The Best Web Sites Are Useful and Ugly

By Gerry McGovern: 
Functionality and usefulness are more important than how nice and elegant your site looks

The first time I saw the Grand Canyon was a truly memorable experience. The depth, distance and hazy rainbow of colors were like nothing I had ever seen before.

We spent a day driving along the Grand Canyon and then up into the equally magnificent scenery of Utah. But along with the otherworldly beauty what also struck me was the poverty that surrounded the Canyon.

For all its stunning beauty, The Grand Canyon would not be a great place to live. Certainly, you would have a hard life if you lived in the middle of the Canyon itself. And, given the steepness and inaccessibility it would be hard to imagine how a city the size of New York could develop there.

The things we think are the most beautiful are often the least useful in a practical and functional sense. Mount Everest is beautiful. Gold, jewelry and diamond rings are beautiful. Do certain things increase in beauty as they lose practical function?

There is no question that certain designs can be made both beautiful and functional. But for other design challenges, the more beautiful the design is made, the less functional and easy to use it becomes. This is particularly true for Web sites.

eBay, Amazon, Google, Craig’s List, MySpace and YouTube are ugly Web sites. They are also hugely successful.

Have you noticed that the Web has started to grey? There is a severe outbreak of grey text syndrome, particularly in blogs. Web design is falling into the trap of caring more about how a page looks than how it reads.

Few would dispute that it is harder to read text on a screen than in print. Most would agree that black text on a slightly off-white background is easiest to read. It could also be argued that font size for Web pages should be slightly larger than font sizes chosen for print.

So, why do an increasing number of Web sites today use small font sizes and grey text? The answer is simple: small fonts and grey text look better. They blend into the overall design of the page. They are more elegant and visually appealing.

The problem with larger font sizes and black text is that they stand out. They can dominate the page. This is exactly what makes them easier to read. Black text in a large font stands out from its background.

The fact is we don’t spend our time looking at Web sites. We spend our time reading and using them. There are three things a great Web design must be: useful, useful and useful.

Gerry McGovern is the founder and CEO of Customer Carewords and New Thinking e-mail newsletter. Contact Gerry at

Filed Under: Features

About the Author

Leave a Reply

If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a Gravatar.