Your Web Site's Look: Six Tips from a Designer

"You gotta have heart," the baseball team sang in the musical, Damn Yankees, and that's just as true for every small business owner. But you also "gotta have a Web site," because most people will look up a company online before they will pick up the Yellow Pages.

Having an internet site is as basic as having a business card to hand out to customers.

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Without either one, you're doing a disservice to your business. A site can make a big difference, even if it has only basic information (name of business, phone number, location with map, and business hours) along with a description of what you do and the products you have for sale.

But just throwing one together haphazardly can also do you a disservice. Overall, your Web site must make it easy for your customers and suppliers to find the information they need.

Not flashy, but professional. Not busy, but informative. Not trendy, but classy.

It might sound easy, but all in all, you probably have neither the design skills nor the time to create such a Web site on your own. But there are people who do, called graphic designers, and they can help your business with a well-designed look and feel for your Web site.

You should be ready to find them and pay them to do this important job for you. Figuring out how much you're going to have to pay isn't easy, because there's no set price, and designers have different levels of experience and skill. However, you're best off finding a professional designer who knows how to educate a client.

My design sources – along with information from the American Institute for Graphic Arts' salary guide – suggest that if you hire a professional, it should cost at least $40-$45 per hour for a straightforward site. That hourly amount can go up to $100 an hour for advanced Flash sites.

Fees to maintain a Web site are usually a little less but not much. Do-it-yourself updating is sometimes possible with applications like Adobe Contribute.

What's truly cool about using a real designer is that they are trained to bring out the best in you and your business in the process of getting a handle on what you do and what you think your prospective customers are looking for.

Good designers are not just artists who choose artwork, colors and readable fonts. They are at heart curious people who serve as psychologist, business consultant and visionary all rolled into one. A quality designer can see the big picture even as you describe the small picture. In the late 1800s, artist-extraordinaire James McNeill Whistler said it better: "An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision."

I've been lucky to work with many excellent graphic designers during my stints as a writer at Inc. Magazine and various newspapers and corporations. Each one has taught me important lessons about what catches people's eyes and what makes them want to keep reading.

Designers see the same things we do, but they see them better and more clearly. They also understand what makes us react both positively and negatively to what we see, either in print or online.

If you're looking for a good consumer reaction to your Web site, it's got to be both easy to read and easy to navigate from one page to the next. The longer someone has to search to find the information they want, the less likely they will stick with it and become a customer.

For this column, I asked my graphic-designer friend and colleague, Clint Welsh, to give me a few tips to pass on about how to make your web site design work. Clint has owned his own design shop and is currently art director at a financial forecasting firm. Here are his six tips in his own words:

Six Tips on How To Design a Good-looking Web Site

1. Make a good first impression. As a designer, there is one thing I know that is paramount to any successful web site – that is first impression. No matter what you think, you are influenced by your first impression. If you don't take that into account, you're just shooting in the dark.

2. Match your Web site to your kind of business. Design with your audience in mind by designing the site to reflect its content. Most people wouldn't find MTV's style all that reassuring for a site devoted to healthcare.

3. Think about the psychology of colors. Red might not be the best choice of colors for an investment group, given that color's connotation of red ink. Black evokes feelings of prestige; yellow evokes warmth, bright orange sprightliness, to name just a few.

4. Don't use trendy fonts. What is cool and hip today will be a laughing memory before you know it. Unless you want to spend time re-designing your site every year or so, play it safe and stick with the standard sets of fonts. This advice also applies to the overall style of the site.

5. See the visual hierarchy of your Web site. It all starts from the whole, and then we work our way in. By that I mean, we first see aesthetics on a Web site, and those aesthetics – when properly used – direct our attention to the message. Keep in mind, the amount of "visual bling" should be pertinent to the content of the site. A Web site for retail clothing will be a lot more colorful and arty than a web site for computer repair, for instance.

Take a walk down the cereal aisle at the grocery store, and you'll see what I mean. Each box is designed to grab your attention and draw your eye to the next important selling point, which means that you don't see the nutritional information front and center. Visually, it's the last thing your eye is drawn to. Now take a look at your newspaper: Content is king because that's what we want from a newspaper. A few photos break up the type and support the stories. If there are other images, they are usually in the form of information graphics, such as charts and graphs.

6. Use columns, just like your newspaper does. Columns have been used for centuries to break up large expanses of type, and for good reason. Any line more than 68 characters wide tends to become difficult to read. One thing that drives me crazy is to see wall-to-wall text with no visual rest. Columns allow that.

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Making a good impression on your customers with a well-designed Web site will pay you back many times over for the money you spend to hire a graphics designer. I encourage you to really look at your Web site through your customers' eyes, whether you already have a site or are thinking about how to put one together. After all, you're a customer, too, and you instinctively know what works when you visit other businesses' web sites.

Have you got a story about how your Web site helps your business? What has worked for you, what hasn't? Or do you have questions for Clint Welsh about your web site's design? Send them to me at and type 'Web design' in the subject line.

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Susan C. Walker, who also writes a personal finance column for, works for Elliott Wave International, a market forecasting and technical analysis company. A graduate of Stanford University, she has been an associate editor with Inc. magazine, a newspaper business editor, an investor relations executive for a real estate investment trust and a speechwriter for the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.