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Using design and structure to communicate

To be truly effective, a web site or printed piece must be both attractive and informative. An information-packed page that ignores principles of good design will fail to communicate to visitors and might even drive them away. Similarly, a brochure can be graphically breathtaking and still convey no useful information.

The trick is to choose a design, and a page organization, which makes your content both inviting and accessible. To a certain extent, good design and organization should be almost invisible: your visitor or reader should be able to find what they are looking for, or understand what you are trying to say, without having to think about the process. You need them to think about your message, not how to get there. If you make your content inviting, readers will proceed with pleasure rather than feeling as if it's work.

Making complexity manageable

Center for Southeast Asian Studies
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

The staff of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies were quite clear on what their message was: to encourage the study of their region and its languages at UM. What they wanted was a web site which did this more effectively.

In our work with the Center, it became clear that they had a tremendous amount of information to share with the university community, but making it available in a usable way was a substantial task. In addition to making use of some important web technologies, we also took a close look at how the site was organized and presented. Working within the bounds of the existing graphical design, we clarified and unified page templates to give the entire site a common visual organization. More information, and attention-grabbing links, were placed on the home page so that visitors could see at a glance the wide range of activities supported by the Center.

Perhaps most importantly, we shifted the primary organization of the site from one that reflected the Center's administrative structure to one which focused on the needs of their visitors. Special "resource pages" were constructed, one each for the Center's core constituencies. Information and links useful for prospective graduate students, for instance, was collected in one place and organized in a way that is meaningful to them. Information for faculty, to take another example, is organized and presented differently - though some of the items overlap. The Center's site logs demonstrated that these new resource pages quickly became some of the most popular pages on the site.

From physical to virtual

Pilon Construction, Inc.,
South Lyon MI

Before the death of its founder, we worked with the owners of Pilon Construction (a respected residential remodeling company) to build a web presence that would allow prospective clients to see a portfolio without having to make appointments or invite someone into their home.

Our first step was to design a home page which was both inviting and reassuring - homeowners unfamiliar with the remodeling process could feel comfortable using the site. Important segments of the site were clearly identified and made inviting to visit. The background image of the home page itself helped to convey the client's message: it pictured a remodeled home in which the old and new portions were indistinguishable. Several sections, linked from the home page, described the company's philosophy and what clients might expect from their working relationship.

One challenge was the structure and organization of the portfolio; the web pages would have to convey what the owner otherwise would have said in a face-to-face meeting. We scoured the company's physical portfolio to find images which most expressed the quality of the company's work and their attention to details. From there, we organized the online portfolio around the kinds of projects that prospective clients have in mind when they visited.

Concerned that the company's reputation for large and expensive projects might intimidate visitors with smaller projects in mind, we highlighted pieces of larger projects that showcased the company's work in common remodeling areas (kitchens, bathrooms, living spaces, etc.). Descriptive text would have emphasized how the new sections integrated with the existing residence.

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