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Context: The Single Most Fundamental Thing About Web Design

Web design is a massively complex undertaking. Just on the most basic level, your job as a web designer is to take a set of goals, abstract from them a direction, conceptualize a framework that will actualize that direction, design a system of information that will lead people down the path that direction points in, and then realize that system. (‘Realize’ here being used in its more core sense of ‘to make real.’)

That’s a titanic amount of information to take in, process, and turn into a working system…and it’s literally only a tiny fraction of what modern web designers actually do. The whole list includes a myriad of related tasks from determining the client’s core audience to repeated conversion rate optimization cycles. But amazingly, none of that list actually tells you what the most important element of web design is — because it’s so terribly fundamental to the whole thing that we often don’t even stop and put any conscious thought into it.

It’s creating meaning.

What Is Meaning?
Woah…that’s deep. Seriously, though, there’s an entire branch of human thought devoted to the subject of meaning. It’s called ‘semiotics,’ and it does a pretty good job of breaking down the process of ‘to mean.’ There are three parts:

  • Syntax: the rules that are used to determine how parts interact to convey meaning.
  • Semantics: the meaning of each part, independent of the syntax.
  • Pragmatics: the ways that people bring syntax, semantics, and context together to create meaning.

Now, if you’ll notice, there’s a ‘fourth part’ snuck in there at the end: context. Context isn’t often overtly brought up in semiotics, because it’s just really hard to define except in an intuitive fashion: context is simply ‘the physical and/or intellectual environment in which the communication is taking place.’

Most solid web design starts with the simple question “what does it do,” but the truth is that in order to answer that question, you have to start with the question “who does it serve?” That’s because the context of a website is the digital environment it works within — which consists of

  • The sites that link to the page (including search engines)
  • The sites that compete with this site for a slice of the ‘surfer base’
  • The surfer base itself
  • And a few other elements that are less important to the site’s goal, such as the sites that the site links to.

You can’t really start creating meaning until you understand what that meaning is going to have to interact with. That meaning is going to have to win links from the first group, outperform the second group, and convert the third group into customers. So until you understand what those groups are and how they function, you can’t create the necessary meaning in a functional way.

On the other hand, once you have the context of the site firmly in mind, the other elements tend to come together fairly quickly. Syntactically, a website uses fairly standardized rules that determine things like font size, the proportional relationship between sidebars and main content, and so on. Semantically, choosing elements that have an independent meaning that furthers winning links, outperforming, or converting (and preferably more than one of those things) is probably the process that most of us think of as “designing.” And the entire pragmatic side of the science emerges naturally by considering context before you make syntactic and semantic decisions.

The point here is simple: web design is an application of the science of creating meaning — but at it’s very heart, there lies an art that can’t be faked.

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