Newsletter - main article April 2006

Wed Designers can't please everyone

When you get a web site built, someone's not going to like it. However hard you try, someone will take exception to at least one aspect of the site. Common grumbles will include:

  • "Why is there so much blank space on the right of my screen?" or "The lines of text are way too long"
  • "The font doesn't look very good on my monitor" or "the font size is too small/large for me"
  • "I don't like the colours used" or "There's too much white on the site"
  • "The design is too simple" or "I can't see very well and it's difficult to read the pages"

The fact is that designing web pages is all about compromises.

"Stretchy/fluid" pages vs fixed width   This debate has raged since the availability of more than one size of PC monitor. If a web page is to fill the whole width of the screen, on most if not all sizes of monitor, it needs to be made with a 'fluid' design. This allows it to stretch horizontally to fill the available screen space. This sounds a straightforward principle until you realise that many people (15-25%) still use small screens whilst others have new laptops with very wide screens. That means the designer catering for pages from 800 to 1600 pixels across (for definitions, please see my glossary).

This might be fine for some sorts of pages but it can mean very long lines of text for some - and these are harder to read. It can also result in pages becoming very stretched and looking a little silly. Getting a page to work well at both extremes isn't impossible but can be very tricky. It also doesn't suit all types of page and the different layouts or content.

The alternative is to design a page for the smallest (or most common) page size. The smallest page size, in common usage, is 800 pixels wide. The most common is 1024 pixels wide. Pages designed for the 1024 screens will cause people with 800 pixel screens to scroll horizontally - something most people don't like doing. Although a page design might be limited to 800 pixels wide there are tricks a designer can employ. Suffice it to say that despite keeping the content part of a page to 800 pixels, it's possible to include images and other design components either side of this that are only visible to people with larger screens. The page then appears with all it's main content filling the smaller screen but seems to float in the centre of larger screens with some or all of the surrounding design visible.

Designers make asses of people who wear glasses   At some time you'll have visited a site where the font is really small and you either struggle to read it or you have to go hunting for your reading specs. The designer has almost certainly decided that a small font size looks best within this design. If you're one of those that knows how to change the default sizing for fonts within your browser (View, Text Size in Internet Explorer, IE), you might still be in luck.

The chances are though that the designer has specified an exact font size, in points or pixels. IE can't help you although other browsers like Firefox still enable you to change the relative font sizes.

Which ever method of setting font sizes has been selected, the designer still makes a decision as to the default font size you'll see. This might suit you, or it might not. Whilst a normal font size (10-12 points) will be OK for most people, it'll undoubtedly be too large or too small for some.

Choosing a web site colour scheme   Ignoring the debate about whether black and white are colours (or a mixture and absence of colour respectively), the colours of a web site will often convey a message:

  • Corporate web sites are usually conservative and have a lot of white and blue.
  • Sites aimed at younger people will often have brighter, more vivid colour schemes.
  • Black backgrounds are often found on sites featuring music and the arts.
  • Pastel shades like lilac & pink crop up often on sites aimed at women

We all have colour preferences and certain expectations or associations with certain colours. If the colour of a given site doesn't match those expectations or is one you don't like, you're less likely to stay browsing it for long. Some of us like bright colour schemes whilst others prefer more subdued ones. Unfortunately/fortunately we all have different tastes in colour and every site will appeal to some and alienate others. What a Web Designer tries to do is to create a fresh, new design whilst trying to make it fit visitors expectations and likely tolerances. There's no magic formula and some of the best sites around are those that break the rules. The trouble is that not many designers are good enough to do this successfully!

Busy vs calm, complex vs simple    Compare the Google web site with the BBC's. They have a completely different look don't they? Google's is simple and couldn't be easier to use. The BBC's is very busy and it can take a while to find a particular story if you don't know the structure of the home page

Now, imagine you're visually (or physically) impaired and using a screen reader or a keyboard to navigate around the page. It's a doddle to get around Google and takes quite a while to get to a specific link on the BBC's site.

I don't think that the BBC's site is bad (quite the opposite), just harder to use for some people than some other sites. More and more accessibility is becoming an important factor in web sites. Legislation is currently in place that requires a certain level of accessibility for those with disabilities. Although an official (legal) definition of what is accessible doesn't exist and little notice is taken of most small business web sites, it shouldn't stop us making an effort to make them accessible. Unfortunately, from a design point of view, making a site accessible usually involves simplifying it and reducing it's visual impact.

As with all of the design decisions for a web site, compromise of some sort is involved. It's the job of the Web Designer to make the business owner aware of the issues and to talk him or her through the implications of some of their ideas, requirements and choices.

If thinking about the design or redesign of your web site gives you a headache and you'd like some relief, please call us on or e-mail us at

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