San Diego Business Journal Challenge Is to Keep Up With Changing Roles

You want us to do what ?

That was the hesitant reaction Mires Design Inc. partner John Ball remembered from about six years ago , the first time his firm was asked to work on an Internet page.

The client was a high-tech company Ball didn't identify for this story, citing contractual reasons.

"We did their annual report, and we had gotten it finished, and they said, 'OK guys, we need to put this on the Web,'" he recalled.

The local graphics design firm had to scramble, finding technicians who could put the report online with a similar design style, Ball said.

"At that time, it was kind of like you were lucky to have the picture in there, close to where the copy was," he said. "It was very primitive.

"Of course, being designers used to making things beautiful and having total control over what goes on a page and how it gets put together, we were kind of like, 'This is no good.'"

- Internet A Turning

Point For Designers

Things have gotten much better, Ball said, which is true all around for the graphic design industry and its online work.

After decades of working on the printed page, the onslaught of the Internet has brought designers a dramatically different medium, in which the designers are still reinventing their role.

Now, with Web site design a firmly established branch of their work, local designers have refined their talents for the electronic forum , sometimes competing with technicians, often trying to convince clients to keep brands cohesive and always having to keep consumers in the forefront.

Graphic design firms bring very specific training and experience to a Web site project, said Tyler Blik, whose design firm Tyler Blik Design is based Downtown.

- Considerations For

Web Design Projects

Some of the issues are typography, a page's readability, the hierarchy of information and knowing what should be delivered first, said Blik, the firm's principal.

"Basic design theories that we all learned," he said.

There's also how eyes move across a page and understanding the psychology behind it all, he said.

According to Ball of Mires Design, firms have four branches of work, each rooted in the creation of a client's brand. Other than the Internet design, the areas are packaging, collateral materials and advertising.

By necessity, the firms' Web work draws many entities to the planning table , marketing managers, design firms and technicians, Ball said.

"There's much more give and take. We sit down in the beginning, especially for the more involved projects," he said. "We strategize over how the technology should work and what it needs to do and what the functionality needs to be."

The team would also figure out the electronic limitations, he said.

"We'll work on what it can look like, and they'll come in and help us implement that," he said.

- Most Local Firms

Hire Out Tech Work

Although Mires and most local firms hire out their technical work for Web site design, larger firms in the country have technicians on staff. It's expensive, he said.

Mires designed a Web site for longtime client Taylor Guitars of El Cajon, Ball said.

Taylor's site will eventually be used for back-end work with retailers, but currently the site is more focused on front-end work with customers, he said. The site offers news from the industry, chat rooms, and clips of artists' work.

The Web site can instill customer loyalty, especially by giving visitors a reason to come back, Ball said.

"It just really builds those bonds," he said. "In that idea, it's a really powerful branding tool.

"The trick about it is, you need to give people reasons to come back. That's what I think people have learned in the last couple of years."

Before that, the content was less dynamic.

"It used to be, about halfway through 1997, you'd put up your brochure and it would just sit there," Ball said.

- Interactive Features

Connect Consumers

Now, sites are designed to bring consumers back, with news updates and chat mechanisms and other interactive features, he said.

The different site mechanisms can be interesting, but whether they are used hinges on the target market, Blik said.

Blik recalled working with an E-mail software provider's Web site. The client asked Blik's firm to create a site that would suit the lowest common denominator of computers.

Bandwidth and the computers' abilities have become an important factor for designers, he said.

It presents a challenge that can be positive, Blik said.

"Maybe as designers, we'd look at that and go, 'Oh, we can't have all these bells and whistles' but that's our job, as problem solvers, to understand what the limitations are and work within them."

He laughed. "The most difficult jobs are when there are very few restrictions or limitations, where anything is available."

- Navigating The

'Intuitive' Way

When describing how a Web site should be navigated, Blik uses the term "intuitive."

So does Jos & #233; Rosa, president of RosArt Multimedia Inc. in North Park. Rosa came to Web design and multimedia work from a background of architecture.

He noted the word design doesn't mean graphics to him. It means methodology and traffic , users getting to a site and knowing where to go next, he said.

"That is probably the single most critical thing, and to make it work smoothly, yes, graphics are important," Rosa said. "The goal is to put enough thought into the design so that the visitor doesn't have to. If you actually get to a Web site and you then have to consciously think, 'Well, what am I supposed to be doing next?' and you go looking for something, then it wasn't designed very well.

"Of course there's thought going on, but it's such a short amount of thought that you don't realize it happened."

Designers guide visitors to the site by elements such as light, color, movement, and placement on a page, he said. They are graphic considerations, but they are not strictly to make the site pretty, he said.

- Don't Rush

The Project

According to Kensington-based designer Doug Moore, owner of Moore & Moore Communications & Design, many companies inexperienced with Web sites make the mistake of developing their them in a hurry. Sometimes the sites are not particularly attractive, yet companies proceed to design brochures and other informational material around them, he said.

Moore describes it as the tail wagging the dog. He said it happens when companies rush into having a Web site presence. Many times, that's when designers are asked to step in, he said.

Using marketing experience, designers evaluate a site for what the viewer will experience, where he or she will go, what ideas or products will be sold, and what will bring the viewer back, Moore said.

Bringing the viewer to the site is also an issue, Rosa said. His company's work with clients includes deciding how much of the company's Internet budget will be spent on factors such as maintenance and advertising the site on non-'Net mediums, Rosa said.

Rosa, whose company had sales of more than $4 million last year, has 10 full-time employees and seven on a contract basis, he said.

- Clients' Needs

Are Unpredictable

Clients' needs are changing, he said. Some want in-depth advice that includes marketing. Others want what he called a "bang-out" job, a cheaper Web site without the budget plans or the analysis. He's starting a new division in his company to service that need. "Three years ago, it was 'Why do I need to be on the Web?' Eighteen months ago, it was, 'Yeah, I want something like a Yellow Pages ad.' And now, finally, they understand more and more that the Web isn't a referral.

"It isn't a Yellow Pages ad, or a magazine ad or television ad. It isn't something that you go to the Web site to get the phone number or get the E-mail and then do business some other way. It's the place where you actually do business."

One of RosArt's clients, local law firm Casey Gerry Reed Schenk, uses the site for secure communication between lawyers and clients. The Web site can be particularly useful in class-action lawsuits, in which hundreds of clients need to be updated on an appeal lawsuit, for instance, Rosa said.

No matter how technological Web site design continues to be, designers will have their many roles within it, Moore said.

"It'll probably be a bigger part of our lives, eventually," he said. "What's interesting is that you still have to get people to go to that site. You still have to have the other forms of communication."