6 Lessons Web Designers Can Learn from Architects

October 11, 2006

Posted in Web Industry.

“I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
Dwight Eisenhower

The most critical part of any project is the planning stage. This is evident in many professions and projects – just look at the maxims:

  • Measure twice, cut once.
  • If you fail to plan you are planning to fail.
  • Look before you leap.
  • The more you plan the luckier you get.
  • Projects happen in two ways: a) Planned and then executed or b) Executed, stopped, planned and then executed.

Because the computer makes it easy to start programming, designing, or writing, many people jump right in and start working. This is a quick way to fail. That’s why teachers hand students a syllabus, writers often start with an outline, and I carry a shopping list to the grocery store. So how do we apply this to web projects?


A while back, I created a proposal for an architectural design firm’s website. They really liked our work and the project plan, but made a comment about a term we had used: Information Architecture.

In a web project, this refers to navigation, certain design elements, content layout, and communication tactics. While I generally use Information Architecture (or IA) to refer to the navigation structure, this is simply the product of the project planning.

The architect’s comment made me think: a web project is not that different from a building. I use the metaphor quite frequently when talking to clients.

On the importance of experts (vs. do-it-yourselfers): You wouldn’t have your staff build your new office, so why would you expect your staff to become expert web developers?

On the importance of design: You make sure your office is clean when clients visit, so why would you leave your website a mess?

In real life, we rely on architects to create a functional, effective, stable, safe, accessible, and beautiful building. We have a budget, a timeline, requirements, and opinions. The architects produce design mockups, specs, and blueprints. They may work with the construction team to make sure the plan is executed properly.

Six Lessons We’ve Learned

1. Plans come first, not design
Quality design is the product of a solid plan, excellent content, and a goal-oriented project. Too many clients want to see design first. In my experience, this leads to stagnation and failure. Remember, the design is for the visitor – not for the client.

2. A blueprint helps later
Creating a plan means you have something to stick to later on. Get clients to sign off on your plan. This plan is guided by the objectives and goals of your client. Do this first, and use it to keep focused throughout the rest of the project.

3. Keep the goal in mind
The whole project is founded and financed based on the need to achieve the client’s goals. This is where the blueprint comes in. Months into the project, when the client asks for a change, you can come back to your blueprint and determine whether it fits into the plan or not. If not, be ready to say NO.

4. Design for Flow
Buildings that handle lot of people traffic are designed to improve flow from one space to the next. Whether it’s office space or a concert hall, it needs to be easy to find your destination and get there smoothly. Websites are no different. Your visitor is looking for something, so make sure it’s easy to get there. Keep the visitor’s experience in mind throughout all phases of your project.

5. Everything affects budget and timeline
In larger projects, you might have part of your budget specifically assigned to usability testing, research, etc. Changes down the road might invalidate this work – which could be very costly to repeat. Make sure clients are aware that their requests, however insignificant, may have much larger effects on the project. Adding a day of work could add a week to the timeline.

6. You’re the expert
You need to assert yourself as the expert with well-founded, objective arguments for why you do what you do. Be patient with the client, but be firm. To a non-technical person, what we do seems like magic sometimes. Don’t do work that you can’t be proud of.

Many of the common pitfalls of a project are due to a lack of planning. You can head these off with a structured, organized plan and constant vigilance during the project. Keep your blueprint handy.

1 Comment

  1. counterstr — February 05, 2008

    bro. steve harris video productions