Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

It’s okay if you don’t get it

Thanks to Gavin, Huw, Tom, and Eric for sending me the article. It’s yet another humorless diatribe about web sites that quotes Jakob Nielsen too much and claims to know the answers to everything. Fray is mentioned in the section on “design”:

In the early days of the internet, designers paid almost no consideration to their audience.

What kind of crap is that? Did they talk to every last one? I’m one of those designers, and I worked in the heart of the web world in San Francisco in 1995, and I can tell you that the audience was always at the center of every decision we made. That’s not to say that all the decisions we made were right, of course.

“It was a case of ‘we can do it, so we will,'” said Nielsen.

Right. And by “we,” Nielsen means all those cutting edge web designers doing the real groundbreaking work while he was a UI tester at Sun, working on a dying OS. Why do people take this guy seriously? He thinks design is two columns of equal size with no visual cues to tell the user which is more important.

The next craze was to assume that the more information, the bigger the picture and the more multimedia were thrown at a site, the better. Wrong again. So designers employed visual metaphors — an airline desk to buy tickets, for example. Finally, they realized that legibility is all.

I can’t continue pointing out how stupidly offensive this cockeyed little version of web history is. How it overlooks the visionaries, the experimenters, the hundreds of thousands of people who contributed to what the web is today. The people who made things instead of just criticizing them.

Some experts have rigid rules about achieving this: Nielsen dislikes frames (dividing the screen into boxes), and if you look at the English Table Tennis Association site (, you can see why.

Okay. There are a million problems with the Table Tennis Association’s site, not the least of which is frames. But maybe their audience understands the site perfectly. That’s the problem with one size fits all rules – they ignore the very audience we’re supposed to be thinking about.

And here comes the Fray mention:

Catriona Campbell, founder and chairman of the Usability Company, believes that all sites should be designed with black text on a white background.

Doors would not go as far as either Nielsen or Campbell. White on black works fine at, while the cinematic design qualities of create an arresting visual ambience. Nielsen’s view that Adobe Acrobat files are “unpleasant to read and navigate online” is, however, spot-on. Someone please tell the Inland Revenue., poster child for the design exception. I can live with that.

People, the web is a big place now. And not every website needs to be understood by every person. Some sites exist purely for the joy of their creator. Some exist for a very specific audience. It’s myopic and arrogant to assume that every site out there needs to be understood, needs to make money, needs to be usable.

Maybe, if you don’t get it, it’s not the site’s problem.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I make awesome community-centric web stuff. I sometimes post things to Instagram. I’m mostly harmless. More.

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