Over the summer, during my design fundamentals training, I had a bit of an argument with the instructor of one of my software training sessions about table-based web design versus CSS web design.

The argument was positive, however, in that it ended with the instructor, Cheryl Riedel, offering to have me be a guest lecturer for the web design course she teaches.

Yesterday, that offer came into fruition.

The focus of the lecture was web design process. The students are about to embark on a web site redesign project, and Cheryl wanted me to emphasize the work that goes into projects before any graphic design takes place.

I used Manchester Bidwell Corporation as a case study, as that is a site that I am currently working on (in fact, it just went live—really, just now). I also touched upon a couple other projects, including the International Transplant Nurses Society, and the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Anthropology. Before and after shots were quite effective, I thought.

Something the students were surprised to learn is the lack of strategy that clients often bring to web design projects (at least, in my experience). One even called it unbelievable, to which I full-heartedly agreed.

Seeing the deficiencies in the larger picture, i.e., the lack of strategy, is where I found opportunity to embrace design. In helping clients define their strategy, you are helping them design their service or business and how they interact with the people seeking to learn more information about them through the website. This is actually something I didn’t realize until going to CMU, and something the Emergence conference, which focused on service design, helped me see.

What I told the students was that design is much more than taking a website that looks poor and applying a new visual design that makes it look prettier. While this is something a lot of web design firms will do, it does not address the bigger picture of which the visual design is merely a component—though a necessary and important one.

I stressed the value of listening to the client describe the problem, while also keeping in mind that the defined problem may not be the real problem. For instance, my clients have never said they had no strategy until I inferred that they didn’t and asked.

Also, I emphasized the importance of defining the strategy and goals up front, then moving to content collection and information architecture, then to visual design, as getting the first part right makes the rest a lot easier.

One student asked about the need to educate clients. Another asked about how much of one’s personal design aesthetics go into the design.

Questions meant they were listening (I hope), so I felt I did a decent job for my first time. I was actually surprised that I used up the two hours and strung together a fairly cohesive presentation without too much forethought.

Cheryl seemed pleased, and I talked to a couple students who are in my interaction and visual interface design class, and they said I did well. So cool. It was fun, and I would not mind doing it again.

Though my voice did suffer for a bit afterwards. Note: bring water when lecturing.