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Not Every Website is Designed – A Case Study

posted by Matt Ward on Jun 22, 2010.

In this article, we tackle the issue of the “worst” website designs, and, based on my previous definition of design, actually suggest that these sites are not designed at all. We’ll look at why this is, and even consider the reasons why this kind of discussion should matter to us at all.

As designers on the web, we all know that there are literally hundreds of web design galleries that we can go to whenever we want to look at some of the most exquisite work that our peers are cranking out. Those who haven’t read “The Myth of Inspiration?” yet might even consider these sites as a means of providing inspiration.

Not Every Website is Designed – A Case Study

Not Every Website is Designed – A Case Study

That’s all well and good, but there’s another side to this coin too. Though perhaps somewhat less common than sites and posts showcasing the beauty that exists on the internet, there have also been a number of channels for showcasing some of the worst “designs” that exist on this very same internet.

As I’m sure you can guess, many of the selected sites are just plain horrible. Some might even go so far as to call them nauseating, though I take that particular description as primarily metaphorical. In other words, I have my doubts as to how many people will actually lose their lunches by looking at these pixelated monstrosities. Personally, I prefer to use the example of burning retinas. Physical symptoms aside, however, the fact remains that these sites just aren’t all that pretty.

Nor are they (necessarily) designed.

Those who read this blog regularly will recall that a few weeks ago I endeavoured to answer the question “What Is Design?” by summarizing it in three key elements: intention, purpose and content. I also suggested that, if any of these elements are conspicuously or intentionally missing, then something simply does not qualify as design.

This same train of thought can also apply to some of these worst website “designs” out there. Let’s look at one of the most well known examples of these: the horrendously crowded HavenWorks.com:

A really ugly site

A really ugly site

This site has taken it’s fair share of knocks over the years. Almost every list of horrible websites that I’ve ever seen includes this one, and for good reason. It’s cramped. It’s ugly. It makes horrible use of colour. Most of all, it seems to be committed to a single-website crusade against white space of any sort.

From a design perspective it’s just plain ugly.

But then, I’d argue that that’s because it simply is not designed. As evidence, allow me to look at it from the perspective the three design necessities already cited above.

Intention

This one may actually be the most difficult to tackle. After all, how can I say that the elements of this website are not intentional. Obviously, someone made the decision (right or wrong) to put the elements on the page. That is certainly true. I will even concede to the suggestion that the order of the elements was specifically chosen, since there appears to be some semblance of a header, and even a footer with a link to go back to the top of the page.

That’s not the kind of intention I’m talking about though.

What I’m referring to is the intentional use of the principles of design. We already mentioned that there is virtually no white space. The typography, if it can even be called typography, appears to be entirely random (at best). The colour scheme seems to want to establish itself as some sort of patriotic red, white and blue, but is vastly over-saturated and somehow also includes radioactive yellows and greens. Contrast is non-existent, as is any logical sense of hierarchy, and any hint of a grid is only an illusion caused by the rigid structure of the tables upon which the entire site is ultimately built!

Given all of this, I feel confident in concluding that there is absolutely no legitimate design intention behind the layout decisions for this site. That alone would be convince me that it’s not actually designed, but there’s more…

Purpose

We also need to discuss the general lack of purpose. Yes, the overall site itself does seem to have some general purpose – something to do with sharing news about both Republicans and Democrats, apparently in a fair and balanced manner (as if such a thing were really possible). Beyond that, however, the site seems to drown in a sea of its own purposelessness.

If you can find it, somewhere in the messy and cluttered header, there is a link that takes you to a calendar – and that’s all it is: a simple, flat calendar (for 2009, by the way). It doesn’t list the dates of key political events and isn’t a means of chronologically organizing content. It’s just an ugly, static, table-based calendar that leaves me asking only a single question: why? What’s the purpose? If I need to print myself off a calendar for whatever reason, I’m certainly not going to print this one, and other than that, I can’t see what else this could be used for, especially given that it’s out of date by an entire year.

It simply has no purpose.

An ugly and purposeless calendar

An ugly and purposeless calendar

Nor do most of the other elements of the site. What’s with the insanely narrow columns or the legions of poorly crafted and often unintelligible icons that seem bent on conquering my screen? Even more perplexing, what is the point of having an exclamation mark before the word search in the area that appears to be intended as some sort of menu?

There just doesn’t seem genuine purpose anywhere on the site! And, (you guessed it) without purpose it simply is not design.

Content

Lastly, we want to talk about content. This site is full of it, and I do mean full. The homepage looks like some sort of political news aggregator simply vomited its entire repository of recent articles all over my screen.

Design, however is not about the quantity of content. Quite frankly, it’s not even about the quality of the content. You can have a beautifully designed site totally full of crap content, and a horribly designed site chalked full of killer content.

No, design is about framing content and making it available to the visitor/reader, and of course, HavenWorks.com doesn’t even come close to achieving this goal. In fact, the content is almost entirely inaccessible, because, unless a visitor has taken the time to become really familiar with the site (and really, why would they?), they would have absolutely no idea where to find anything that they might be looking for.

Moreover, even content that is found is virtually impossible to scan and almost painful to read, thanks to a combination of poor spacing, poor leading, poor line width and so forth. Really, the layout for this site doesn’t seem to give the content any real consideration at all – though, I must admit that I would be hard pressed to figure out what it does give consideration to.

Still, if the layout does not work to somehow frame its content, then again I just can’t consider it design.

Why It Matters

So, if we define design as being the act of making intentional and purposeful design choices in order to properly frame content for a particular audience, then the fact that HavenWorks.com is neither intentional nor purposeful and actually compromises its content does not merely suggest that it is poorly designed. It actually tells me that it is not designed at all!

But why does this matter? Why go to all the trouble to show that this site (and others in a similar vein) are not actually designed?

Simple – we need to be comparing apples to apples here. If these sites are not designed, how can we consider them to be the worst designs? To me, that seems like labeling a child’s sandcastle as the worst form of architecture, or my daughter’s (beautiful) scribbles as the worst form of art. Of course, those examples likely involve a bit more innocence, but hopefully you get the idea.

The point is that sites like this don’t even fall on the measuring stick for design. I could do a better job when I was nothing but a completely naive high school kid, throwing together the kind of crap fan sites that GeoCities was so well known for. And if I could accomplish that then, why do sites like HavenWorks.com appear so often in lists and roundups of bad design?

To be frank, it’s probably because we like to pat ourselves (and each other) on the back, knowing that we designers can all do so much better. But of course we can do better! If we couldn’t, we would have absolutely no right to even call ourselves designers in the first place! So what does comparing ourselves to these un-designed sites really accomplish?

In the end, the answer is nothing, other than proving that we rank higher than the lowest common denominator, which is, in fact, so low that it doesn’t even rank on the scale. Big deal.

Conclusion

Okay, I think I’ve been a bit harsher in this article that I usually like to get. Most of the time, I won’t even cite an example if I am discussing something negative (like these 5 usability blunders). However, by now I figure HavenWorks.com has to know what the design community thinks, so I’m not too concerned.

As for the point I’ve been driving at, well maybe it’s just time for us to look up instead of down. Focusing on who we’re better than never accomplishes anything other than inflating our own egos. While a little ego stroking can be good for the self-confidence one in a while, isn’t it much more productive to look the other way, up towards those who are better than us? It’s from them that we will ultimately learn, through learning grow, and through growing ultimately become better designers!

So let’s all keep looking up instead of staring down our noses, perhaps even helping some of those un-designed sites to get themselves designed.

What do you think? Would you consider sites like HavenWorks.com and its ilk to be un-designed? If so, what does that mean to you? How does it effect your understanding of yourself and your own work? Let’s hear your thoughts!

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Comments

Jun 23, 2010

Keri says:

Another well-thought-out and well-written article =) I’m an aspiring designer (I’ve been making websites as a hobby for a long time, but recently got interested in serious design & freelancing) and at first I thought it I could learn something by checking out “worst design” websites. Unfortunately, they’re all about designers patting themselves on the back, like you said. There’s nothing to learn from “designs” that are so bad they can’t even be called design.

I love that you are so positive and non-critical most of the time- it’s rare on the interwebs!- but sometimes an article like this is necessary, and I don’t think you’ll offend anyone with your analysis of that site! =)

Jun 23, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Thanks Keri. Glad you enjoyed the article (and seem to enjoy the others). I do try to stay as positive and non-critical as possible most of the time. Glad you were able to pick up on that!

Jun 23, 2010

designi1 says:

Personally i agree that Web its terrible bad. It hurt my eyes every time i saw it >D

But in another hand and picking just the 3 factors your mention in about what is design: intention, purpose and content i would say that all of them can be filled up.

1 – Intention (they may ´ve select the ugliness taste people as his target audience) – Good intention, great design result!
2 – Purpose (we need to fight against the clear and beaty of this world, we ´re different!)
3 – The content (i didnt read it but it may be easy to get some justification for that).

What i mean is that the design follows that factors you mention there, i truly agree. Sometimes a better taste website, that in general opinion is well designed can not follow the criteria of the audience (…) What i really want to say, is that i really agree with your opinion about the design techniques that normally are used to make design. But to get the really intention of some project we need see the process.

Made in 1998 that web is so old (maybe the best designed web in that time :D :D )

i really what to know what kind of people enjoy to read whatever content they have there.

Really nice post!! its always great reading you…

Jun 23, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Thanks for the comment! I think what hear you saying is that perhaps the site in question was actually made to be ugly on purpose in order to achieve a particular goal. This is certainly a possibility! And, if that were the case, then maybe it is designed.

The one thing that having such an ugly site does is get you some attention.

However, based on the nature of the site, I just have trouble believing that this is actually the case. One site that I do think might be taking this approach is Yvette’s Wedding Dresses, which is a visual monstrosity, but might just be hedious enough to get people to at least consider visiting the shop…

Jun 24, 2010

designi1 says:

hahah :D this second case is awesome :D aahah… Yea i mean that, but don´t believe it was made on purpose ofc. One thing we should keep in mind, that particulary web was made 12 years ago. The web art at the moment couldn´t be much better. For the users in that time, the web site could had some significance. The beauty of 12 years old web site is not the same for today.

Well, is not beauty in my eyes and is not beauty at the general user opinion at our days and it isn´t well functional as well. Easily you can get lost in those examples you´d showed us.

Classified: badas** web site!

Jun 23, 2010

Les James says:

I disagree with you that this site is un-designed. Someone made a decision as to how the site should be laid out. Someone choose a color palette.

Do this for me, go to the site and turn off the style sheet. That my friend is un-designed.

There were conscious decisions made here and that to me qualifies as design.

Jun 23, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Yes there were conscious decisions. No doubt about that. I simply question their legitimacy as genuine design decisions. I even question whether there was even any real thought behind the decisions, or whether it wasn’t more of a matter of just throwing things together without any rhyme or reason.

I could get a bunch of metal, fiberglass, wires, wheels and other parts together and make a bunch of decesions about how to put them together into something vaquely resembling an automobile, but would you get behind the wheel?

That metaphor’s not perfect, I know, and can only take us so far in this kind of a discussion, but I do think it at least begins to illustrate my point.

By the same token, I also recognize that this whole concept of “un-design” can be a pretty grey area, with plenty of ambiguity and room for interpretation. I think the bigger point that I was trying to make, though, was that these sites really aren’t all that valuable, even examples of bad design (assuming that we accept that they are designed at all). They are so bad that it’s almost impossible to learn anything from them at all because pretty much everything is wrong…

But yeah. Thanks for the comment! Hope I was able to clarify some things and not just muddy the waters even further!

Jun 23, 2010

Jaemi says:

That was a really good write up. Very thoughtful. I think I’d have to agree. That site was made, perhaps created even, but not designed.

Jun 24, 2010

Lucas Cobb Design says:

Great post once again Matt.

I see where you are going with this. I really think you are talking about levels here.

You would not put a t-ball team in the Major League World Series. This is on the same scope. I see sites like ours on the professional level of design. One that cannot be achieved by your average everyday web designer. Sites like these have that uber-amateur feel that you just cannot get past. It is a totally different level. So when we chastise sites like these its almost like we are putting down a t-ball team when we are professionals. (not that you are doing that in any way, I know this was just an example).

I feel you are pushing us all to look past sites like these and compare sites on our same playing field together when we want to talk about design. I agree with you on that one.

Looking forward to more.

Jun 25, 2010

Jeremy Carlson says:

You know what is funny? I know a programmer that uses colors like that site does, when he is just making the base layout for someone else to design. Just to show where things will go. Green box here, red box there, yellow type over on that block, blue type on the other one. Its hideous. But he isn’t doing it for design purposes. He does it to show where he wants things, not how he actually wants it to look.

That is what haven-whatever looks like. A programmer with no design skills throwing the crap he wants on the page. Doesn’t matter to him what it looks like, he just needs it to work. So I would agree, this is NOT designed. It looks like someone who wants to get the point across with blunt force.

I did a phone book ad like 10 years ago when I was in print design, for a top lawyer in Chicago. He wanted a full page, no color, large type that gave his name, how many years in business, what he specialized in, and a phone number. And you know what? It worked for him. About 10 lines of text in giant Arial Black font. Maybe people saw it as “This guy gets to the point without any crap.” It wasn’t designed, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t effective.

Jun 26, 2010

Matthew Simmons says:

I think this quote applies very well right here;
“Perfection is achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Thanks for this post. It was a good read.

Jun 26, 2010

nikos lianeris says:

I so agree with you sayings!Apart from intention purpose and content I believe that also the colors play important role in web desing.the compination of intention purpose content and colors is what makes a site well-designed! :)

Jun 27, 2010

Sherry says:

I think this is a great article with some really valid points. I come across sites like this occasionally and call them “bad design”, yet you’re totally right in that they’re not “designed”. Period.

One thing I have to say too … you might consider a background color change. Reading a lengthy article like this with a black background and white text is an eye killer o_O

Nov 11, 2010

alphonse tan says:

matt,

i love this article and the points you’ve made with regards to the http://www.havenworks.com site..

but crappy or not.. i checked it has a pr 4 page rank.. i guess the search engines have no algorithms to check whether a website’s design is crappy or not… whether it is easily readable or not.. :) does this mean the site was designed/or not designed for search engines?

Jul 5, 2011

Denim Geek says:

Good read, I think aesthetics are hugely important depending on what you are trying to show / sell. For example if i had landed on that website you described as ‘ugly’ I think I would have been pulling the power cord out of my computer as quick as i could fearing a virus download.

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