Webvanta Blog: Creating Effective Websites

The Ten-Layer Cake of Web Site Creation

In the course of working with a variety of web designers, developers, and clients, it’s become apparent that one reason there is a lot of confusion around web design is that this term is used to refer to a wide range of complex topics.

Clients are often confused about what kinds of skills they need for various aspects of building a web site. And all too often, they end up with poor quality work because the people building the site are working well beyond their area of expertise.

Here’s our take on the many-layered cake of web site design and development.


Not all projects involve all of these layers, at least not explicitly, but there’s usually some aspect of most of them involved, even if it is implicit and being done without much thought.

In a large-scale web project, there may be one or more people working on each layer. In such a job, you’d typically be looking at a budget in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

At the other extreme, many small sites are entirely done by one person. In this case, the efforts are typically focused around the middle few layers. There may be no back-end to speak of, other than a shared hosting account. The sophistication of such sites is often constrained by the fact that one person, who may be highly skilled in one or two of these layers, is being stretched to do the whole job.

Webvanta’s Slice of Cake

Our goal at Webvanta is to provide an easy, turn-key solution to the bottom few layers, which are the ones that are hardest for most designers to work with effectively, while also providing tools to help designers with the middle layers. The bottom layers are ones in which development can become very expensive, but by sharing resources and development work across many sites we can provide an affordable, high-quality solution.

Sites built with the Webvanta system typically fall into “thicker” layers as follows:

  • Layer 1 is province of the web designer’s client.
  • Layers 2 and 3 usually involve a collaboration between the web design, client, and, sometimes, other third-party content creators.
  • Layers 4, 5, 6, and sometimes 7 are the heart of the web designer’s job.
  • Layers 8, 9, and 10, and optionally parts of layers 3 through 7, are provided by Webvanta.

Whenever you’re starting on a web project, you’ll be well served by giving a little thought to each of these layers. If you’re the site owner, be sure you’re crystal-clear on the top layer, and that you have colleagues or contractors who can work with you to do a quailty job on the next two layers. Without solid top layers everything below is likely to turn out to be something of a mess — possibly a very expensive mess.

Make sure that you know if there is important work to be done in any given layer, and that you have the right talent available for the task. There’s some highly talented folks out there who can work across almost all of these layers. But for any but the simplest sites, you’ll usually need at least two or three people or companies to do a top-quality job.

Here’s a more detailed version of the ten layers:

  1. Business strategy and goals. This is the top layer that should drive everything else. Why are you building the site? How will you know if it is successful?
  2. Content creation. The substance of the site. What written information, visuals, data, audio, and video will populate the site? You may need writers, videographers, graphic artists, and editors.
  3. Information architecture. Arrange all the content in a way that makes it easy to find. Usually this layer and the next are done by the web designer in a smaller site, but in a high-end site you’ll have a specialist or two.
  4. Interaction design. Design how the site works, from navigation to flows between pages and interactive elements within pages (perhaps using Ajax or Flash).
  5. Visual design. How does it look? Colors, graphics, typestyles, and layout. The domain of graphic artists wielding Photoshop and Illustrator.
  6. HTML and CSS coding. Taking everything above and representing it in the language of the web. This is what people most often think of when you say “web design,” but as you can see it is just one piece.
  7. Front-end programming. Implementing in-browser interactivity, generally in JavaScript or ActionScript (Flash). Sometimes done by the web designer if they have programming skills, but may require a separate programmer.
  8. Back-end programming. Writing the software that runs on the server to manage the database, respond to requests, and so forth. The world of Ruby on Rails, PHP, Java, and .NET
  9. Database design. Structuring the way the site’s information is stored in the database. In a large-scale project, this is the domain of a professional database administrator (DBA); more typically, the back-end programmer handles it.
  10. System administration. Keeping the server running reliably and the data backed up. Usually handled by the hosting company to some degree. Requires more expertise and attention than most web designers are up for to do well. Can be a catastrophe if mishandled.

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