You wouldn't start building a house without first having a plan.


And you probably wouldn't start a business without some kind of plan either.


To build an effective website, planning is also essential.  It is too easy to get caught up in the aesthetics and forget about the structure and layout of your website.  Particularly if you have a lot of information, structuring your menus and content (aka Information Architecture) and setting out your pages (aka layout) can be vital to your website's success.


In fact, starting with your IA and layout first is usually the best way to go, as sometimes the way you structure things could have some impact on the look & feel of your design.  


Information Architecture (IA) 

The logical place to start is with your top-level menu items.  Main menus are generally displayed in a consistent position throughout a given website, and so organising all of your content underneath a limited number of headings, and assigning these headings as your main menu, is usually the best way to go.


To help visulise your content structure, use a flow chart similar to the following:




You can download an empty copy of the above planning guide here.



The lower part of the flow chart deals with layout.  A few common layouts are given, but anything is possible.  Be smart, and use your layouts to compliment your IA.  For example, if you really want to give something high exposure, but don't have room for it in the top-level menu, create a module/banner for it in a side column or some other position - you can then use this position for other things as well, if there is enough room.  Or the same position can be used for different things on different pages.  Don't forget to still include a submenu item in the main menu, for the same article/page.