙂

  3. Hell Mario and Pamela. Great post with some helpful tips. I think it is wonderful that we can access the web now without hiring someone for thousands of dollars. It has made the work from home industry a crowded, but exciting one. I never thought I would be so interested in how everything works under the hood, but I love learning about simple codes and tweeks for my blog. It is a bit addictive and I am always moving, changing and shifting things around to see what works.

  4. Our websites are a part of us and so much more personal now than before. I believe with the focus on building relationships and socializing online via the various sites drives a need to make sure our home is neat and pleasing. I love all the options and the opportunities to utilize more of them on my site and clients. I have to admit, I get bored and like to change it periodically, but each time it’s better than the previous. The templates are getting better and better…Thanks so much for this excellent post!

  5. Web design is definitely a work in progress.

    Funny thing about keeping it simple. When I went out looking for website templates, 95% of what I found was cluttered, busy, and/or lurid. Not to mention, many of them require you to have expensive Adobe software. Keep digging until you find something you like and can manage. Make sure to look at templates outside your business category – I have not yet found a single jewelry template that didn’t make my want to scream and run. Modern furniture templates, however, gave me several very clean looks to pick from.

    The advice about notes is excellent. I keep a 3 ring binder.
    -I have a list of hex codes on the cover for my chosen colors. I use these custom colors everywhere I am able (thank you, Pamela, for the Color Wizard).
    -I printed out the CSS code for my site template and made notes in pink pen where I hacked it, why, and what changes these hacks actually effected – sometimes changing a font or size can throw a template completely out of whack.
    -Most everything I know about hacking code I learned from htmldog.com and a lot of trial and error. If you have the time, it’s nice to not have to rely completely on a coder to make minor changes. It’s also helpful when you’re trouble-shooting code that you’ve copied and pasted from elsewhere.

    Mario, you’re so right about “less is more” I found myself doing exactly what you mentioned about removing a feature before adding one. Menu management can be really tricky. I opted for more menu boxes with fewer things in each. Too many choices is overwhelming.

    • Andrea, great points. I actually ended up going with a basic theme to start with (Canvas by WooThemes) as they’ve given me more flexibility as the site grows. Also I’ve been looking for some great html resources so thank you for passing along htmldog.com. Hadn’t heard about them before.

  6. Mario, a great post!

    As far as I’m concerned, the way content looks (on a page, in a document, even in email) is equally as important as the way it reads. The design sets the first impression, and it’s an enabler of readability and accessibility. And as someone who specialises in business communication and business improvement, I can’t agree more with the approach of starting simple.

    As you said, there are loads of resources to help people, like Pamela’s blog, which I found through one of her guest posts on Copyblogger, another brilliant, free resource.

    For my website, I used StudioPress (Executive theme) from Copyblogger Media. It was less than $79 (because of the US-AUS exchange rate). What value! And it’s supported with a fantastic user forum with loads of tutorials and some incredibly-helpful experts. And because WordPress is the framework, I was able to find plugins for specific things I wanted to do.

    There’s always tweaking to the site, but the tools and support available made it so much easier for me to achieve a professional result.

  7. Hey Mark, I have used StudioPress in the past and had an excellent experience with them as well. Also a big fan of their Scribe tool which I use on IdeaMensch.

    Btw, love the accordion function on your FAQ page. That’s something I need to implement myself.

  8. Thanks for the reminder: Start simple.

    I am currently working on my website (wordpress) and I have a tendency to add and add and add. But after reading Pamela’s blog for a few months now and reading your article, I am asking myself whenever I want to add something: what can I remove instead?

    Just a quick question: what is “Crowdsourcing”? I know about Open Source etc. but this concept is pretty much new to me.

    Und noch schöne Grüße aus Bayern

    Peter

  9. Peter, thank you for your comment. I did not like what Bayern Muenchen did to my team this weekend. But anyways…

    Crowdsourcuing basically is the process of offering a variety of people to bid on a certain project (mostly design oriented) by submitting their designs and solutions.

    As a site owner, it’s a good thing because you get to look at a variety of different choices and options while only paying for the one you like best.

    As a designer, it’s good that you have access to projects that you might have not gotten otherwise. And it’s bad because you have to prove yourself every time and you only get paid if you win.

    • Thank you for the 2 amazing resources.

      Honestly, I did not even know that services like that existed. I have bookmarked them. The internet is such a great place, thanks again.

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