What is Web Design?

Web Design means different things to different people. To begin, it's a process.

Take an idea for a website and assemble it for presentation on a website available world wide. (It is available on the World Wide Web after all. It's also a long word, so we can shorten it to WWW or W3.) It's part technical and part artistic. A website conveys information of one sort or another. All that information has to be put on a page in a form that computers can display. One objective is to have the computer display that information in a way that is functional and pleasing to the eye.

It may sound simple, and it is to some degree. However, there is really a lot going on, more than meets the eye, literally. There's all that "code behind the page" that results in nice clean readable text, along with images, video, eCommerce functionality, email list sign-ups, links to other sites and in general anything else you can think of that you want to do with a website.

There is an endless variety of content on "the web" but it all begins with <html> and ends with </html>. That's the beginning and end of the "code behind the page." Next, it is styled with Cascading Style Sheets. That's CSS for short and it essentially controls the look and feel of a website. It's a bit like framing a house then deciding what sorts of finishes are applied to the surfaces around the house, and what color to paint them. I haven't even begun to get into technical aspects of creating websites, yet this begins to give an idea of what is involved. This is all just broad brush-strokes, my point is not to go into all the details. That just becomes TL;DR. (It's too long and didn't read it anyway.) I just want to paint a broad picture of what's involved in Web Design.

Now of course, as is the nature of all things digital, someone is generally always creating a better way to build a mouse trap, that is a better way to manipulate code so that it functions well and can be coded effectively and efficiently. Ideas for new ways to display content lead to new ways of displaying that content. For example, long ago (in digital terms) there was only HTML. Someone then thought there's got to be a better way to make the pages based on HTML actually look good. Hence, CSS to add some style to the website. Well that was cool, but we can improve upon that, so CSS2 was born. Then someone decides that having "static" sites is boring and takes up too much space. Along comes JavaScript enabling dynamic display of content. That is, with JavaScript we can display content that changes based on what the site owner has available and what the visitor wants to see. Site content is effectively pulled from a database. This begins to open considerable possibilities and it can get rather technical, which for many means boring and becomes TL;DR. 

One of the really cool things about web-pages is that things can be linked. I can list a word or mention something and provide a link to that thing. It's all connected and that opens all kinds of possibilities. For example, what's the difference between a web-page and a website? Well, they're the same thing, aren't they? Well, no they're not. A website is really a collection of one or more web-pages. Generally a website will have a Home page along with maybe About and Contact pages. But you don't have to take my word for it. Or maybe my description works, but you'd like to know more. Well then, you're in luck as I can point you to a few articles at Wikipedia, such as Web page and Website. Check them out.

Another cool thing is the ability to index everything publicly available on the W3. We have search engines (like Google or DuckDuckGo) that "crawl" and catalog pretty much everything on the public web. You of course want your website to come-up in search, so there are ways to increase the likelihood that it will be found. BTW, Google is the result of a long line of efforts to search the entire world wide web and provide a listing of what is available. At first it was relatively easy to manually catalog it all. Here's an example of the original index of the web. One such effort was AltaVista which was the go-to search engine way back in the day. Google eventually hit the scene and (literally) changed the world. While I'm at it, I'll share with you a history of computing from 1933 to 2015. The changes in computing technology in that time-span are nothing short of phenomenal.

Links. Let me ask you, would you rather just click this link to a random Wikipedia article, or would you prefer to see the web address (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/99_Hudson_Street). No? I didn't think so. Web addresses (URLs) are too hard to read. We all would rather have it easily understandable to us humans. That's were "links" and "linking" come into play. A word that you and I can easily understand is presented on the page. "Behind the page" is code that tells the computer in terms it can understand where in the world to find the page your are looking for. Links are also what connect web-pages to form a website.

(Keep in mind that I'm simplifying. I'm not giving full and complete descriptions and definitions of all these terms. Not trying to be inclusive or all-encompassing in any way. That's not the point here, besides that just becomes TL;DR, although maybe it already has. Oh well, I'm really just having a bit of fun talking about something that I quite enjoy.)

Okay, so maybe you're getting some of the picture. Websites are pretty cool. What's a business without a website? How about and artist, or a person who as a hobby writes a blog, or a "weblog" of something they know a lot about or are passionate about. For one thing, they're at a disadvantage as it's much harder to convey that off-line. Sure it can be done, and sometimes it can be done much better in printed form or verbally. (Think of a large book of beautifully printed color images or speaking to someone on the phone or in person. Neither is quite the same in digital format.)

However, doing the same thing online has many advantages. One primary advantage being the ability to reach a much wider audience in a shorter period of time at significantly less expense. Another example is showing movies. In the "old" days we'd have to take 16 mm film or a VHS tape over to that person, get a projector and screen or TV and VHS tape player and then show the movie. Online video from YouTube or Vimeo is much quicker, and again can reach a much larger audience in much shorter time. (But you already knew all of that. However, I'm painting a picture here...)

Online we can share a great many things with anyone who wants it at any time of day and at any place on the planet that has access to the internet. For example, how about a brief history of the World Wide Web from Mashable. How about taking a step way-back and see what it was like to use the original World Wide Web using the W3 Project display simulator. (It is nothing like what it is now, just green-screen, no GUI or graphical user interface like you are using now.) Back then the web looked very different than it does now. For example, here's a listing displayed by subject of pretty much everything that was on the web circa 1992. There is also a listing of everything available by type of service from the same time-frame. It's very limited compared to the rich and ever increasing choices available today.

However, in the beginning it was simply the internet and it was created as as project of the U.S. Advanced Projects Research Agency and was called the ARPA-net. It quickly became apparent that this new creation could be very useful to everyone and along comes Tim Berners-Lee who comes up with HTML as a way to standardize the sharing of content on the internet. That was done using the world wide web, which is not the same as the internet. In fact the WWW exists on top of or as a part of the internet. but internet and www are not the same thing, even though plenty of people conflate the two.

Well that was fun, albeit a bit rambly, and it gives an idea of what makes websites so useful. So what is web design? Like I said it's a process. We take an idea for a website and turn that idea into a site that serves a purpose in a way that is functional and has at least an element of aesthetic design. We want it to look good. After all, the web is generally a visual medium of communication. We are all attracted to things that look good to us. That gets at another element of web design. Who is the audience and what looks good to them? That's a good question and the answer is most assuredly not the same for every audience. Other considerations include word-choice, spacing of text characters, placement of page elements such as text and images, background colors, background images and styles. Styles is a whole other set of choices and decisions to think about when designing a website. Again, it sounds simple yet it can get rather involved and complicated. 

But I don't know anything about HTML, CSS or anything else that goes into creating website, but I still want to create a website. What gives? Some very wise and thoughtful person first hit upon the idea of creating a website that would enable anyone to create a website. Call these website building platforms or systems. They're great! Indeed, anyone can create their own website using templates and providing their own text and images to populate the site. That works to a point because even still there is a lot going on behind that page. It is helpful to understand how websites function and what is possible. It's a bit like a do-it-yourself car mechanic. Changing the oil is easy, but try re-building an engine. It's a whole different story. DIY website builders are great. There is nothing wrong with using them. It's just that there is a point where you are very likely going to need some help making the site do what you want in a way to looks good. You won't necessarily need a top-of-the-line website design agency. But you might benefit from someone who can help guide you or do the work for you on that website building system. Once it's complete you will be able to maintain it yourself, if you want. You can also choose to have someone else maintain it for you. One example being you can write your own weekly blog post or you could provide the text you want posted and someone else can make it happen.

Squarespace is one such website building system based on templates. Yes, you can easily sign-up, choose a template and have a website up and running in a few hours. At least that's the idea. Once you choose a domain name (a what? a web address), select a template to build the site on, create an initial page or two, you can then publish the site. You might well have a site that works for you. More than likely you're going to get down into the various menus that control your site and struggle to figure out each does, and wonder why it's not doing what you want it to. If you're so inclined, you do have access to Squarespace's very good help/support system. There's a ton of information there. For those that get to that point and become frustrated, it's time to find someone whose been down that rabbit-hole (don't ask Alice, you might not like her answer) and knows their way around. There is an added value from that experience. Often, once the site is created and set the way you want it, then indeed it's is fairly easy and straightforward to maintain and update it yourself using the Squarespace content management system.

WordPress is another option for creating websites. WordPress is amazing. The possibilities are pretty much endless. There is an overwhelming selection of templates, plugins, widgets and add-ons that can be used with WordPress to do pretty much whatever you want to do. It sounds great and it is. However, it is not something that can be done over-night and not by someone who has never had any experience. What one doesn't have in experience will have to come through shear perseverance and tenacity, along with hours upon hours of searching, reading, experimenting and figuring out how to do what it is you want to do.

I still haven't mentioned that once a website is created it has to be hosted." That is, it has to have a home on a computer somewhere. A computer, termed a "server," that serves your website content to all who ask for it. When you put a web address into a web browser and press enter, a whole series of steps occur literally at the speed of light that amount to reaching out to find that content and have it served to your web browser on your computer. (You can physically be in Boise, Idaho and get content from Australia pretty much just as quickly as getting that same content from the same town in Idaho. That's pretty cool. Part of the beauty of the web.) Your website host is the place where your website lives. For that matter when people refer to "the cloud" they really just mean a server, or more likely a lot of really big servers located somewhere (doesn't really matter where in functional terms) that host website data. Same idea, different name.

There is also an element of security involved at this point. It is critical that only you be able to control what is being hosted on your website, that nothing but the content you provide is served to those accessing your website. It can depend on who you are and what your website contains. Although, sometimes it doesn't matter other than your in-secure hosting account is an easy target for some nefariously minded soul to drop some web-content onto your site containing malware that infects the computer of everyone visiting your site. You then become an unwitting accomplice to spreading malware, viruses or other eNastiness. This quickly gets rather technical and it is best to rely on a host who is reliable, trustworthy and secure. Cheaper is not necessarily better and expensive doesn't necessarily ensure reliability, trust or security. But these are all important aspects of choosing who hosts your website. (Is it getting a bit complex and overwhelming yet? If yes, then you're in good company because for many it is just that, complex and overwhelming.)

Everyone who creates websites had to start somewhere. They all have had to work hard to understand the underlying concepts, to learn how to create websites using all of the tools that are available and to do it in a way that is safe and reliable. And yes, there are a lot of tools that do amazing things, but they too take a bit to learn and understand. This is all part of the process I mentioned at the beginning.

At the root of it, web design is simply creating a website that serves a purpose using sound design principles  It's taking the elements of web design (such as HTML and CSS code, along with text and images and principles of good design) and creating something unique and interesting. It's a combination of art and science. Web design can be done by a single person or it can be done by groups of people. All web designers generally have an array of skills and talents that are focused on creating websites. Websites range from small simple single-page sites conveying basic messages (services offered, themed blog discussions, etc.) all the way to very large sites with many functions requiring a team of highly skilled people to create and maintain them. There's a whole range of sites in between.