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Our team just had a rather strong argument over an issue. The issue:

Some team members want to "update" one of our websites by changing the colors of the left navigation bar, and maybe also the colors of links. They feel this will indicate change and freshness.

In response some of us said no, let's not do this. We should not consider changing an element in isolation. The color of the menu and the links should work with the other site colors - it's possible to change something in isolation but it would be better to consider broader changes - I described this as taking a more holistic approach to site design.

Is the response fair? Can you select a single element of your site - like the navigation - and change its look and feel, or should you always consider the broader site design? Are we - I was on the side of the no-change - being pedantic/overly cautious?

Note: We DO NOT have a graphic designer on the team.

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Yes, this response is fair and no, you were not overly cautious.

That's a common issue that happens when some people have not the sufficient knowledge required to pull off the skills required to make the product appealing to others.

During my apprenticeship as software developer, I was often involved in user interface design. (Which is a bit different from web design but they share common features)

One of them are color harmonies to create a clear style-guide. The users aren't dumb, make them learn your website.

I will point out some ideas on coloring as you're especially concerned about the colors of the left bar:

  • Links should always have the same color(s -> visited, hover..)
  • Text (to read) should have the same color thorough the page (You are allowed have some text in a brighter version of the same color to indicate important messages / notices)
  • Similar elements should share similar colors

Keep a good but small palette of color maybe 4 to 5? And use them to color your page - make sure you use the very same colors in different ways. Make them a bit brighter for general information, saturated for important informations.

Color harmonies are the one single most important thing in web design. Next to the layout.

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+1 for a very good summary of the basics. – Alan Gilbertson Sep 13 '11 at 22:39
Thanks for a good overview of the issues, Shaharyar. – gef05 Sep 14 '11 at 12:43

From a design perspective there is no such thing as an element "in isolation" unless there's nothing else on the page. Even then, it interacts with the white space and page geometry, so you still have at least three elements to deal with, and they are highly interdependent. Shaharyar's answer is a good one.

In considering a design change to an existing site, ad campaign or brand "look" the biggest single question to consider is "Why?" You see the site daily, and it might look stale to you just because you're so familiar with it, but a new visitor hasn't seen it before. To them it's as fresh as the day it went live.

I've talked clients out of changes (and myself out of a contract) often enough when deep inquiry revealed that the existing look was still producing but the CEO or the new marketing dude just had the idea it needed to be updated. I have a vested interest in my clients not making expensive and damaging mistakes. Except by complete accident, change for the sake of change is a VERY bad idea in marketing (think "New Coke" or the last round of Pepsi rebranding) if what is already there is working.

Just as every design element has to have a good reason for being there, any change in branding or advertising must have a reason. Someone's opinion, no matter how strongly held and no matter where they are in the hierarchy, is not a reason. Declining sales, a new market or a new product launch are reasons.

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I particularly like your comments on "isolation" and also "why". Good talking points with the team (who I think now accept that we shouldn't be doing this, but that a designer should be...). – gef05 Sep 14 '11 at 12:44

Consider this: - when the website was created in the first place, were the colours of the sidebar and the links made up completely randomly?

If yes, then well obviously they shouldn't have been - they should have been carefully considered as part of the design to reflect branding, style, culture, emotion, harmony, attention, whatever the reason - there should be a reason. Everything designed should be designed for a reason.

If no, and the above reasons were considered at the time of initial design - then by what earthly reason is it suddenly ok to not make the same considerations as were made at the beginning? It's not right to take any part of a design in isolation.

And maybe there's a gradient between the two answers - perhaps only a bit of thought went into the original design - but not having a designer meant the reasons were not too well thought out.

But that doesn't mean it's any more right to change things in isolation. The correct thing is always to consider the bigger picture and therefore to progress forward rather than sideways.

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