If Leo Tolstoy were alive and working in San Francisco as a web developer, he might tell us that poorly designed websites are all alike; each well-designed website is well-designed in its own way. And, having watched the web evolve over its first 20 years, I would agree.
We’ve seen how typewriter habits have maintained a peculiar influence on the typography of today’s documents (e.g., research papers). These habits arose from the mechanical limitations of the typewriter. When the typewriter disappeared, so did the limitations. But the habits remained. Detached from their original justification, they’ve become pointless obstructions.
Likewise, the web-design habits of the mid-’90s continue to influence today’s web. These habits also arose from the technological limitations of a previous era. The limitations are obsolete. But the habits are still with us. Five have been especially tenacious:
Huge point sizes for headings. These arose from the elephantine default styling of HTML heading tags in old browsers. But today’s CSS allows finer control.
Reliance on a small handful of system fonts, like Arial, Georgia, and Verdana. This arose from a lack of technology for downloadable fonts. But today, we have webfonts.
Page edges crammed with inscrutable wads of navigational links. These emerged on the early web because content was so sparse. Links gave readers something else to do—click and move. (Hence the idiom became
surfing the web, not reading the web.) But today, getting content onto the web is relatively easy, and navigational confusion tends to be a greater risk than boredom.
Layouts built with large blocks of color. These were made necessary by the bandwidth limitations of the early web. (They also filled space on those content-deprived web pages.) But today, high-speed connections are common, even on mobile devices.
Having outlived their original rationale, these habits are no more justifiable for today’s web than typewriter habits like underlining are for today’s printed documents.
Yet not only are these habits still with us, they’ve hardened into entrenched web-design idioms. Don’t take my word for it. Go to any major website with this checklist. You’ll count at least four. These habits are everywhere.
But bad habits don’t become good habits through repetition. We know this to be true of spelling, grammar, and usage in American English. Sure, our language changes. But slowly. Not by popular vote. Certainly not by popular error.
So it is with typography.
And that’s the odd wrinkle we have to overcome when we talk about the web. Because to convince you to abandon the typewriter habits in printed documents, I’m able to cite a persuasive body of evidence: namely, the professional typographic practices of the last 500 years, as reflected in the books, newspapers, and magazines we read daily.
The web, however, has no equivalent tradition. We can’t fill this gap merely by holding the web to print traditions. That would be limiting and illogical. But it’s equally illogical to refuse to compare the web to any benchmark on the grounds that it’s sui generis (because it’s not—the web is primarily a typographic medium), or that it’s new technology (because it’s not—the web is 20 years old), or that it’s still evolving (because that’s true of every technology, including print).
But impervious to criticism also means impervious to progress. When expectations are held artificially low, there’s no incentive to do better. Thus next year’s websites end up looking much like last year’s. And the inertia sustains itself indefinitely. Again, don’t take my word for it—the ongoing ubiquity of obsolete web-design habits is the proof.
Therefore, my typographic advice for websites is more a principle than a prescription.
We can disagree about what design excellence will eventually mean on the web. In fact, we should disagree, because that’s what stimulates experimentation and discovery. Doing it wrong is a prerequisite to doing it right.
But with the web, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t accept the benefits of web technology without raising the bar for ourselves. We can’t use the web for 20 years as a design medium yet exempt it from design criticism. We can’t blame the tools for our failure to overcome our own inertia. And we can’t expect the web to grow up while we cling to juvenile and obsolete habits.
We must set these habits aside. Especially the five listed above. Anyone who is still relying on those habits is either lazy or careless. You are neither.
Small point size for body text (that doesn’t change with window size)
Enormous headings, redundantly highlighted with gray.
All fonts are system fonts—Arial, Trebuchet, and Courier.
Navigation links dominate the foreground; body text relegated to the background.
Layout filled with colored rectangles—the large green rectangle at left, and farther down the page, rectangles of pink, green, gray, yellow, and two shades of purple.
Bigger point size for body text (that changes to suit the window size)
Headings that are smaller while still being distinct.
Navigation less prominent and integrated into the body text.
Colored rectangles used sparingly to denote special sections.
Liberal use of white space.
What we get from technology tends to be a matter of expectations, not patience. So we should expect more of the web. Because when we do, we necessarily expect more of ourselves. And when we expect more of ourselves, we expand possibilities for everyone.
Let’s not settle for less.