Decoration - the Enemy of Good Web Design

When you ask some web “designers” why they added a certain element to their site they’ll answer “because it looks good”. These people are of course artists, not designers.

You should never add something just because it looks good - aesthetics are never the end goal but rather a tool web designers may use to achieve a specific goal (and only when it actually helps them achieve that goal).

Real web designers will never:

  • Treat text as a graphic element that have to fit into their layout. The site’s design should be tailored to the site’s content, not the other way around. If you see “Lorem ipsum” you know you’re dealing with an artist, not a designer.
  • Add an image to their design if it doesn’t serve a very well thought out purpose, such as an irrelevant stock phots with the sole purpose of “living up the design”.
  • Use a graphical element that doesn’t add meaning to its surroundings. Borders, backgrounds, dividers and white-space that doesn’t provide new meaning or clarify relationships are the trademark of misguided designers.

Finally, and most importantly: real web designers will never decorate.

You see, decoration is something you add to make an object prettier. You’re adding beauty but not meaning. This is fundamentally flawed as you introduce new things in your product without adding any meaning - you’re actually diluting the meaning of your work.

Graphic elements which are only there for the sake of the graphic element itself - decoration - will only achieve one thing: distract your customers from your business goals. This is why a good designer will never decorate. Making something “pretty” is not a reason in and by itself. This kind of meaningless beauty will only serve as a distraction to your customers.

Now, a good designer can certainly make something more aesthetically pleasing if it causes the product to sell better (this isn’t always the case though), and the important thing to notice is that while the good designer may use aesthetics as a tool to achieve an end goal, like selling more, beauty was never (and should never) be the end goal itself.

Do you agree? Discuss the purpose of web design with us and our readers by posting a comment.

Note: I’m not having a go at people who create beautiful web designs. However, we should call things what they are, so call the guy who create beautiful web designs with aesthetics in the front seat an artist, and call the gal who create effective web designs with performance in the front seat a web designer.

Post a comment or Share:

User experience research, delivered twice a month

Join 17,000+ readers and get Baymard’s research articles by RSS feed or e-mail:

Due to spam, you need JavaScript to do that.

(1-click unsubscribe at any time)

Related article

All Research Topics

Robert December 4, 2009 Reply to this comment

Completely agree. Just decorators are also not artists. They are just decorators.

Reading tip: Adolf Loos – “Ornament and crime”

Jamie, Baymard Institute December 4, 2009 Reply to this comment

@Robert

You’re absolutely right, decorators aren’t artists, and neither decorators nor artists are designers.

And thanks for the tip, consider it on my reading list.

Joe December 31, 2009 Reply to this comment

Is it me or people are just posting weird comments?

I think it’s very hard to find the happy medium between all – the only way to really know for sure is to test it with a/b split tests.

Jamie, Baymard Institute January 5, 2010 Reply to this comment

@Joe

Yes, there were some strange comments there. We’ve removed them now since it was all spam.

Re: a/b split tests, I wholeheartedly agree. You should always test. However, sometimes you need to make a decision before having any concrete data, and in those cases I think decoration is something to steers away from.

[Anonymous] January 17, 2010 Reply to this comment

Lol,

“Add an image to their design if it doesn’t serve a very well thought out purpose. Irrelevant stock photos with the sole purpose of “living up the design” come from clueless CEOs.”

I have to admit, I do this once in a while, but sometimes I have to put something there to get the ball rolling or a client will have no clue what to put there. Even putting in bad content helps get the client to help out. Bad content is better than no content, but not the “Lorem ipsum” type, lol. Keep up these blog posts, very original, as I’m sick of people like myself putting up garbage!

Jen August 11, 2010 Reply to this comment

It seems ridiculous to me to label people as “designer”, “artist”, “decorator”, etc.

There are artistic facets to design, just as design is frequently boring without some elements of a decorative eye or mindset. They are complementary skill sets, not competing ones.

Labeling roles, like this, serves no real purpose. It doesn’t move poor, or even just ok, web design to better web design.

The crux of the issue is whether the individual or team creating the site has a solid understanding of their intended audience or not and whether they have a correlating concept of what that audience finds appealing and motivates them to purchase, browse, or share (depending on the goal the site is trying to achieve).

Certainly there are principles to good web design and those should be shared, as you’re attempting to do here.

I don’t disagree with most of the principles you’ve catalogued. Though in larger companies, lorem ipsum has it’s place, since text and layout are frequently not done at the same time or by the same people. Those who are very good with visual mediums are not always equally adept with language and vice versa.

Anyone who creates a web site is a “real” web designer. The question you should be posing is whether they are a “good” web designer. The act of creation or development proves technical aptitude but it doesn’t indicate any inherent quality.

Just as I would say, you are a “real” writer but not necessarily a “good” one. ;o

BTW – there is a typo in one of your bolded sentences: This kind of meaningless beauty will only server as a distraction to your customers.

Raju k November 24, 2012 Reply to this comment

Its absolutely right. Most of the user expecting decoration. they dont bother about application features.

Patrik June 28, 2013 Reply to this comment

In your website, visual elements, the content, etc. works together to tell a story. It may say “You are safe with us” or “This is a place to be creative” or “This is a competitive place, put your gloves on”, etc. In my mind you need to be both an artist and a designer to make a web site really stand out.

Chris Cooke February 4, 2014 Reply to this comment

This article is wrong in every single way. Decoration is a powerful aesthetic tool, and in the hands of the right designer it will enhance and improve presentation.

Furthermore, ‘lorem ipsum’ is used by designers the world over to block in text.

The author of the article is clearly not a professional.

Marilyn Evans January 3, 2017 Reply to this comment

I totally agree with you concerning the abuse of decoratin in design it kill more than add beauty to the website ! good job Jamie !

Post a comment!

Close overlay