Flat-pack Web Design…

A little later than I intended, but here it is at last.

Web designers have traditionally taken their inspiration from a vast array of different sources. The wordlds of graphic design, architecture, nature, film, music and art have regularly been plundered by designers in search of something new, innovative, and just plain cool. Everyone’s done it, and I am no exception.

However I also take my inspiration from some other unlikely places. One of the places my head is most at peace is a little part of France, and I certainly use my memories of that area to influence my designs (just take the sunflower on my website). I so take solace in the world of jazz (yes, it’s true I have jazz degree).

But there’s one area that I think all web designers have traditionally ignored, and do so at their peril. And that, dear readers, is:

Flat-pack furniture

Seriously! Flat-pack furniture has a lot to teach us. Well, I think so, at least. And here’s why:

1) Not everyone wants (or needs) a Chippendale

It’s true, most homes nowadays wouldn’t be enhanced by a 17th century masterpiece. And most businesses don’t need a huge, database driven, flash-heavy website with a million and one advanced functions. They need something simple; functional but easy on the eye. Leave the award-winning stuff to the showoffs. With free publishing software such as WordPress, this is now quicker and easier than ever.

Lesson: give people what they want, and just what they want. If they then want more they’ll come back.

2) If you have to tell people something, make it stupidly obvious

You know when people say that something has to be foolproof? That’s because there are some absolutely stonking fools in the world. I should know, I am one. So, no matter what you do, keep it simple. In web design, that means both your contact with clients throughout the design process, and (obviously) any instructions you give them for the future. Don’t take anything for granted: you know what SQL stands for and why PNG is better than GIF, but they don’t.

I had a good conversation with a client the other day who said the reason he came back to me for design services a long, long time after my initial pitch to him becase I explained things so clearly. What was a daunting and confusing prospect for him – getting a website – was made much easier and more accessible because it was explained to him in a simple manner.

Lesson: meet people at their level, don’t presume they will understand technical talk. Remember flat-pack furniture instructions.

3) Most people don’t mind a few screwheads if it stays solid

There’s one thing I noticed about a certain huge Swedish flat-pack furniture manufacturers products compared with a certain British flat-pack furniture manufacturer (the one with an acronym for it’s name). Namely, IKEA furniture has more screwheads visible. Why is this significant? Well, DFS seem to (in my experience) have gone to great lengths to make sure all screwheads were hidden – to the detriment of the furniture. It breaks, easily. Well, for me, at least.

But IKEA stuff? Strong and long-lasting. Maybe they use slighty thicker chipboard, bt I think part of the reason is that they put screws and bolts where they need to go, even if a few screwheads remain visible. I don’t mind those screwheads, do you? So, in web design, what can we learn?

Lesson: a strong construction that will last for a long time is important, very important. Avoid the “as long as it looks good on the surface it doesn’t matter if the cipboard only lasts for a week” attitude. If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

4) If people are doing parts of it themselves, they should only have to use one simple tool

Ah, the humble Allen key. Whoever Allen was, I raise my glass to him. For with just one of his little tools, a whole house full of furniture can be built. There’s no need for hammers, screwdrivers, drills, glue, string or other do-it-yourself paraphanalia.

So for more advanced sites, take care when developing any administration areas. I need say no more than: just watch how these guys do it.

Lesson: a single, simple tool can be amazingly powerful. Choose your weapon carefully.

What to avoid…

However, there are a few things that you should avoid duplicating from the flat-pack furniture world. Their legendary lack of decent customer service is something that you should definitely shy away from. If you don’t treat customers right, they won’t come back. And they’ll spread bad vibes about you.

Don’t try to be all things to all men. IKEA know what market they are aiming at, and they do it extremely well. But they don’t aim for the antique market, and wisely so. It’s much better to find your niche and be the best, than try to do everything and do it all in a mediocre way.

Having no personality means you have no face, and having no face means people don’t recognise or remember you. While mass-production can easily fall into the trap of being nondescript, it doesn’t have to be that way. Remember some of the fantastic designs that were mass produced, and aim to do something just as distinctive.

So, all in all, the lessons to learn from flat-pack furniture are these: simplicity, strength, functionality, design. If that isn’t a recipe for a great website I don’t know what is.