Web Firms Need Focus Flexibility

July 3, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — It's hard to define exactly what a Web designer is these days because so many elements go into building a successful Web site.

Some companies that the skills to build a Web site have added some technical capabilities they were missing, or, conversely, technical companies lacked some marketing and content capabilities have added those, said Steve Lewis, owner of Fusionary Media Inc.

"There's not a lot to do in Web design anymore because it is so connected to whether it's content development or a larger marketing strategy or e-commerce, something that requires some technical capabilities.

"We started eight years ago and our focus then was interactive design and CD-ROM development, but so many of the skills there overlapped. We knew when we started that Web-building capabilities would be in demand. That came on, really, within the first six months."

But for small firms that want to concentrate strictly on Web design, there are a lot of places to fit in, Lewis added.

The problem is they compete with traditional agencies experienced in traditional media and have added people competent in HTML and other technologies that go into building Web sites. That's what Lewis refers to as "competition from the soft side."

Small firms also have to compete with the more technical, harder side that includes software developers and some traditional ERP or accounting firms that have added design skills to their service mix.

"For a long time I would have said, 'Add the skills internally and build a stronger, bigger company.' But I think now, just the way things are going today, you're much better off specializing and partnering and really getting people who are good at what they do in one area or another."

He believes there are a lot of emerging markets for usability and for solid information architecture and Web content development. Those are areas where there's a real niche to be cut out, and where there are a lot of partnership opportunities for those who are good at it, he said.

"I don't know how big of a business you could grow, especially in West Michigan right now, but it seems like partnering is, at least today, the right way to grow."

Fusionary Media has seven people with a broad range of creative and technical skills, he said.

"There's a lot going on here, but I think moving forward we're going to have to definitely sharpen the point a little bit. Right now we do everything from games to e-commerce sites to some course-based, computer-based training.

"We can't be the generalists that we've been. Some of that focusing could take place around the creative, where people are really after what we can bring to a project creatively."

He expects big growth in online application development, which isn't new. But "flash," now used commonly for animation and games, is a newer part of it.

"It's already huge but it's going to get bigger and bigger as we move forward, and it's really positioned to become the front end of almost everything we do online. There's going to be, I think, a pretty big demand for really solid flash programmers. And of course you're going to need people who are good at interface design, usability and all those other things."

Brion Eriksen, president of Elexicon, said that when people think of Web design, the first thing that often comes to mind is the color scheme — what the home page is going to look like — and getting out a few pages to establish a presence.

There's a lot more to it than that.

Eriksen's firm specializes in information architecture, interactive design and integrated marketing. Elexicon creates and designs information, creating a Web space and Web experience in much the same way that an architect works, he said.

"Now is the time to begin concentrating on how the Web vehicle can contribute to the marketing and sales of your product and keep you connected with your customers in terms of giving them information and online services. So from that standpoint, we're not doing just Web pages and Web sites. We're looking at a bigger picture, but we're still focused on interactive media."

A Web site involves a range of elements, he said. On one end are creative and marketing elements that need to look a certain way and follow the branding standards. A site also needs to incorporate marketing information.

On the other end, a Web site can be a piece of software — maybe even a very complex piece of software, he said.

"So actually it needs to serve both of those purposes," he said. "It needs to have the communication and design, but it also needs to have the software functionality. You'll find that many of the larger companies are either one extreme or the other — either a technology integrator or a hosting company or, to the other extreme, they might be an advertising agency."

Elexicon is kind of in between, he said. It's neither a huge technology integrator nor is it a big advertising firm.

"There's actually a pretty deep well of capabilities in a firm like ours when it comes to Web design. We understand both sides in order to create something that is not only visually appealing and communicates well, but also is set up to work well with any backend integration that needs to happen."

For example, he said Elexicon has worked with creative departments and advertising agencies as the technical experts on projects, and on other projects has worked with technology firms or IT departments as the creative experts.

"We kind of fit into that middle space, but it's very important space as far as Web design goes because everything kind of overlaps on the Web site — all the technology and marketing issues and, at the corporate level, investor relations."

It's about the ability to work with a lot of technology platforms and work with software engineers and programs, he said.

A company doesn't have to be all things to all people to be successful, Eriksen said.

"We have been able to survive and compete based on the fact that we are focused. A company can piece their approach together if they want. Where our piece comes in is in the strategy, communications and design of the site."

Any Web site of any size is going to involve a hosting entity and perhaps an IT department or technology group. Those worlds all come together to build a Web site, he explained.

"Where all of those things come together is where we kind of position ourselves."

Partnerships are important, too, whether with internal departments or external consulting firms. Partnering is one way Eriksen has grown his firm.

He estimates subcontracting work for other consulting firms, both technology firms and ad agencies, makes up about one-third of Elexicon's business. 

Another third comes from smaller companies where Elexicon serves as the primary marketing and communications firm, doing Web site design and all related print materials. The other third is generated through corporate projects.

As technologies advance, will companies like Fusionary Media and Elexicon have to morph into something else to stay competitive?

Eriksen sees it as a possibility, but a small one. Companies like his will certainly adapt to the technology, but it won't necessarily change the nature of their businesses, he said.     

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