A question occurred to me while I was speaking at the really excellent Seattle Event Apart; if you’re a Web designer and there’s one in your neighborhood, I recommend it highly.

Go surfing around the Long Tail and look at a few dozen of the interesting, valuable websites you find there, on sex or politics or knitting or cameras or music or, well, anything. Most of ’em look like ass. Then go to a bookstore and look at some bad books; Harlequin Romances, say, or anything involving Tom Clancy. They’ll usually have well-designed, catchy covers and effective typography. So here’s the question:

Why do good web-sites look bad while bad books look good?



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From: Alan (Jun 22 2007, at 20:03)

Tim, that question's almost too easy. It's because the bad books are sold in large part by what they look like on the shelf (sad, but true), and have big design teams and budgets to help them look oh so spiffy.

The web sites are often designed by the people who write them. I've won awards for writing; I could try for a hundred years and I'd never get good enough to win an award for design. My brain just doesn't work that way. If I had a site it would likely, as you say, look like ass. Unless I parted several with several hundred dollars to have a competent professional do the design for me. Which I wouldn't. So there ya go.

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From: Mark (Jun 22 2007, at 20:12)

Money.

This has been a special Long Tail edition of "simple answers to simple questions."

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From: John Cowan (Jun 22 2007, at 20:45)

Simple.

{Bad books are,Good websites aren't} commercially successful on average, so the publisher {can,cannot} afford to pay a {book,web} designer.

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From: paul (Jun 22 2007, at 21:31)

Because books cost money to produce and as a result publishers make sure their wares get designed to sell and recoup their costs?

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From: Mark (Jun 22 2007, at 22:35)

It always puzzled me that surfing magazines (and their ilk) looked really good, but camera, car, audio, and gadget magazines looked horrible. The story behind that is that Surfer Magazine had hired John Van Hamersveld as art director in the 1960s. He set the standard at Surfer, and Surfing Magazine had to follow (and later on the skateboarding and windsurfing magazines). There was never a similar competitive need for camera magazines to clean up their design, until the first incarnation of American Photographer, and things started to change.

Van Hamersveld was appointed the creative director of the 1984 Olympics, and that was one graphically amazing event.

As for Web sites, it's pretty hard to hire designers. At this stage in the Web they can be overpriced prima donnas. Hiring print designers is pretty easy. They know their place (hope that isn't too dismissive, because they can be very talented). As a Web site owner, I know my users, my market, my logs, my advertising income by zone, and in general the big picture of the site as a business (as opposed to a portfolio piece or awards show entry), and a designer needs to know that I'm in charge, that he really doesn't know it all. With print designers you don't need an NDA, but with Web designers, you get people badmouthing you in their blogs if you don't have one, as Michael Arrington found out.

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From: Janne (Jun 23 2007, at 08:30)

Same comment as the others, but a different perspective: Because creating good content and creating good visual design are separate skills. And while expressing your ideas in public is its own reward, spending days designing somebody else's website isn't. So those prepared to pay for good design gets it, while those who don't, don't.

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From: Andrew Phoenix (Jun 25 2007, at 06:56)

Everyone else seems to think that it is only an issue of money, but I don't think that's the only factor. There are lots of very popular websites that have money that also look like ass - Google, eBay for starters - and I think it has more to do with content than anything else.

If you have great content, you can manage to get by with a less flashy look. Originally, I was going to say that this applies only to the web, but I think it's true of books as well. Look at the OED. The focus is on content almost to the exclusion of anything else. I think the same holds true for a lot of fugly sites that we see.

My hypothesis is this: you can have a successful blog / book / CD / DVD / information delivery medium that looks like ass, as long as it delivers something worthwhile and you aren't selling visual art. Otherwise, you need to compensate by making it really pretty. Hrm - I think this also explains most of California. ;)

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From: Matt (Jun 25 2007, at 15:16)

I think that the mental overhead it takes for the end user to process information on a computer often requires a leaner design than many of us are used to and much leaner than modern design is capable of. While Google or Craig's list or Ebay are all austere, they are highly functional for finding and processing information. I also think of the blessedness of newsreaders, in this context, which allow us to plow through textual content (with some imagery) in a standardized and efficient way.

Often highly designed sites look great, but don't allow for the individual to penetrate the content, and in fact can turn out to be poorly designed from a UI perspective. One mini example, is ESPN's use of rotating stories in the midsection of their front page: "Oh, that looks like an interesting story....hey where did it go." The idea is to present more stories and hooks for the reader by popping forward headlines and graphics, but in the process the story disappears and the user's attention is broken and perhaps lost.

Additionally, the requirement for constant development at a place like Google, for example, enables the developer to fit within a flexible and straightforward design paradigm without having dedicated lots of design time.

And finally, we are using many of this sites as tools, in order to get some other end result. These sites aren't the endpoint, just a way station to get there. They need to focus on that role as the ultimate design paradigm.

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June 22, 2007
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