I've been a designer in the Washington, DC area for about ten years now and have had some opportunities to work on federal government website projects. Here are five ideas that frequently come up during design discussions with clients.
1. Give your site design the attention it deserves
OK, I'm biased. However, studies show that good design is more than making a site "look pretty." It also leads to better credibility and usability.
It was heartening to see Obama's emphasis on design when whitehouse.gov launched in 2009. Design-wise, it is light years ahead of previous administration's websites. The site demonstrates good design principles — precedence, spacing, good typography — all of which make the site more readable, more accessible, and thereby gives the impression that the Obama administration is accessible as well.
How to give your site design the attention it deserves? You might: hire a designer (firm or individual), purchase (or take your own) quality photographs, learn about design principles, take time to create quality graphics like charts and other informational graphics, or explore advances in web typography like Typekit.
2. Navigation doesn't have to be an org chart
Often there's a tendency to create navigation structures that mimic an organization chart. This sometimes results in 17 links that start with "office of..." It used to take much convincing — and rounds of wireframes — to sell the idea of a navigation system emphasizing an agency's services and offerings. This issue is becoming less of a challenge because clients are as immersed in the web as everyone else and can see trends in navigation on other sites.
3. Keep it simple
For years, designers in the D.C. area spent a large portion of their time creating top graphical banners that were complicated collages telling the entire story of the agencies they were working for. The government of Canada's website is a good example of this.
Not only did these banners involve a LOT of design time, it also resulted in not-so-great design. The tiny images within the banner, even though they made up a larger graphic, often resulted in a cluttered look.
Recovery.gov avoids this problem by creating a simple top graphical treatment and placing the multiple images that help tell the agency's story within the body of the page in an image rotator.
4. Make it blue
...or grey or teal or magenta or...(fill in the blank). Blue is wonderful; it evokes patriotism and technology. Multiple shades of blue are easy to pull off. However, its definitely worth the time to explore other colors, as well as textures, fonts and icons, when creating a visual identity for an agency. There are many examples of sites that evoke patriotism and seriousness without using blue. For example, the Department of Justice.
A great technique to use when exploring colors and graphical treatments is style tiles.
5. The deal with the seals
I'm amazed at the artistry behind many agency seals — eagles and olive branches and swords — they look amazing and official. A frequent design request is to put the seal prominently in the top left portion of screen. As part of the agency's identity, this makes perfect sense. However, from a design perspective, it can be challenging because the visual complexity of the seal can compete with other elements on the site.
The Security and Exchange Commission's site is a good example where the seal draws a bit too much attention and distracts from the content.
The Department of Energy's site shows a way to solve this: by making the seal fairly small in relation to elements around it. In their case, "ENERGY.GOV" and the large image rotator area within the body of the page are clearly more prominent and help create precedence in the design.
These are common challenges that have come up during design discussions with government clients. It's important to note that each design project is unique; there are no cookie-cutter designs, because each client has unique needs in terms of message, branding and content.