February 15, 2011, 3:08 PM

Winning web design means more than just putting on a pretty face

Color, type fonts, photos and layout must also help sell, IRWD speakers say.

Lead Photo

Sari Levine and Josh Levine speaking today at IRWD 2011.

Visual design on e-commerce sites is sometimes viewed as a purely aesthetic matter, but it has another important job. Used effectively, such design elements as color and type font can help visitors navigate a page and call out a product’s best features. Used poorly, they can distract visitors and detract from sales.

Josh Levine, founder and chief creative and experience officer at web design firm Alexander Interactive, reviewed the elements of good design and offered examples of good and bad designs at the Internet Retailer Web Design & Usability Conference in Orlando this week, in a session called “Colors, themes, fonts: The building blocks of good design.” Co-presenter Sari Levine, creative and user experience director at home improvement retailer Lowe’s Cos. Inc., shared how Lowe’s web site has evolved over the years to incorporate effective visual design principles since launching at a site selling a single product—a book—in 1998.

Layout, color schemes, photography and more represent the basics taught at art school, Josh Levine observed. “If you are not using some of these design school tools, you are probably missing out on some sales,” he said. For example, he cited as an effective use of color how retailer UnderArmour’s red and black scheme conveys boldness and masculinity. That supports the product: skin-tight, high-end athletic apparel. The same red and black scheme, he said, conveyed the wrong message when employed on another site selling pet food.

Levine also shared how the right photography can reinforce text messaging to direct the eye. A slide from an eye-tracking study showed that the photo of a baby’s face next to a block of copy on a web page drew most page viewers’ eyes, while a side view of the baby appearing to look at the copy block drew more eyes to the copy.

He also discussed the tension between a site’s merchandisers, who typically want to fill available space on a page with product images and promotions, and the site’s designers who often argue against that approach. "Embrace white space and kill clutter,” he said, adding that overloading a page confuses viewer.

Sari Levine discussed how applying good design principles has aided navigation and created a more effective home page at Lowes.com as the site has evolved. For example, in the past 18 months Lowe’s has increased its use of fonts as a way to tie together key areas of a page and its use of photos with text to clarify category page content, she said.

Lowe’s has also applied thoughtful design to improve the effectiveness of its home page, which must serve at the gateway for several types of shoppers, she added. To that end, colors, typography and white space draw visitors’ eye to different areas of the page. Different types of hero shots used on the home page—large photographs that anchor the home page display—appeal to different kinds of shoppers when surrounded by particular colors and they use different fonts to target a shopper focused on a product hunt versus someone seeking inspiration or ideas.

The Lowe’s executive added that most of the same design principles can be applied to creating effective mobile sites, with one caveat applying even more strongly to mobile than e-commerce sites. When designing for mobile, she said, “Get rid of all non-essential information, or you will lose sales.”

Lowe's is No. 81 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide.

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