It sucks because it's good

by Doc Searls

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.