Website Design Is NOT Art!

November 6, 2009

I may be opening a can of worms here, since debates about what is or isn’t art tend to go on forever, but here we go:

Website design should NOT be art

First, lets be clear on what we’re talking about here.  Defining art is very difficult, but I think that the Wiktionary does a pretty good job.  Of course, there are 10 different definitions listed on wiktionary, but I think there is one that is particularly relevant:

“The conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty, specifically the production of the beautiful in a graphic or plastic medium.”

Now, to determine whether website design is art or not, we need a definition of website design.  From the first sentence of the Wikipedia article on web design:

“Web design is … creating presentations of content that are delivered to an end-user through the World Wide Web…”

Immediately, we can see that the definition of website design is very different from the definitions of art.  The most important difference is in the goal – the purpose of website design is to ‘present content’, whereas the purpose of art is to ‘affect the sense of beauty’.

Furthermore, I would assert that those two goals are mutually exclusive.  If your goal is to present content, and you end up affecting the sense of beauty, then all you’ve done is to distract from the content that you’re trying to present.  Artistic and beautiful web design just makes it harder to focus on the content of the website.

Why visit a website at all?

Moving beyond definitions lets get more practical.  Lets pick Craigslist as an example.  Why do you visit Craigslist?

Maybe, you want information about who is selling awesome 80’s holiday sweaters in your area, so you can stock up for those bad holiday sweater parties.  Or, on the flip side, you might want to provide some information, like the fact that you have awesome 80s holiday sweaters for sale.

Maybe you just want to go into the forums on Craigslist to talk about the rhinestones on your awesome 80s holiday sweater.

This is the kind of guy that visits the Craigslist forums to talk about his holiday sweater...

This is the kind of guy that visits the Craigslist forums to talk about his holiday sweater...

Whatever answer is closest to yours, they all involve completing some sort of task.

And here’s the important part – you don’t need a beautifully designed website to accomplish that task.  In fact, from an artistic standpoint, Craigslist is ugly, but it helps people accomplish their tasks very very well.

The point of website design

Ok, hopefully your still with me, but just in case, lets recap – art is meant to affect your sense of beauty, web design is meant to help you accomplish some sort of task.  The two are mutually exclusive.

So then what is the point of going to a web designer?  Should we just have every website look exactly like Craigslist?

No, of course not.  There are three main purposes of web design:

  1. The first thing that the visual design of a page should do is to communicate to the visitor that they are in the right place.  For example, when you visit, you are expecting to be taken to a newspaper website.  As soon as the page loads, your expectations are confirmed by the visual clues that given to you from the design.  If you were to replace all the text on the NY Times website with nonsense words, most people would still be able to tell that it’s a newspaper website.  This language-free communication is essential to establishing trust with the visitor, and happens almost instantaneously as soon as the page loads.
  2. The second job of the visual design is to provide the visitor with direction, like signs on a path that let you know your heading to the right place.  For example, lets say I own a crazy hat store – Matt’s Crazy Hats.  One of the main reasons that people visit my hat website is to find my store hours, location, and phone number.  To help the visitors to my website with that important task, I should place that information, along with a map in a very prominent location.  The location on the site, the colors, size and font of text, and surrounding elements are all parts of the design of the site that can help the visitor find the information they need.
  3. The final purpose of the visual design of a page is to promote the brand of the company or individual behind the site.  I would say that almost always this goal is subordinate to the other two points above.  For my crazy hat store, I might run ads in the local newspaper and post flyers around with images of my craziest hats.  It would be a good idea to feature images of crazy hats on my website as well, so that people who see my ad and then visit my website get the idea that I sell really crazy hats.  This brand recognition is beneficial to me, but only if it doesn’t interfere with people accomplishing the tasks they originally came to my website to do.  I would rather that people know where my store is and what the hours are than to not have that information, but know exactly what the crazy hats that I sell look like.

Why do beautiful websites persist?

Those beautiful, artistic, creative, and graphically heavy websites stick around for three reasons.

  1. On a very rare occasion, the website itself is supposed to be art.  There is no purpose to it other than that.  Here’s a great example (Caution: this website makes noise and will waste your time, but its pretty cool): The Incredibox
  2. The notion that a beautiful website is better is perpetuated by web designers and other industry professionals.  They like showing off their graphic design skills, one upping their competitors, and since it takes more time to do, they get paid more for it.
  3. Ugly websites can be visually offensive and distracting to the viewer, and so it seems logical that if a hideous website is the worst thing, then the exact opposite – a gorgeous website – would be the best thing.  This seems like a logical argument, but is actually a fallacy – beautiful websites are just as distracting as hideous ones, and the middle path (simple, clear, and clean) is the best.

I think I’ve covered this subject pretty exhaustively.  I hope I have convinced you that a website that is focused on the efficiently accomplishing the visitors tasks, and that has simple, clean, and clear design is the best kind of website.

If you want to see examples of what I advocate, take a look at the design of this website, and at my portfolio.

If you need a simple, effective, and efficient website designed for you, don’t hesitate to contact me.

And as always, if you have thoughts, questions, or comments, please use my contact form or leave me a comment on this post.

Thanks to Mikhil for original of Mona Lisa, and to BitchBuzz for the sweater photo.

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