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.
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:
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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!Post A Comment
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