Nordicom Review 28 (2007) 1, pp. 63-76
The Role of Aesthetics in Web Design
Web sites are rapidly becoming the preferred media choice for information search, company
presentation, shopping, entertainment, education, and social contacts. At the same
time we live in a period where visual symbols play an increasingly important role in our
daily lives. The aim of this article is to present and discuss the four main areas in which
aesthetics play an important role in the design of successful Web sites: aesthetics play an
important role in supporting the content and the functionality, in appealing to the taste of
the target audience, in creating the desired image for the sender, and in addressing the
requirements of the Web site genre.
Key Words: web design, visual communication, aesthetics, functionality, taste, image,
The term aesthetics in the context of this article covers visual, sound and interactive
means of effect. However, the article focuses primarily on the visual means of effect in
terms of colours, typography, design, pictures, video clips, flash animations, etc.
Visual communication is a reality as soon as a word is typed, a colour chosen, or a
text displayed on the screen, and any visual expression, whether it is intentional or not,
communicates something to the visitor of the site. The Web designer can never bypass
the effects of graphic design elements. These are given on every Web site. If we choose
a vibrant, warm red colour for the menu, we communicate something different than if
we had chosen a calm, cool blue colour. If we have a specially designed typography
made for our headlines we leave a more personal impression on our Website than if we
choose the most common typography such as, for example, Verdana. However, complex,
multimedia installations, impressive pictures, and video clips are, at least in principle,
optional extras, since they are not given factors that must be dealt with in any Web design.
We are forced to work with the visual elements of text and colour, but we can
bypass aesthetic effects in the form of stimulating multimedia Flash installations and
The only thing we cannot avoid is that there is always visual communication on a
Web site, whether the use of visual effects is deliberate or not. We need to know about
graphic effects and visual symbols, so that our communication can be intentional.1
visual effects play an important role in the communication of content, in addition to
creating more or less aesthetic experiences.
The term functionality in this context covers the user friendly aspects of interfaces and
Human Computer Interaction (HCI), where the main objective is to create effective
websites where the user quickly and efficiently can obtain the desired pieces of information
without being delayed by long downloading times or blind alleys when navigating
on the site. Jakob Nielsen has played an important role worldwide in giving directives
for the design of hyper-functional Web sites in, for example, Usability Engineering
from 1993 and Designing web usability from 1999. Nielsen's definition of user
friendly Web design embraces five central components: learnability, efficiency,
memorability, errors and satisfaction. The usability expert, Rolf Molich operates with
an additional component within user friendly Web design which is the aspect of
understandability. These components are all important in considering the quality of the
Web site in terms of functionality.
Figure 1. www.useit.com
The large amount of visually and graphically ill-considered, rash Web sites illustrates
that there are still some Web designers who operate according to a narrow conception
of 'functionality' and completely neglect the value of the visual communication in supporting
the functionality. The Web site of Web guru Jakob Nielsen, www.useit.com, is
an example of a site that downplays the use of graphic effects. This is confirmed by
Nielsen himself in the entry 'Why this site has almost no graphics.' He explains that
he did not want to waste money on an artist and chose instead to do the graphic design
himself. The problem with Nielsen's Web site is that even though Nielsen feels that his
site has almost no graphic effects, he can not bypass the fact that the few graphics on
the site do communicate something; but the visual communication at www.useit.com has
not been carefully considered. The garish yellow banner at the top of the home page will
for many people clash against the pastel yellow and blue colours used elsewhere on the
page and call attention to that which according to Nielsen should be 'invisible' to the
In this case, the casual handling of visual effects indicates a sloppy and unprofessional
sender, which is not an accurate image of Nielsen and probably has not been his
intention with the Web site. However, another page on the Web site, 'About Jakob
Nielsen', which contains a biography and pictures of Jakob Nielsen, is created with
harmony and balance between the colours and their placement. There is open space and
a consistent use of blue colours. This page gives an impression of a sender who is organized
and has a sense of quality, which probably is more aligned with how Nielsen
wants to appear through his Web site.
The graphic effects, in other words, are an inevitable part of any Web site. We cannot
choose whether or not they should be included. We have to consider graphic effects,
even when the goal is to create 'invisible' visual communication, which achieves its
purpose through seamless integration with functionality and content.
What might indeed be considered optional and open to discussion is the extent of
additional aesthetic experiences in the form of video clips, Flash animation, pretty pictures,
etc. The use of such effects on Web sites should depend on the intended target
audience, the sender image and the Web site genre.
A Historical Look at Web Sites
Since the proliferation of Web sites began in the early 1990s, the relationship between
functionality and aesthetics has been a topic of heated discussion.
One of the proponents of functionality and usability on the Internet is the abovementioned
Jakob Nielsen, who has contributed some of the most important research
regarding software development and Human-Computer-Interaction (HCI). Nielsen advocated
the hyper-functional approach in his book 'Usability Engineering' from 1993,
where he introduced the slogan 'Less is More', a phrase that he borrowed from the
modernist architect Mies van der Rohe (Engholm, 2003, p. 127). But as the role of aesthetics
in Web design increasingly became an issue of contention in the first half of the
1990s, different opinions regarding the relationship between aesthetics and functionality
David Siegel, who in the book 'Creating Killer Web Sites' from 1996 argued for the
importance of aesthetic dimensions, was a proponent of aesthetic Web sites. The functionalists,
on the other hand, argued that it did not matter if a Web site was blue or red,
as long as it was functional and user-friendly. The introduction of Flash spurred heated
arguments. The Web designer Curt Cloninger argued that Flash, with its amazing possibilities
for creating aesthetic experiences, was an important supplement to html.
Nielsen argued against the use of Flash because of long downloading times that decreased
functionality and usability. But during the second half of the 90s, there was a
growing interest in placing more emphasis on aesthetic effects.
However, in the beginning of the 21st century there has been a renewed tendency to
favour hyper functional Web sites without any superfluous aesthetics. There are several
reasons for this. First of all, Web designers had to realize that the use of Flash-elements
on Web sites created too many frustrations, since many users could not even open the
pages, or the downloading time was too long. Furthermore, in most cases the Flash elements
did not provide any kind of aesthetic enjoyment; rather, they often disrupted and
annoyed the users. The designers could not control their excitement over this new toy,
and Flash was often used haphazardly by people with no graphic design background.
That resulted in messy Web sites with Flash elements that blinked and moved across the
page without creating aesthetic experiences for the user. Again and again, one was
forced to agree with Jakob Nielsen that less aesthetics on Web sites was more.
In addition, the dotcom-crisis towards the end of the 1990's and the international
financial crisis caused many organizations to cut down on the large costs of designing
unique Web sites with Flash and other advanced aesthetic effects. This resulted in a
growing interest in cheaper solutions in the form of standard layouts, such as 'Obvious',
leading to less emphasis on aesthetic expressions, especially for many information and
presentation sites from both private and public organizations.
The Role of Aesthetics in Contemporary Web Design
While the relationship between functionality and aesthetics has been discussed for a long
time, a renewed discussion that focuses on aesthetic effects in Web design in a broader
perspective is desirable. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, the fast development
in IT-technology and the introduction of broadband in present times have made it possible
to accommodate the users who wish to receive communication in the form of multisensory
aesthetic experiences, without necessarily sacrificing content and function because
of long downloading times. And just as people today are increasingly expected to
be up-to-date on IT-development, it will also be expected that people who work with
Web design possess not only knowledge of functional aspects, but also understand how
to communicate through aesthetic means. We have reached an era where the technical
and functional aspects of a Web site are taken for granted. People just expect it to work.
The technology is viewed as a basic foundation for aesthetic experiences. According to
Ida Engholm, the discussion of function and aesthetics in Web design resembles the shift
in design styles during the consumption growth in the post war era, when many of the
products that were marketed ' from bicycles to electrical appliances ' only differed
from each other by minor variations of the basic concepts. All technical and functional
problems were in reality solved; people expected that the product worked and utilized
the latest version of the technology. Next followed an interest in 'differentiating'
through external aesthetic and image-related signals (Engholm 2003, p. 134).
Secondly, the growing tendency to replace language with visual symbols in the 20th
century, especially in the marketing of products, seems to have exploded in the 21st
century. Life style expert Henrik Vejlgaard states in his book 'Forbrug i Designersamfundet'
[Consumption in the Designer Society]: 'In a world where a picture means
more than words, no one has the time or bothers to read lengthy advertising copy.'
(Vejlgaard 2004, p. 49). Visual symbols have become an integral part of our daily lives;
therefore, it is increasingly relevant to understand their communicative effects. The
orientation towards visual communication is not only prevalent in marketing, but in all
forms of professional communication, including the Web site as a medium. In particular,
young people communicate ' and want to be communicated to ' through visual
Aesthetics Support Sender Image, Content and Function,
Web Site Genre and Target Audience
It is important ' especially for Web designers ' to be able to differentiate between the
different ways in which visual aesthetics play a role in the creation of Web sites.
1) The aesthetic effects have an important role in all types of Web sites concerning how
the sender is perceived, i.e. the image that is conveyed of the organization or individual
behind the information. All Web sites have a sender or information source, and
all the linguistic, functional, and aesthetic effects on a Web site communicate something
about that source.
2) The aesthetic effects must support the content and the functional aspects. Web sites
are more user-friendly when they contain aesthetic effects that support the navigation
and interaction functions.
3) The aesthetic effects must be adapted to the genre of Web site. For example, we
expect an entertainment Web site to offer a reasonable amount of aesthetic experiences,
whereas our primary expectation of an information search Web site is that we
can get the desired information as efficiently as possible.
4) The aesthetic effects should be adapted to the target audience. A presentation site
targeting a young audience must be designed in accordance with the contemporary
trends in visual aesthetics and should differ from a presentation site that targets the
general adult population.
The most successful Web sites are therefore the sites where the Web designer has created
the aesthetic aspects in accordance with the four above-mentioned areas: sender
image, functionality, genre and target audience.
Aesthetics Support Sender Image
The aesthetic effects play a crucial role in creating the profile of the sender and thus the
image of the organization or individual behind the Web site. Therefore it is important
that even Web sites that mostly have an information purpose also aesthetically reflect
the organization behind the site.
For instance, The Danish Railroad Service ( DSB) has created a visual profile on their
Web site in an exemplary way2
. DSB's Web site contains a unique and modern design,
unlike the more simple and anonymous designs commonly used by service organizations
that target a broad segment of the population. To obtain a unique expression, DSB has
created an untraditional and dynamic design, including their own typeface 'via', which
is used in the headlines. The layout is clean and indicates that DSB is a well-organized
company that understands contemporary trends. Every detail seems well-planned: contemporary
typeface, use of pictures, and a well-arranged layout.
Figure 2. www.DSB.dk
Aesthetics Support Content and Function
For many Web sites on the Internet, functionality has the highest priority and aesthetics
are only included to support it. This is typically the case in the genre of information
sites, where the primary purpose is to get the needed information as quickly and efficiently
as possible, which is the case in for example www.google.com.
However, it becomes increasingly difficult to argue that aesthetics should be
downplayed in favour of functionality, even for information search sites, though of
course functionality is of primary importance. There are good reasons why information
search sites should attempt to communicate through visual symbols. Visual icons are
useful and simple intersemiotic visual means of effects in terms of anchoring the texts.
They can be useful means of effect leading the attention of the user to the links. A subtle
movement can be useful to catch the attention of the user and direct his attention to
a specific area of importance. The use of dominant colours such as red and yellow are
effective to catch the attention of the user and direct the attention to specific pieces of
information. The use of illustrations can be helpful to explain complex or lengthy pieces
The user of the information site www.rub.ruc.dk can, for example, look at a map of
RUC's library and see exactly in which section of the library and on which shelf a book
Figure 3. www.rub.ruc.dk
For the large group of serious, factual presentation sites that are constrained by conventions,
such as banks, government offices, public agencies, educational organizations, etc.,
the functional aspects are usually emphasized. On these sites, the designers attempt to
accommodate the requirements of the organization by operating within the set of expectations
pertaining to the genre and according to the needs of the user. In this Web site
category, there is a large, untapped potential for better user-friendliness through visual
effects that could support the navigation aspects and the content in an appropriate way. The
visual effects would not have to provide great experiences, even though from a narrowly
functionalistic viewpoint they might still be regarded as extraneous aesthetic effects.
Aesthetics Support Web Site Genres
Web site genres have received relatively little scholarly attention. Jennifer Fleming defines
in her book 'Web Navigation' six categories of navigation designs: e-commerce sites,
community sites, entertainment sites, presentation sites, educational sites, and information
sites. Fleming's six categories focus on the navigational and functional aspects.
Very few Web sites appear in a 'pure' form following just one of Fleming's six navigation
designs, although one category is usually more prominent. For example, most
bank sites are a mix between presentation, e-commerce, and information according to
Fleming's categories. This indicates that it is hardly possible to find one way of categorizing
Web sites that would encompass all issues.
Ida Engholm, in her doctoral dissertation from 2003, has categorized Web sites based
on technical but also stylistic aspects as well as type of organization or business. In her
dissertation WWW's designhistorie ' website udviklingen i et genre- og stilteoretisk
perspektiv [WWW's design history ' the development of Web sites in a genre and stylistic
perspective], Engholm contributes with a categorization of Web sites in terms of
stylistic characteristics. For example: The HTML-style, the modernist style, the digital
modernist style, the trash-style, the CAD-style, the pixel-style, the Kawaii-style, the
Manga-style, the Japanese minimalist style, the digital deconstructivist style, the punk
rock style, etc.
Engholm's categories of Web sites based on the stylistic aspects are a useful supplement
to Fleming's six Web site categories based on the navigational and functional aspects.
The navigation design and the graphic and stylistic aspects must be adapted to the
specific needs of that particular organization. It is important that the Web designer understands
that the functional aspects should not always take priority over the aesthetic
aspects. A presentation site for an art museum or furniture design company must of
course be user-friendly, but the graphic, stylistic, and aesthetic effects play an important
role. A functional Web site, but void of well thought out aesthetic means of effect,
for an art museum would have low credibility and might be detrimental to the museum's
image, even if navigation and information search worked perfectly.
If you wanted to visit the Bauhaus Museum in Berlin and on their Web site
www.bauhaus.de was met with the same kind of aesthetics you find on www.google.com
you would probably doubt that this museum would be worth a visit. Google's Web site,
however, belongs to the information search genre, where users have completely different
expectations to aesthetic experiences. Google's target audience does not visit this Web site
to be aesthetically stimulated, which is entirely consistent with Google's intentions.
Figure 4. www.google.com
Figure 5. www.bauhaus.de
Aesthetics in Support of the Taste of the Target Audience
There are two domineering trends within Web design that reflect respectively a taste for
the modernist, style and a taste for an eclectic experience-oriented style. Whether to
choose the modernist style or the experience-oriented style should depend on the taste
and the needs of the target audience.
Modernist Aesthetic Web Sites
The modernist taste for minimalist design in a broad perspective originated in the early
part of the 19th century with the functionalist movement in architecture and design. The
functionalist movement was opposed to external ornamentation and all kinds of eclecticism
within art and design. The functionalists believed that architecture and design
should primarily be functional and devoid of superfluous ornamentation. From an aesthetic
point of view, the functionalists found minimalist and functionalist design more
appealing and formed an opposition to the aesthetic values of the Art Nouveau movement
which were dominant in the early part of the 19th century. This taste in design is
still one of the dominant discourses within taste in our present times.
The presentation site of the New York designer Bruce Mau, www.brucemaudesign.
com, is an example of a modernist, minimalist site with a pleasant balance between
functionality and aesthetics. The site has no extraneous aesthetics; however, its few
visual effects in the form of colour, typeface, and layout convey a superior aesthetic
quality within a minimalist paradigm. A minimalist Web site with no extraneous aesthet-
ics, and visual effects only in the form of typeface and text layout, can be just as aesthetically
pleasing as a Web site with lots of pretty pictures and fancy Flash installations.
Which style is preferable will depend on the purpose of the site and the taste of the target
Figure 6. www.brucemaudesign.com
The trend toward simplicity has also reached the e-commerce genre, where many companies
have re-designed their experience-oriented Web sites to be more simple and
anonymous. For example, in 2003 Sony replaced their Flash-based, multimedia Web
site, which they had launched in early 2002, and which contained the full spectrum of
aesthetic effects in the form of sound, pictures, and animation, with a more plain and
anonymous site. The return to a more functionalist, digital-modernist style was partially
caused by too many downloading difficulties with the more complex Web site. In 2006,
however, due to the introduction of the broadband, Sony offers experience-oriented
video clips on their Web site, but they have, as an overall means of aesthetic expression,
maintained a modernist, digital style on their Web site.
Experience-oriented, Aesthetic Web Sites
Along with a taste for a modernist, minimalist design devoid of extraneous aesthetic
means of effects, a taste discourse is simultaneously flourishing with roots in the
postmodern aesthetic values that favour the eclectic, multi-sensory, experience-oriented
Figure 7. www.sony-europe.com/walkman 2002
Figure 8. www.sony-europe.com/walkman 2006
Jean-Francois Lyotard introduced the term the postmodern as a term for a tradition
or a state that is a development of the modern (Lyotard 1986, p. 19). Postmodernity
rejects the idea of a universal truth and is characterised by the replacement of the great
narratives by many small narratives. There no longer exist, social directives of how to
think or behave.
People in the postmodern society, especially today's youth, have grown up with a large
degree of wealth, among other things due to developments in digitalization. This means
that basic physical needs such as the needs for food and shelter are met, and when the basic
needs are met, there is a growing need for self-actualization and experiences in daily life.
There is a growing trend for everything from shopping malls to banks to attract attention
through events and exhibitions that present exciting possibilities for interactive
and sensory experiences. It is no longer enough to sell products based on basic facts.
Products are increasingly sold on the basis of non-material values, i.e., the experiences
and narratives with which they are associated.
When we go to shopping malls, cafes, etc. we also expect to experience something
in addition to the product itself. It might be in the form of an exciting store design with
new, unexpected combinations of product assortments, fragrances, music videos, interactive
experiences with the products, and, not least new and innovative packaging of the
product. These factors become decisive in our choice of shopping place.
These postmodern values have also influenced a large amount of Web sites, more and
more of us begin to expect aesthetic experiences when we visit a Web site, both in the
entertainment genre and the e-commerce genre.
For example, that's what Nike attempts to accommodate at www.Nike.com, a Web
site that is full of experiences for both children and adults. At www.Nike.com thoughtful
consideration has clearly been given to target audiences, which is reflected in different
links at the Web site. www.Nikefootball.com targets boys ages 12-16 and the navigation
structure of the page resembles computer games. Functionality is illogical and userfriendliness
is not in focus, which is undoubtedly intentional. There are challenges to
overcome when navigating the site. The primary purpose of this part of the site is not
to sell shoes, but to build an image and create a universe that appeals to young males
who are interested in football. Nike's purpose with the Nikefootball.com link is primarily
branding in relation to young males. It reflects the postmodern values of today's
youth: a lifestyle that's characterized by sampling, self-staging, self-actualization, and
a demand for challenges combined with multi sensory experiences.
The link www.Nikeid.com, which is the actual e-commerce part of the site, targets
a broader audience; namely, children, youth, and adults, who want to buy a pair of Nike
shoes. Buying a pair of Nike sports shoes through www.Nikeid.com, which contains
Nike's product assortment, provides a pleasant, interactive experience. Nike is in that
respect ahead of the times. Nike's Web site is an example of a site where visual and
sound effects combined with the interactive aspect provide a pleasant experience and
a playful approach to shopping. When we purchase shoes on the Web site, we first have
to choose the type of sole. Next, we choose between a large number of colours, and we
can coordinate the shoe's colours according to our own preferences. We can also sign
the shoe with our personal signature if we wish. Navigating the site is easy and userfriendly,
and there is clearly an experience connected with the purchase. The interactive
functions and the possibility of creating one's own personal shoe makes it a game to
shop at Nike on the Internet. That is fully consistent with contemporary value trends,
which focus on a desire for personal touch and individuality.
Figure 9. www.Nikefootball.com
Figure 10. www.Nikeid.com
www.Nike.com is a hybrid between several genres: the presentation, e-commerce,
and entertainment genres. The presentation genre, which in Nike's case could also be
described as a branding site, conveys how Nike wants to be perceived by the public. The
e-commerce genre gives the customer an opportunity to buy Nike shoes through the site.
The entertainment genre provides opportunities to play games and be entertained.
This site is just a precursor for what awaits us in the future in the form of aesthetic
and interactive experiences on the Internet, especially targeting young audiences who
are in favour of postmodernistic design in terms of the eclectic and experience-oriented
means of effect.
1. For further readings on colour symbolism and typography I will refer to Lene Bjerregaard's
Farveordbog [Colour Dictionary], Theo van Leeuwen and Carey Jewitt's Handbook of Visual Analysis,
Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen's Reading Images. The Grammar of Visual Design, and
Rudolf Arnheim's Art and Visual Perception.
2. For a more thorough discussion of the analytical method used to analyze the DSB Web site, as well as
other Web sites, please see my article: 'A Model of Visual, Aesthetic Communication Focusing on
Web Sites'. In: Nielsen, Janni (red.) Digital Creativity. Vol. 13, No. 2. Maj 2002. Holland. Swets &
Zeitlinger. 2002, page 85-98.
Arnheim, Rudolf (1974) Art and Visual Perception. A Psychology of the Creative Eye. California: University
of California Press.
Bjerregaard, Lene (2002) Farveordbog ' farvernes skjulte universelle signaler. Ballerup, Denmark. Byggecentrum.
Cloninger, Curt (2002)Fresh Styles for Web Designers. Indianapolis: New Riders.
Engholm, Ida (2003) WWW's designhistorie ' website udviklingen i et genre- og stilteoretisk perspektiv.
K''benhavn: IT-Universitetet. (Diss.).
Fleming, Jennifer (1998) Web Navigation. Designing the User Experience. Sebastopol, California: O'Reilly
Jakobsen, Poul Erik & Jakobsen, Louise Byg (2003) Trend Sociologi. Herning: Pej gruppens forlag. (2nd ed.).
Kress, Gunther & van Leeuwen, Theo (1996) Reading Images. The Grammar of Visual Design.
Lyotard, Jean Francois (1986) Det postmoderne forklaret for b''rn. Copenhagen: Akademisk forlag
(Translated by Niels Br''gger, Finn Frandsen og Susanne Lervad).
Molich, Rolf (2000) Brugervenligt webdesign. K''benhavn: Nyt Teknisk Forlag.
Nielsen, Jakob (1993) Usability Engineering. Boston, San Diego, New York: Academic Press.
Nielsen, Jakob (1999) Designing Web Usability. Indianapolis. New Riders. 1999.
Siegel, David (1996) Creating Killer Web Sites. Indianapolis: Hayden Books (2nd ed.)
Thorlacius, Lisbeth (2002) 'A Model of Visual, Aesthetic Communication Focusing on Web Sites', in Nielsen,
Janni (red.) Digital Creativity, 13(2002)2, Holland. Swets & Zeitlinger, pp. 85-98.
van Leeuwen, Theo & Jewitt (2001) Carey Handbook of Visual Analysis. London: Sage.
Vejlgaard, Henrik (2004) Forbrug i designersamfundet. K''benhavn: B''rsens Forlag.
LISBETH THORLACIUS, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Communication,
Business and Information Technologies, Roskilde University, Kommunikationsvej 1,
DK-4000 Roskilde, [email protected]
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