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The Hard Truth About Web Design

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I’m going to give you the truth – as far as I’ve figured it out – about web design.

You may not like it. I don’t care.

You may not use the information I’m about to give you. That’s up to you.

You may disagree. You’re wrong.

I’ve been campaigning on the side of common sense within the “web design” community for well over a decade.

I’ve argued for usability against those arguing for “web design”. I’ve argued for SEO, for accessibility, for conversion, for copywriting, for profit…

The pattern is always the same. I argue for what works: as in, what can be shown to work. My “web design” opponents argue that how websites look matters most. They say in fact it does actually work, actually, although it’s impossible to prove, because it’s such a fuzzy right-brain world.

They’re wrong. Always. Let’s lay the big questions out on the table and get the facts straight.

What Is Web Design?

Here are my definitions.

  • Design is the creation of something new to solve a problem.
  • Web Design is the creation of website and web pages to solve a communication problem.

The first rule of Web Design is: Web Design is not the graphic design of web pages.

The second rule of Web Design is: Web Design is NOT the graphic design of web pages!

Graphic design is part of it, but if a web page doesn’t get traffic, it gets no conversions, and it fails. That means the design fails.

If a page gets traffic, looks cute, but doesn’t have any real measurable impact on the visitor, it fails. The design fails.

Does Aesthetic Appeal Matter?

Yes, but only a bit.

Sorry, design wankers. In the real world of marketing… you know, selling stuff, persuading people, generating real change that actually fucking MATTERS… aesthetics is a minor factor.

Sometimes, ugly websites work better. Fact.

Most of the time, people don’t actually notice or care how good a web page looks. Fact.

You know who cares about how pretty web pages are? Web design wankers! And we are not representative. (I say “we” because there’s a bit of web design wanker in me too. Of course there is. I’ll lust over a sexy-looking design along with the rest of the crowd.)

Evidence Of What Matters

I’ve spent the past few years running actual tests on actual websites, to find out what really works. Hundreds of tests.

I’ve changed imagery. I’ve changed graphic design. I’ve changed typography. I’ve changed words. I’ve changed calls to action. I’ve changed navigation…

And every time, I’ve measured which variants had the most positive or negative impact. Using real-world goals that actually MATTER.

We’re talking about converting browsers to buyers, tyre-kickers to tribe members, followers to fans.

You need to understand, I know that marketing is a science more than an art. We’re concerned with the truth of what works, not what we feel will work. And we can progress using scientific method:

  • What do we want to achieve?
  • How will we measure success?
  • What do we think will give a positive result?
  • Test it.
  • Analyse the results.
  • Review & repeat as necessary.

Recently, I analysed the results of 56 of my more recent split tests.

56 split tests


You don’t have to read the names of the tests. Just know that I’ve segmented them on whether the changes I had made were:

  • Style changes only
  • Content changes only
  • or Both style and content

The “Impact” score shows the greatest impact, whether positive or negative, of any variation.

Here’s what I saw when I grouped the results onto a graph.

conversion results graphed

  • The column “1” represents the impact of all the style-only tests.
  • Column “2” is content changes only.
  • Column “3” is the impact of tests where I made both content and style changes.

What these results show clearly is…

Style changes don’t make much difference!

  • The greatest positive impact I got from any style-only test was only +9%.
  • Content changes typically had between +10% and +40% impact.
  • My average impact from style-only changes is ZERO! (I’ve been a professional web designer for nearly 20 years.)

I’d also ask you to remember that graphic design is time-consuming and expensive. Instead of spending an hour in Photoshop and CSS, spend an hour coming up with a powerful headline and five compelling reasons why your proposition is great.

When Style Matters

In my experience, There is one scenario where changing style can have a significant difference. That’s when the graphic design is broken.

If your website is unusable or inaccessible, because of things like grey text on a grey background (seriously, it happens), or too much stuff happening on the page, fixing those graphic design issues can have a useful, measurable, positive impact.

Right now, you’re probably doing one of two things

You’re either acknowledging the vital importance of this truth in your own business, and realising this represents a significant opportunity.

Or you’re viewing it as a threat, and constructing your defence.

Does Originality Matter?

The “web design” crowd love talking about the importance of creativity.

Saying “We’re creatives” is like having a letter from your mum that means you don’t have to do gym. Guess what, it doesn’t change the reality.

What’s the reality? Does originality matter? Well, it depends on where you’re applying it.

Originality in graphic design is very risky, very expensive, and generally a bad idea. (Read my article from 2006 on why originality is bad for you.)

For a more light-hearted insight into the broken thinking behind so many websites, check out motherfuckingwebsite.com.

How To Be Original AND Powerful

If you want to be original, put that creative energy into what really matters:

  • Making the brand powerful, distinctive, something worth believing in, something people feel passionate about or be part of. (No, not the fucking logo!! Logos are just one small manifestation of a brand!)
  • Doing the same with the website’s propositions. Why should I take notice now? Why should I make a decision today? What’s going to compel me to take action?
  • Craft great copy that inspires, motivates, engages with my emotions.
  • Come up with amazing content that will burn round the web like wildfire, infecting people with passion.

I could go on all day, but let’s cut to the chase.

What’s The Bottom Line?

Web design is marketing. Marketing is business.

Everything we do can be measured. If you can’t measure it, you shouldn’t be doing it.

You have a choice.

You can acknowledge the truths that visual appeal and originality are expensive, and that they are as likely to fail as they are to succeed…

Or, you can commit to the path of practising what actually works. That will require training and education, and probably a radical change to the way you work.

The Acid Test

I guarantee my customers that I’ll double their investment within a few months. (If a project isn’t likely to be profitable, I’ll tell the prospect, and I won’t take them on as a customer, because unprofitable projects should not be done.)

Can your web designer say that?

If you’re a web designer, can you say that?

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