Beauty is Only Screen Deep

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“People use the web to buy things, find information, make contacts, and what they notice is whether they can successfully buy things, find information, and make contacts.”I admit it. Up until fairly recently, I didn’t really “get” the web. I thought my job as a web designer was all about looking good, delighting the eye, and imposing established design conventions on the user. I knew what color combinations worked best, what line length was comfortable for reading, and what type sizes produced the best balance and proportion, so I designed good-looking pages according to convention, and I did my utmost to make sure that my designs could not be altered by the users.

But I am starting to realize that, ultimately, looks don’t matter —that beauty is only screen deep. I have seen enough people delighted by horrendously designed pages —just thrilled as they squint to read pink type on a red background —because the site has something they want. And I have seen users utterly frustrated by attractive sites that use elaborate drop-down menus and rollover buttons to “enhance” the user experience.

The fact is that most people do not use the web for visual stimulation. People use the web to buy things, find information, make contacts, and what they notice is whether they can successfully buy things, find information, and make contacts. They do not notice the well-thought-out tag line or the expensive logo —they’re just window dressing, just frosting on the cake. In fact, all the fussing we designers do to draw attention to our work often winds up just getting in the way.

Take graphic text. Many of us use graphic text instead of plain text, particularly when designing navigation. We do this because we want to use a non-standard typeface, or because we want to create rollovers, or because we don’t like the way link underlining looks, or because we want to apply special effects to our text. Often we use graphic text to make sure users cannot mess up our layouts by resizing the text on the page. All of these reasons have to do with our concern about how text looks.

But text is not for looking at. Text is for reading, and there are many instances when people cannot read graphic text. People who need large text for reading cannot enlarge graphic text. People who use text-to-speech software to read web pages cannot read graphic text, unless the developer supplies alternate text. People who need to customize their view of the web, for example, by applying a custom text color, cannot change the color of graphic text. And graphic text generally does not work well in flexible layouts, which allow people to access the web on different devices. In the end, the care and attention we pay to having good-looking text interferes with its primary purpose: reading. This means our choice to use graphic text is one of form over function: a determination that the way text looks is more critical than whether it can be read.

On the other hand, text that is truly text is wonderfully functional. Content in text format can be resized, recolored, reformatted, read aloud, searched, indexed, categorized, copied, pasted, translated, analyzed. Sure, it is difficult to style text online the way it is styled in print, with control over details such as leading, kerning, and measure. And yes, it is maddening the way each flavor of system and browser renders text differently, and that, with a simple click of the mouse, users can change text size and send carefully crafted layouts into disarray. The solution, however, is not to try to exert control using roundabout methods such as graphic text, or by fixing text sizes and page layouts for “optimal” readability. The solution is to let go. One person’s optimal text is another’s Flyspeck 3, and the power of the web is that it can accommodate them both.

This is not to say that we should all go natural and build text-only sites. Today’s web can accommodate conservative good looks. The trouble lies in the emphasis on looks above all else: the homepages where the only text content on the page is the copyright statement or the sites authored completely in Flash. These efforts to fix designs on the page oppose the very nature of the technology. The web was built for flexibility, and what we have been doing is trying to wrestle it into submission. We use various methods, legitimate and hacked, to secure our designs down to the pixel. This approach allows us to stay within the box —to apply to the web what we already know about design. The trouble is, the web was built to flex and flow, and our efforts to hold it in place wind up stifling its potential.

The web was conceived as a means to exchange documents that could be read by anyone, anywhere, anyhow. Trouble is, the early web pages were a little nerdy-looking, so we designers came in and took over and produced documents that could be read by anyone [sighted], anywhere [on a T1 line], anyhow [on a Windows machine running Internet Explorer and the Flash plug-in]. And though the web is now a much better-looking place, it is also less welcoming and accommodating than in those early, ungainly days.

The flexibility that has been sacrificed in this passage from nerdy to swank has undermined the capabilities of the medium. The web is supposed to be a space that people can mold to fit their preferences and accommodate their needs. With access to tools like browsers and screen readers, and with the wealth of information published on the web, people should have unprecedented access. However, when we build pages that rely on pixel-level precision, we lock out people who require a view other than the one we offer.

The measure of quality in web design should not be good looks, but graceful transformation: pages that can be accessed under different conditions and keep their integrity. A “real” web designer is one who can delight the sighted user with an elegant, attractive layout, and can make the same page legible to low-vision users who have their fonts set large for reading, and can make the same page clearly written and organized so it is understandable to all users, and can make the page navigable from the keyboard for people with mobility problems, and can write the page code so it makes a good read for blind people using screen reader software. A real web designer embraces the medium and designs for maximum inclusivity. I am not a real web designer, but I aspire to be.

It used to be that we thought we needed to pretty up the web so people would use it. Those days are long gone. Today’s web user is after a meaningful experience, not just a good time, and has little need for adornments. Maybe it’s because we’ve grown up some: the technology, and those who use it. I can now see that the beauty of the web lies in its function, not its form, and I would rather that my sites attract attention because they are widely useful and usable than because they are pretty.

Sarah Horton is a web developer with Academic Computing at Dartmouth College, where she helps faculty incorporate technology into their teaching. Together with Patrick Lynch she authored the best-selling Web Style Guide, recently released in its second edition. Sarah regularly writes and speaks on the topic of accessible web design.


  1. I DO agree with the basic message in the story. I have been in the web-business since ’95 and I have seen a lot of examples were even ugly looking websites were able to get a large and loyal audience.

    It just depends on what is on the website and how usefull it is and if there is any alternative.

    Example: back in ’95 my company developed the website for the Dutch stock exchange in Amsterdam.

    For some reason the designers used a totally abstract navigation using purple cones and red squares etc. Totally confusing..

    Despite this, the website was a great succes. The reason? It was the only Dutch website at that time that had semi-realtime (15 minutes delay) stock quotes.

    People just put up with the weird and bad interaction design and instead just focused on the content they came on.

    Even now I see examples of totally crappy websites (both by usability, interaction and design standards) that still are a huge succes.

    Somehow they seem to cater to expectations users have inspite of the opinions of the experts.

    I think the way websites are developing have an analogy with the development of cars: the shape of cars in general are hugely influenced by wind tunnels (to get the best wind coefficient factor). There is a certain shape that is optimal for cars. Hence: a lot of cars look alike.

    The same thing applies to websites: navigation is usually found on the top or the left side of the screen (well, for European/American sites).

    Placing a navigation the rigfht side is not done that often (remember: the windtunnel dictates the shape).

    Also, do not forget the power of the word over a graphic.

    It is often said that a photo tells more than a thousand words. Well, I think the opposite is true too.

    Just take a look at this word:


    I’m quit sure a lot of images go through your head just by reading it. If you would try to capture that feeling in an image you will find that it is more difficult to find an image that everyone associates with ‘spring’ whereas the word itself is more meaningfull.

    Last but not least: even ‘bad tast’ is a form of taste. (And there is no defense against it)..

    So I agree for 90% on this subject. The other 10% of me still hopes that what we all learned about webdesign is still valid.

  2. Interesting comments and views that you have on interface design.
    What formal training do you have in this area or are these opinions just what you have developed through experience?

  3. Almost all of this is covered by common sense. I think you should really focus on develop that feeling you have of the web and not worry how it would be implemented.

  4. I disagree with the basic premise of what this author has stated. What I’ve gathered from reading about what usability experts, web designers, and clients have had to say about the experience of producing a web site has led me to an inescapable conclusion: either the “web designers” being discussed have not actually studied design (and no, Photoshop tutorials don’t count) or they are qualified graphic designers who have forgotten the basics: the solution must be appropriate for the audience, purpose, and medium.

    “They do not notice the well-thought-out tag line or the expensive logo —they’re just window dressing, just frosting on the cake. In fact, all the fussing we designers do to draw attention to our work often winds up just getting in the way. ”

    This statement only reiterates my point – a designer should never try to draw attention to his/her work. Aggrandizement of a designer’s ego is never part of the client’s needs nor wants.

    The desktop publishing revolution created many good things for the world; for example, it’s now easy for anyone to afford to produce their own materials. The evil it has also unleashed upon the world is a plethora of horrendous design. Kept in the amateur realm, I have no problems (lest ye accuse me of being overly elitist.) The problem arises when those same amateurs attempt to enter the realm of professional design. I don’t mean to bash the author for I don’t know her credentials, but her viewpoint reflects a short-sightedness about the nature of the web and, in my opinion, a disparaging view of the user.

    Granted, it does occur that an overzealous graphic designer sometimes produces work that is overly styled for the given purpose. But what we are taught, if the designer keeps their Pantone swatches on straight, is that the solution must always be appropriate. In the words of Rick Valicenti, we are not necessarily there to produce a masterpiece. We are there to be someone else’s visual voice.

    Statements such as “beauty is only screen-deep” will do more harm than good in the end. The war between usability experts and graphic designers is ongoing – and unnecessary. (An interesting summary of the war and each side’s camps can be found at .) The largest hole in the usability expert’s rubric is the fact that aesthetics is inherently part of usability. For example, how many of you would enter your credit card number into a website filled with broken links, a vomit-inducing color scheme, and typos? If this site was your only option for the product you’re looking for, you may not have a choice. But this is rarely the case with the web.

    I wholly concede that looks are not everything. I don’t believe that graphic designers are going to save the world or prevent the next world war (though they could definitely ensure that even Florida wouldn’t prevent us from having an election with legal, Constitutional results… </rant>) I do believe, however, that the web needs to be treated as a full-fledged medium coming of age. Many designers have been frightened of it, thus the war between usability and aesthetics. They’ve also been afraid to speak against the “anti-democratic” view that the web is no longer what it was originally envisioned to be – a place “that people can mold to fit their preferences and accommodate their needs.” Instead, this is part of the problem that the designer needs to accomodate. How many people get frustrated because that brochure you got in the mail is serif instead of sans-serif? is too large? is too small? doesn’t let me see what else is on my desk? has other fold-in collateral? has certain colors? Why is the web expected to do that, then? – just because you view it on your own computer? What needs to happen is an integration: just as major firms will have print designers, web designers, IAs, copywriters, and programmers; there must be real interaction between disciplines in order for the web to come into its own and be more than a toy.

    The statement “I can now see that the beauty of the web lies in its function, not its form…” is part of a debate that started long ago, before the web was even a concept, with the Bauhaus. The maxims “Form follows function” and “Less is more” have been challenged, amended, rejected, embraced, and spawned even more movements. “Form follows function” worked for one design movement and, though it has influenced most that came after, it remains to be the Prima Facie Rule of design – and it shouldn’t be! Design history is full of examples to the contrary that have been exquisite while serving their purpose, and it has been these examples that have been the most innovative.

    The strongest, most valuable comment that Ms. Horton has to make is this: “A real web designer embraces the medium.” The web is new – so very new! – and even print technology has expanded and changed over the years. We must allow the same for the web. The medium must be embraced, expanded, understood, and above all – USED.

    I welcome a dialogue.

    Sonyl Nagale <>

    American Institute of Graphic Arts,
    Iowa State University Chapter
    Vice President.

  5. The three previous comments, even the single word “duh,” all seem to stem from deciding that either everyone understands this already (if they did, then the Web would appear fundamentally different in commercial, nonprofit, governmental, and personal sites than it does today), or, with Sonyl Nagale’s more in-depth remarks, that aesthetics and structure can’t overlay one another in rich ways.

    The criticism of Nagale repeats a common trope about graphic design in general: that because viewers can’t articulate the details (does someone get frustrated about serif vs. sans serif type?) those specifics should be overlooked.

    The Web is a different beast: on the Web (even if not to that granularity), readers can tell the difference, because type can be illegible in ways that would never be allowed in print because designers can’t control all iterations of a page’s appearance.

    In fact, there’s a deep separation that must take place that I believe fulfills both Sarah Horton’s desire for underlying meaning to supplant semantic-defying designs and tools, and Nagale’s vision of a sort of transcendental evolution of thinking of the Web into a new medium that’s embraced: the structural elements of the Web must be separated from the semantic or textual elements.

    The visual and semanatic representations encompassed in a Web page can be separated without destroying the flexibility of design. We are about to emerge into the latest generation of Web standards — or perhaps are already emerging into it — in which a designer creates transformations that are tunable by users and repurposable for new devices. Web page are structured into content that a design transforms into a design without losing flexibility. But the same content that creates the Web page goes through a different transformation to reach a visually impaired reader, or a Palm handheld organizer, or a cell phone, or other devices yet to come.

    It also retains its pure content nature without any transformation when indexed by search engines and by an internal, on-site search system; when summarized by software that can extract meaning; when transferred from one publishing system to another.

    Redesigning a site also becomes a snap when transformation is the focus rather than instantiation (a static content structure that can transform into an instance of a design rather than a static instantiation, even when that static version uses a template).

    I hope this adds to the discussion.

    To Mr. Duh, Uri Ar, if this were obvious, then the Web would already be universally accessible and legible. It ain’t, and thus we should proceed to challenge the assumptions. Look at Wired News’s recent redesign, and you’ll see how it all collides into new forms.

  6. What gets me about this article is the assumtion that the visual presentation of an interface is about making things “pretty”. This is simply not the case.

    In order for a Web site to be “usable”, it must be understandable. It needs to communicate, and communicate effectively. When a visitor comes to a Web site they have only the visual presentation (the interface) to “tell” them what the site has to offer, and how they can make use of it. As a result, we must rely on visual communication principles to tell our audience: about the behavior, structure, and purpose of our Web sites. The better at communicating we are, the easier it is for our audience to understand our messages and intentions, and the easier it is for them to use and appreciate our Web sites.

    A good Web experience consists of useful and usable content framed by the principles of visual communication to create meaning and understanding for an audience. Improving the overall experience for Web site visitors involves not only proper solutions to ‘technical’ concerns (such as download time and accessibility), but also presentation, emotion, approachability, and more.

    When designing a Web site, we need to consider three basic factors: presentation, organization, and interaction. Presentation is how your site appears to your audience, organization is the structure of your site, and interaction is how your site behaves in response to user actions. Because all interactions between your audience and your structure occur through the site’s presentation, it must be understandable and engaging. If the presentation is not clear, your audience might not be able to make it to your content. If the presentation is not engaging, your audience might not be motivated to try.

    Among other things, an effective Web site presentation can help:

    Provide situational awareness

    Provide clarity

    Provide emotional impact

    Engage and invite users

    Explain organization

    Guide users through content and sequences

    Maintain consistency

    Educate users

    Establish relationships between content

    Create emphasis and focus within Web pages and sites

    Send the right message to an audience

    Give sites unique personalities and distinction

    Establish a sense of place

    I have recently written a book on exactly this topic: Site-Seeing: A Visual Approach to Web Design. I encourage those of you that view visual presentation as “icing on the cake” to take the time to understand why visual communication is vital to both usability and user experience.

  7. What is being said is that design for design’s sake is bad. Wait. That’s true for print too (and motion graphics, and industrial design, and … ). All good designers know that. hmmm. I know:

    “Please stop forcing the web to be something isn’t ready to be… yet.”

    How’s that? 🙂

  8. Sonyl –

    Frankly, I’d take your comments more seriously if you hadn’t felt the need to append your credentials.

    This may seem perverse, but if you have the courage of your convictions then your arguments will stand (or fall) on their own merits.

    Not only that, but the IAs (etc.) I’ve met have, collectively, one of the strongest anti-puffery streaks of any discrete population I’ve ever met. The only thing that compares is folks in special ops.

    Back on-topic, I agree with a lot of what Sarah is saying, though it’s occasionally hard for me to let go of the aesthetic in pursuit of the effective. I can show you fifteen dog-ugly Japanese websites that appear to have been developed in the absence of any aesthetic sense whatsoever, but which are screamingly popular because they provide a way to do something

    Would I prefer that such sites be “well-formed” in every sense (semantically, visually, aesthetically, at the code level)? You betcha. But it’s hard to argue with the kvell of the masses.

    Function precedes form not because it’s a pithy manifesto that buys you Bauhaus brownie points, but because it’s hard to convince a client to lay out capital to polish something for the sake of High Beauty when it’s already accomplishing the mission.

    No. The dragon that I want to slay is ugly sites that don’t even work properly.

  9. I’ll make a quick and simple point and then shut up.
    I agree with what Sarah is saying, but I would point out that all of this is dependent on your audience. I think we all understand this. If your audience is for instance 15 year old boys who are into comics, you might find out that graphic text and an all Flash interface are just the ticket to getting your message across on the Web. You might want a pixel perfect layout as well, say if you are an artist of some sort trying to express a creative vision. For most sites and Web applications – Sarah’s points are totally true. As well, with anything, you should make sure it is usable by your readers/users – and do your best to capture the message/theme/function of your site. I guess it’s just that the Web is many things to many people and this article seems to address one (rather large) of those things – there are others out there.

  10. Well, yes. But look at two of the most successful sites I can think of, Google and Yahoo!.

    Neither is precisely a paragon of elegant design; matter of fact, I’ve always been flat-out embarrassed by Google – look, brand, and name.

    But I use it routinely, turn its name into a verb, even evangelize for it in a lukewarm way, because it *works*. Why on earth, were I an officer of Google, recommend spending even one dime on effacing the cheesy fake 3D and drop shadows in favor of a clean, contemporary identity? Where, precisely, is the ROI on this?

    Sure, design for your audience. Absolutely, reject the false dichotomy between beauty and utility. But above all, be honest, and give people what they need.

  11. To Glenn Fleishman:

    I regret writing that ‘duh’ Ð This article doesn’t deserve a reaction at all. It is not what I would expect from a professional forum. This article was only screen deep.

    To your point, that it is not obvious, I know. It should beÐto a designer. People should not call themselves designers if they think their job is about ‘looking good’.

    Actually, I think the writer still does not understand what design is all about.

    As to Sonyl’s comments (which, in my opinion, were much more interesting than the article itself) Ð The Bauhaus’ ‘form follows function’ and Jakob Nielsen seem to have the same advantages and flaws Ð they are very logical, but just like the young Jan Tschichold did Ð they assume things (i.e. the serifs are not neccesary for anything, simpler is more legible, a tagline is there for decoration purposes,etc.). Jan Tschichold had the courage and sense to re-examine and re-evaluate his early fanatic views. That is what makes him so great. I guess by now you know what I think about Nielsen….

    But ,on the bright side, these extreme opinions benefit the field of design in the long term Ð they force us to think and they force us to articulate, if only to ourselves, why we do the things we do.

  12. Uri has stated what I feel to be one of the most important tenents of design: always re-examine, re-evaluate, and articulate. For example, a friend and I once had a discussion on the format of books. From a usability perspective, they are -not- the most usable; the line length is too long! Ease of reading would dictate different conventions, but the book format has been with us for so long that few people reassess it.

    Glenn’s comments about transformations are intriguing and right on the ball. My comments may have seemed to mean that I don’t believe aesthetics and structure can meld, but just to clarify I believe that they are integrated. I advocate the entire creative team, copywriters included, sit down and discuss how everything fits together. That way, the designers have the copy in front of them when they work and thus, to parody, “Form follows content.”

    Additionally, it’s not that I believe specifics such as serif vs sans should be overlooked because users can’t articulate them, it’s that I place those issues in the hands of the designers. The designer should know what typography is best for the application; if they don’t, shame on then. However, putting serif type on something because that’s what the client likes, I can’t endorse. Viewing everything as serif because that’s what you like, I can’t endorse. Part of design is understanding systems of communication, and that’s what we should work towards.

    Luke’s list of his tenets for good site design are also excellent. “When a visitor comes to a Web site they have only the visual presentation (the interface) to “tell” them what the site has to offer, and how they can make use of it.” This is right on the money. This is why we fixate on “the expensive logo” – it is an all-in-one means to communicate to the user/viewer/client what this company or group stands for and how it relates. Even small things like a logotype sans any visuals can communicate. What does using Helvetica versus Gill Sans tell us? To a non-designer, perhaps little. But the Gill Sans will be fresher, more friendly, somehow more human. And this is in keeping with his work. Typography based on the human form, yet that could bring life to stone.

    In the past few days as I’ve mulled over this topic and read each of your responses, I think I’ve realized one point with underscores my frustration with most web design. It is this: graphic design is a process, not a product. When you tie the word “web” with “design,” you inherently create a profession geared towards creating a product. I believe designers should be embracing the web as a new (and exciting) medium that fully works with the design process.

    Adam – Interesting that you viewed my signature that way. I intended it the other way around, as a way of enforcing the fact that I was willing to stand by my words. The anonymity of a discussion board sometimes prevents that. In response to your comment on the “kvell of the masses,” I have one comment: I am an idealist. Something may work. It may even work well. But does it work the best? In other words, they may be popular, but could they be better? They work, but could they exhibit exemplary aestheics and work just as well, or even better? A website functions somewhat differently than other types of brand application in that for most cases, the user initiates the dialogue. In the physical world, as we walk down the street, systems call to us. Often times, we are already familiar with the company or at least analogous companies. Websites, on the other hand, are often another beast entirely.

    What to do? I’m not sure, but in discussing it we’re on the right track.

  13. To build off Sonyl’s point about web design being creating a product — and in fairness to Sonyl I’m probably interpreting this in a way not originally intended — web design _is_ much more like product design.

    In design school, I was taught art is about expression and graphic design is about communciation — so you had to understand your audience to be able to talk to them. But the key difference with interactive design (including the web) is that’s like a _conversation._

    That’s to say, my work needs to not only speak to the target audience/user, but it also has to listen and respond. It’s the difference between talking _with_ someone rather than _to_ them. That’s something traditional graphic simply doesn’t teach you much about, in contrast to industrial design, where you’re designing not just the packaging but the product itself (although admittedly a lot of industrial designers I’ve met are focused on surface styling).

    Designers certainly _can_ learn to design to enable as well as to communicate (and dare I say it, to express, which can be appropriate in given contexts), it just requires a shift in thinking.

    And no the points made in the article aren’t obvious to everyone. (If you’re here, by definition you probably get it.) I’m sad to say I saw a designers’ forum that was busy bashing the article for squashing their creativity.

    What they failed to realize was that it’s not about aesthetics vs. usability, it’s about coming up with an appropriate design.

    Sometimes it’s a design solution that emphasizes functionality and usability, sometimes it’s content and findability, sometimes it’s presentation and a memorable experience. Most of the time it’s about striking a balance among the three.

  14. I also think it’s very dangerous to dismiss the importance of grapic design. Graphic design is about improving visual communication. Well-designed pages (screen, paper, cerial box, whatever) enhance communication by providing essential cues and signposts. It’s about improving usability.
    I shake my head when I read yet another usability expert posting a message to a forum asking ‘what’s the correct number of columns for this page design?’. Just ask a graphic designer – that’s what they’re trained and experienced in.
    Of course, they’re frequently untrained in interaction design. And that’s the point – you need both: a good interaction and a good visual design to be usable.
    To be fair, the article does make that point. But I worry about the tone, which implies conflict, not cooperation.

  15. “The measure of quality in web design should not be good looks, but graceful transformation: pages that can be accessed under different conditions and keep their integrity.”

    It seem to me that part of the challenge is the creation of a design that has an essential user-centric function (can transform as needed) and a preferred aesthetic format that will appear under “normal” conditions for the prime audience.

    Early HTML blurred the functions of markup by conflating Structure (H1, H2, ul, etc.) and Format (font selection, point size, graphic text without ALT tag, etc.).

    The goal of the user is to access information (or transactional e-commerce) with functional ease and aesthetic comfort. Nothing wrong with beauty. Nothing wrong with style. No absolute requirement for pathological blandness. But “graceful transformation” should be an inherent design specification. Blind users should be able to access information (or transactional e-commerce).

    The goal, when practiced, may help us all to separate content, form, and function. Cascading style sheets were intended to enable layers of design: implementers (prime vision) and users (alternate visions). Ideally, the collaborative nature of shared information will unite us in efforts to re-unify content and aesthetics in multiple, creative ways.

  16. I have to say that I’m somewhat surprised and disappointed that my article was fodder for yet another discussion about the importance of graphic design and graphic designers, and the divisions between amateurs and professionals. This debate is entirely beside the point.

    The point, as Glenn Fleishman explains, is that people who design Web sites (which is the group I refer to as “designers” in my article) need to focus on transformation rather than instantiation. Right on, Glenn!

    There are many people who have very good reasons to view all their text as serif, or sans serif, or white on black, or yellow on black, or really, really large, and those reasons have nothing to do with likes or dislikes. They have to do with needs. And when people who design Web sites fix their designs down to the pixel, or use Flash, or display essential content such as navigation as graphics, their pages do not support transformation, which means they may not be accessible to those people.

    I’m not saying scrap graphic design. I’m not saying design ugly pages. I’m saying that visual presentation should not get in the way of access. I’m saying design for the medium. Make pages that are beautiful because they look good and are flexible, so that people can do what they need to do with them.

  17. Hooray Sarah! I too have embraced the web for what it is, and not for what I want it to be. I think good graphic design principles are an important piece of the puzzle, but not at the expense of usability. I spent two years working on an ecommerce site, which resulted in a better understanding of usability across browsers and platforms, rather than a focus on beautiful graphics in a pixel-perfect design. We need more voices like yours! Keep up the good work.

  18. When discussing needs, let’s not forget the needs of our clients. How would a large company who spends millions a year developing and maintaining a brand identity feel if you told them that your design will allow users to view their site in yellow Comic Sans on a purple background? The web is clearly a new medium, but for most clients it has to serve as one part of a multi-media campaign. It doesn’t make sense to risk brand equity by leaving the appearance of a website completely up to the user. I absolutely agree that sites must be accessable and usable, but can’t that be accomplished in a way that meets the client’s requirements, too?

  19. To them, Jay, I’d say “tough.”

    Admittedly a curious position for me to find myself in, “consistency consistency consistency” having been my watchword since jumpstreet – but affording users some degree of ability to control their presentational preferences is crucial. Clients who want to strap everything down in the name of absolute control simply don’t understand the contract they enter into when they offer Web content.

  20. “The fact is that most people do not use the web for visual stimulation.”

    Yes, very true. I also go to a restaurant for the food, not visual stimulation, but I sure like a table with a view if I can get it.

    Most things we do in our lives aren’t for visual stimulation but it sure is nice if we can get it as a bonus… makes everything that much more enjoyable.

    That said I do agree with the premise that if a user needs a large font, they should be able to have it. (Or whatever else they need to make something accessable to them).

    Just some thoughts… main thing I wanted to say was thanks to everyone here for one of the most stimulating reads I have had in months.

    …and that even if it is just frosting on the cake, I prefer my cake with frosting. 🙂

  21. Whilst I agree broadly with the premise of your article I think that good “pretty” web design has a role. The portrayal of a professional (read pretty with some ‘bells and whistles’ features) design on the web is virtually an imperative for the majority of commercial organisations. They are judged by their interface.

    Accessibility is obviously a key feature, however isn’t it ironic that CSS prevents the resizing of the very text that your article was dislayed in.

  22. No!
    Please don’t say that!
    Things are not so black and white.
    Yes, in the old days, it was all about pretty graphics.
    Yes, that turned out to be inadequate for most sites.
    Yes, it is a good thing that we are now paying close attention to user needs, IA, Usability, and Interaction.
    But saying that beauty is only screen deep and that all users want are good and consistent layout is as narrow minded as what the graphic designers used to say years ago.
    There is room for a middle ground. That point where form and function meet is the User Experience.
    If we continue building usable sites without beauty and without trying to understand the impact of more subjective elements such as color combinations, scents and so on on the human mind, we will never be able to grow the medium to its fullest.
    Look at product design. Successful products are usable and they look good. Why not on the web?

  23. I am a Sarah Horton groupie so my comments will be skewed:-) The reason I’m a SH groupie and member of her fan club is that her designs are quiet oases of information in a wildly assaultive graphics environment. I remember seeing the very first picture “broadcast” on the Web and I think graphics on the Web has gone downhill from there. If you want to experience the first picture on the Web go here:

    I’m also a fan of Lynda Weinman

    and her sense of style. Content is queen. In education we have a charge to make our sites as accessible as possible and that’s what we’re in the process of doing now where I work. The new design is not up yet but we’re visiting with constituent groups now and changing things by request. Most of the comments we’ve gotten from people revolve around how data is collected and disseminated, how it’s organized and presented, and how they can take part in the process. Very little of the discussion has centered around “design” although our new look is clean and less of a poke in the eye and so a few people have commented that it is boring. Tant pis.

    Our process has been very organic. Design grew around accessiblity, information architecture was poured into that idea, people have made requests or suggestions, we’ve improved on our work, and we’ll have something everyone can live with that meets our needs very well. I highly recommend using accessiblity as a starting point and using a no-compromise point of view vis-a-vis design and I think you’ll arrive at the spot we’re in now, about to launch a newly created Web environment that is both elegant and extremely useful.

  24. The experience of the web is different for everybody. For a person impaired in any of its physical or mental capabilities is different than for a person that is not. The experience is also different depending of the culture you belong, your level of education, your age, gender, etc. The “ugly” japanese sites may be beautiful for a japanese.

    I work in Africa and I’ve found that to the designers I train a design full of white space produce on them “terror vacui”, since the culture is full of color, patterns, usually cluttered and beautiful, but which don’t follow westernish aesthetics at all. Apart from the aesthetics as well, of course, goals, objectives, accesibility, bandwith, operating systems and so on have to be considered before even start to draft. (See the checklist of Sarah’s co-authored book).

    I am just doing this remark because the experience of the web is quite unique and particular for everybody and that is something that as web designers we have to constantly have present. And I am saying web designers not graphical designers, which is also a discussion that has gone on in other parts of this site (regarding IA and graphical design) and others.

    I believe that the book that Sarah co-authors somehow gave a structured push to the web design as a new profession (!?)… I want to say thanks for the book. I use it as the primary reading for the designers I train here that usually understand they own profession as an artistic one over a communicational one. It is very useful to structure and set a state of mind to understand how to approach the projects that we have to endeavour.

    Certainly was a starting point for me to get into the web with a different state of mind coming from desktop publishing. Critical was to understand the medium, a medium quite difficult to embrace totally since is changing so fast and constantly, providing broader and more fulfilling experiences than just purchase an item or gather information from a corporate portal. So, the bit of understanding the media is quite complex and has to go on constantly. Not only understand how it works but also how is affecting all of us…

    I think that is how I understand this article… That we have more on our hands as web designers than beauty just for the sake of it. That there is a responsibility in what we do. It is also an article for the ones that are not designers and don’t understand our role as professionals, and for the ones that are moving from desktop publishing to the web as designers.

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