The Pillars of Great Web Design

What are the pillars of web design? Are there strong foundational principles of web design that stand up over time? Web design has changed a lot since the birth of HTML in 1990. I’ve been involved in web design, web development and online publishing since 1998, and have the battle scars to prove it. As IX Publishing begins it’s third decade of operation, and we approach 20 years of tinkering with HTML and websites, I wanted to review the things I’ve learned about great web design, and boil it down to a few fundamental principles.

Pillars of Web Design

When all the annoying clutter, flashing lights and glitzy graphics are forgotten, with only a 404 error to mark the spot, what pillars of web design will remain standing above the rubble? When the creative bandwagon leaves town, the best web designs of 2016 turn to dust, and current fads fade to #808080 —  what will be left standing?

This article is a work in progress. The wisdom is still stuck inside me — but it wants to come out. Here’s an outline of where we are going:

  1. Audience, Branding and Color (ABC’s)
  2. Content, Content, White-space and Content
  3. Design Patterns and Design Framework
  4. Empathy vs. Apathy vs. Advocacy  — focus on the audience, persona, reader, user, and user experience (UX)
  5. Web Standards

There’s more to say, and this article will be updated as we provide more details about those 5 Pillars of Web Design.


Alternate Pillars of Web Design – A Brief Review

We would all do well to consider the story about the wise man who built his house upon the rock; while the foolish man built his house upon the sand. Take this all with a grain of salt. You will find true wisdom by digging a little deeper.

  • Paul Andrews wrote an article in early 2017 for SpeckyBoy.com called “50 Free eBooks for Web Designers and Developers”  — which is slightly off topic, but the first book on the list is most noteworthy:  “Resilient Web Design” by Jeremy Keith. As Paul says: “Rather than being a guide to solid web design, Resilient Web Design has been written to highlight some of the approaches and techniques to web design that have proven to be resilient over the years.”

Recent Articles Related to the Pillars of Web Design

  • Jerry Cao wrote “7 Pillars of Minimalist Web Design” in June 2015 – and focused on:
    • Negative Space
    • Large & Vivid Photography
    • Dramatic Typography
    • Beautiful Contrast
    • Stupidly Simple Navigation
    • Visual Harmony
    • Flat Design or Evolved Flat Design
  • In addition, Jerry Cao wrote about “5 Pillars of Visual Heirarchy in Web Design” in 2015, focusing on:
    • Size
    • Color
    • Layout
    • Spacing
    • Style
  • Jolene Chen wrote “4 Key Pillars to Great Web Design” on and described:
    • A Benefit Oriented Statement
    • A Clear Call to Action
    • SEO Friendliness
    • Placing “The Good Stuff” Above the Fold
  • Bryce M. Sasaki wrote “4 Pillars of the Best Website Design for Your Marketing Strategy” in 2014, spotlighting:
    • Website Design Strategy
    • Creation of Persona-Targeted Content
    • Multimedia Storytelling
    • Tracking the ROI of Your Website Design and Marketing Strategy with Marketing Metrics

Older Articles Related to the Pillars of Web Design

Jim Yu wrote an article for Search Engine Watch in 2013 called the “5 Pillars of Successful Modern Web Design” where he emphasized design, usability, SEO, content and integration (where Jim mainly talked about responsive web design).

Sabina Idler wrote about the “4 Pillars of Lean Web Design” in 2013 and focused on the user, content, design framework, and visual design elements.

Related Research – Pillars of Successful Web Teams

Jesse James Garrett described “The Nine Pillars of Successful Web Teams” in an article he wrote for the Adaptive Path blog in July of 2003, The material is dated, and slightly off topic, but then again, really strong pillars should stand up over time. Jesse’s 9 pillars are:

  1. User Research
  2. Site Strategy
  3. Technology Strategy
  4. Content Strategy
  5. Abstract Design
  6. Technology Implementation
  7. Content Production
  8. Concrete Design
  9. Project Management

Learn More About The Pillars of Web Design

Learn from Experts

Web Standards – There is no doubt that Jeffrey Zeldman‘s book, Designing With Web Standards has had a big influence on how I think about web design.

Learn from Establish Design Patterns

Design Patterns –  “User Interface Design Patterns are recurring solutions that solve common design problems. Design patterns are standard reference points for the experienced user interface designer. Design Patterns provide a common language between designers. They allow for debate over alternatives, where merely mentioning the name of a design pattern implicitly carries much more meaning than merely the name.”

Learn from Bad Examples

  1. Ling’s Cars Has One of the Best Websites On the Internet – reviewed in Newsweek – “It breaks every conceivable rule for ‘good’ web design and is borderline painful to look at. It’s a work of art. Its aesthetic can best be described as late-’90s GeoCities page, designed by a disgraced clown after ingesting a pillowcase full of LSD. The layout is crowded and confusing. There are multiple fonts in bright colors, some of them flashing. GIFs of cats and dogs scurry across the page.”
  2. 5 Lessons Learned From the Ugliest Website in the World – another review of LingsCars.com – If you are going to make the ugliest website in the world, go for the gusto and do it right. View the HTML source at LingsCars.com for more laughs. She knows more about HTML than you do, and she sticks it in your face!
  3. Top 5 Horribly Awesome WebsitesLing’s Cars is #1 on this list too! “Number one on our list is Lings Cars. Ling leases cars and works very hard on this awesomely terrible and over the top website. All of the flashy, colorful, blinky things on this page could blind a person.”

Learn by Engaging With Your Audience

From Empathy to Advocacy – a brief quote: “As people who make websites, we may find that thinking of ourselves as advocates for our users, rather than creators of a product or providers of a service, transforms the way we work. The UX industry devotes considerable attention to the concept of empathy, and rightly so, as understanding our users and their needs is foundational to delivering quality experiences. Still, empathy and insights alone do not automatically create those experiences. What matters is how cultivating empathy alters our decisions and behaviors. My ability to understand the needs of another person does nothing to meet those needs until I take conscious action — becoming not just a listener, but an advocate.”