The Myth of Beautiful Web Design

The Myth of Beautiful Web Design

Reader Comments (109)

  1. Great article! It’s far too true, when people want to create a new business or website, they tend to want to jump right in to the ‘doing’ and skip the whole ‘planning’ phase. There is so much pressure to get a great(looking) website up as soon as possible. I guess the mindset is that every second you don’t have a website up, you’re missing out on customers. Perhaps a better way to be looking at it is the longer you have a not GREAT website up, the more customers are being unimpressed. And that’s not how you want to start your new venture.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. It is nice to have a great looking design, but the content is the most important.

    Search engines read content not the fancy graphics and the wonderful colours. It is the message that people buy. Clients want results from a web site. Clients require more sales, more traffic and more importantly more results.

  3. Shane: that page is destined to be a classic. It’s one of those jokes that’s so accurate, it’s painful! Thanks for sharing the link.

  4. This is a wonderful post Pamela! You bring up a lot of great points that can be very useful.

    “But there always has to be something good inside the package.” I do have one question though. If your content is great and informational, how important is the design? Is a nice simple design ok? Design is one of my biggest downfalls. Any tips would be greatly appreciated. 🙂

  5. I agree completely. Although I must admit, if I come to a website that is awful looking and ‘hurts’ my eyes, I’m outta there right away. That being said, if the content stinks, I’m gone too, just not as quick.

    One other thing that I would said is equally as important as content in keeping customers is customer service. If your design is great, your content is great, but when they actually deal with your organization and that experience is poor, then you’ll lose them. There are so many fail points. There really is no magic pill. Each factor needs equal attention.

  6. David, nice simple design can work really well. It’s harder to accomplish than it seems, though. I’ve devoted my new site to explaining the basics, so feel free to drop on by!

    Mike, all those elements: strong, targeted content (and offerings); great design, and excellent customer service are what make up a brand promise. I agree: they’re equally important and a good business has them all.

  7. AHHH hahah I was just talking about this exact thing to my clients! Design will not cover up the fact that you have no marketing plan!! Hahah.. Your picture is perfect on this post! Great JOB!
    Mary Cary

  8. Touché… been saying this for years.

    One of my biggest challenges as a web content specialist is to convince clients that investing in great content is AT LEAST as important as their web design.

    Businesses still budget thousands of $$$$ for their web design, but leave the content as an afterthought, cut and paste their offline marketing blurb, or worse, get an intern to cobble some content together.

    Design is important, of course, but it’s content that does all the heavy lifting when it comes to getting real results from your online investment.

  9. Yeah, it won’t bring you miracles…

    …But good design is still essential – of course the whole package must work – your message – your product etc. But grrreat design is also a vital part of the concept, maybe not the greatest, but important nevertheless. People do judge books by its covers.

    Let’s make it an awesome book with an excellent cover.

  10. Whenever I feel myself starting to obsess over design, I think about Seth Godin’s site. One of the most popular business blogs in the world, and I don’t think he broke the bank hiring a designer…

  11. I’ve always found that clean, concise navigation has always aided business and blogs far better than flashy effects and pretty pictures.

    Useability is always the most important aspect of design. It’s just a pity that so many designers forget this.

  12. we are going through this at my day gig. i am trying to get them to focus on their audience and all they want is a flash intro. it’s like showing up to move a piano with a ferrari. looks great but it’ll never get the job done.


  13. In my practice I refer to pure design-driven efforts as “art projects.” They may be worthy of a prize position on mama’s fridge, but they aren’t likely to sell widgets – and they are the bane of effective B2B Marcom programs.

    When such projects are commissioned I always ask the owner to imagine it is now 3 weeks AFTER the project has been released and to , “tell me exactly WHO did exactly WHAT such that you are delighted.” This gets them on the “goal-oriented project management” track. And it often prompts A) a retreat followed by B) the commencement of a completely different looking concept – one that, by design, has a good chance at producing the desired results.

    Excellent article! Thank you.

  14. You are right on target, and no matter how sad it makes me — I LOVE beautifully designed websites almost as much as I love beautifully designed catalogs — I know that content sells, not graphics. The trick is in walking the line between function and flash.

  15. “Check your ego at the door and think about who you want to sell to.” BING BING BING BING BING!

    I believe the “remarkable” free/complimentary report with a call to action, trumps ANY good design…

    Great post! Brian

  16. What an excellent post.

    Thank you to Copyblogger for introducing us to new and interesting writers.

    By they way I signed up for the Big Brand Design course after discovering Pamela Wilson here It’s a good course.

    It’s making me think that now, after almost twenty years in business, perhaps I ought to think about getting a logo and think about colours, images and things other than the words I produce.

  17. You are an amaaaaaaazing writer. I seldom read an entire email but yours are always so well worded I can’t stop reading.

  18. “Design is not about you ”

    THe best headline yet. I don’t know how many times I have to tell clients that it doesn’t really matter what YOU like, its what your audience will like.

    Also, I feel like design and content are on equal planes because you can not have a successful site without both. Doesn’t mean the design needs to be some great amazing piece of art, but it does need to be good in that it communicates your business concepts and ideas as well as displays your content in the best way possible

  19. I agree that design is enough to get me in the door, but if after the initial Oooos and Aaaahs, if they can’t deliver past the eye candy, I’m outta’ there.

    For example…

    I recently came across a website that offers wordpress templates. Thinking that their sites and templates were well designed, I purchased one to experiment with it… what I found out was that it looked good on the outside, but the company really struggled with having a solid way to work with their customers and their back-end content wasn’t the greatest. Lots of pizzazz up front, terrible mess in the back.

  20. You’ve nailed it with this post Pamela. Particularly with the “Design is not about you” part. I’ve tinkered with website design for the past 3 years and find myself falling into this trap often, even though I know better. Focusing on the need, then filling that need is key. Thanks for the reminder.

  21. Well done Pamela! You are so right in almost totally agree! lol

    You should definitely have a plan when it comes to the aesthetics of your site and most definitely should appeal to your target audience. But, just to add a little more perspective and perhaps some debate… One of the wonderful things about online marketing is the personal brand. The unique ability to filter out your non-customers and “attract” your customers. In that sense, I think a design that matches the personality of your brand is quite important.

    So, the part about using yellow if you hate the color I would have to disagree with in that sense. Also, lets say you are a designer or an artist and you have a blog to showcase your work etc… Your design is most definitely all about you, or at least your style, after all, that’s what your brand is.

    As for the rest, your content is still king, design will definitely help to get the attention of you visitors, but that lasts for few precious seconds. The rest is about what you do to keep them there and get them to engage. That is where a multitude of other skills comes into play.

    Once again, the affirmation that there is no magic bullet to internet marketing or having a website. Great content on a crappy design won’t get you there alone, a great design with lame content won’t do you any favors either. Enter the every day struggle of the online business person.

    Well done!

  22. “Design is not about you.. you need to know who you want to reach and what you want to say.” Sooo true.

    What you say can’t be about you either. It has to be focused on what your visitors want and need.

  23. You are totally right. I agree that first thing is to be clear about your typical visitor. You should have a clear cut picture of your visitor, what does he or she look like, what are their tastes, what are their problems, what are they looking for? etc every detail you can imagine. Build site design wise and content wise for your imaginary visitor. Everything will fall into place. This is my understanding and I guess your post is also conveying the same idea. I liked your post. Please keep up the good work.

  24. Andrew, it depends on whether your brand is about you (as in a personal brand) or a product or service.

    If it’s a personal brand, then you should definitely use a color palette that reflects your taste, along with the tastes of the audience you want to appeal to.

    If it’s a product or service that doesn’t use your personality as a selling point, then it’s best to focus on a design that will communicate with your audience. Does that make sense?

  25. [updated] @Sandra, I just tried it out myself — there’s an option to unsubscribe to the thread in every email, so you just click that link and you’re set.

  26. @Sandra Just below the comment form there is a link to manage your subscription to this posts, I think you may be able to stop receiving the comments there.

  27. Pamela,

    Of course, and yes, I agree with what you are saying. Just thought I would “add” a little different perspective as i am in the design business as well. Mostly video stuff, I think it is important for people to understand, there is never a cut and dry answer… You must test, re-test, and test again, constantly to get a design that resonates well and ultimately make the cash register ring.

    Take Google for instance, they tested their design probably more than any other website ever has. What you see now is a result of their testing, based on the conversions they wanted to accomplish.

  28. I think it’s more about feeding the starving crowd and building a loyal fan base. If you have people that love you and just cannot get enough of the stuff that you are selling, then design can take a much farther back seat.

    Of course the first impression is critical and it can’t look like a third grader made it, but WHAT you are saying is more important, as well as WHO you are saying it to.

    Some times you just have to get the information out there and let your customer feedback tell you if your design passes the test or not. There can be things that look totally amazing, but if you don’t have the buy-in from your customers, what is it all for?

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  29. Pamela,

    When was the last time someone walked into an office, pulled out a wallet and said “I had to give you my business because of that beautiful website…” You hit the ball out of the park on this one.

    Knowing your customer, the messages that persuade and establishing trust through content, social proof and validation is the key to a website that converts. Keep telling the truth.

  30. @Andrew, I agree that probably for those of us with smaller shops, we want the design to reflect us to some degree, because we’re selling that “us” as part of the product. But I also remember a geniuinely bat-guano crazy CEO I used to work for who would veto all kinds of effective marketing because he personally didn’t like it. When we did some in-depth psychographic research to see who bought our product vs. who passed on it, no one was surprised to see that the “non-buyer” was our CEO to a tee. (Some day I’m going to start a site about CEOs who suck, and give the millions of downtrodden employees a place to vent.)

    I’ve often seen that the design that works best for a sales page is one that the business owner dislikes. I think sometimes we need to learn to suck it up a little if something works better for our customer. But I wouldn’t want to absolutely hate my general site design either.

  31. Another thing design might cover up or mask is work flow systems, productivity and accountability. Design is HUGE but like you said Pamela, without knowing who we are trying to reach, how we will reach them and what happens step by step once we have been fortunate enough to have them visit our sites MUST all come before design.

    For those of us in web design, It is imperative that we take the time on the front end to extract these answers for our clients or it won’t matter how beautiful the site we build for them is, it won’t be functional, and the client will never be fully satisfied.

    Great article!

  32. Hey Pamela,

    I like how you said, “Check your ego at the door.”

    I’m glad you covered this. It just made me think about the basics. Sometimes you want to add stuff that you like and forgetting the most important element…Customers!

    Thank for sharing your expertise with us.

    Chat with you later…

  33. @johneaston

    Good point… but, for many (dare I say most) businesses with websites are engaged in some sort of e-commerce… so the website is their office, store, shop, etc… So design does have a lot to do with it. Aesthetics do mean something and do have an effect on whether and why someone buys.

  34. @sonia

    Hey, I know that guy! lol I think we have all had to deal with that before, I know I am constantly struggling with convincing people that we should look at what our customers point of views are when designing a new product, service etc… I used to have a business partner that always said, I wouldn’t buy that, or I wouldn’t respond to that. Of course, being the outspoken person I am, had no problem disagreeing with him, and put together focus groups to show him that he was the poster-boy for our non-customer!

    That site would be a great outlet, of course once bosses found out about it they would fire their entire work force… you would have to put in some profile masking capabilities or require everyone to have an alias.

    When it comes to sales pages… I am the guy you were talking about though. I know that certain types of sales pages work and convert very well but I absolutely hate the way they look, feel, etc… This is always my biggest challenge. Guess it’s the Third Triber in me that actually leans naturally toward the cool kid side of the fence when it comes to sales pages. Every time I talk about them I get anxiety! lol

  35. @Shane Author – Thanks for the laugh. Sometimes I feel that way.

    I have a few clients I need to send to this post.

  36. I was really struck when you wrote: “Good design may get customers in your door, but great content keeps them from walking right back out again.” When I am downtown, looking at actual physical shops, it is as if their window is the homepage. If something catches my eye, I will go in the store to investigate. But I can’t tell you how many times I have walked in and found the rest of the store poorly kempt, disorganized, filled with loud music, or otherwise lacking in a way that sent me packing right away. Often without even checking out the item I was originally interested in.

  37. Gabi, there’s a lot we can learn from window shopping that applies to site design. A lot … (Hmm… I feel another post topic developing. Thanks for the inspiration!)

  38. “Figure out who you want to reach first, and focus on design after you’ve made that decision.” What if you’re in a professional service business where just about anyone on the web over the age of 18 is a potential client. What’s the trick for reaching multiple audiences?

  39. There is nothing groundbreaking here. The industry has been telling clients this for ages. Before it was a pretty ad won’t solve your problem. Then a beautiful TV spot. Now, it’s a pretty website won’t.

    But don’t mistake “well-designed” with “pretty”. A site, an ad, brochure, etc. must be both. Well-designed is about functionality, purpose and look. Pretty is just pretty.

    I won’t be throwing any rotten tomatoes at you for what you said. Just won’t praise you for saying something most designers, art directors and copywriters have said for ages.

  40. Grant, I guess you also realize that the message hasn’t yet been heard and accepted. We’re not looking for praise from anonymous blog comments, we’re looking to continue to say what needs to be heard.

  41. Pamela – I am glad to have inspired you.

    An interesting idea in the shop window comparison. When I lived in Italy, I could be so entertained on my morning walk into town because the shop windows were always so eye catching. But one of the things that made them so interesting was that they changed often.

    I have seen several sites (I am currently referring primarily to food blogs, as that is my niche) that change their banner seasonally or once a month. And I have to say that, like the shop windows, this type of change shows me another side of the site and draws me in more because I feel like the more faces I get to see, the better I know the location, even if I haven’t delved very deep inside.

    I know sites can put a lot of work into the development of their banners, especially if they get a nice custom ai drawing. But what are your thoughts on changing banners quarterly or monthly?

  42. @Brian Clark

    Well said! People definitely need to hear this stuff, and it should be discussed often. It is obvious if you look at websites that many, many people must have missed this stuff. I think honestly they just don’t know any better… let’s face it, most small netrepreneurs don’t hire designers to do their pages, blogs, etc… and artistic skill, perhaps even copy skills are not their forte.

    Though this information may not be groundbreaking, it was presented in a way that is new, fresh, and obviously worth talking about.

  43. Thanks for telling it like it is Pamela. I love this part on so many levels, “…it’s my job to make miracles. To wave my magic design wand and make a business look stronger, smarter, and more powerful than it really is.”

    Writers, marketers, and sales people face this same dilemma. No amount of design, writing, marketing, and sales magic can compensate for a bad product or service. It’s like putting the world’s greatest homemade frosting on a crappy cake and expecting it to be delicious 🙂

  44. Gabi, I think rotating banners can work for some sites. I could see it working for a food site, and it would give you the opportunity to show a wider variety of dishes. It would be important to keep the basic identity (typeface used for the site name, navigation elements, etc.) the same so that there’s continuity. It would make the most sense if it was done with the seasons, as you suggest.

    Elizabeth, your situation sounds like a case where keeping the style pretty neutral would be the best approach. Without knowing your business it’s hard to say, of course, but there might be an opportunity to segment some of your communication to specific slices of your market, and your design approach could be modified to fit the intended audience for those items only.

  45. @Pamela – I did neglect to include editors on my list, didn’t I? Never wise to forget an editor 🙂 Reminds me of that, “It’s not wise to fool Mother Nature” commercial that used to be on TV. ==Insert lightning bolts here==

  46. Thank you, thank you, thank you! As an Art Director and designer I appreciate your insight and pray it catches on.

  47. As a designer for just over 2 years now, I’ve learned just as this post talks about – design won’t save the world.

    One of the most overlooked aspects of a website is navigation. A great and intuitive navigation will have a massive amount of positive effect on anyone using your website.

    Think of it for just a moment: what good is design if visitors can’t find what they’re looking for?

    Working for a successful eCommerce company has taught me many things about design which I admit I felt a little arrogant about.

    When I first arrived at my job I immediately raised hell about creating a new design. Yes, the current design does have certain UX problems but as I spent months tracking analytics, heatmaps and feedback we found our customers were right at home with the design because the navigation worked so well.

    As mentioned, a great design is a smart business choice but there are many different elements people look over because they’re caught up on the design.

  48. Yes!

    If anybody wants to know how important design is compared to content, look at Steve Pavlina’s website. No graphics, and blue trim on puke-green background. Been the same for years.

    But his content is spectacular, and that’s why he’s on top.

  49. I have found that it’s annoying to be “tricked” by headlines and fancy design only to find out the content is really cheap. You can tell the work went into “how to write headlines” and too many hours in Photoshop, with the thought of blogging-glory. But it turns out that content is really hard part, and should be the focus.

    Advice: go simple with the design. get your blog up. start writing with your audience in mind. Everything else are footnotes.

  50. It’s been hard to explain to friends and others that a blog design comes second compared to great contents. What is the point of having a great design when your content is boring as highlighted by Pamela.

    Every time someone wants to start a blog, they will ask me what is a suitable design for them. For them! Not the blog readers or the people they targeting! Can you see where the mistake lies?

  51. This message is so on the mark. It made a huge difference when I took a moment to stop and re-look at these basic questions of purpose, audience, and message.

  52. After redesigning two of my websites based on my target markets, return visitors and page view duration, nearly doubled on both sites in one week. Good info.

  53. Just today I was going into a multi-million company’s website to search for information. The design’s awesome and impressive….except that the loading time of the flash causes the entire website to run slow. When there’s a huge flux of visitors or when internet connection is slow, the navigation links doesn’t work till the entire flash is loaded.

    What’s the point of being so bombastic if a lot of potential clients with short attention span leave the site before they see what you got to offer?
    So yes, I totally agree that content definitely rank above design. Even with great content, investing time to improve website usability and navigation will almost guarantee lower bounce rate and more reader engagement.

  54. Hmm, since I don’t actually make money from designing my own website it makes more sense to me to just use a theme. I can get my message out 1,000 times faster that way.

  55. Fabulous title — Hooked me right in! Surprised to see this from a designer, but thanks for telling it like it is. These days content IS king and navigation is much more important than “pretty.” Those of us who came of age in the age of print have had to adjust. But it can be done! And your advice about web site as MARKETING tool is spot on.

  56. Excellent post, thanks. Your design and your copy are there to do one thing – help you sell. If they’re not doing that, make sure you change them (and quickly). That’s why Ogilvy was so successful – he focused on the selling.

  57. ‘Pretty design’ does not work miracles but excellent ‘Information design’ can be the key to securing the right reaction from your users/audience (along with brilliant content of course). I think getting the balance right is the hard part – spending time focusing on the target audience and your goals should IMHO lead naturally to developing a well-designed and aesthetically pleasing website with relevant content.

    I do therefore agree mostly with your post Pamela, since content is certainly key when it comes to presenting your potential customers with useful/intriguing/pleasing information, however, without the content being presented in an appealing way, the 1-second impression visitors who click through to your site won’t even get as far as the first line of text.

  58. We marketers know that google like clean design with strong contents, but when it comes to clients, client always look heavy graphics nice looking websites and we have to make them understand the concept behind balance in both design and website contents, You can see many web sites which are very less in graphics used by top blogger and google site speed factor is another added point while designing website to keep in your mind

  59. Nicola, I agree wholeheartedly. The main point I was making was this one:

    “When you implement both good design and solid, valuable content, you’ll double the power of either of these elements alone. Don’t rely on design alone to communicate your message.”

    Ideally, we get both elements right. Then we attract visitors (with good design and usability) and keep them there (with great, targeted content).

  60. I feel I should say, I absolutely love your website. Could tell me how I can subscribe with it. I invite you to see my post, I hope you will find interesting too.

  61. Your article is a great reminder of the basics-why do you want a website and who do you want to attract? It’s not enough to be a beautiful site.

  62. Funny thing just happened. I found out the favorite colors of my visitor demo and changed the colors accordingly.
    The very next day I had a sale!

    I never cared for the colors and listened to the wrong person. I love it now!

    Creative Gift Ideas

  63. You know what really gets me? The misuse of the word “myth.” For years I have thought of writing an article about this because somehow this great science, mythology, that traverses the boundaries between psychology, religion and history, came to be confused with the word “lie” or “misinformation.” There’s no better source for myths and mythology than Joseph Campbell. Sorry for the rant, but when you use the word “myth” to mean anything other than a metaphor for the transcendant, it’s quite problematic.

  64. Vic, I too am an eager student of Joseph Campbell, and you’re absolutely right about the way the meaning of the word myth has evolved over the years. Same with so many other words, alas.

    But problematic? Probably not.

  65. Hi guys,

    I don’t think that anyone should throw any tomatoes at you. Because you are telling people the truth. Eventhough I’m not into website designs. The only thing that draws me to a person website is are they meeting my needs.

    Kind regards,


  66. Personally I think that the thing that’s the most import one when it comes to web design is not its beauty, but rather the fact that it enables given goals to be achieved. There’s always a clear purpose for creating a website – the work should always start with this purpose in mind and end with it as well. The beauty of a design is somewhat a byproduct.

  67. ‘Design is not your message’, I agree with this sentence. Most people assume that good design brings a lot of visitors. The truth is, they are still looking for a good topic.

  68. Umh! This is so damn f***ing true! I am a webdesigner, and people expect me to give them a design that will make their business plan stronger. I can only give you what you have in design… nothing beyond that.

  69. another problem is people think that building the site is all design related, and you’re left with no content at the end of it all.

    i’m starting to think that all websites should start out with the client providing all the content, and you design the most bare looking structure to start. a functional skeleton full of great content. i think the site will be better in the end.

  70. I couldn’t agree with you more, it is strange as I just wrote a similar article covering the subject in a different perspective. Not quite as well delivered as your style though. Good job…it really feels sometimes as we get further away from the retro days of the World Wide Web we get further away from affective marketing and more into just cool frills and bells…

  71. Brad, the bells and whistles are so easy to deliver on the web, aren’t they? That makes it extra tempting to include every new technology on a website, to the detriment of clear communication.

  72. So true Pamela…I can not count the number of times I am 25% or more into a project and suddenly stop and say…what are you thinking?? … LoL…it is very refreshing to know there are so many others out there that share my thoughts….scary but refreshing 🙂

  73. A musician friend of mine once told me that musicians process music on both the left and right sides of the brain, whereas normally people just process it on the right.

    I think our clients come in with a very gestalt, right-brained way of seeing the project. They want it to make them “feel” good, and the very most immediate, visceral way they can represent this to themselves is through the immediate visual impressions of how a website design makes THEM, FEEL.

    I am seeing my job as more and more of a process of guiding them from this point, to the point where the project is laid out as a series of goals and objectives with clear and specific components, that all have to come together to create the desired effect.

    And of course, all of that requires tremendous more thought and consideration than they originally realized. But then again, it is the path to an actual success for them, whereas simply making something they consider to be pretty, would not be.

  74. Totally agree, simply creating a great design is not the key to making a success out of a blog or website. The important parts are content and even more importantly, marketing that content effectively.

  75. A picture is worth how many words ?

    Although i do appreciate good content that is well organized and directed towards an audience. Its been proven that design does add to the user experience which leads to credibility and trust and most times a purchase. Even great content written on a turd will get you .. well a turd in return. There is much to say about how great design is implemented around and with great content. this is what separates the men from the boys.

    My hypothesis for your emphasis – audience , writers and people interested in great content

    – content writers , marketing depts , and sales teams are oftentimes separated from the design teams ,

    – Your assumption that even letters themselves as written characters are not design in themselves .. which they are. Well crafted messages are characters displayed by sight and therefore are part of the design.

    Want to up your anti? Rally your content and marketing teams to cross communicate more effectively to produce content that is directly implemented into your design.

    currently in the process of redesigning the . its from the ground up and i look forward to making it great.

  76. More business owners need to read this post. I think they feel that getting a web re-design will be an easy save for their business and if it doesn’t work they have someone to blame!

  77. This is a wonderful post Pamela! You bring up a lot of great points that can be very useful.Good design may get customers in your door, but great content keeps them from walking right back out again.I agree with what you are saying. Just thought I would add a little different perspective as i am in the design business as well.

  78. Compelling, search engine optimized content is extremely important. Most disturbing is many web design companies refuse to stay up to date on SEO and don’t have a talented content creator on staff. But, when the playing field is even – when you have two websites showing up in search with lots of excellent, informative content – one looks, well, bland and the other entrances – studies show people take more interest in artistic design.

  79. It lends authority, Catherine, and I think that’s what people respond to. Good design builds trust, and it also makes content easier to read. That should keep people on your site longer.

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