The things I’m learning from having an ugly design

A couple of weeks ago I went into WordPress.com, clicked on “Themes” and selected the one that looked the most plain that I could find. Why did I do that? Because I wanted to get everyone back down to the most basic theme I could. I wanted to get rid of the branding. The friendfeed widget. The advertising. The cool looking fonts. And get it back down to just the fundamentals.

I did that for a few reasons.

1. I wanted to see if it would have a major impact on traffic. It did not.

2. I wanted to see who would complain and who would praise it. Some complained that it was too unprofessional. Others complained it’s hard to read on high resolution monitors (the text goes all the way across the browser). Still others missed my “brand.” But something else happened. Other people said they really liked this new theme. In pressing in more I think they liked that it was different than, say, TechCrunch or Mashable and that it had an anti-advertising stance on it. Also, some people said it was more readable because I got rid of the advertising and the friendfeed widget.

So, what I’m wondering is why have a nice design at all? Why not just go with a plain theme? Especially if it helps you focus on my content more?

Just some ideas as I continue working to rebuild my blog. Regarding that, we’re moving my blog over this week to a Rackspace hosted server (hopefully, we had some problems figuring out some problems due to some custom stuff that Automattic did for my WordPress.com-based blog that you’re reading here). I’ll stay on WordPress, but will be on a standard install which will let me use all sorts of plugins and try some fun things out. As soon as that gets moved over we’ll start iterating on the design and “pave the paths” here.

Thanks for putting up with the dust and dirt as we rebuild the blog.

223 thoughts on “The things I’m learning from having an ugly design

  1. There is the answer that people can zoom for more readability (Firefox and IE7 have fancy zoom goodness now), but I think a permanent bump on font-size is a good idea. It will improve readability, but here is my real reason:

    Guy Kawasaki 10-20-30. Yep, the PowerPoint rule, but on websites. 10-20-30 makes PowerPoints easier to read and less noisy. Make it easy for your people to find and digest your content. Bigger fonts reduce what you can put on a page and suddenly you have a box to work inside. Suddenly you have to decide to tell your story in half the words. Or even better, no words but a single picture. You get a boundary to work within. Such boundaries inspire the most creativity in people. I tell you that you can only use 33 lines to tell your user what’s up, and you write a tighter story. I tell you that you have only 15 minutes to present a business and you have DEMO. I tell you you only have 140 characters to announce something and you have Twitter.

    Bottom line, bigger fonts make for clearer boundaries on how much to present, which really makes you focus on what to present.

    Long post, but I am absolutely passionate about the play between design and content.

  2. I think this works for you because you have a pretty big reputation and I’m not convinced at all that it would work for the ‘normal’ guys like me. I happen to like the stripped back design and I always thought this was the way that web 2.0 would go but as I say, if you have a loyal readership then whatever you put out will probably not affect their desire to come and read your posts.

  3. I think this works for you because you have a pretty big reputation and I’m not convinced at all that it would work for the ‘normal’ guys like me. I happen to like the stripped back design and I always thought this was the way that web 2.0 would go but as I say, if you have a loyal readership then whatever you put out will probably not affect their desire to come and read your posts.

  4. I think this works for you because you have a pretty big reputation and I’m not convinced at all that it would work for the ‘normal’ guys like me. I happen to like the stripped back design and I always thought this was the way that web 2.0 would go but as I say, if you have a loyal readership then whatever you put out will probably not affect their desire to come and read your posts.

  5. Here’s an article I just sent all my clients and friends:

    http://www.alistapart.com/articles/indefenseofeyecandy

    As a nearly complete convert to a variant of hard-core direct marketing known as ‘Kennedy-style’ or ‘GKIC’ (see http://dankennedy.com) that is only now, grudgingly, admitting that decent design does not, in fact, depress response rates when we keep our eyes on the ball, I walk a fine line almost every minute between design for its own sake and design to help make the sale. So I love it when I get ammo from reputable sources like alap.

    Because I just can’t do ugly.

    Oh – as to Times Roman: It doesn’t have to suck. Just set it biggish, in light weights, and kern it to a fare-thee-well. ‘Course, it’s hard to kern web type, but that’s why you set it big, so you can tighten the letterspacing to the point that nobody notices. Use the light weight for body text at about 14px and h1 heads at about 24px or bigger; mix with h2 and h3 heads in Arial Bold or Trebuchet Bold. The h3 subheads should be the same size as the p text; the h2 subheads can be somewhat bigger, maybe 16-18 px.

    On the subject of type running acrosse the browser window, I agree absolutely. Type gets hard to read at about 52 characters long; even a bare-bones, no-style design should still at least have a container that declares the main-content column won’t make anyone read farther across than that.

    And, finally, if we listened to every one of our esteemed male colleagues over 40 on the subject of readable type, we would never design anything except 12-point black type on white. Or 18-point black type on white.

    Guys, I went presbyopic starting on my 40th birthday and today can’t see the lines on my own hand. (The fingers are going fast.) I wear bifocals with two strengths of close – one for the computer and one for reading papers. When I drive I look over the top to see the road and the rest of the panorama in the distance (and look through them to see the speedometer and the rest of the in-car controls) and take them off to play tennis, at which point I can no longer read the numbers on the balls, to return strays to the next court. All of this is prelude to my most earnest entreaty: If you can’t read the type, please, just put on your glasses – your wife spent hours picking them out and I’m sure they look great on you!

  6. Here’s an article I just sent all my clients and friends:

    http://www.alistapart.com/articles/indefenseofeyecandy

    As a nearly complete convert to a variant of hard-core direct marketing known as ‘Kennedy-style’ or ‘GKIC’ (see http://dankennedy.com) that is only now, grudgingly, admitting that decent design does not, in fact, depress response rates when we keep our eyes on the ball, I walk a fine line almost every minute between design for its own sake and design to help make the sale. So I love it when I get ammo from reputable sources like alap.

    Because I just can’t do ugly.

    Oh – as to Times Roman: It doesn’t have to suck. Just set it biggish, in light weights, and kern it to a fare-thee-well. ‘Course, it’s hard to kern web type, but that’s why you set it big, so you can tighten the letterspacing to the point that nobody notices. Use the light weight for body text at about 14px and h1 heads at about 24px or bigger; mix with h2 and h3 heads in Arial Bold or Trebuchet Bold. The h3 subheads should be the same size as the p text; the h2 subheads can be somewhat bigger, maybe 16-18 px.

    On the subject of type running acrosse the browser window, I agree absolutely. Type gets hard to read at about 52 characters long; even a bare-bones, no-style design should still at least have a container that declares the main-content column won’t make anyone read farther across than that.

    And, finally, if we listened to every one of our esteemed male colleagues over 40 on the subject of readable type, we would never design anything except 12-point black type on white. Or 18-point black type on white.

    Guys, I went presbyopic starting on my 40th birthday and today can’t see the lines on my own hand. (The fingers are going fast.) I wear bifocals with two strengths of close – one for the computer and one for reading papers. When I drive I look over the top to see the road and the rest of the panorama in the distance (and look through them to see the speedometer and the rest of the in-car controls) and take them off to play tennis, at which point I can no longer read the numbers on the balls, to return strays to the next court. All of this is prelude to my most earnest entreaty: If you can’t read the type, please, just put on your glasses – your wife spent hours picking them out and I’m sure they look great on you!

  7. Here’s an article I just sent all my clients and friends:

    http://www.alistapart.com/articles/indefenseofeyecandy

    As a nearly complete convert to a variant of hard-core direct marketing known as ‘Kennedy-style’ or ‘GKIC’ (see http://dankennedy.com) that is only now, grudgingly, admitting that decent design does not, in fact, depress response rates when we keep our eyes on the ball, I walk a fine line almost every minute between design for its own sake and design to help make the sale. So I love it when I get ammo from reputable sources like alap.

    Because I just can’t do ugly.

    Oh – as to Times Roman: It doesn’t have to suck. Just set it biggish, in light weights, and kern it to a fare-thee-well. ‘Course, it’s hard to kern web type, but that’s why you set it big, so you can tighten the letterspacing to the point that nobody notices. Use the light weight for body text at about 14px and h1 heads at about 24px or bigger; mix with h2 and h3 heads in Arial Bold or Trebuchet Bold. The h3 subheads should be the same size as the p text; the h2 subheads can be somewhat bigger, maybe 16-18 px.

    On the subject of type running acrosse the browser window, I agree absolutely. Type gets hard to read at about 52 characters long; even a bare-bones, no-style design should still at least have a container that declares the main-content column won’t make anyone read farther across than that.

    And, finally, if we listened to every one of our esteemed male colleagues over 40 on the subject of readable type, we would never design anything except 12-point black type on white. Or 18-point black type on white.

    Guys, I went presbyopic starting on my 40th birthday and today can’t see the lines on my own hand. (The fingers are going fast.) I wear bifocals with two strengths of close – one for the computer and one for reading papers. When I drive I look over the top to see the road and the rest of the panorama in the distance (and look through them to see the speedometer and the rest of the in-car controls) and take them off to play tennis, at which point I can no longer read the numbers on the balls, to return strays to the next court. All of this is prelude to my most earnest entreaty: If you can’t read the type, please, just put on your glasses – your wife spent hours picking them out and I’m sure they look great on you!

  8. I don’t think the design is ugly. but really – your content is more important to me.

  9. I don’t think the design is ugly. but really – your content is more important to me.

  10. I think it all depends on your target audience – I am a very visual person so an attractive interface is important to me now if I am doing research just for information? If it is really plain it may appear to visitor that you are not really successful and cannot afford something more.

    And if you are a designer – it better show some design…

    You get my drift…

    A lot of blog and website become so busy you don’t know where to go – and bad design is far worse than simple plain…

  11. I think it all depends on your target audience – I am a very visual person so an attractive interface is important to me now if I am doing research just for information? If it is really plain it may appear to visitor that you are not really successful and cannot afford something more.

    And if you are a designer – it better show some design…

    You get my drift…

    A lot of blog and website become so busy you don’t know where to go – and bad design is far worse than simple plain…

  12. I think it all depends on your target audience – I am a very visual person so an attractive interface is important to me now if I am doing research just for information? If it is really plain it may appear to visitor that you are not really successful and cannot afford something more.

    And if you are a designer – it better show some design…

    You get my drift…

    A lot of blog and website become so busy you don’t know where to go – and bad design is far worse than simple plain…

  13. Well, I actually like this design. It is minimalist and that theme seems to be running through the threads of my life. I am sure that there are many people who are yearning for a return to simplicity. We’ve had the flash, the WOW factor and many realized it wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. No matter what you design you choose there will be those that hate it, and those that love it. If my little vote counts, I vote for the basics.

  14. Well, I actually like this design. It is minimalist and that theme seems to be running through the threads of my life. I am sure that there are many people who are yearning for a return to simplicity. We’ve had the flash, the WOW factor and many realized it wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. No matter what you design you choose there will be those that hate it, and those that love it. If my little vote counts, I vote for the basics.

  15. Well, I actually like this design. It is minimalist and that theme seems to be running through the threads of my life. I am sure that there are many people who are yearning for a return to simplicity. We’ve had the flash, the WOW factor and many realized it wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. No matter what you design you choose there will be those that hate it, and those that love it. If my little vote counts, I vote for the basics.

  16. The neat thing about design is you can choose a new theme with the click of a mouse. Today I turned on a different one that will get a different argument going.

  17. The neat thing about design is you can choose a new theme with the click of a mouse. Today I turned on a different one that will get a different argument going.

  18. The neat thing about design is you can choose a new theme with the click of a mouse. Today I turned on a different one that will get a different argument going.

  19. Count me in the “like the new design” camp. Previously, I only checked in occasionally. With this layout I could see myself coming back more often; it speaks of a refocusing on content rather than distracting me away from the content.

    I think there are a lot of people who equate “cool looking” with “design”, and I’m with all those commenters who point out that simple and usable is a design, and think Google (and, yes, Craigslist, which I check regularly) succeed because of their designs, not in spite of them.

    I rather suspect that those who complained about the font are either using “ClearType” (snicker) or have their system font set weirdly (perhaps that means the default), and in this day of 26″+ wide monitors who runs their web browser full screen any more? I definitely like having text layout which adapts to how I want to view it, rather than enforcing how I have to.

    Hope whatever you end up with maintains the aspects of this that keep it usable.

  20. Count me in the “like the new design” camp. Previously, I only checked in occasionally. With this layout I could see myself coming back more often; it speaks of a refocusing on content rather than distracting me away from the content.

    I think there are a lot of people who equate “cool looking” with “design”, and I’m with all those commenters who point out that simple and usable is a design, and think Google (and, yes, Craigslist, which I check regularly) succeed because of their designs, not in spite of them.

    I rather suspect that those who complained about the font are either using “ClearType” (snicker) or have their system font set weirdly (perhaps that means the default), and in this day of 26″+ wide monitors who runs their web browser full screen any more? I definitely like having text layout which adapts to how I want to view it, rather than enforcing how I have to.

    Hope whatever you end up with maintains the aspects of this that keep it usable.

  21. Count me in the “like the new design” camp. Previously, I only checked in occasionally. With this layout I could see myself coming back more often; it speaks of a refocusing on content rather than distracting me away from the content.

    I think there are a lot of people who equate “cool looking” with “design”, and I’m with all those commenters who point out that simple and usable is a design, and think Google (and, yes, Craigslist, which I check regularly) succeed because of their designs, not in spite of them.

    I rather suspect that those who complained about the font are either using “ClearType” (snicker) or have their system font set weirdly (perhaps that means the default), and in this day of 26″+ wide monitors who runs their web browser full screen any more? I definitely like having text layout which adapts to how I want to view it, rather than enforcing how I have to.

    Hope whatever you end up with maintains the aspects of this that keep it usable.

  22. The comments are pretty amusing, a bunch of tin-eyed geeks commenting on design. It’s like watching a tone-deaf singer on American Idol :-)

    Obviously design shouldn’t distract from the content but there’s been many studies showing that visitors form an opinion of you (company/brand) within a second or two based on the design, long before they read anything. It’s why most notable brands spend money on design and it’s not being wasted. In fact, it’s one of the cheapest ways to polish and influence your brand image.

  23. The comments are pretty amusing, a bunch of tin-eyed geeks commenting on design. It’s like watching a tone-deaf singer on American Idol :-)

    Obviously design shouldn’t distract from the content but there’s been many studies showing that visitors form an opinion of you (company/brand) within a second or two based on the design, long before they read anything. It’s why most notable brands spend money on design and it’s not being wasted. In fact, it’s one of the cheapest ways to polish and influence your brand image.

  24. The comments are pretty amusing, a bunch of tin-eyed geeks commenting on design. It’s like watching a tone-deaf singer on American Idol :-)

    Obviously design shouldn’t distract from the content but there’s been many studies showing that visitors form an opinion of you (company/brand) within a second or two based on the design, long before they read anything. It’s why most notable brands spend money on design and it’s not being wasted. In fact, it’s one of the cheapest ways to polish and influence your brand image.

  25. While content is way more important than design, I don’t think you should under-estimate the design. If this was the first time I would have navigated over to your blog, I probably owuld have discounted it pretty quickly given the lack of design and a sense of a lack of professionalism. yet, a minimalist approach is definitely the way to go, whatever direction you choose.

    Rick.

  26. While content is way more important than design, I don’t think you should under-estimate the design. If this was the first time I would have navigated over to your blog, I probably owuld have discounted it pretty quickly given the lack of design and a sense of a lack of professionalism. yet, a minimalist approach is definitely the way to go, whatever direction you choose.

    Rick.

  27. While content is way more important than design, I don’t think you should under-estimate the design. If this was the first time I would have navigated over to your blog, I probably owuld have discounted it pretty quickly given the lack of design and a sense of a lack of professionalism. yet, a minimalist approach is definitely the way to go, whatever direction you choose.

    Rick.

  28. I actually find the minimalist approach refreshing. Let’s face it, if you produce informative content on a consistent basis and therefore have a loyal subscriber base they are coming back because of the content not the design. Since most followers subscribe via RSS they don’t see the blog very often anyway. The design is for new comers I guess. Will they find you more credible because of a cutting edge design? Perhaps in the beginning. But my only reason for coming back to a blog is because it’s become a dependable channel. Change is typically a good thing, stagnation a bad thing. If all blogs looked the same it would get old fast. Focus on the content, switch up the design from time to time, try new things and dare to be different are all simple factors that contribute to a blog’s long term success.

  29. I actually find the minimalist approach refreshing. Let’s face it, if you produce informative content on a consistent basis and therefore have a loyal subscriber base they are coming back because of the content not the design. Since most followers subscribe via RSS they don’t see the blog very often anyway. The design is for new comers I guess. Will they find you more credible because of a cutting edge design? Perhaps in the beginning. But my only reason for coming back to a blog is because it’s become a dependable channel. Change is typically a good thing, stagnation a bad thing. If all blogs looked the same it would get old fast. Focus on the content, switch up the design from time to time, try new things and dare to be different are all simple factors that contribute to a blog’s long term success.

  30. Like Uomo_merda and others, I follow this blog on Google Reader. I don’t follow Robert through Twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed etc. because I trust that his most thoughtful and valuable content is published here.

    I expect that the stats for viewers to the blog actually increases when Robert makes comments on the design because all of us using RSS visit the blog to see what he means.

  31. Like Uomo_merda and others, I follow this blog on Google Reader. I don’t follow Robert through Twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed etc. because I trust that his most thoughtful and valuable content is published here.

    I expect that the stats for viewers to the blog actually increases when Robert makes comments on the design because all of us using RSS visit the blog to see what he means.

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