When George Washington was a teenager, did he really, really, really want a car?


In order to want something, you probably need to know it exists. But my guess is that it surely helps if you’ve been marketed to.

One definition of happiness is wanting the things you’re likely to get (or, conversely, not wanting the unattainable). One definition of marketing is persuading the world it wants what you have, regardless of whether they can afford it or not.

We don’t hesitate to motivate employees by marketing them the benefits of being promoted, even if they all can’t possibly get this. We don’t hesitate to tease kids by marketing every conceivable unattainable Christmas gift at them, relentlessly.

Teenage girls are taught what to want by magazines and by peers.

Patients are taught what to want by doctors who prescribe new tests. And doctors are taught to do that by lawyers eager to sue if they don’t. Imagine going home and saying, “the doctor wanted to give me another test, but I said no…”

This cycle of assigned wants is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. The game theory demands it.

And so, once again it seems to come down to a personal decision. If you decide what you want (instead of letting someone else decide for you) perhaps you could choose the things that would actually bring you and your loved ones the satisfaction you can live with.


In this article I’ll examine a couple of these inferior Web design conventions and expose their flaws. I’ll then suggest more effective alternatives to these conventions and explain why they work better.

3 Columns Done Wrong

One of the early popular layout conventions for Web pages was the centered 3-column layout. This layout consists of a main content area bordered on either side by narrow sidebar columns. Despite the inherent problems with this sort of layout, it caught on fast and remains a popular choice for blogs and online retail. It also became and remains quite popular as a default layout for many content management systems.


Design fundamentals reveal this layout to be deficient in several ways. Due either to a lack of designer or owner discrimination or understanding, or perhaps simply due to laziness, this layout remains common even today.

Sites Using Centered 3-Column Layout

So what are the flaws? In order to better understand them, it is helpful to first examine some of the supposed benefits to the centered 3-column layout.

Supposed Pros

  • Centers the content, “making it the focus”
  • Results in a “pleasing” symmetrical design
  • Allows for twice as much ancillary content and cross-promotion on the page at any given horizontal level
  • …mostly it just allows people who don’t understand design and who cannot craft a good content hierarchy to have places to put all sorts of extra info on a page

But these supposed benefits are not often beneficial at all. The reasoning behind them is based on a certain ignorance of design and usability. When you take design fundamentals and the corresponding facts of human perception into account, the flaws appear.

Definite Cons

  • Symmetry is usually detrimental to content hierarchy
  • Symmetry diminishes viewer interest
  • Having 2 sidebars, one on either side, defeats the purpose of sidebar content
  • It requires that site visitors first learn (and perhaps relearn from page to page) where to look for a particular sort of ancillary information or links
  • Often results in far too much ancillary information on the page
  • The particular sort of visual noise generated by the 2 bracketing sidebars diminishes, rather than enhances, user/reader focus on the main content

Given these usually relevant and always compelling issues, it makes little sense in almost any case to use a centered 3-column layout for Web pages. It’s time to retire this deficient and problematic layout and reserve it solely for its best use: cases where design and usability are not important—or you don’t want to pay a designer to craft something that’s actually effective.

For Example:

Here’s a simple, easier to use iteration of the Apple Store main page. Compare this with the current Apple Store.


Also, you might want to see how I chose to redux Amazon.com and mitigate the problematic centered 3-column layout.

How Deep is My Silo?

When done well, newspapers can represent some the best examples of information design. When your sole purpose is to present loads of textual/graphic information to be consumed in-full by everyone, you get good at designing for just that or you perish in the marketplace.

When newspapers and other print publications took their products to the Web, they were armed with what they thought was relevant design expertise. But this theretofore expertise turned to hubris when they failed to accurately recognize the constraints of this new medium. Their design and layout experience caused them to hold precious their deep columnar silo approach to sectional information presentation.

Examples of poor online main page (index) layout:

While many publications have caught on to the differences between print and Web media, the results of that initial hubris survive even today with many publications taken online. It is common to find news or magazine website main pages laid out in narrow vertical columns for sectional or contextual organization. This convention is almost always problematic, as the following facts point out.

In print…

  • High resolution—comparatively easy to read
  • Pages are largely vertical in nature
  • A person can see and visually take in a large area of content (on a gatefold or newspaper spread) at one time, so many items or department references in a layout are all visible at the same time
  • Typically, the section/article index is not a primary area for content consumption
    Seldom any need to scan many contextually different sections at one time in one area

For online newspaper/magazine main pages…

  • Low resolution—comparatively difficult to read
  • The screen is largely horizontal in nature (because of and necessitating scrolling).
  • Much of the page content is hidden below or above the visible screen area
  • Main page content usually comprises a vast index of content, broken up into distinct and contextually different sections—but this index is a primary content consumption area

When news main page sections are laid out in vertical columns of varying heights placed side-by-side it requires that a reader practice one of 2 irritating methods of content consumption: 1) scroll downward to scan a column’s or section’s content and then go back up to do the same with another column or section, or 2) scan horizontally across adjacent columns of differing contexts, then scroll down and repeat the process, etc…

The first option is tedious and requires that we scroll up and down a number of times in order to consume the page in a contextual manner. The second option requires that we must examine part of 2 or 3 or more different departments/contexts, then scroll down to get the rest of some of these sections while introducing new departments/contexts. This option involves contextual schizophrenia.


The best method is to acknowledge the horizontal nature of the medium (especially with regard to information-rich indexes online) and lay out your departments and contexts in a horizontal manner. Horizontal browsing of information is far more comfortable for people than is vertical browsing of information (when reading). This allows readers to consume the entirety of one or more departments’ offering(s) and then scroll down for a different sort of information. With this method scrolling can become basically a one-time affair and there is no contextual dissipation of information.

Examples of better online main page (index) layout:

Examples of excellent online main page (index) layout:


Verbatim online mimicry of print media ignores vital differences in medium. New media is not new any longer and this sophomoric layout practice should be ended. So long as online newspapers and other publications continue to hold precious the idea of visual similarity to printed newspapers, they will fail to best serve their readers. Online publication designers should start being designers rather than legacy form production artists.


Every new medium or environment brings opportunities for missteps, and it is inevitable that initial efforts in these environments will utilize practices that are later found to be lacking. This is the case with centered 3-column layouts and vertically oriented columns in news index layouts.

With the examples of clear problems inherent with these (and other) layouts, it suggests that we designers should ever reexamine things we typically regard as standard practices. Making a regular practice of regarding any given medium or environment as a new frontier rather than one fully explored, it becomes easier to be a real designer and to actually do our job.

These examples are, like most of our design issues, contextual in nature. When we first pay attention to contextual matters, designing for any given medium or circumstance becomes easier and mistakes like these are easier to avoid. I sincerely hope that the problematic example websites cited in this article are fixed soon for the benefit of their users/readers/customers. But if they’re not, it certainly provides more opportunities for their competitors. Such is the nature of the marketplace.

 If I accepted every project or every client who wanted to employ me, my product would be nothing more than a commodity. I’d be a (very unhappy) vendor simply selling stuff to customers. ButI am not a vendor. I’m a professional. 

I could probably be successful selling design and development as commodities without discrimination to anyone who wanted to pay me. But that’s not what I’m interested in doing. By purposefully excluding many potential clients I am defining and staying true to my brand and ensuring what I believe will be greater success built upon that brand. Turning down money to make money; sounds like a dodgy strategy, but it’s more powerful than you might think. And it’s required if you want to build a brand.

But what is a brand and how does it factor into success? Do you have a brand? Do you want your personal brand or your agency’s brand to be definitive or do you merely want to generate income selling design and development as commodities? Both avenues can lead to success, but which one describes your path? Let’s examine some of the factors that define the differences. You can decide which is best for you.

Not every brand is really a brand

A brand is a brand by how it promises something distinct and by how that distinction produces specific outcomes and fulfills the promise. There are a lot of so-called brands in the world that aren’t really brands at all. These companies might be valuable, but their brands are worthless and serve no purpose. Some good examples are companies like Chevron, Shell, ExxonMobil, Valero, and countless others like them.


These are all recognizable logos, but so what? These companies pretend to be brands, but as far as consumers perceive all of these companies do the same thing and, more importantly, they all mean the same thing in the marketplace. You will get exactly the same product and the same customer experience at any of these companies’ stores, so in the overwhelming majority of cases the only question in consumers’ minds when seeking out the products these companies offer is, “how much does it cost?” Not brands, these are just vendors with recognizable logos, selling a commodity. They have, though, garnered a lot of success, right?

A company’s success is not dependent upon having a brand. In a very basic sense, all Chevron has to do in order to be successful in the market is to have a gas station on a certain number of street corners across the US and they will make lots of money and, so long as they don’t screw up too badly and they always have product to sell, they will be very successful. Commodities are easy for consumers to understand. They’re not threatening and they don’t require consumer thought or much discrimination. The only things that matter are wide availability, easy access, a minimum level of quality, and a competitive price; availability and price likely being more than 90% of the equation.

A web agency or freelancer can work in this way, too. Design and development services can be provided and even marketed as commodities. Doing so makes it easy for the majority of consumers to understand and be comfortable with the idea of the involved transaction …if not the realities of the involved transaction (yeah, see, there’s a catch). Being a commodity-type agency or freelancer unburdens the enterprise of constraints and ensures the greatest number of potential clients and the widest range of potential projects. And, of course, the greatest number of inane scenarios and mammoth headaches (but no worries—what you lose in values and qualitative scuffles you’ll make up in volume!).

In such cases, as with gasoline vendors, the primary concern of potential clients will be “how much does it cost?” or perhaps something absurd like, “how many comps do I get for that price?” This concern for cost or quantity of design options is generally so encompassing as to relieve the vendor from several otherwise relevant responsibilities with respect to professionalism, quality, design effectiveness, and customer service/experience. This emancipation from responsibility is in fact a common reason for many designers and agencies to go the design-as-commodity route.

The much-belabored feud between professionals and hacks not withstanding, those limited by skill, unacquainted with values, or bereft of acumen are permitted their place in the industry, provided they don’t pretend to sell anything more than a generic commodity. It is upon this point that arguments are worthy and clear distinction needs be made.


Note, however, that this course described above prevents an agency or a freelancer from creating, building, or preserving a brand. A brand, like anything else designed, is effective and relevant only within constraints. A commodity has no constraints; it is a generic product for the everyman. A brand by its very nature promises something not generic at all, as well as a certain exclusivity. Quite literally, a brand is defined by the people, things, or ideas it excludes.

For instance, coffee is a common commodity. A coffee shop by any name is just a vendor selling that commodity. Starbucks, however, has successfully convinced consumers that in a Starbucks they’ll get something more than just a cup of coffee when they purchase a cup of coffee. Starbucks excludes anyone who is simply looking for a cuppa joe at a fair price. But they also promise a superior quality of coffee. The Starbucks brand survives because those desiring more than just a plain cup of coffee are willing to pay a premium for satisfaction of that desire. There are few things in this world more powerful than human desire. On a very basic level we are selfish, needy, and covetous; we want. The most successful, exclusive brands survive by exploiting these definitive human traits.

Another prime example is Apple. In marketing Mac computers, Apple purposefully excludes a huge number of potential consumers. And they’re successful because of this. You see, a Mac is just as good at being a business machine as is a PC. But Apple puts little effort into pursuing that huge market. The fact is a computer is a commodity. The really big money is to be made in selling to everyone, but a real brand cannot do that. Apple understands this better than most. [As for Mac vs. PC, the debate is without merit. A computer is a computer is a computer. Anyone who says different is selling something. Hmm, what a delicious irony.]

So to craft and maintain a web agency’s brand or your own personal brand you have to exclude lots of potential customers. This can be done by price, by project type …really by any number or combination of qualitative criteria. But you’ve got to make some measure of your exclusivity and discrimination clear so that people can discern it from a distance. These are the qualities of your brand that can be marketed or simply articulated by the public-facing instruments of your company (like the website).

To be really effective in crafting your brand it’s not enough to stand for some things and to exclude some things. Beyond that, it is best to articulate why your brand excludes what it excludes. Doing so allows people to determine if they identify with your brand beyond the qualitative measures of the product or service you’re describing. This articulation hints at the culture, lifestyle, quality, philosophy, standards, or social dimension that your brand offers and that your customers and potential customers are associating themselves with when they seek out or acquire your products and services.

Other aspects of your brand’s exclusivity might only be made clear when a potential client tries to engage you. Still others are best discerned in the course of an ongoing project with your agency. These qualities can be hinted at in marketing, but are not very effective marketing components because they require first-hand contact or reliable word-of-mouth to be firmly established. So it is required of you to clearly define certain things in your initial conversations with potential clients. Make clear your standards and your requirements, things that your potential client must accept before working with you. In this way you will turn-off many potential clients, but you will more firmly cement the most appropriate and compatible relationships.

Purposefully excluding a large percentage of your potential clients is a scary proposition. This is especially true if you really need a new project to bring in some cash. On the surface it doesn’t seem to make sense. But it is required if you want to build a brand. This can be harder than you might think, for since design and development do exist as commodities many people will assume they exist only as commodities. You will therefore likely receive overtures from all kinds of people for all kinds or projects that are not a good fit for your brand. But if you say “yes” to every project offered your agency, you don’t have a brand.

For web professionals, brand stewardship in action starts at the front door. When someone knocks, you’d better find out if they meet your brand’s standards before you let them in the door. If they don’t, politely send them packing. The alternative is to take up with clients or projects that are not consistent with your brand, thereby negating, damaging, or destroying it. By my estimation, too many web agencies are too comfortable with this practice. Are you sure you want to be one of them? Perhaps you are, but either way you should understand precisely what it is you’re doing.

Yes, you can be a successful web professional (less emphasis on “professional”) or have a successful agency without a brand; selling design and development as commodities. This is a fairly easy path to take and, but for the inevitable and ongoing ridiculous projects you’ll have to endure, it presents the most assured path to generating income (if not profit). If, however, you have the courage to turn away a goodly percentage of your potential customers, you might try building a brand.

Amid the fanfare and fluster of the Olympic process it’s easy to forget the effort that went into branding each one. Over at the Idsgn blog they’ve done the job for us and taken a look at a whole bunch of different Olympic logos.

Specifically, Idsgn’s examined how the logos evolved between the period between a city’s initial bid for the Summer or Winter Olympics and the final version the public got to see. While it’s hard to examine the differences for specific meaning (did Beijing think its more traditional final emblem would appeal more to how the world sees the nation?) it’s interesting to try to imagine the political, design and financial forces that pushed and pulled at each nation’s organizing committee that caused the logos to change–we’re an incredibly image-conscious world, remember.

That said, Greece, Canada and China all refined their designs towards a more traditional emblem–Greece’s perhaps tapping the most original source, with its olive wreath logo for Athens 2004 being right at the heart of the original ancient Olympics.




Torino’s 2006 Winter Olympics emblem went the other way, from partly abstract to even more abstract, with a more high-tech angle thanks to the distorted star network effect.


And London’s 2012 emblem abandoned all pretense at history, moving from a terribly traditional (shall we say acutely British?) font-based design into what could fairly be labeled as an optical explosion–designed by Wolf Olins. Do the British Olympic Committee feel the pink and yellow starkness of the design better represents UK culture? Or are we misunderstanding, and London’s team are embracing tradition–but have shunned the options of a bowler hat and fish’n’chips for a logo that’s as eccentric as the stereotypical Brit is imagined to be abroad?


All of this, of course, makes one wonder what will happen to the logos for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, and the winner from the candidate cities for the 2016 Summer Olympics. The one that stands out with most room for movement is Tokyo’s, with its largely meaningless swirl in Olympic colors–reminiscent of London’s original one. And then there’s the odd blandness of Chicago’s logo–what’s with the star, guys? It’s kinda snowflake-like, and this isn’t the Winter Olympics?



Here are some valuable tips for writing graphic design briefs, kindly guest authored by Sharon Hayes of Round Box Design. Sharon has a wealth of experience and has been working as a graphic designer since 1994.

10 tips for writing graphic design briefs

  1. Realise that any designer you hire is a professional (or should be) and must be treated as such.
  2. Understand that designers are not mind readers – that class is still under development.
  3. Before coming to a graphic designer, have your business model ready and your plan up to par. No design can save any business that is not well thought out.
  4. Number 3 will allow you to fully understand the goal of your business, the ideas you want to convey and who your target market is for any design.
  5. Understand your product or service and be able to explain it clearly – this ties in with number 4. It definitely helps the designer if you clarify exactly what (if it’s a logo) the design will be developed for. Knowing this ahead of time can prevent any future misunderstandings, in-effective design or troublesome production.
  6. Understand it wont be free. When people post on a design forum and expect a design service for free it is frustrating and (in my opinion) shows how little they think of the process.
  7. Communicate with the designer – dont dictate. If you have questions or concerns, voice them, and return the favour of listening.
  8. Don’t try to design for the designer – you hired them for their knowledge and talent. Let them utilise that to put your company in the best light possible. Of course the designer should also take your opinions into consideration, especially if it deals with an industry-specific issue. This is still very much communication on both sides.
  9. For the designer: Do not assume you know the client industry! Each industry has its own specific requirements, quirks and expectations. LISTEN to the client, their concerns, what they want to play up, what they are truly selling and how they want to present themselves in the market. Ads that are pretty may win awards but they don’t always win marketshare.
  10. Set expectations up-front: Both the client and designer need to let the other know what they expect as far as materials, deadlines and communication. Will you be meeting on a regular basis? Phone? Emails? How are you delivering materials? Are you going to be there for press proofs? How far will you follow the completion of the project. Make sure there are no surprises.

Do you have any tips to share?

The ability to deal with designers (and for designers to deal with clients) is of paramount importance. If you have additional tips, or a question about the process, feel free to leave a comment.


Also on Web Standardistas: a summary of Tal Lemming’s and Erik van Blokland’s .webfont Proposal. It appears we’re on the verge of a serious step forward for web typography and this proposal has significant support: FontFont, Emigre, H&FJ, House, Process.