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Does Design Matter in Comparison to Content?

by Tom Johnson on Nov 16, 2008
categories: general

Last week I made some alterations to my site's design, but no one seemed to notice. In fact, few people have ever commented about my blog's design at all. The same goes with the music intros for my podcasts. I can change the music each time, and no one ever responds.

In contrast, if a post has good content, I see a steady stream of comments. My experience leads me to conclude that content is about 90% important, and design is 10% important.

My colleague Ben Minson wrote a post explaining explaining a similar point. He said,

... Designers place more importance on good design than do users, while users do the opposite. I have to side with the users on this one. Outdated information alienates and frustrates users, and no amount of “good design” can make up for that. Would you say to yourself: “I want to kick my computer because the information on this site is so wrong!… But the site looks nice, so it's not a problem.” If you believe good design is better than up-to-date information, maybe you'd better stick with a cool, soothing color scheme. ("Results of a Study about Online Experience")

Ornate design (left) versus minimalism and white space (right)
Heavy visual design (left) versus minimalistic design (right). Which do readers prefer?

Despite the irrelevance of a nice-looking site, I still find myself, on the weekends, tinkering with WordPress design. Last week I did all of the following to my theme:

  • Changed from two sidebars to one because it looked cleaner and simpler
  • Widened the sidebar column to accommodate more content
  • Changed the background color of the sidebar to gray
  • Customized the Podcast page's sidebar with sidebar content specific to podcasts
  • Reduced the number of subscription icons on the home page (moving the Podcast-Only subscribe buttons to the Podcast page's sidebar)
  • Moved the location of the subscription buttons to the banner area rather than the sidebar
  • Added an About section at the top of my sidebar
  • Added an Advertising button on my toolbar
  • Implemented WordPress' caption feature for images (by far the coolest thing I did)
  • Increased the kerning on the word "Writing" in my banner logo
  • Changed my tagline from "technical communication blog" to "a blog about the latest trends in technical communication"

Did you notice any of these changes? Probably not many. In general, do readers care about design? Not unless it gets in the way. Mostly users come to your site for the content. Similarly, in help authoring, your users come to the help to read the help, not to admire the design. Good design promotes the content well, gets out of the way, and is somewhat invisible. (I wrote about this here.) In this sense, good design is less design.

That said, your site's visual design does, however, have some influence on readers. Design contributes to the split-second judgment that readers make about the authority of the site. If your site looks professional, your content may seem more authoritative.

However, a professional site doesn't have to be ornate, or full of color and eye-popping graphics. A professional looking site can be minimalistic, white, and fairly plain. I've noticed that I tolerate minimalistic themes on my blog much more than others. They're less likely to be an eyesore; they don't distract from your content.

For example, look at the themes of these popular blogs:

Design is minimal with each. And of course don't forget the quintessential example of successful minimalism: Google. Google's site is almost 75% white space, but few complain because that's not why they use the site.

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