The very concept of e-business tends to challenge conventional wisdoms.
Traditional commercial skills and attitudes cannot always accommodate its demands without help from specialists. CEOs, whose talents were developed in an industrial landscape that changed only gradually, often struggle to come to terms with e-business, the importance of which they may acknowledge but the nature of which is quite foreign to them. Not long ago, the tip of the e-business iceberg for many companies was the web site. What should it be? How should it look? Would it make money?
With ominous speed, web site designers sprang into being fully formed, usually claiming expertise few potential clients were in any position to question. The early results were often discouraging with clip-on sites that bore little relation to the organisations they represented. Over-design was rife, as web designers rushed to fill the uncertain void with kaleidoscopic tableaux that conveyed little and often attained new heights of illegibility.
Two or three years later, line sites are appearing that not only look better but also reflect a much deeper understanding of how an online presence - far from being an adjunct - can become an integral part of business operations.
Even so, both clients and designers are still learning. For example, what exactly is 'good design' when it comes to web sites? A collection of visually pleasing individual pages? Something that can be easily navigated?
A site that is easy to maintain and update? How do you commission a site?
Are you buying a simple product or are you buying into something bigger?
How do you assess the total cost of ownership? There are no short answers; instead a new generation of web designers has emerged, many of whom have designs, so to speak, on the internal culture of their clients.
The web site is now becoming part of the skeleton of many companies, rather than just a cosmetic add-on. This extends the remit of the web designer, increases the timescale and, of course, boosts the cost. David Whittaker, of consultants Ascendant Partners Limited, points out that some Internet service providers offer a pounds 100 'template' to be filled in with client details, so creating an instant web presence. 'Then again you can expect to pay between pounds 20k and pounds 50k or more for a more integrated solution,' he says. 'Some web designers are geared up so that they can only afford to work for clients who want a full ongoing business partnership. Others can provide a simpler solution in a matter of weeks.'
Looking at the latest generation of web designers, one thing quickly becomes apparent. Many are not only new companies, they are already in their second or third realignment. Conventional wisdom might see this as a weakness: longevity and stability were once thought to be necessary virtues in business partners. Yet in the maelstrom of the digital revolution, realigning your business fast is often a sign of decisiveness and responsiveness.
When Razorfish was born in New York, it was frequently dubbed a web design outfit. True, it had plenty of young designers sitting at Macs, but Razorfish established an early reputation for helping certain businesses - notably stockbroker Charles Schwab - to restructure themselves by using digital technology internally as well as exploiting profitable e-commerce capabilities to conduct online transactions. Design, in the traditional sense of visual organisation, only took place after the business model had been fully addressed. That approach has been injected into Razorfish's London office, currently a good example of a company that bases its services on strategic thinking, not stand-alone visual creativity.
Some businesses are fortunate in having board-level people who are anxious to take advantage of the digital revolution. To those that do not, it can only be said that the digital revolution will not be going away. You will need to hire a web designer sooner or later. When you do, beware of those with nothing more than a portfolio of seductive screen grabs.
If there is no real strategic understanding of your needs, you may end up not breathing new life into your business but simply beautifying a corpse.
META DESIGN - Tim Fendley
After producing a handful of visually sophisticated web sites for design-aware clients, Meta Design London is now trying to persuade a broader range of businesses to address web site development more thoughtfully.
However, principal Tim Fendley acknowledges that the online environment can be discouraging to the novice. 'The internet is still a really confusing, noisy mess with everybody trying to offer everything simply because they can,' he says.
Currently, Meta is creating what they call scenarios to help clients explore possibilities. Fendley argues that a company web site must succeed in three areas: the business plan must be right, the technology must be appropriate and, crucially, the culture of the site must be right.
'We sit down with inter-departmental groups,' he says, 'and we might say the business plan and technology are wonderful, but if the end user finds it a hollow experience, then it's not going anywhere.' And where does design fit in? 'As always, there is a need for style,' Fendley replies. 'But we believe design is located at the centre of those three overlapping areas - economics, technology and culture.
Telephone: 020 7520 1000
RAZORFISH - Neil Crofts
Neil Crofts is head of strategy Europe at Razorfish's London office and his broad perspective echoes that of the business-led New York office.
'It's not just about designing a web site,' he says. 'What we do is to provide advice and practical implementation for businesses to remain prosperous during the technological revolution.' Crofts finds it 'an interesting irony' that one of the last organisations to become industrialised - the banks - were among the first to get digitised.
The disconnection of such companies from their customers has raised communication problems of the sort that Razorfish seeks to identify and address.
'What we need to do,' says Crofts, 'quite apart from building the web sites, the transactional engines, the mobile interfaces and the interactive TV interfaces, is to help businesses to adapt their culture to a more personalised way of doing business.'
Currently, Razorfish London is producing an intranet for NatWest, a highly ambitious online environment that seeks to combine design manual, staff training, and brand explanation to all employees and third parties offering NatWest products. 'Clients coming to us are quite experienced,' says Crofts.
'They understand the problems they face and they know they need expertise to help them.' Razorfish feels that 'design' is only part of the equation. 'We term it 'user experience',' explains Crofts. 'The disciplines are graphic design, interaction design, information design, information architecture, technical design and programming, but then there also has to be a consistency of brand experience. In the end, 'clever' design is probably better than 'beautiful' design.' www.razorfish.co.uk
Telephone: 020 7549 4200
DEEPEND - Peter Beech
Deepend London is among the most visually creative of UK web designers and MD Peter Beech identifies a wide range of requirements from business clients. 'It's perfectly valid for some companies to have a presence on the web that goes no further than marketing communications of one sort or another,' he says.
'There's a much more considered approach to marketing now, with clients looking at how they can build their brand online and use the web as an additional channel to build up brand equity. Younger audiences in particular are choosing the web over any other medium. The implication for companies is that it may be relevant to have brand communication online, although it may not be relevant to have a web site as a destination.' When a web site is required, Beech likes to work with clients as part of their team. He is aware though that progress may need to be gradual.
'We tend to try to do it on a staged process, not necessarily all at once. A managed evolution from brochure, through marketing channels and extending that into much fuller information about products and their availability through to full e-commerce.' Perhaps surprisingly, Deepend is happy to encourage clients to be self-sufficient. 'We often supply design and style guidelines,' says Beech.
'We like to empower the clients to maintain a site themselves. Anyway, a web site is going to tire over time, so most people would probably want refreshment or a complete redesign every 12 months. It's a living product.'
As well as a nicely understated site for the Design Museum, Deepend has designed BT's Talk 21 site and a seductive online presence for high-end furniture retailer Viaduct. 'Our best work is done when we are closely involved with the business,' says Beech. 'It's far more valuable than just being viewed as a supplier who can do good design.' www.deepend.co.uk
Telephone: 020 7247 8486.