what is website design

What is Website Design – for Beginners

Website design is, by definition, the creative and technological process of creating a website. It covers many different aspects, from the content generation, including images, to the web pages layout.

The terms web design and web development are often used as if they were the same thing, but they’re not. Website design is theoretically a subcategory of web development.

Website Design isn’t only about Visuals and Technology

This is most important to comprehend.

Most people talk of web design as something that has to do only with the appearance of a site, such as the colours, the text styles, the layout, the images, and technology.

The above concept of website design is a far cry from reality.

Not only the visuals and the content, but everything else about your website is determined by its design and functionality. In fact, the most important phases of web design are those prior to the actual development: conceptualizing and planning.

If those two stages fail, the website design will fail, and the online business will fail. 98% of websites fail within the first 5 years, in fact.

More on the conceptualising and planning stages of website design on my post 5 factors for a SEO oriented web.

Professional Web design helps to make your business appear credible online.

What is HTML and CSS

Any document that can be “read” in the internet is an HTML document, which is a mark-up language. For instance, an image has some HTML code behind it so that it can be read by search engines and shown anywhere in the world wide web.

Web designers build websites using this coding language. HTML is what defines the content and metadata of each page.

What defines the style and layout of the website pages is CSS (cascade styling sheets). It defines the texts colours, fonts, sizes, for example, as well as other aspects such as background colours, footer and navigation menus styles and colours, website layout and width, sidebars, etc. To design, website designers use HTML in combination with CSS and other tools, such as JavaScript or jQuery.

Elements of Website Design

To be able to present the content on the pages of your site, designers use the same key visual elements of all kinds of design, and even some of the same principles.

The main elements of web design are:


As it happens with all kinds of design, colour is a very important element when designing a website. Colour election depends on the purpose of the site, what you´re trying to portray with it, and even what customers you´re trying to attract, therefore it must be chosen carefully in every aspect (fonts, backgrounds, headers…) of the site.


The same happens with fonts. It might sound silly, but a font speaks volumes. If you use a childish font such as comic sans, you will be transmitting a rakish nature. It’s best to use “web-safe” fonts. It’s not unusual to use two different fonts in one site. Don’t ever use any more.  


A good website designer will combine content and design so that they work together to boost the message you´re trying to portray of the site by means of text (or copy) and visuals. The text on each page must be useful to the reader and relevant to their needs. The extension should not surpass 300 to 400 words. Users don’t want to waste too much time reading. The content must be search engine optimised.


Graphics include your logo and images, typically. You may also “throw in” a short video to enhance the user experience. Graphics are there to improve the site’s overall aesthetics and must be placed correctly. They must be coherent and consistent with the colours and “feel” of the whole website. They must not overfill it, since this could distract the user. It’s also important to insert graphics that don’t slow down the site’s speed, since this is a major factor for search engine optimisation, too.


And finally, the layout is the way in which content, graphics, etc., are arranged. Layout is usually formed by three or four main parts: header, footer, sidebars and main content space. The layout is one of the major factors for usability and user experience. Keeping a good balance in the layout and being consistent is crucial to a good website design. A key goal of the layout is to help users find what they seek, at a glance.

Ways to build a Website

Typically, there are three main ways to design a web (or have a website designed). Custom website design, using a CMS and using a web builder. Let’s see the differences.

Custom, hard coded, website design

A custom, hard coded website, is built using specialized tools for website designers, developers and programmers to make changes to all aspects of the website. They build its code from scratch.

This is usually the solution for big companies (though more and more are turning to WordPress). When someone hires a specialised company to develop their website, they don’t want to have anything to do with its maintenance etc. Or perhaps they have their own technologies department who will maintain, develop and upscale the site when necessary.

With hardcoded website design, the owner rarely has access to the backend (they wouldn’t know what to do with it, anyway). Rather, they leave everything in the hands of the specialists, paying a monthly fee to ensure the website is always online, request changes, domain and hosting payments, updates, etc.

Price: it depends on the level of development of your site and what the service includes. It might start around £3,000 plus monthly fees.

CMS web design

CMS stands for Content Management System. They were originally created as a blogging system, not as a website building tool. Later, WordPress was pioneer in developing into a web design software that includes a blog. The rest of CMSs followed suit.

CMSs are based on templates which have different degrees of difficulty and customisation. They have become more and more flexible to adapt to users’ different needs both visually and technically.

CMSs are easily used, managed and customised without ever having to touch the source code, which is handy for people who have no knowledge of HTML and CSS.

The most popular CMS is WordPress.org, which is self-hosted (you must purchase your domain and hosting space from the hosting service you like, then install the CMS). WordPress currently powers over 30% of all sites in the world and 60% of the CMS market share.

Other CMSs are Blogger, WordPress.com, Drupal or Joomla.

CMS management, customisation and maintenance are much easier than hard coded websites since non-technical users can make content, design and functionality edits. The backend user or manager has control over virtually every element and the website is not limited to a specific host (you can easily move your site to other hosts).

Price: CMSs are open-source and free. If you use your own domain and hosting (recommended), you must pay for them separately. Some CMSs offer free domain and hosting but your domain will include their name (mysite.wordpress.com, rather than mysite.com) and the hosting plans are usually very limited. If you want a professional website, I strongly advise you to obtain your own domain and hosting (around £60 – £100 yearly) and install the CMS of your choice.

Website Builders

Website builders are the last to enter the market of website design for non-technical users. Most work with a very easy drag-and-drop function to create your layout and content. This is its greatest strength. They are very user-friendly and intuitive. They are so easy that a child could build a website.

This advantage, however, makes one wonder: how far can a website design go when it’s so easy to build? The lack of complexity may be ok for some businesses and individuals but if you want a professional looking and functioning website, this is not the way to go.

Website builders only function on the builder’s hosting platforms. To design a website, they use proprietary tools and software. This, in my opinion, is a greatest limitation for the user. When you’ve built your website, you won’t be able to move it to a different host, since the builder only works with them. Moving to another platform is often costly, difficult, or impossible. A nightmare, really.

Website builders don’t scale well, since they aren’t as flexible as CMSs. If you want a more flexible builder to adapt to your requirements, most website builders have options to change your subscription (pay more) to add new features.

Some popular website builders are Wix, Weebly, Jimdo or Squarespace.

Price: You need to buy your domain name and hosting plan from them. There have plenty of hosting plans to choose from, including a free one. You will not have your own domain name, but one with the host name included (mysite.wix.com) and the hosting space and customisation of your site will be very limited. The website builder is a tool that comes with the hosting plan, so it’s free, really. Remember that if you want to move to a different hosting service for whatever the reason, you will lose all the work you’ve done in your website and its design.

Which of the above web designs to use?

When you are thinking of having a website, you must carefully reflect on the available options and the way you want to manage (or not) you online business.

Based on the above, you have three options

# 1. Hire a professional web design expert and discuss with them if you want a hard-coded site or a CMS.

# 2. Get a domain and hosting and install a CMS of your choice to design your online business website yourself.

# 3. Get a plan from a website builder of your choice to create your site easily, being aware that hosting plans are very limited.

If you don’t have any knowledge of HTML and CSS and would like to have your own online business, in the following link you’ll find the 4 essential things you need to start building your website.

The degree of customisation included in your website design will determine the time-frames, efficiency and cost of getting your online business up and running.

Below we’re going to explore several options within the option of hiring a professional web designer.

How can a professional designer help me build my website?

The objectives you pursue with your online business and website are the first thing you have to bear in mind.

Internet presence only

There is a huge difference between presence (or availability) of your site on the internet, and visibility of your business on the internet.

Presence or availability means that your website is online, but it will be difficult to find via search engines, unless the user keys in your exact domain name in the navigation bar or in a search box.

Visibility means that your website has been designed bearing in mind an ample array of keywords related to your business so that when the user types some of them in the search box, your site will come up in the search results pages (doesn’t matter if on the 1st or the 5th. The important thing now is that it shows).

More on presence vs visibility on the internet coming soon.

Some people only want a website to include it in their business cards and to have a point of reference for information, for example. In this case, the objective is only presence.

If you just want a site as an online place where you can refer your contacts, and your objective isn’t acquiring more customers with it, then perhaps you don’t need a professional website designer. In this case, I’d recommend you used either a CMS or a site builder and try to design your site yourself.


When you want your website to attract organic traffic (visits originated in organic search like Google or Bing), a more professional perspective is needed.

Website designers have the knowledge and expertise to build an online business that you don’t have. Also, they are up to date with design trends and functionalities.

Their aim will be to avoid technical glitches and satisfy your potential customers visually and from the usability perspective. You must realise that professional website designers are there to fulfil a double purpose: to make your site work and to make it visually attractive to visitors.

They also have some knowledge of SEO and they’ll do their best to optimise your web design from the search engine optimisation point of view* so that your visibility is higher in certain aspects.

*However, website designers really don’t know that much about SEO, since they focus their efforts on user experience and visuals, as it should be. See this post from template monster where they assure that award-winning websites don’t rank in search engines.

Visibility and Sales

When you want your website to attract online potential customers, most web designers will not be able to help. It’s not their job, really. To increase your visibility to that point, you need more than a website designer.

In order to create a website design that attracts visits from users that could ultimately convert to customers, you need to carry out a careful, deep, analysis of your objectives, market niche, keywords, etc. The results of this analysis will serve as a firm base to build your site with a focus on SEO, visibility and potential sales. (This process is part of what I have called web coaching. Since I am a professional coach and website designer, I blended both to create a unique service. Web coaching* not only consists of the above).

Having a clear vision of who your potential customers are and how they “feel” and behave, will give you the clues and basis for a better website design, focused on getting potential sales for your online business and its success.

*Web coaching is also a process that includes sales and marketing online advice (social media, email marketing, blogging) as well as SEO and WordPress training. It also helps surface many other aspects of your business that you hadn’t thought about. Typically, web coaching positions sites on the first / second page of Google results in less than two months. More info about web coaching.


We have seen that hiring a professional website designer might not give us the expected results goals-wise. We might end up with a visually beautiful, spectacular website but which nobody is able to find in Google.

A web designer works many hours to deliver a functional, great looking site for your online business, and then works on some aspects of SEO, but these are not enough to give you visibility.

You could then go on to hire a SEO for a monthly fee to see if it helps your online business to get the sales you want.

Ok. So, the best option would be to have tons of money (like a big company) to be able to afford, at least

  • An awesome design that blows your mind
  • A SEO specialist who can dedicate many hours to keep up with the SEO “stuff” for years on end

But I’m almost sure this is not the case for you. We wish, right?

Therefore, there is no best option, unless you have huge amounts of money to spend. You must carefully analyse your own situation and, based on the information above, try to choose wisely.

I hope this post has clarified what website design is, how it works and how to choose amongst the possible options available. If you need any further information or have any doubts, don’t hesitate to contact me or tell us all via de comments box below.

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