The missing pillar of web design

After listening to the various podcasts coming out the Web Essentials conference this year it has made me think a lot about the nature of web design and the current state of the industry. Although there are some very exciting developments, I am concerned that we may be in danger of loosing some perspective.

Six Pillars of web design

For fear of stretching an analogy, I believe that there are six pillars of web design. Each pillar represents a fundamental part of any website development project and a successful site has an equal balance between all pillars.

These pillars are:


Usability is a well-recognised sphere of web development with many champions such as Steve Krug and Jacob Nielsen. Sites with bad usability suffer from poor rates of repeat traffic and failure by users to complete calls to action.


For the sake of this article, web accessibility refers to making your site accessible to the widest possible audience whether they are disabled, using old technology or alternative devices. This is a particularly popular area at the moment within the web design community, with a lot of effort being put into developing techniques to improve site accessibility.


Aesthetics refers to the branded look and feel for a site. Covering colour schemes, styling and interface, aesthetics has a huge impact on how a users perceives a site. For a long time this was my far the most dominant pillar of web design but now it is seen by many as secondary.


This pillar of web design is experiencing phenomenal growth, with ever more powerful "web applications" emerging. It covers web standards and AJAX as well as more traditional server side scripting.


In many ways, this pillar is ignored by many web designers being considered "the clients problem". The reality is that content can make or break a website. Well-written, easy to read content combined with useful applications can go a long way to supporting an otherwise weak site.


This is the missing pillar of web design. Often overlooked in the web design process and yet fundamental to any sites success. Why does the site exist? What is it trying to achieve? What returns on investment are required? These are all essential questions that are easy to ignore. Fundermentally this is the "business model" behind the site.

Since initially writing this article Alist Apart have published an excellent article on site objectives and strategies. It is definately worth a read.

Maintaining the balance

Problems arise when these pillars are not in balance. If one pillar is removed, or even if one pillar becomes greater than another does, then the whole structure becomes unstable.

Like in every other area of life, web design goes through "trends". From brochureware to flash, from web standards to AJAX, we are all prone to jumping on the bandwagon. Of course, in once sense this is a good thing. When we see other people’s groundbreaking work, it inspires us to innovate ourselves. We are seeing this with AJAX and Web 2.0. There is a lot of innovation happening around the "development pillar" and that is good to see. It should be applauded. However, we must be careful to ensure that this pillar does not become unbalanced with the others. I am seeing many web 2.0 applications that function wonderfully, degrade nicely, look stunning, but are at the end of the day are pointless, lacking a clear objective!

The sixth pillar

I hear a lot of grumbling in the web design community about clients. Our clients aren’t interested in accessibility or AJAX or web standards. Many see their clients as being ignorant and a barrier to progress. Although I am sure there is the odd ignorant client out there, I think the main problem is that they focus most heavily on the one pillar of web design we largely ignore… objectives.

They are concerned with the sites return on investment, whether that is in sales, leads, or brand awareness. They don’t care about accessibility unless it will help them achieve their objectives. They are not interested in the underlying technology if it won’t solve their business problems.

The holistic approach

So who is right? Are our client’s right to obsess about objectives and goals, or are we right focusing on accessibility and applications? The reality is that we should be taking a holistic approach to web design where we all at least keep an eye on the other pillars. Even if you specialise in accessibility you should not be blind to technology and equally if you specialise in technology it should not be at the expense of all else.

By maintaining an overview of all the pillars of web design, we are sure to keep them in balance and prevent too much bias towards any one area.

  • Dennis

    Great points, Paul! And thanks for the usability links. Here’s my podcast on accessibility for anyone interested:

  • Marston

    Great points indeed. I was thinking about this today myself actually, especially point 6. Outside and even within the standards community I see it out of balance and more ephasis put on aesthetics, which is cool to a certain extent. I know sometimes there isn’t the luxury of balancing every aspect into every site, especially with picky clients but I definitely agree with a holistic approach.

  • Paul Boag

    See that is strange, because my impression at the moment is that aesthetics arent getting much attention anymore. It seems to me that development (AJAX, web 2.0. ect) and accessibility are the darlings of the web design community at the moment.

  • Mark

    You’re absolutely right Paul, at the end of the day commercial projects are ultimately to be judged by the criteria the customer has set out (with the help of our expert advice), and not the academic extremism it’s easy for those of us who are passionate about such things to fall into.
    Clearly there is a line here, and some aspects of web standards etc should always be taken into consideration – but at the end of the day, a commercial site usually has both a deadline and a fixed cost, which must come first. Furthermore to the average site user it is the usability/design/aesthetics of a site that matter most, not the underlying code.

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    Great points, Paul! And thanks for the usability links..

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