June 24, 2008

Web Design Case Study

Dan Cederholm, the designer behind the small Salem [Mass.]-based Web studio and popular blog SimpleBits, has worked on projects for companies ranging from Google (GOOG) to MTV. His 2003 designs of new Web sites for magazines Inc. and Fast Company helped bring the concept of Web standards to the attention of Corporate America. And more recently, Cederholm's high-profile redesigns of ESPN's search pages as well as Web design and branding work for indie search engine Rollyo.com have earned him a reputation as a designer who could make even boring old search results appealing.

So it was surprising that when Sphere -- a company that provides search technology to Web publishers such as CNN, CBS (CBS), and The Wall Street Journal (NWS) -- commissioned Cederholm to redesign its corporate Web site last December, the designer quickly found himself axing the elements of the company's existing design that made it look like, well, a search engine. "The original site looked like vanilla, consumer-facing search without clearly saying what the company did," says Cederholm.

Atypical Search Although Sphere was conceived in the post-Google, search-ruled world, and its premise is based on search and discover, it isn't a typical search engine. The San Francisco startup, founded in 2005, makes a sophisticated widget that publishers use to automatically find and link relevant blog posts, articles, and other media to their online stories. Working backstage, the technology provides continually updated contextual results by collating digital bits of information. But replete with a large, centered search box, Sphere's original Web site made it look like a would-be competitor to Google or Yahoo! (YHOO) rather than a technology provider to business.

Cederholm, who describes his style as "minimalist with enough texture to still be interesting," set about reconfiguring the site's organization to make the company's mission clear. "The focus shifted towards business-to-business, explaining simply, 'here is what we do,'" he says. Working with a rough sketch faxed to him by Sphere CEO Tony Conrad, Cederholm began with wireframes, plain, black-and-white boxes denoting the general contours of possible future layouts. The two worked closely, and Cederholm notes the power and impact of having the final decision-maker's ear. About six months later, the site was done. [It launched this March.]

Sphere's Simplicity The new design's front page eschews the search box in favor of a one-line description of Sphere's services as well as a set of its customers' logos. Inside, the site's pages explain what the company does for its various customers -- publishers, bloggers, and advertisers -- in simple, clearly written bullet points illustrated by large, legible screenshots.

The key to clean, simple results, says Cederholm, is often not a site's graphical elements so much as its use of text. "Typography and layout are still the foundation of any graphic design," he notes. Hence, the new site's sparse use of copy -- enough, he adds, to convey the company's energy without overwhelming visitors with unnecessary technical detail. "Projects can get really tough when a client doesn't understand the importance of good copy," says Cederholm, noting Sphere's ability to describe itself quickly and simply -- the key to the redesign's success -- is not always a common trait.

That simplicity seems to have helped the Sphere idea stick in the heads of clients. Then, earlier this year, AOL agreed to acquire the company -- new Web site and all -- for an undisclosed sum. [Media reports estimated the deal was worth around $25 million.] Summarizing the finished project, a clearly pleased Cederholm concludes: "I like to think the design had something to do with it."