What Is Web Design? A Comprehensive Guide
This post was last updated on December 12, 2021.
Web design has come a long way since the first site was published in 1991. With over one billion live websites on the internet today, it’s no surprise that this industry is here to stay. Wix is home to thousands of website design professionals, enthusiasts, and designers who are empowering the industry to reach new heights. So, if you’re here to learn more about the world of web design, you’ve come to the right place.
As a preliminary to learning how to design a website, this article will hone in on the role of web design and go over helpful tips by defining critical terms and ideas, and looking at examples that will give you further insight. Here’s what we’ll cover:
01. What is web design?
Web design is the art of planning and arranging content on a website so that it can be shared and accessed online with the world. A combination of aesthetic and functional elements, web design is a type of digital design that determines the look of a website—such as its colors, fonts, graphics and user interface.
Today, creating a website is one of the pillars of having an online presence. Because of this, the world of web design is as dynamic as ever. It is constantly evolving, including mobile apps and user interface design, to meet the growing needs of website owners and visitors alike.
Web design is often a collaborative process that combines knowledge and tools from related industries, ranging from web design statistics to SEO optimization and UX. Web designers will often bring together professionals from these areas who can optimize performance and focus on the larger process and outcome.
02. Web design vs. website development
The first step in our web design journey is to clarify the difference between web design and website development, since the two are closely related and often (mistakenly) used interchangeably:
Web design refers to the visual design and experiential aspects of a particular website. We’re going to dive into more detail about web design throughout the rest of this article.
Website development refers to the building and maintenance of a website’s structure, and involves intricate coding systems that ensure the website functions properly.
The following are the software languages most commonly used by web developers to build a website:
HTML or HyperText Markup Language, is a coding language used to create the front end of websites. It is written to include the structure of a web page and carried out by web browsers into the websites that we see online.
CSS or Cascading Style Sheets is a programming design language that includes all relevant information relating to a webpage’s display. CSS works with HTML to design the style and formatting of a website or page, including the layout, fonts, padding, and more.
CMS or a Content Management System, is a computer software application that manages the digital content of a website. Wix is an example of a CMS, which functions as a user-friendly system for website content development. This makes it possible for individuals to create a website and make updates without the knowledge of using code.
03. Web design tools
Web designers require their own unique set of tools to create and design. There are a few key elements that will determine which types you’ll use, and at which stage you’ll need them.
Here are a few questions to consider: How big is your team? What kind of budget do you have? What kind of technical requirements will your site need? What is the overall aesthetic you wish to achieve? Will you create an adaptive or responsive design? What is the purpose of your website? The answers to these questions will also help you understand which kind of website builder you want to work with, or other design software tools.
Website builders like Wix are great since they don’t require code, and come equipped with a range of ready-made templates suitable to every industry. For novice web designers, website builders are a great foundational tool that can easily be customized both in terms of visual elements and functionality. For more experienced web designers, Editor X is the ideal platform with more advanced features for layouts, interactions, effects and designed assets.
Design software tools such as Figma, Photoshop and Sketch can be used to create wireframes, custom features and design elements. However, the major difference with these tools is that all elements must be converted to code. While these tools offer creative flexibility and collaborative integrations like hand-off features to web developers, they can require more time, knowledge and resources.
As you gain more experience with a range of web design tools, you’ll know which are best suited to you and your business needs.
04. Principles of design applied to websites
One of the first parts of understanding what web design is knowing what good web design is—and how to achieve it.
We can have a look at the principles of design for reference, a theory practiced by artists and designers which outline the visual qualities any composition should aim for. Applying these principles to web design can help beginner and advanced web designers alike achieve a site with a harmonious look and feel.
Of course, these are not strict rules to follow, but rather guidelines to learn how we can apply the various elements of a website’s design. Take it from Picasso, “learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Once you understand the goals of web design and become more comfortable with each website element, you can tweak the approach with a more creative touch.
Let’s explore the following principles:
Visual balance means ensuring that none of the elements in a single composition are too overpowering. This can be applied to web design by drawing an imaginary line down the center of a webpage and arranging elements so that the visual weight is equal on both sides.
There are two main ways to achieve balance on a website:
Symmetrical balance is when the visual weight on both sides of that line are equal and arranged like a mirror image. When applied to your web design, this can evoke feelings of balance, beauty and consistency.
Asymmetrical balance is when the visual weight is equal on both sides, but the composition and order of elements will vary (i.e., not a mirror image). A balanced asymmetrical design is considered a modern approach and will create a more dynamic experience for the viewer, while maintaining a harmonious composition.
Contrast refers to arranging juxtaposing elements in a way that highlights their differences: dark and light, smooth and rough, large and small. When contrast is in the picture, it’s dramatic and exciting qualities can captivate visitors as they scroll through your site.
The principle of emphasis reminds us that not all website elements are equal. Whether it’s your logo, a CTA, or an image; if there’s something on your webpage that visitors should notice first, applying the principle of emphasis with the use of bright color, animation, or size will ensure it's the dominant aspect of your composition.
When applied to web design, movement is what guides visitors from one element to the next. By controlling the size, direction, and order of elements on an individual web page’s composition, you can direct the movement of the viewer's eye throughout your site.
Rhythm refers to the repetition of elements in order to create consistency, cohesiveness, or to amplify a certain message. Repeating characteristics such as your logo, brand colors, including complementary colors, and using the same typeface, will also strengthen your brand identity and presence on the web.
Placing your business name at the bottom of your homepage is simply poor web design practice. Can you guess why? First-time visitors would have to scroll all the way down your site to know who you are. This is something we understand from the principle of hierarchy, which teaches us that the most important content should be placed in a prominent spot where visitors immediately see and interact with it.
In art and design, any area of a composition that’s void of visual elements is referred to as white space (psst: even when it’s not actually white). This might not seem like a critical thing to pay attention to, but the conscious arrangement of white space in web design will give the visual elements of a webpage room to breathe. It can also help achieve other goals in your composition, such as hierarchy, balance, emphasis, and more.
Unity is the culminating effect of all the individual elements you’ve added to your site, ideally resulting in one harmonious composition. The goal of unity in web design is to ensure that visitors will not get overwhelmed, confused, or turn away from your site.
It might take a few tries to get it right, but once you achieve a unified web design, you can ensure that each aspect of your site plays a valuable role in its function and performance. This also means paying attention to what elements you include, where and how you position them, and if they are truly serving a purpose.
05. Website layouts
Planning your website layout is like setting its foundation, since it will determine the arrangement and sequence of visual elements on each page of your website. This critical step in web design plays a role in a site’s visual appearance, level of usability, and amplifying its message.
The best layout for your website can be determined by a variety of factors: the goals of your website, the message you want to convey to viewers, and what kind of content you’ll include. While there’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution, there are two major directions you can take:
Layouts to accommodate your content: The layout you choose should be fitting for the type of content. For example, if you want a layout that will showcase products you might go for one that leaves ample space for highlighting images. A blog layout, on the other hand, will need to convey new information in an organized way.
Common layouts: There are plenty of tried-and-tested website layouts out there. These tend to feel familiar to users, as they build on their existing expectations or past experiences of other websites. Since they may result in a more intuitive, easy-to-use interface, they can be great for beginners.
When designing a website of your own, you can use website templates in a wide range of categories to provide a solid infrastructure for your site’s layout. If you want to design a layout from scratch, we recommend using wireframes to start. This process will allow you to draft out the layout of your website before the implementation process.
06. Functional components of web design
Website functionality essentially refers to how your website works; everything from its speed and ease of use, to what specific actions can be performed on it.
At the risk of dating myself, when I think about how speedy and efficient websites function today—compared to the ‘90s (I can hear AOL’s dial up signal in the background), I’m reminded that we’ve come a long way. Given the advancements across the industry of web design, it’s in our best interest to utilize the modern tools available to guarantee our websites perform well, and are easy to use.
Let’s go over the components of web design that will affect how your site functions:
A single web design can consist of multiple pages and items to be viewed or used by the visitor. Website navigation is what lets visitors find the webpages they need after they arrive at your site.
Adding a navigation menu to your design is the best way to provide smooth navigation for visitors. A website’s menu links to multiple items on your site and serves the user by helping them navigate between different pages and sections.
Depending on your site’s design, you might choose between the following types of menus:
Classic navigation menu: This popular menu type is placed in the website’s header, presented as a horizontal list.
Sticky menu: Also known as a fixed or floating menu, this menu stays put as visitors scroll down the site.
Hamburger menu: A hamburger menu is an icon made up of three horizontal stripes that opens to a full menu once it’s clicked.
Dropdown menu: A menu in which a list of additional items opens up once visitors click on—or hover over—one of its items.
Sidebar menu: A list of menu items located on the left or right side of a webpage.
Speed measures how quickly your site fully loads after a visitor enters it. No one, especially in our fast-paced generation, likes a slow website. It’s got to be performing at high speed. In fact, studies show a 38% rise in bounce rates when a webpage’s loading time surpasses 3 seconds. No matter how pretty the web design is, you can’t compete unless you’re providing visitors with the smoothest browsing experience.
Many factors can affect the loading time of a page; some are related to a visitor’s own device or internet connection, while others might be specific to the website they’re attempting to browse. Today, there are proven practices and tools checking for auditing your site’s performance and improving the loading speed of its pages. You can also learn more about Wix Performance here.
SEO, or search engine optimization, is the process of optimizing a website so that it ranks well on search engines. Since it plays a big part of your website’s success, we think it deserves to be included here with the functional elements. The more people who are able to find you on Google means the more visitors you’ll have using your website.
Although SEO is an ongoing task, there are steps you can take to integrate website design with SEO from the get-go. For example with Wix’s SEO solutions, your site’s built-in infrastructure will already support positive performance.
There are a number of common SEO practices you can take before hitting publish, too: include headings in your content, add alt text to images, use meta descriptions on relevant pages, and choose a domain name that represents your brand or business.
Since the explosion of computer usage in the 1980s, the tech industry has constantly been exploring how human beings can better interact with technology. This is the practice of UX design —or user experience—and when applied properly to web design, it can have a great impact on the user’s journey.
The term UX is often used interchangeably with “user interface” design or “usability,”, which are really , in reality, a part of the larger UX vision. While UX designers are concerned with these aspects of a product, they are also involved in looking at the big picture, finding ways to perfect and develop the products, branding, design, usability, and function.
The process of is meant to ensure that a website encompasses high-quality interactions, content, products and services, by improving these seven factors:
Adaptive design vs. responsive design
Today, mobile devices account for over half of online traffic, making it critical to adapt our websites to the small screen. There are two types of styles that make it possible to shift a web design from its desktop version to mobile: adaptive design and responsive design. Knowing the difference between the two will come in handy, especially when choosing the website builder that’s best for you as most platforms will support one of the two:
Adaptive design involves creating different versions of the same website, where each can adapt to a different size screen, or browser width. For example, with Wix, our users can arrange the layout for their site’s desktop version, and will be provided with a mobile website adaptation that is customizable.
Responsive design involves creating websites with a flexible grid. This creates a dynamic appearance, depending on the screen size and orientation of the device used to view it.
07. Visual elements of web design
A website’s visual elements are just as important as the functional qualities, and work together to shape its overall look and feel. From color schemes to fonts and video, these details play a role in user experience and the shaping of your brand. In this section we’ll go over the visual elements of web design, along with some tips for making aesthetic decisions of your own:
A website header refers to the very top section of a website page, and is the first thing visitors see when they arrive at a site. In such a strategic location, a header is generally used to display a navigation menu, business name, a logo or contact information.
A website footer is located on the bottom of the page and is fixated every page of your site. Since it’s the last thing visitors will see, it’s a good place to add and repeat important information they may have missed, without taking up too much visual real estate. A footer is also a common place to include contact details, a map, an email sign up bar, or social media buttons.
When it comes to web design, your website color scheme will set the tone for your site. Not only that, but splashing a branded color scheme strategically throughout can play a key role in strengthening your online branding.
When determining a site’s color scheme, decide which hues will represent your primary color (the one that’s most dominant on your site), secondary color (used consistently, albeit more sparingly than your primary color), and the accent colors (used in clever ways to highlight certain details of your site).
Typography refers to the visual aspects of type, such as the choice of font and arrangement of text. A crucial part of web design, typography can be used to complement a website’s aesthetic style, or to strengthen the written messaging throughout a site.
When choosing the best fonts for your website, consider the fact that typography can be as important as the words themselves. You’ll want to choose fonts that are readable, suit the stylistic theme of your site, and above all—on brand. Similar to a color scheme, you can pick primary, secondary and accent fonts to direct the way a visitor experiences your written content.
Setting the tone for your page, the website background plays an important role in web design. Whether it’s static or animated, solid or textured—the background is what follows visitors consistently as they scroll.
You can upload any image or video to become your website background, use a brand color, go for a trendy gradient background or opt for a minimalist theme and leave it white. Whichever you decide, make sure it fits into the overall visual theme of your site and grabs visitors attention without being too distracting.
One way to add more excitement to a background is by implementing scrolling effects, such as parallax scrolling—a trendy favorite of both professional web designers and beginners.
In just a few seconds, your website imagery can strengthen the message you send to visitors. This might mean displaying your business’s products or location, uploading photos from an event, including a branded favicon, or using imagery to add a bit of flair to your site’s design.
Wix provides a rich library of free visual content - from stock photos to collections of innovative designs, like the transparent videos we purchase from some of our talented users. When working on a web design, our users also have the ability to upload their own images, stock photos from sources like Unsplash, custom animations or vector art.
One of the goals of web design is to set your site apart from others. Adding animation to a website is a great way to do that, and can help direct your users’ experience and action. You can include animation throughout your site to create a more dynamic experience for viewers, or to trigger certain reactions.
For example, try adding a touch of animation to:
A CTA button to encourage visitors to click
Elements like arrows to provide direction for users
Loading bars to make their (hopefully short) waiting time more exciting
Things that you want users to pay attention to, such as a lightbox for email signups
08. Website maintenance
The web design industry is one that’s constantly introducing new features, tools and solutions. The down side of this quickly evolving world is that it requires you - and your website - to stay constantly up-to-date and implement a website maintenance plan.
After you’ve completed your first design, you'll eventually have to update your website to ensure the content is relevant, and the design is not obsolete. While seemingly futile, any outdated elements on your website can negatively impact your visitors’ interactions, resulting in decreasing overall performance and sales.
Check in on your website at least once a month to make sure there are no bugs, everything works properly and that your information is current. When considering a redesign, think about the changes you can make to keep your web design relevant, improve it’s ease of use, or amplify its performance. This might mean adding fresh visual content, an extra page, working on SEO, or performing an accessibility audit.
09. Web design inspiration
Now that we’ve covered the basics of web design, it’s time to seek creative examples. Web design inspiration is everywhere, and we recommend you regularly browse through sites like Behance, Awwwards, and Pinterest to find new ideas.
Here at Wix, we’ve got our finger on the pulse of web design trends, and are constantly on the lookout for the best websites made by users. We love seeing what these proud website owners do with our product - from artists to small business owners, and everyone in between.
Check out the following “best of” websites for inspiration of your own:
By Jenna Romano
Writer and Web Design Expert