Why The 10 Commandments Of Web Design Are Complete Baloney

    Matthew Magain
    Matthew Magain

    I read this morning in the SitePoint Industry News forum that BusinessWeek had compiled what is being referred to as The 10 Commandments of Web Design.

    The experts who contributed to this list include widely read authors and speakers like Dan Cederholm, Dave Shea, Khoi Vinh and Jeffrey Zeldman. Here it is:

    1. Thou shalt not abuse Flash.
    2. Thou shalt not hide content.
    3. Thou shalt not clutter.
    4. Thou shalt not overuse glassy reflections.
    5. Thou shalt not name your Web 2.0 company with an unnecessary surplus or dearth of vowels.
    6. Thou shalt worship at the altar of typography.
    7. Thou shalt create immersive experiences.
    8. Thou shalt be social.
    9. Thou shalt embrace proven technologies.
    10. Thou shalt make content king.

    On the surface, this advice seems reasonably innocuous. However, dig deeper and you’ll see that it all falls apart. Allow me to explain …

    Before I launch into why I think this list is baloney, allow me a couple of minutes to don my flame suit. It’s a little dusty since I used it last. Oh, and don’t forget to grab a pinch of salt from the kitchen on your way through — you might need it.

    OK, here we go. Deep breath … I’m going in.

    1. Thou shalt not abuse Flash.While in principle, I agree with this statement, it’s not because it relates to Flash. A better commandment would be “Choose the right tool for the trade, and master that tool.” Flash has its place, but HTML can be abused just as easily, as can CSS. Is abusing Flash any worse than abusing Ajax, for example? The accessibility problems are potentially even bigger with Ajax web apps than with pure Flash-based sites. And what exactly does “abusing” Flash mean, anyway? Building an entire site in Flash may be perfectly acceptable if done in an accessible manner.
    2. Thou shalt not hide content.Allow me to offer a somewhat contentious view — popups aren’t always evil. Yes, they (almost always) introduce usability issues, and yes, for regular visitors they are annoying and frustrating and can harm a site’s credibility etc etc. No doubt you’ve seen the occasional popup ad on sitepoint.com.

      Here’s why: they work.

      When it comes down to it, it’s all very well to stand on one’s usability soap box and declare “Don’t use popups!” But if your site is a for-profit enterprise, then you may be doing your business a disservice by not contemplating popup advertising as a legitimate revenue stream. Why? Because people click on them. They are engaging, and many visitors find them useful; this we know from experience.

      Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that popups shouldn’t be avoided, or that they aren’t annoying, or that there aren’t usability issues with them. What I’m saying is that it’s not always black and white. Usability is a science with fundamental principles, but it’s not the only influencing factor in the design of a for-profit web site. There are other factors, such as the bottom line — and as long as your site exists to turn a profit, this wrestling match between ideal and profitable will continue to exist.

      In fact, from an accessibility point of view, they’re far less evil than those JavaScript or Flash-based floatover advertisments that hide content and give the user no obvious indication of how to kill them. And there are plenty of successful sites that employ those techniques too, for the same reasons.

    3. Thou shalt not clutter.This is something I can’t really argue with, except to say that it’s ambiguous advice. BusinessWeek’s elaboration of the point alludes to something about information architecture and structure, yet clutter to me relates to a lack of white space, something that is evident in a site like, oh I don’t know, CraigsList. Which happens to be an example of good design later in the list. So which is it? Commandments shouldn’t be ambiguous. ‘Nuff said.
    4. Thou shalt not overuse glassy reflections.What? No glassy reflections? But how can you possibly hope to have your site listed in The Complete Web 2.0 Directory?

      OK, I’m kidding. No argument here.

    5. Thou shalt not name your Web 2.0 company with an unnecessary surplus or dearth of vowels.Hang on a minute — isn’t this a list about design?? Of all the principles relating to design — colour theory, layout, typography, contrast, grid theory, texture… what is domain naming advice doing on this list?

      If you’ve created a web app, then you’re not just a web designer — you’re probably a web developer too. And an entrepreneur. And a project manager. Let’s keep the list on target, shall we? Leave the domain name decisions for the marketers, entrepreneurs and domainers.

    6. Thou shalt worship at the altar of typography.My issue with this commandment is this: it’s the Web. Typography on the Web, as everyone knows, sucks. Implementing pullquotes and fancy drop letters on the Web in such a way that all visitors see them require markup hacks. And we don’t have widespread support of downloadable fonts yet, by any stretch, and there are plenty of hurdles to overcome before we do. Sure, we have sIFR and cascading font declarations and image replacement, but these aren’t enough tools for us to really take control in the typography arena.

      This may sound like a cop out, but until those tools exist, typography will continue to suck on the Web.

    7. Thou shalt create immersive experiences.Hands up who of you know what “immersive” means, and how to achieve it. I’m sure the creator of this list doesn’t — he defines immersive experiences as ones that “can capture and hold users’ attention,” and cites YouTube as one example of a site that does this well.

      Apart from the fact that the design of YouTube is cluttered, heavily Flash-reliant (possibly bordering on abuse) and contains 4 out of 7 vowels in its name, surely the reason people keep coming back to YouTube is because of the content it hosts, not the site’s design?

    8. Thou shalt be social.The paragraph explaining this list item begins with “Web 2.0 is everywhere”. It’s this point that I made my mind up that this post needed to be written. And MySpace started it all? Puh-lease.

      If your site is designed to include functionality that allows your users to communicate with each other, great. But it’s hardly something you simply must do to be successful. Jeremy Keith doesn’t allow comments on his blog. Would you consider him a successful blogger?

    9. Thou shalt embrace proven technologies.And I quote:

      Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, and their cohorts have become a part of daily life. Sites that can incorporate these elements into their design will connect with users in a meaningful way…

      Wha…? When did Facebook become a proven technology that you must incorporate into your site? And anyway — to what elements is he referring? The data from these sites, or the features that they employ? If the latter, surely this is just “being social” (see above). If the latter (which I suspect is what the author meant given his advice to provide “functionality and an interface with which they’re already familiar”) then surely this is advocating copycat design? Either way, this seems like a back-of-the-envelope idea at best; it certainly hasn’t been fleshed out or refined in sufficient detail to be a commandment.

    10. Thou shalt make content king.OK, so remind me again what this has to do with design. How many of you have designed and built a web site for clients, without receiving any content from them until the end of the project? How do you suppose that client might have reacted if you’d refused to press ahead with your design, and simple given the excuse “Sorry — I can’t do anything without your content”

      And finally, if the author and his team of expert designers truly believe that “content is king”, then doesn’t this undermine the importance of design in the first place?

    In summary, this is one set of commandments that belong on a white board, not a stone tablet. There are certainly some elements in there that show promise, but unfortunately ambiguity, cliches and ill-informed advice gets in the way. It’s hardly a set of rules that have been refined enough to warrant printing out and posting in your cubicle, let alone etching in stone.

    Image credit: Ben Cumming