How art direction in web design creates more engaging experiences

Profile picture of Oliver Lindberg




Illustrations by {name}

Unlike print, web design doesn’t usually receive art direction. Leading designers discuss why, and what we’re missing as a result.

8 min read

A mood board for a fashion eCommerce website, showing various screens and silver, metallic elements

Stay informed on all things design.

Thanks for submitting!

Shaping Design is created on Editor X, the advanced web design platform for professionals. Create your next project on Editor X. 

Get our latest stories delivered straight to your inbox →

Advertising and print design have a long tradition of art direction. On the web, however, a lot of websites still look very similar and lack the kind of consideration that we got accustomed to in graphic design.

By applying art direction to our web design projects, we can create powerful works that are striking, memorable and stand out in today’s busy digital landscape.

Designer Andy Clarke, author of Art Direction for the Web, describes it like this: “[Art direction] uses design techniques to intentionally evoke an emotional response from someone when they read an article, use a product, or visit a website.”

We chatted to leading designers to find out how art direction is evolving and how modern front-end techniques are now making it possible to create innovative and inspiring layouts that until recently were unthinkable.

Combine function with feelings

Back in the day when Flash ruled the web, we’d see a lot of playful and expressive digital experiences. Since then, the web has evolved to be more rational – dominated by systems and consistent design languages, data, and best practices.

“It’s true that digital went too far during those early days,” believes David Navarro, executive creative director at full-service creative agency Ueno (recently acquired by Twitter). “Fortunately, we started to build structures to make experiences more centered on what users need than what brands have to say. It guarantees the solidness of the medium, but in some cases it leaves the expressiveness of art direction aside.”

David finds that we’re often too focused on following web design trends and best practices, while there’s actually a huge opportunity to go back to a more emotional digital space and combine function with feelings. Art direction can play a massive role in that.

“Long-term memories are formed through an emotional response,” David explains. “Usually, people come to websites, use digital products, and interact with digital experiences with a purpose in mind. It can be very transactional and functional – checking the news or looking for information about a product or service – and with art direction we can help them do that in a way that makes them feel better, entertained, or engaged. It provokes an emotion that lasts.”

"Story should always be given priority over format and since every format has its strengths and weaknesses, for me, the best experiences utilise a variety of mediums."

- Graham McDonnell, senior director of brand creative at TIME.

Find out what sets your project’s brand apart

Before jumping into design, it’s crucial to take the time to understand what brand and business values your visual palette needs to convey, advises designer Paul Woods, CEO and chief creative officer at global design consultancy Edenspiekermann.

“Typically, I will never lay down a single pixel before we have aligned with the client on three design principles – no more, no less – and we have done a workshop to define a visual compass of dos and don’ts using reference material,” he reveals.

Meanwhile, for Pascal Deville, co-founder and creative director of full-service creative agency Freundliche Grüsse, art direction on the web means respecting the purpose of a website and getting the user into the right mood.

When you develop your concept, Pascal suggests creating freely – without grids, limitations or best practices in mind. Try to set the overall look and feel first. Find the right ‘rhythm’, and only then dive into the details and look for repeating patterns like hierarchies, colors and typefaces.

Figure out the best way to communicate your message

“Think about what audience you’re designing for first,” Pascal recommends. “Are they visiting a website to get information quickly, or do they want to get entertained?”

Pascal, who founded the Brutalist Websites directory, firmly believes that less is more.

“Take away stuff until it gets bland or broken,” he advises. “Don’t hide too much – users won’t experience websites as a whole. Make things obvious, unless you want them to explore it by themselves. Set the tone of your language right: if you’re polite elsewhere, you should be polite on the website too.”