I’ve recenlty stumbled across a topic I really like: graphic design of enterprise Intranets.
A starting point in the discussion: Intranet design is not about design with the ever present and known-to-all Toby Ward.
I agree with Toby when pointing out that “to produce a design concept in response to a RFP” is essentially pointless. I also agree that “users don’t really care about design nor video, flash, and bells and whistles that distract and entertain”; at least the should not care.
And design is not only about look and feel or bells and whistles.
I don’t want to mix usability, wireframes and graphic design here but the least we can say is that design is about branding, design is about corporate identity, it is also about use of fonts, use of icons and icon design, and much, much more. Visual design, must convey messages and match with the “application” design, possibily with elegance.
What could be the four top criteria in the visual design of an intranet?
The main, most inportant criteria, for sure. Speed shall be part of the technical specifications, interaction design, and visual design of course. Google search home page has been visually designed, has it?
Usability & user experience
I cannot think of user experience of an intranet without talking about visuals (the look in the “look & feel”) into account. One of the most important: icons and visual elements. And Font sizes.
Last but not least wireframes give usually only the organisation of space, then when passing to visual design disasters can happen easily (black backgrounds, low contrast of links,… ).
Of course defaults of a the “good” CMS software choosed can help; if you are very lucky the intranet will be based on Plone(*), you will have inline validation of fields, good labels, etc. Still, this is not enough. Some hard work has to be done here.
Branding & corporate identity
Sometimes I still discuss requirements like: “the intranet will match all of the design standards and guidelines of our public site” and “the design of the intranet will be a simple branding (colors, logo) of the CMS based on our current site”. There is even worst: “we’ll reuse the design of our public site”. Rarely admitted, but still happens.
Intranet are a strong vehicle of the organisation’s brand but I fear design standards and guidelines of the public site might be either an overkill or built for a very different target audience.
Design of the intranet will include elements of the corporate identity, but might be extremely different from the public site. In either cases it requires some specific work. This work have to be done.
Elegance is that “intangible” plus that some teams are able to deliver to the whole project by working well with all the rest of the people and partners involved. It is produced by visuals only when all the underlying work has been excellent (IA, Navigation, etc.).
Importance of a specific visual design
So, how important is visual design? very. No, seriously, I mean very important. More important than content? Information Architecture? More important than governance? Of course, not; but I would always involve an independent graphic design partner in your project, and do a serious work on design. The design of enterprise intranets is very different to the design of public web sites and to the design of a “generic” web application: target audience, goals and key criteria are different. So shall be the expertise and experience of the team.(*) Disclaimer: I could not resist.