In this article I try to sum up the current state-of-the-art in graphic design for web pages (late 2006, but still highly relevant today), and identify the distinctive features that make a modern web page look fresh, appealing and easy to use.
The key feature of modern web design is simplicity.
To learn how to apply simple web design to your own sites, you need to read “Save the Pixel – The Art of Simple Web Design”, which takes you through a full set of simple design tools, illustrated with 22 before & after redesigns.
I’m glad to say that web design is better today than ever – and it’s continuing to improve. That’s not just because there are more web sites out there, so more good stuff to look at. There’s still an awful lot of crud too. I just think that more web designers know more about how to design than ever before.
The examples below (which I’ll roll over time) show excellent modern graphic design technique. They all look good, and are clear and easy to use.
I’m not saying these are the very best sites out there, just that they’re typical of today’s best design.
The great sites above share the following design features:
- Simple layout
- Centered orientation
- Design the content, not the page
- 3D effects, used sparingly
- Soft, neutral background colours
- Strong colour, used sparingly
- Cute icons, used sparingly
- Plenty of whitespace
- Nice big text
Let’s look at these features one by one.
It feels like we’re seeing more simple 1- and 2-column designs than in previous years.
The overall feel you get is that designers generally agree that simple pages work better.
These pages read in a straightforward way from top to bottom, and you don’t find your eye skipping around trying to work out what to look at. It’s a much calmer and more solid browsing experience than in times gone by.
The other thing you notice about all the hot picks above is that they’re all laid out around a central axis.
Whereas a couple of years ago, you’d find a lot of liquid layouts and left-aligned fixed-width layouts, today content goes in the centre of the screen.
Left-oriented layouts are much less common than they used to be.
Also, liquid (full-width) layouts are less popular.
The wisdom has always been that we should try to get as much information “above the fold” (i.e. visible on the screen without scrolling). Liquid layouts achieves this.
However, today we seem to be more comfortable with scrolling, and we’re willing to put up with scrolling for the benefits of increased white space and line height.
Design the content, not the page
Good modern web designs put less energy into designing the page background – the canvas and permanent page features – and rather focus on designing the content itself.
This is one of the central themes of Save the Pixel, my ebook on the art of simple web design.
We see the effects in:
- Freer, less boxed-in page layouts
- Softer, simpler, receding page “furniture”
- Strong colour and 3D effects used to draw attention to the content itself, including the main branding
- The focus is on making the site’s subject look good, rather than making the web designer look good (which is better for the designer in the long-term!)
To take away…
What designers should learn from this trend is that it’s not enough to design a blank page, to be stuffed with content later. As I’ve written elsewhere, content is our problem. As designers, we’re communicators (not decorators) and site content carries the majority of our message.
I like center-aligning, and have been tending to use it on my designs for a while.
When the content sits in the centre of the screen, it feels up-front and confident.
It also gives a sense of simplicity and balance, which reflects the move towards clean, more Zen, design.
The most common centered designs are either fixed-width (i.e. master width in pixels or percent) or sometimes zoom-width (i.e. master width in ems, e.g. Forecast Advisor). The benefit of restricting the width of the content (particularly with zoom-width, which resizes as the font size changes) is that the line-length is prevented from getting too long on larger screens. (Very long lines of text are less efficient.)
However it’s also possible to have a liquid layout with a center-orientation, as the Alternative Energy Store site shows.
On this site, just centering the logo brings the friendly, forward-facing feel of the centered site, while getting a lot of content visible on the screen.
3D effects, used sparingly
Every single one of the hotties uses gradients subtly, either to give bars a slight roundedness, to create a soft feeling of space in the background, or to make an icon stand out with embossing and subtle drop-shadows.
Reflections & fades are very prevalent. Drop-shadows are still used, but with care.
Trademark round flashes are everywhere.
Soft, neutral background colours
All the hotties have a plain background, the most popular being white and greyscale fades. These give a cool, neutral, soft base against which you can flash strong colour to draw the eye.
Strong colour, used sparingly
A soft, stylish background is the perfect base for adding eye-catching features. Strong colours and tonal constrast are great for drawing the eye to the more important elements on the page.
Iomega uses more strong colour than the others, with its intense dark red promotion area. However this doesn’t drown the rest of the page, because the colour is consistent and simple in shape.
Cute icons, used sparingly
There’s a theme here: Don’t use too many attractive elements on the same page view (i.e. that appeals to the eye and draws the user’s attention).
As with strong colour and 3D effects, appealing icons and buttons can add that bit of polish to help give a page a high-quality feel. But used too much, they’ll have the counter effect, cluttering the page and confusing the user.
Plenty of whitespace
Today’s web designs are so fresh, they feel like they’ve taken a deep breath.
Sometimes I imagine taking a page design that’s too crowded and sticking it on a balloon, then blowing air in until everything on the page pulls apart to leave healthy gaps.
Your eye needs space (guttering in typo language) round stuff to help you clearly and cleanly identify things.
In general, the more white space the better. It’s very rare that I look at a page and think: “Gosh, they really need to cram that page up a bit!”
Of course, “white” space doesn’t have to be white. But it does have to be space!
It’s great to see so many designs using good-sized margins to space elements apart, and extra line-height to aid on-screen reading.
Look at all this lovely refreshing white space!
Nice big text
I’m not saying that all the text on your web site should be supersize. In fact, in some scenarios, small text is fine (we tend to take in more when text is a bit smaller).
What these good designs show is:
Make the most important text on the
page bigger than normal text
Like the other design techniques we’ve seen, it works when used in moderation. If all your text is big, then none of your text is big.
Use bigger text to help your visitors see quickly what the page is about, what’s most important, and figure out where they want to look next to find what they want.
Below are links to other collections of sites that may be beautiful, highly compliant, effective, or all three together! Make up your own mind.
- Jonathan Nicol picks up the theme… Read this next
- Design Melt Down – wonderful insight into all kinds of aspects of web design, with a focus on “2.0” style.
- CSS Beauty gallery – A lovely and easy-to-use collection of quality links
- CSS Thesis – Great collection of thumbnails
- Stylegala – Community for discussing web style, well-filtered and intelligent comment
- Andy Budd’s list of “Well designed CSS sites” – Over 400 of them! Fill the kettle..
- CSS Blast (Russian)
- CSS Drive – Categorised links
- chobi.net (Japanese) – Good fresh inspiration