Function Versus Form

Do Looks Matter?

I’ve gone toe to toe with graphic designers and marketing professionals on this matter.  The following is MY OPINION and will clearly be arguable, but nonetheless I’ll convey my argument.

In the years of doing this I’ve had plenty of clients that were WAY pre-occupied with how their site will look.  So much so it actually hindered the functioning and productivity of their web site.  This type of mind set seems to place ALL value of the web site and what it can offer in terms of visual esthetics.  

So what is the argument for the graphic designer, or marketing professional?

Easy, you’ll hear things like:

  1. “You only get 1 first chance”
  2. “Branding is EVERYTHING”
  3. “Like it or not, people judge appearance”
  4. “Appearance is evidence of your professionalism”


In other words, it goes along the line of thinking that the way your site looks is critical enough to influence the impact it has on your users.

Because of this prioritization, everything else the website can or should do takes a back seat to the way it looks.

So what’s the problem with that?

Well... to start, what is a ‘good looking site’? 

Oh sure, we all have OUR OWN OPINION, but I’m asking who is the ultimate authority on the issue?  What is the name of the ‘template god’ that bestows his blessing on ‘good looking sites’?

I’ve heard it all.  I’ve had clients request a blue and white clean conservative look.  I’ve had others that requested anything but a blue and white clean conservative look.  I’ve even had one client tell me the color purple was antagonistic and would irritate his users.  You name it, I’ve heard it.  This is all to illustrate that the answer to the question “What is a good looking website” is AT THE VERY SUPER DUPER BEST - subjective!

Every person you ask will have a different answer AND for a different reason.  

So, when doing a project and a graphic designer or marketing professional with an ego is in the picture, what I often find happening is THEIR opinion is the ONLY opinion being used to influence the design of the web site.  Why just them? - Well they are the 'professional’ of course, they must know best.

For a business this is narrow minded and dangerous, because they are using a very isolated input source to make what can be expensive decisions.  Expensive both in term of implementation and in terms of long run effect on users.

So when does the argument begin?

As soon as I tell you “It doesn’t matter if you like the way your website looks”.  I know, it is harsh sounding isn’t it?  ‘Your’ website, and it doesn’t matter? - How dare I!

What matters is: How your users USE your website and what THEY think.

That is right.  You see nowhere in here how the look of your site is addressed.  For those who feel:

  1. “You only get 1 first chance”
  2. “Branding is EVERYTHING”
  3. “Like it or not, people judge appearance”
  4. “Appearance is evidence of your professionalism”

I ask you then: Why is so popular?

Are you really going to argue it is because the site looks good?

Craigslist is perhaps one of the most iconic ugly sites out there.  There is NOTHING visually pleasing about it.  Black text, white background, electric blue links.  It looks so old school and basic it is almost painful, but users still use it.  It doesn’t seem to be so ugly that users avoid it.  So what could be the magic?  It is ugly and a house hold name - how is this possible?

It is possible because this one example illustrates perfectly the REALITY of marketing online. 

NOTE:  There are some vast differences from traditional marketing in the real world.

You must understand that users today (not always in the past, but certainly in the present) are very impatient, and want immediate gratification and results - PERIOD!  That is what Craigslist does.  In fact, the simple layout promotes this goal.  

There is another website that you may have heard of whose page is amazingly boring.  They too have a white background, and central focus on doing one thing.  It is a company called!

Yes, go there now and look - the Google is not ‘pretty’.  It is boring and simple.  According to the ego marketers this shouldn’t be - yet Google is a house-hold name and valued in the billions.

Amazing isn’t it?  A boring page belonging to a billion dollar company.  And you know what? - it was all on purpose.  Google early on understood the true nature of users, therefore built their page (largely unchanged) to hit right at the heart of what the user wanted - IMMEDIATE RESULTS.  There is no possible way to confuse what to do or where to go on the default Google search page.

Now go look at Yahoo and Bing.  Much busier.  Who is the number one search engine?

In conclusion, the truth is the way your site looks IS important, but NEVER more important than how your site functions.  Google’s boring page is designed to promote function.  Craigslist’s boring template is designed to promote ease of use - another form of function.

A good looking site that doesn’t do anything at best will get initial results, but no chance of lasting ones.  Whereas a site the does much, will always trump how your site looks in the long run.

The point to understand is the design should be an element that compliments function, and the design should be a derivative of the function of your site. 

Hopefully this will place the importance and priority of design in the proper place.  Even though this point screams true on many pages, you'll still have those who disagree ;)