It sucks because it's good

Back in the mid-90s, when Linux was still at 1.something, website design was a simple exercise that left matters such as font choice up to the user. It was blessedly free of the Tyranny of Typography, the Legacies of Layout, and other controlling influences from the Provinces of Print. Better yet, it was free by design from withering rebuke by aesthetes whose high-minded "taste" made life miserable for both writers and readers. Back then the Web was meant to be maximally usable and minimally controlled by Authorities who knew more about what you need than you do. That was the Idea, and it stuck. For about two years.

Now it's all but forgotten. The Web is overrun by "design" out the wazoo, made worse by and other forms of Google-gaming greed.

I am reminded of how far we've come by UI Guru Jakob Nielsen's Site Is Unreadable, by Hank Williams, in his blog, Why Does Everything Suck? Hank begins,

Ok, this is only half a dig. Jakob is one of the most respected writers and thinkers about user interface on the web. He is clearly bright, and he writes intelligent and useful things. In fact I quote Jakob and reference his work all of the time.

But I find his site unreadable.

It hurts my eyes.

What got my attention most recently was this new post on the year's 10 best application UIs.

Unfortunately, I have to say, Jakob has perhaps the worst site design I have ever seen. It is as if, while he is handing out the Oscars, he is wearing a plaid polyester suit. In truth his site is fine from an information architecture perspective. But from an aesthetics perspective it is awful. And aesthetics is important in UI. If you begin to look at something and want to avert your eyes, the site has failed.

In truth, Jakob's site has always been ugly. But this time it felt, to me, beyond ugly. I looked at the bulleted list of the top sites, and the bold cramped disorganized looking type starting each bullet, and I could not bear it.

He concludes, we think less of Jakob Nielsen as an interface consultant if he seems to have no taste?

Jakob's absence of "taste" is what I like and appreciate about his design sense, or delightfully usable lack of it. It is to Jakob's enormous and enduring credit that he rejects everything that compromises simple usability, no matter how tasteful (translation: fashionable) it may be.

Jakob's home site,, has a design that remains unchanged since 1995. That was when I lifted his html and used it to frame up Watch how fast either of those pages loads. Better yet, read them on a mobile device and see how fast they load on those things -- where more and more of the Web is being read, every day.

Speaking of usability, I just tried posting a comment to Hank's blog, but failed. Hank handily gives commenters a choice of identity systems: Google, LiveJournal, WordPress, TypePad, AIM, OpenID, Name/URL and Anonymous. Each one I picked brought me a CAPTCHA, and after that a bold response (in white, reversed out of a red block) that reads "URL contains illegal characters". This happened no matter what ID system I chose, including Anonymous. So I just figured the hell with it, and am posting my comment here:

I like Jakob's page because it is *absent* of "design" that makes too much of the rest of the Web, including this page, slow to load and unreadable to me unless I upsize everything with the zoom+ command. (And that's not just because I'm old. Rather it's because I do most of my work on a laptop, where pixel density has increased over the years, so what used to be an inch now runs at about 5/8 of one, making 12-point type into 7-point type.)

Jakob's html is simple, straightforward and readable by human beings, just as God (or Tim Berners Lee) intended. Thanks to minimal stylistic burden, his pages load quickly, which is extraordinarily helpful. Case in point. Your page here just took 15 seconds to load over my iPhone. Jakob's (which you find unreadable) took about a second and a half. What's more, it was instantly readable, whether I was looking at it straight up, or with the iPhone turned sideways. I also don't need to spread two fingers to read any of the text. In fact, I'd say his html is ideal -- from a simple usability standpoint -- for both web page and mobile devices.

So I agree with Patrick Neenan, at least in this case. Taste is overrated. Usability is usability. Employing *no* typography principles is a radically practical choice on Jakob's part. And I appreciate it for the rare and valuable practice that it remains. In fact, I think that's beautiful.

By the way, I wrote this in plain html of the Old Skool human-readable sort. The fact that I can still do that is beautiful too.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Oh c'mon guys. I think

Gary Evans - Good Credit's picture

Oh c'mon guys. I think you're being too harsh on Jakob. Maybe it was intentionally done that way? You know, a subtle way to annoy people in exchange for learning a thing two from his site? LOL

Seriously, it has always been "content before technique" for me. Somebody ought to help Jakob design his site, instead of this mudslinging. ;-)


More on this issue

Yuhong Bao's picture

Even worse, the first

Yuhong Bao's picture

Even worse, the first attempt to do actual Web design was hacky. Remember spacer GIFs? Remember David Siegel's book "Creating Killer Web Sites"? Remember the first browser wars? Fortunately, CSS made it much more clean.


PXLated's picture

While I agree that many sites are over designed and slow, I don't agree that Jacob' site is anywhere close to good. Yes, it loads fast but that's about all you can say for it. As someone else mentioned, it's an eyesore. Even some simple layout/design principles would help immensely without interfering with load time and would enhance readability greatly. Sorry Doc but the web would be a very unpleasant place if all sites emulated Jacob.


FredR's picture

Gandhi said "Be the change you want to see in the world". Is Hank offering to revamp Jakob's site?

-- FLR or flrichar is a superfan of Linux Journal, and goofs around in the LJ IRC Channel

The page does have some design problems

Kevin S.'s picture

As someone who is taking technical writing classes, which include lessons on document and web layout, I think you're confusing "design" with "lots of banners and tons of flash." The absence those things from Nielson's page is a godsend. However, that bright yellow search bar at the top of the page makes me feel like I should avert my eyes lest I go blind. Not only that, but the whole left column is a mess. Ideally, each of those sections (Alertbox, Reports, etc.) should have its own well-defined area separated from the rest of the column somehow. That allows the reader to check the headline of each little area in order to find the content they want faster. I think you may be so used to using that layout that you don't realize how inconvenient it is for a first-time visitor to the site.

Ironically, following the link to the Nielson Norman Group's site gives you an example of a well-designed (though still simple) web page. I've got a couple of quibbles with that layout, too (nav bar font could be bigger; news box font is unreadably small in Firefox), but overall it's much better. It's amazing how much simple things like horizontal rules between sections help the user break down the information on the page.

Also, I'm perplexed by your complaints about the load time of Hank Williams' page. Maybe the problem is that you were using the iPhone. Aren't those notoriously slow at downloading web pages over AT&T's wireless network? The page looks like a basic Blogger layout with not much in the way of bells and whistles (one photograph). I have a cheap cable internet connection (not even 1 Mbps), and it only takes 2-3 seconds max to load on my computer.

I agree, mostly

Network Geek's picture

I agree with you about Nielsen's site. The choice of colors is terrible! Also, I think it might be better with more white-space and fewer text sizes. His design may be "good" from a technical usability sense, but it is hard to read for me. Though, I have to admit the actual article mention was easier to read than the front page. Perhaps Mr. Nielsen has forgotten the first design maxim many of us learned as children "You only get one chance to make a first impression".

Keep studying, get your degree and bring us design that bridges both worlds. I think you're on the right track already, Kevin.

Oh, and I'm going to go ahead and disagree with Doc that the SEO requirements need to negatively impact design. My design isn't great. I try to keep it simple, and fast, after all. But, Google "network geek" and see what comes up first.

Website design

dick's picture

I wish you would talk to a couple of people who have blogs I read daily.

One is set up with a black background and small orange type. In order to even read it I need to use a Ctl-C and blanket the whole text. Then it shows up as black type on a white background and I can read it.

Another one is even worse. Black type on a dark blue background - and it is a gaming website of reviews and a forum. You would think they would get it right but not a chance. I have to do the same as I do with the other one. Ctl-C and blanket the whole entry.

As to the websites you brought up in this posting, they both load very quickly for me and i have no problem reading either one.