The case for uncreative web design

Hayward's Unabridged Dictionary
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When the Master governs, people are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.

Lao Tze, Tao Te Ching, tr. Stephen Mitchell

In looking at various award review sites, I have seen people equating creative web design with good web design. This is not simply in acknowledgement that creativity is one of the gifts of the human mind and an indispensable part of the great triumphs of human culture. It goes further to take the perspective that “good web design” means design that impresses the viewer with its creativity. This perspective, which is almost never questioned among awards reviewers, is one which is eminently worthy of question.

Good acting does not leave people impressed with how good the acting is. The very best acting leads people to be so involved with the drama and tension that they forget they are watching actors at all. Not all acting reaches that standard — which is a very high standard — but acting has the quality that, at its best, it is transparent: people see through the acting to the important thing, the story.

What are the basic responses to my A dream of light? In order from best to worst:

  • Best: The reader is moved by the images and stimulated by the ideas, and leaves the reading a wiser person. Perhaps this involves being impressed by the thoughts, but the reader who is impressed is impressed as a side effect of the literature’s power. The reader leaves the reading thinking about the writing’s subject-matter.
  • Second best: The reader’s primary response is to think about how smart I am, or how eccentric, or something of that sort. The writing has not completely succeeded. The reader leaves the reading thinking about me.
  • Worst: The reader reads it and walks away thinking about the page’s design, even how clean and uncluttered it is. The reader leaves the reading thinking about the web design.

If a reader walks away from that piece of literature thinking about my web design, the design is a failure. The design is as bad as a photograph where the scene is blocked by the photographer’s thumb.

It is sometimes easy for webmasters to forget that readers spend most of their time viewing other pages — not figuring out mine. I intentionally employ a standard web design in nearly all of my pages: navigation bar to the left, and a body to the right with dark text on a light background, different colors for visited and unvisited links (with visited links looking washed-out compared to unvisited links), no frames, judicious use of emphasized text, a header at the top, and navigation links at the bottom. I do not use any technology just because it’s there — one page uses Java, and has content that would be almost meaningless if the applet were not there. The design on my home page is not creative, because it is intended not to be creative. I copied best practices from other sites and from friends’ suggestions, in order to make a design that gets out of the way so readers can see the content.

To adapt a classic proverb: Don’t bother to impress people with creative design when you can impress people with creative content. My web design is not evidence of any great creativity, but many readers have found the content in what I’ve written to show considerable creativity. I employ a very standardized web design for the same reason that I use standard spellings and grammar when I write: I want people to be able to see through them to whatever it is I’m writing about. Yf spelynge caulze uttinshun too ihtselv, itt yss mahch herdyr too thynque abaut whutt iz beeynge sayde. If, on the other hand, people employ standard spellings, readers can ignore the spelling and focus on the point the writer is trying to make. The spelling is transparent. Spelling is not where you want to demonstrate your creativity. And neither, usually, is web design.

Now, does that mean there is no place for creativity in design? No! In I learned it all from Jesus, I had each sentence a different color from the one before, andnone of it black — which I regard as a legitimate artistic liberty. The Quintessential Web Page is aiming at a quite different effect (humorous rather than artistic), and it does other things that are not ordinarily appropriate. In this page, I use the content to draw attention to the design — also not normally appropriate. These things are not a special privilege for me; I just mention my pages because they’re the ones I know best. There’s some really beautiful Flash art on the web. One human-computer interaction expert has created a usability resource that is one of the ugliest pages I have ever seen, and does almost every major no-no on the list. This is as it should be — he is making a point by demonstrating features of bad web design. In that regard, making a page that is singularly annoying makes the point far more forcefully than an exemplar of good web practices that says “Be careful that you don’t have text that’s indistinguishable from your background.” It is perfectly acceptable to stray from general rules if you have strong and specific reason to violate them. I learned it all from Jesus, in my opinion, is a unique and valuable addition to my web page — but if I made every page look like that, my PageRank would drop through the floor.

Picasso said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” Great artists never believe they have to invent everything from scratch to make good art — instead, they draw on the best that has been done before, and use their own creativity to build on top of what others have already accomplished. In web design, this means making a site that is usable to viewers who have learned how to use other sites.

A careful reader will notice one element of design on this site that is not standard, but should be. Designers for major sites, who often have excellent vision, will put navigation links on the page, but make them as small as they can be and not be completely illegible. This is a truly bad idea, and I don’t understand why it is so common. (Maybe web designers forget that some of us only have 20/20 vision?) The navigation links are some of the most important links on most web pages, and I wish to say, “Yes! I consider these links important for you to be able to read and use, and I will proudly let you read them at whatever your preferred text size is, not the smallest size I can read!”

I will consider this to be a successful design feature if you weren’t aware of it until I pointed it out.