You know the old saying that you only get one chance to make a first impression. That little pearl of wisdom captures exactly the main principle that should guide you when you design the homepage for your business website.

However, if you take your design seriously, you’ll run into a conflict that can be difficult to resolve: Your page needs to make a lasting impression yet at the same time be “comfortable” enough that visitors inherently know what to do to get to the information you want them to have.

In other words, your homepage has to be sufficiently different to make it out from the crowd, but not so different that visitors feel lost when they land there.

Further, given today’s design aesthetics, another conundrum evolves from the conflict I cited above. You see, a sort of minimalist style with a sparse use of type rules web design today. However, virtually all business owners have a lot of information they want to convey via their websites…and if they had their druthers, they would convey it all from their homepage.

This problem is being solved today through two design tactics. First, almost everyone is using long homepages where visitors can scroll down and down, revealing more information as they go. Second, they include obvious links to second-level pages where additional information is presented.

But what is revealed scrolling down a page, isn’t the design that makes the invaluable “first impression,” so I’m going to focus mainly on design and typography that is featured above the fold – the area of the homepage that is immediately visible upon loading.

White space, black type

Let’s look at Apple Computer. Notice how much white space there is in the screenshot of the homepage above the fold. The graphics are big and bold, as is the type. Further, over the years Apple has developed this design aesthetic, so visitors immediately feel comfortable because they know they’re in an Apple “environment.”

Finally, note the super simple navigation bar at the top of the page. It’s a series of single words that align directly with Apple products and services.

Have you boiled your navigation bar down to one-word links?

But Apple isn’t the only tech company that has established a design aesthetic. Microsoft has created the “tiles” design, and computer users all around the world have learned how to navigate through on-screen tiles. The point here is that you can borrow from a design style like tiles – or Apple’s style, for that matter – and visitors to your website will understand how to navigate.

You can see how web designer Lilo adapted the Microsoft tiles “look” for the above-the-fold area of its homepage. Also, note that while the type is still minimal, imagery has taken the place of the white space you see on the Apple site. Why? Because the nature of the business (design) dictates it.

The two principles that we see in both examples so far are:

  • Bold graphics
  • Sparse text

Have it your way

From what we’ve examined at so far, you might get the idea that you need to have a slick, modern look to have a successful homepage today. This isn’t true. Bold graphics and sparse text need not always be realized in a modern style. I think one of the most successful homepages on the web is Basecamp’s.

The cartoon figure of the women with her hair on fire is very striking; it conveys a message that visitors relate to and it is also in a style that makes people smile, yet you would never classify the graphic as modern or “slick.”

Also, note that the type visitors are “hit” with on the Basecamp homepage addresses the visitor directly – We’ve been expecting you – and delivers the company’s offer in about 30 words. The lessons here are that if you have a call to action, don’t bury it; distill it down to its essence so it can be quickly read, understood, and reacted to; and talk directly to your visitors.

If you think these principles only apply to tech websites, you would be wrong. You don’t need to be tech-based to make the principles of bold graphics, sparse text, and familiar navigation work for you. Even the management of a 24-hour Diner can put these design and communication concepts to good use.

My final tip is to point out that in the end, deciding on the style of type and selecting some good images is the easy part. The difficult part is editing down your message so you can communicate it to your visitors in as few powerful words as possible. Use the 80-20 rule: Spend 80 percent of your effort honing your message, then you’ll find that putting all the elements together will happen much faster and you’ll avoid the series of homepage rewrites so many business owners suffer through.

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