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The state of the art Featured

10:48am EDT October 23, 2001

Companies that contemplated Web enabling their business five years ago but postponed the adventure until this year will navigate a landscape that has changed dramatically.

Web design has moved far beyond the days when commercial Web sites were simply brochures on steroids. That was a time Howard Cleveland, DigitalDay's chief creative officer, calls the first generation of four that have evolved with the help of new technologies, discipline fusions and ways of understanding the Web's unlimited market capabilities.

"Now, the shift is toward branding -- the unique experience people have with your company," Cleveland says.

In his designer's eye, this means businesses need to focus their resources on the profound shift from building Web sites to building customer centers.

One of the core design features is the development of sites that reconfigure themselves for each customer. For Interactive Media Group's Creative Director Glenn Somodi, this is enabled by adjusting information for each visit.

"You can't have one Web site for 10,000 customers -- you need 5,000 or 10,000 sites powered by intelligence technologies that automatically adapt and configure to changes in customers and their needs," Somodi says.

The biggest trend in the next generation of commercial Web design, says Somodi, is profiling. The strategic crafting of graphics, navigation and question sequencing add to the mix, allowing customer profiles to drive personalization so the efficiencies of cross-selling are reaped by both the customer and supplier.

Cleveland concurs, saying that "now premier service is self-service."

One of the biggest design challenges in Somodi's business is to create a "simple design that will accommodate for constant change in message and information delivery."

For Sonda Katila, of Kent State University's Visual Communication Design Division, this means paying unprecedented attention to the design principles of information placement, viewer orientation, page transitions and nonlinear navigation.

"You wouldn't approach the space of the screen exactly the way you would print space," Katila says.

For this reason, Web design is no longer the domain of print people -- it is a collaborative space populated by the graphics, IT and marketing trades. It is a New World where control has migrated from designers to users. The way users move through and interact with a site is a challenge to be understood and accommodated more than predicted and controlled.

For Katila, Web design begins with a study of the behavioral and informational needs of users. Then it becomes a process of integrating aesthetics with data-base capabilities.

"You've got to marry functionality with cool," she says.

Cleveland pulls these twin design principles together with his emphasis on branding.

"Brand is the foundation of design -- even before you consider graphics and functionality," he says.

Whatever generation of Web design your business supports, the future of the art is certainly not what the past has been.

Jack Ricchiuto is a management consultant and author.