The New Trend in Website Design: Show, Don’t Tell.

Trends in website design emerge more slowly relative to other Web trends. The first websites were little more than splash pages – a first stake in the ground claiming a piece of the then-untamed Web frontier.

What followed was the mass migration of corporate collateral or retail catalogs to their online analogs, creating websites that amounted to little more than digital brochureware.  That type of website has predominated for more than a decade and still persists today.

But a trend in website design has been emerging the last two years or so, which adheres to a simple maxim: show, don’t tell.

The idea is dictated by changes in online user behaviors. Whereas before people would browse and spend time on sites that related to their searches or interests, today people have extraordinary short attention spans. They want all the information they need conveyed succinctly, ideally in ways that not only speaks volumes but also captures the imagination.

There are a number of websites that have both embraced and exemplify this trend, and are enjoying a lot of success as a result.

On the consumer side, the Path website says everything you need to know about its mobile location app for smartphones with very simple visualizations and a simple value prop statement.  On the business side, Square, the mobile payment processing company, accomplishes the same thing employing evocative imagery, effective iconography and short, impactful copy – and nothing else.  My own company, Pathbrite, a portfolio platform used by students, schools and employers to get at alternative forms of presentation and evaluation, embraced these ideals with our new website.

Even cultural institutions are getting into the act. For a new project for the Chateau Versailles in France, designer Bertier Luyt, working in collaboration with the Google Cultural Institute project, created a 3-D model of the Chateau in SketchUp and rendered it with Artlantis Studio. It’s also live in Google Earth. Chateau Versailles also created a companion site called Chaos to Perfection, which is stunning.

These websites further exemplify the shift from Flash, Flex and other technology drivers that power last-generation websites to HTML5 and CSS3 – engineering speak that essentially means websites built using these newer programming standards are more flexible, adaptable and device agnostic. Given the proliferation of desktop, laptop, tablet and smart phone devices, if your website doesn’t immediately adapt to each, it’s just a dumb site that will repel users. These newer types of websites are also much more friendly to search engine crawlers, so your site will be better optimized to rank well in search results. 

Show-don’t-tell also means that companies accustomed to publishing absolutely everything ever written or said about their products and services will have to start making some very hard decisions about what information to use and what to omit. 

Your top priority should be to tell only the story most important to the visitor; typically, this is a reiteration of the customer’s pain point and a clear statement of the product’s value proposition (how you make the pain go away).  Try to say these things using animation or photography.

If visualizing your core value proposition isn’t right for you, try creating an informational video in which you illustrate and narrate your most important story, and which must be no more than 90 seconds in length.  Finally, if all else fails, go ahead publish your thousands of words, but save them for pages on the inside of your website.  Your home page – at all costs – really must adhere to the less-is-more principle.

For those of us who love to write, this whole shift to visuals and minimalism can feel disconcerting.  But take heart. Use your story-telling skills and be the person who creates the story boards that illustrators, graphic artists, video producers and photographers use to create their work.  Be the force that makes the new standards come to life for your website.

For companies that don’t have ready access to a Web development team, I encourage you to build a new website on WordPress and to buy a contemporary template designed to be compatible with WordPress. Places like WooThemes and ThemeTrust have great website designs built with the latest programming languages and which are naturally responsive to whatever device the site appears on. It’s typically very easy for an inexpensive consultant to tweak such templates to give you the exact site you want.

Moving to “show, don’t tell” for your website while also embracing the latest programming technologies is not only imperative, its inevitable. So what are you waiting for?

Author DEREK GORDON is a marketing and sales exec with more than 20 years success in integrated marketing and sales strategy and management. He is the Chief Marketing and Sales Officer for Pathbrite. You can also check out his blog, Daily Casserole.

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