The Biggest Challenge in Web Design

Like most things worth doing in life, web design contains its fair share of questions and challenges.

Do I want my site to end in .com or .net? Should my background be black, green, or purple? Am I going to advertise via Google Adwords, Facebook, or something else entirely? There are decisions to be made everywhere you look.

In my experience, however, there’s one challenge that rises above (or, perhaps more accurately, runs through) the rest. Put simply, the challenge is this:

We attempt to address the HOW before we’ve addressed the WHO, WHAT, and WHY.

To show what I mean, let me start by giving an example.

Trying to Choose the Perfect Font

I’m a fan of beautiful typography.

It’s not just a fascinating and enjoyable art form; it’s powerful. Finding the right combination of fonts, line spacing, margins, etc. can make all the difference in the world for a website.

You can post a few excerpts from Shakespeare on a site with bad typography, and most people won’t read past the first line. Post just about anything on a site with great typography, however, and people will read and read.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat for hours at a computer testing out fonts on a project. I can remember several occasions spending the better part of a day just trying out different combinations, hoping to get it looking just right.

Now this, in and of itself, isn’t a problem.

Having done this more times than I care to admit, however, I’ve started to notice a problematic trend.

You see, in all the times I’ve spent trying to choose the perfect font, I’ve had a pretty low success rate. And not because there’s no such thing as a perfect font.

The reason is that, in most of these cases, I wasn’t really trying to find the perfect font at all. I was really trying to avoid something. Trying to pretend I was picking out fonts so that I could put off doing something else I actually enjoyed.

And ever since I first came to realize this, all sorts of struggles have become easier.

Defense Mechanisms in Web Design

When things like this happen (and they happen often), I find it’s a textbook case of what psychologists call displacement.

Displacement is a kind of defense mechanism (like projection, denial, etc.). In short, it means redirecting a negative emotion from the real object causing the emotion to a less threatening object in order to avoid dealing with the actual problem.

You see, when I’ve spent half a day trying out different fonts on a website, it’s typically not the fonts that have a problem.

Maybe I was wasting time on fonts because I didn’t want to have to start writing that bio I’d been putting off or setting up the contact form I knew would be tricky. Maybe I really needed to create a new account that wouldn’t be fun or send an email to someone who I’d prefer to ignore.

It doesn’t matter what it was. What matters is that I’d convinced myself I was doing something important, when in reality the important thing was what I was avoiding.

It’s a tendency I think we all face, at least from time to time.

And in web design, it could mean the difference between a project costing $1,500 and $5,000 (no joke).

The Biggest Challenge

I said the biggest challenge is that we attempt to address HOW before we’ve addressed the WHO, WHAT, and WHY.

Another way of saying this is that we spend all our time addressing questions about design when the real questions holding us back are those about function.

I’ll come back to this challenge and suggest several specific ways to deal with it throughout the other articles. But first, I want to share the one principle that’s made the biggest difference for me personally.

I can assure you that if you follow it, your web design project go a lot easier (not to mention, you’ll save a lot of money)…

Next: The first rule in web design.