In this tutorial, I describe various common graphic design elements in modern web “2.0” design style.
I then attempt to explain why they work (i.e. why they have become common), as well as how, when and where you might use each element in your designs.
It follows on from my Current Style article, and analyses in greater depth the design features of the current “Web 2.0” design style.
To learn how to design Web2.0 sites yourself, you must read “Save the Pixel – The Art of Simple Web Design”, which is a comprehensive guidebook to the principles and techniques of Web2.0 design.
Summary of Best Web Design Features
The list below is a summary of many of the common features of typical “Web 2.0” sites.
Clearly, a site doesn’t need to exhibit all these features to work well, and displaying these features doesn’t make a design “2.0” – or good!
I’ve already addressed some of these factors in my introductory Current Style article. Also note my article on Real Web2.0 Design, which explains that the essence of Web2.0 design isn’t surface graphical effects but the discipline of simplicity.
Best Website Design? Disclaimer
Not all these design features are appropriate in all cases. There are always exceptions, and there are lots of bad examples of these features being used wrongly, over-used, or done without sensitivity to the “symphony” of a site’s design.
You can’t just take all these elements, throw them together and make a good web page, any more than you can take some eggs, sugar, flour and throw them together and get a cake.
Making a web page that works requires a lot of sensitivity to the various forces at work. A good design solution is one that balances those (often opposing) forces.
Web 2.0 ?!
I’m using the term “Web 2.0 design” to describe the prevailing style of the best web design I introduced in my current style article.
Many people use the term “Web 2.0” to describe:
- a resurgence in the web economy
- a new level of technological interactivity between web sites and services
- or social phenomena deriving from new types of online communities and social networks
Many others also use the term in reference to a recent school of best-practice web design. I’m comfortable with using it in that context here.
In sociological terms, movements impact people on many levels: economic, cultural, political, etc. Is skate-punk about entertainment and sport, music and the music industry, fashion, or the breakdown of society?
Best Web Design Features
I’m going to take you through the features of the current wave of the best website designs, dissect the most significant features, explain why each one can be good, and show you how to use them in your own sites.
If I had to sum up “Web 2.0” design in one word, it would have to be “simplicity”, so that’s where we’ll start.
I’m a great believer in simplicity. I think it’s the way forward for web design.
Today’s simple, bold, elegant page designs deliver more with less:
- They enable designers to shoot straight for the site’s goals, by guiding the site visitor’s eye through the use of fewer, well-chosen visual elements.
- They use fewer words but say more, and carefully selected imagery to create the desired feel.
- They reject the idea that we can’t guess what people want from our sites
“Use as few features as are necessary to achieve what you need to achieve”
Web design is simpler than ever, and that’s a good thing.
2.0 design means focused, clean and simple.
That doesn’t necessarily mean minimalist, as I’ll explain later.
I really believe in simplicity. That’s not to say that all websites should be minimal, but that we should use as few features as are necessary to achieve what you need to achieve.
I’ve written elsewhere about Occam’s Razor, which is a principle I use all the time. One way of interpreting it is: Given any two possible solutions to a problem, the simpler one is better.
Here are some examples. Note how unnecessary elements have been stripped out from each. There could be a lot more on each page than there is… but would that make them stronger?
The result is that you have to look at the content. You find yourself interacting with exactly the screen features the designer intended. And you don’t mind – it’s easy, and you get just what you came for.
Here’s a great case in point. Atlas Software help businesses with cloud software solutions. Their website tells you exactly what you need to know, with very little decoration or unnecessary visual information. The content comes through.
More examples of simple design
Why simplicity is best
- Web sites have goals and all web pages have purposes.
- Users’ attention is a finite resource.
- It’s the designer’s job to help users to find what they want (or to notice what the site wants them to notice)
- Stuff on the screen attracts the eye. The more stuff there is, the more different things there are to notice, and the less likely a user is to notice the important stuff.
- So we need to enable certain communication, and we also need to minimise noise. That means we need to find a solution that’s does its stuff with as little as possible. That’s economy, or simplicity.
When & how to make your designs simple
There are two important aspects to achieving success with simplicity:
- Remove unnecessary components, without sacrificing effectiveness.
- Try out alternative solutions that achieve the same result more simply.
“It seems that perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
Antoine de Saint-ExupÃ©ry,
Terre des hommes, 1939
Whenever you’re designing, take it as a discipline consciously to remove all unnecessary visual elements.
Concentrate particularly on areas of the layout that are less relevant to the purpose of a page, because visual activity in these areas will distract attention from the key content and navigation.
Use visual detail – whether lines, words, shapes, colour – to communicate the relevant information, not just to decorate.
Here’s an example of a design that suffers from not enough simplicity.
Yaxay’s interface uses a lot of pixels, but the vast majority of them are decorative, part of the page background. Relatively few pixels are used to user to find or understand information or interact with the site.
See how much “stuff” there is to look at, and notice how few of the pixels are used to clarify actual navigation, actual content, or actual interactive features.
Edward Tufte is the boss when it comes to the design of information. He uses the terms “data ink” (i.e. detail that enables information transfer) and “non-data ink” (i.e. detail that’s just detail) to describe this phenomenon.
One way Tufte specifically measures the effectiveness of information design (graphs, charts, presentations etc.) is using the ratio of data-ink to non-data-ink. The higher the proportion of data-ink used, the more likely it is that a design is effective.
Taking the Yaxay detail above, there’s a lot of what I call “busyness”, i.e. a lot of edges, tonal changes, colour variations, shapes, lines… a lot of stuff to look at. But, in this detail, the only useful features are:
- The site logo, and
- the label on the nav button (which reads “art gallery”)
All the rest of the “busyness”: the shapes in the background, the diagonal lines in the interface panel, the grid, the gradients… all this is noise, it’s all “non-data ink”, because it’s not enabling communication.
I’m not against richness, complexity or beauty in web design
Use as many pixels as you need, in whatever way you need, to facilitate the communication that needs to happen.
Of course, often what you’re communicating isn’t hard data, but soft information.
- Hard data
- means facts, like news, stock prices, train times, or how much money is in your bank account…
- Soft information
- covers the qualitative aspects of communication, like the first impression about the quality of a company, the sense of how approachable a service provider is, and whether you feel a product will be right for you. It can be just as important!
Whether what you’re communicating is hard or soft, your pixels count, so use them consciously and with care.
Take the example below:
Alex Dukal’s site is rich, interesting and appealing. It uses a range of visual techniques to draw your attention, make you interested and to give you a warm feeling about the quality of Alex’s work.
But it’s also simple, because it uses its pixels/ink/busyness with care and sensitivity. It’s not gratuitous, it’s economical and rich. That’s why it’s in my personal list of best website designs.
Whatever you’re saying, choose wisely where you use your ink/pixels. Use it to communicate, first and foremost. Then, ask whether you can communicate just as effectively with less. If so, do it.
2. Central layout
(More about this on the Current Style page). Basically, the vast majority of sites these days are positioned centrally within the browser window. Relatively few are full-screen (liquid) or left-aligned / fixed-size, compared to a few years ago.
Why a central layout is good
This “2.0” style is simple, bold and honest. Sites that sit straight front & center feel more simple, bold and honest.
Also, because we’re being more economical with our pixels (and content), we’re not as pressurised to cram as much information as possible above the waterline/fold.
We’re using less to say more, so we can be a bit more free and easy with the amount of space used, and pad out our content with lots of lovely white space.
When & how to use a central layout
I’d say, position your site centrally unless there’s a really good reason not to.
You may be wanting to get more creative with the space, or get as much information on-screen as possible (for example with a web app).
Example, QVision Lasik
My design for this Lasik vision correction surgeon in Arizona has a light grey page background, which doesn’t draw the eye, so focus turns to the stronger colours, tones, and shapes in the content itself.
3. Fewer columns
A few years ago, 3-column sites were the norm, and 4-column sites weren’t uncommon. Today, 2 is more common, and 3 is the mainstream maximum.
Why using fewer columns is good
Less is more. Fewer columns feels simpler, bolder, and more honest. We’re communicating less information more clearly.
There’s also a by-product of the domination of centered layouts. Because we’re not filling the whole screen so much, and not trying to get as much on-screen at any one time, we simply don’t need as many columns of information.
37Signals have always been at the front when it comes to questioning the status quo and coming up with simple answers.
Here, they use 2 columns. This a great case study in simplicity. It lets the message speak, and adds nothing that could get in the way.
Apple is the other leader in elegant simplicity.
This kind of layout works really, really well. Each time I experience Apple’s simple design, the more convinced I become that its zen approach is the holy grail of design.
This typical Apple layout shows that someone has honestly asked, “How many boxes/columns/lines do we really need?”. Then they’ve boldly edited out unnecessary elements, and the result is undeniably the cleanest, most effective communication.
How to choose your columns
I’d definitely recommend using no more than 3 columns, simply because you should use no more of anything than you need to.
There are always exceptions, so here are a few examples of more than 3 columns used effectively.
Derek Powazek’s blog site uses 3 columns for the main section of his blog, but 4 lower down.
The lower section is a kind of pick & mix, where the abundance of columns emphasises the “Take what you like” feel.
Amazon (UK) has two side columns, and products arranged centrally in 3 additional columns.
It works beacuse the purpose of each column is clear from its design. The left col is definitely navigation; the right column is “other stuff”. The products in the middle are clearly tiled and separated by white space, so they don’t overwhelm.
Further down, it shows thumbnails of popular images on the photo-sharing site Flickr (and there are Youtube vids later). These are tiled in several columns, which is fine, because it’s a sit-back, scan and pick your experience moment…
And here’s a site that gets it wrong…
Here’s All Things Web2.0 using 4 columns: 2 side columns and 2 central columns.
The downside of this layout is that you don’t know where to start looking. Everything is somehow low-priority (partly because of the darkish background).
As we saw, Amazon differentiates the page to this extent, but the design helps you instantly identify what each area of screen real-estate is for, so it’s not confusing.
4. Separate top sections
This means making the top of the screen (the main branding & nav area) distinct from the rest (the main content).
Of course, there’s nothing new about this approach. It’s a good idea, and has been used for ever. But it’s being used more than ever now, and the distinction is often stronger.
See how clear the “page-tops” are in these 6 samples, even at small scale:
Why distinct top sections are good
The top section says “Here’s the top of the page”. Sounds obvious, but it feels good to know clearly where the page starts.
It also starts the site/page experience with a strong, bold statement. This is very “2.0”-spirited. I like strong, simple, bold attitude. Definitely best web design practice.
2 of these top-sections contain just branding (Protolize, Mediconmedia), 1 has just navigation (Cross Connector), and the remaining 3 have both.
The weakness of Cross Connector, in my view, is that the logo comes after the nav. I prefer the nav to be high-up, and clear (like e.g. Simple Bits).
When & how to use a distinct top section
On any site, both the main branding and main navigation should be obvious, bold and clear. So it’s a good idea to create a clear space at the top of a web site design that positions the logo and nav boldly.
Always put your logo right up the top of the screen. I’d always recommend putting your main navigation right after it. It’s definitely a good thing to mark the top of the page with a section that marks out the high-level screen features as separate from the main site content.
The top section should be visually distinct from the rest of the page content. The strongest way to differentiate is to use a bold, solid block of different colour or tone, but there are alternatives.
Here are 2 examples where the top section is separated with a solid line, rather than being solid colour itself.
And here, the top section contents simply sit boldly outside the main column area.
5. Solid areas of screen real-estate
Leading on from the clearly differentiated top area, you’ll notice that lots of sites define the various areas of real-estate boldly and clearly.
Real estate comes in various forms, including:
- Background / canvas
- Main content area
- Other stuff
- Callouts / cross-links
It’s possible to design a web page so that these areas are immediately distinct from their neighbours.
The strongest way to do this is using colour.
But white space can be just as effective.
The risk with strong colour is that it draws the eye, so it can take attention away from other relevant screen elements. I think that placing clean content on white space creates an easier experience, helping the viewer to feel more relaxed and free to browse.
6. Simple nav
Permanent navigation – your global site nav that appears on every page as part of the page template – needs to be clearly identifiable as navigation, and should be easy to interpret, target and select.
- 2.0 design makes global navigation large, bold, clean and obvious.
- Inline hyperlinks (links within text) are typically clearly differentiated from normal text.
Why simple navigation is better
Users need to be able to identify navigation, which tells them various important information:
- Where they are (in the scheme of things)
- Where else they can go from here
- And what options they have for doing stuff
Following the principle of simplicity, and general reduction of noise, the best ways to clarify navigation are:
- Positioning permanent navigation links apart from content
- Differentiating navigation using colour, tone and shape
- Making navigation items large and bold
- Using clear text to make the purpose of each link unambiguous
How to keep your nav simple
Simply remember the key: navigation should be clearly distinguishable from non-navigation.
Just follow the best design practice guidelines above, regarding differentiation through position, colour and clarity.
Inline hyperlinks should also stand out sufficiently from the text around them.
Check out these snippets. In each case, you’re in no doubt what’s a link. (Personally, I prefer using blue text (non-underlined) which turns to underlined red on hover…)
7. Bold logos
A clear, bold, strong brand – incorporating attitude, tone of voice, and first impression – is helped by a bold logo.
Here are some (100% scale). Notice that logos are tending to be quite large, in line with the general 2.0 principles.
Strong, bold logos say “This is who we are.” in a way that we can believe.
When & how?
It’s very hard to say how to create a good logo, but in brief…
Your logo should:
- work visually in its main context, and any other uses in which it may be used (like flyers or t-shirts?)
- be recognisable and distinctive
- represent your brand‘s personality and qualities on first viewing
8. Bigger text
Lots of the best designed “2.0” web sites have big text, compared to older-style sites.
If you fill the same amount of space with less “stuff”, you have more room.
When you’ve made more room, you can choose to make more important elements bigger than less important elements (if they’re still there).
Making things bigger makes them more noticeable than lesser elements. This effect has been used throughout the history of print design, on headings, title pages and headlines.
Not only does big text stand out, but it’s also more accessible to more people. That’s not just people with visual impairments, but also people looking on LCD screens in sunlight, on their phones, people sitting a little further from the screen, and people just skimming the page. If you think about it, that could be quite a lot of people!
When & how to use big text
Big text makes most pages more usable for more people, so it’s a good thing.
Of course, size is relative. You can’t take a normal, busy site, make ALL the text bigger, and make it more usable. That might not work, that might be worse.
For best results, in order to use big text, you have to make room by simplifying and removing unnecessary elements.
You also need to haave a reason to make some text bigger than other text. And the text must be meaningful and useful. There’s no point adding some big text just because it’s oh-so 2.0!
If you need to have a lot of information on a page, and it’s all relatively equal in importance, then maybe you can keep it all small.
9. Bold text introductions
Leading on from the big text theme, many sites lead with strong all-text headline descriptions.
These normally set out the site’s USP, elevator pitch or main message.
They tend to be graphical, rather than regular text. The reason for this is that designers want a lot of control over the page’s visual impact, especially early on in a browsing experience.
When & how to use a bold text intro
Only use one if you’ve got something bold to say. v (If you haven’t got something bold to say, maybe it’s worth having a think about the purpose of your page/site and coming up with somethign worth saying boldly!)
If you have a simple message that you want to be seen first, go ahead and headline it. Make it clear by putting it against a relatively plain background.
10. Strong colours
Bright, strong colours draw the eye. Use them to divide the page into clear sections, and to highlight important elements.
When you have a best-practice simple, stripped-out design, you can use a bit of intense colour to help differentiate areas of real-estate and to draw attention to items you want the visitor to notice.
The Treo Mobile site uses 3 areas of strong colour to mark out and advertise 3 main areas of the site.
The background colour makes it clear that this isn’t main content, and large, bold title text helps you see quickly what’s in each one, so you can decide whether it interests you.
Colorschemer sections the page with bands of intense, bright, cheerful colour, set against a more neutral background.
Apple’s design has always used a great balanced combination of tone (darks), rich effects and colour to draw the eye.
It may be, overall, the best website design there is, in my opinion.
In this image, the intense dark areas and strong colour are used sparingly to pick out important content.
Colour is also a great medium for communicating brand values
Here, the colour isn’t bright, but it is strong, partly because of the amount of green used.
This design uses green to communicate the values of “quality” and “health”.
Note: site design doesn’t match this image!
This site sells outdoor clothes exclusively for females, and the soft colours reinforce the chosen brand personality.
Be careful to use intense colour on or around high-value features
A nice, effective page design is compromised by the use of large areas of intense colour outside the main page area.
The result is that the eye is drawn away from the real content.
The Aurum Newtech site risks the same effect, but the colour is just pale enough to keep the content noticeable.
Also, the big, bold and well-spaced content elements help draw attention away from the “attractive” background.
Remember to use sparingly
If you’re using strong colours to attract the eye, it only works if there’s lots of area that isn’t strongly coloured.
If everything is trying to attract the eye, then the eye just gets confused, and the site will feel confusing and chaotic.
11. Rich surfaces
Most 2.0-style sites use subtle 3D effects, sparingly, to enhance the qualitative feel of the design.
We all know that these little touches just feel nice, but we may not know why.
Realistic surface effects (like drop-shadows, gradients and reflections) help make a visual interface feel more real, solid and “finished”.
They may also remind us of certain tactile or aesthetic qualities of real-world objects, such as water droplets, shiny plastic buttons, and marble floors. Making stuff look solid and real can make it look “touchable”, which is likely to appeal.
When & how to use rich surfaces
The golden rule here is to use with care, and not to overdo it.
As I explain in the tutorial on 3D Effects, these effects should not be applied to everything.
It can also be important to maintain a consistent light-source. Although this can get more complex with the illusion of back-lit diffusion in buttons etc., you still know whether an overall design feels consistent.
3D effects can also make elements seem to stand out from the page, but only if the rest of the page is relatively flat.
Avoid trying to make your entire design 3D-realistic because:
- It’s more work
- It will increase the overall size of the page assets
- And you don’t need to. 3D effects use lots of different pixels, and different pixels should be used deliberately to draw the visitor’s attention to key content elements, or to enhance “soft” informational aspects. A little goes a long way.
Sometimes it seems the best Web 2.0 design has more gradients than the Alps! (although this trend is diminishing over time).
Why Gradients are so Useful in Best Web Design
Gradients soften areas that would otherwise be flat colour/tone.
They can create the illusion of a non-flat surface, used to good effect on Alex Dukal’s portfolio.
In page backgrounds, they may also create an illusion of distance.
A common gradient combo is blue-to-white, which evokes the effect of aerial perspective, creating the sense that the background fades away towards the horizon.
They are commonly used at the very top of page backgrounds, where they help denote the boundary of the viewable area.
They’re also an integral part of drop-shadows, and the inner-glows and specular highlights you see on glass- or plastic-style buttons.
Note that gradients usually work best when juxtaposed with areas of flat colour or tone.
On the Curve2 homepage, the gradients are more effective because each one is positioned adjacent to a flat white or grey section.
It’s common to find gradients enhancing the base colour (using mix effects like color-burn or overlay in Photoshop), which create subtly different hues.
Here, the highlighted green colour is warmer and friendlier than the darker base colour. The overall effect is both softer and richer.
The illusion of reflection is one of the most common applications on gradients.
These commonly come in 2 kinds:
- Highlights caused by light reflecting on shiny surfaces
- That shiny table effect!
Realistic effects of water droplets, glass beads, shiny plastic buttons etc. have been very popular over the past couple of years.
I don’t know where the trends started, but Apple’s web site must have been one of the most influential, preceding their Aqua interface look & feel.
Here are some examples:
The classic Apple.com shiny plastic tabs, still in use today.
These use highlights caused by a light source above the tabs, combined with an inner, diffuse glow that creates the plastic effect.
These tabs, from one of my recent redesigns, have a polished (from the strong white highlight) carbon-fibre appearance. The carbon effect comes from the warm diagonal-stroke pattern from the icon’s glow.
More nice shiny plastic. Notice how the reflections fall off at the edge of the shape, which create the illusion of rounded edges.
Similar effect on a square shape looks like a badge.
The non-horizontal angle creates a sense of dynamism.
This shiny button from cafepress.com uses a rounded reflection that suggests a wide light source coming off a rounded surface.
This button from web hosts Mediatemple has a more diffuse reflection, suggesting a matt glass finish.
That shiny table effect!
One of the best website design features, pioneered by Apple again (I’m sure). This is a really nice effect which is so prevalent now, it’s in danger of being overused, now starting to look tired and is falling out of favour with designers.
Remember, of course, that web designers are usually more sensitive to these things, so even if we’re getting turned off by it, the general public may still think it’s cool for some time to come.
Fading out to either side (my one this, not published yet)
14. Cute icons
Icons play an important role in Web 2.0 design. Today we use fewer, better icons that carry more meaning.
Icons can be useful when they’re easily recognisable and carry a clear meaning. In lots of other cases, a simple word is more effective.
In the old days, icons were sometimes overused. It seemed that everyone wanted an icon for every navigation link or tab. Now, we use clear text more extensively, and are less ready to litter a page with icons.
Where 2.0 designers do employ icons, they are reserved for higher-value spots, where .
Simpler, more spacious designs demand less attention and allow for a richer icons.
Some examples, demonstrating various attributes.
Simple and clean
Cute and quirky
Do not necessarily have to feature tiny hills!
Creatively inspired by Mac OSX. See Enhanced Labs for a great showcase.
15. Star flashes
These are the star-shaped labels that you see stuck on web pages, alerting you to something important.
They work by evoking price stickers in low-cost stores. For this reason, they suit the start-up ethic of many 2.0 sites, but for the same reason may cheapen other sites.
They can really work well, but of course should only be used to draw attention to something important.
I’d recommend only using one on a page (at most!).
Another style that’s seeming over-used, and will probably run its course over the next year.
- Real Web2.0 Design & Branding: Explains that Web 2.0 design is not the same as star flashes and shiny table effects – it’s about simple, bold, honest brand experiences.
- 9 Essential principles for good web design, by Collis
- To find out how to do it in Photoshop, go here and scroll halfway down (from photoshoplab.com)