Bad, Yet Popular Web Design Practices – How Not to Make Your Site

One of the worst sites ever
I dare you to click on this photo. On second thought, I take that back. Going to that site could induce brain damage.

When I build websites, I get asked for all kinds of crazy things. Sometimes I can coax someone not to do something that would be a mistake. But more frequently, by the time the client speaks with me, they’ve fallen so deeply in love with their ideas that they cannot be swayed by reason or anything else. Don’t let this happen to you.

Quality Content, a Forgotten Concept

Good site content matters. I know, that sounds obvious, but I rarely see it. In today’s DIY world, everyone can publish, and that’s great, but many people can’t write well, yet are undeterred from writing anyway. So it’s not so much that people don’t want good content, but that they have no feel for what it might be, so it would never occur to them that they may need help to produce good content. Or they simply have no budget for getting the right person doing the job. Good writing is a very complicated subject, so rather than tackling that, I will take Vincent Flanders’ approach: it may be more useful to point out really bad practices.

It’s worth noting that most of the silly things below simply come from not considering your audience.

Laughable Practices to Avoid on Your Site

Hard-sell, Pimpish Ad Copy.

This drivel may have been acceptable some years ago, but nowadays site visitors will laugh at you if you do it. They’ll probably Tweet it as a joke. Examples would be using GIANT TYPE, loud garish colors, and phrases like, “If you call in the next ten minutes…”, and then they hit you with some pop-ups, of course. You can almost smell the guy’s bad breath as he yells the sales pitch right into your face. If you have a strong stomach, and don’t mind loud noise right away, check out Ling’s Cars. Your eyes will bleed. Bonus points for the URL that contains the word “scars”, which newborn babies would probably get if they looked at this site.


Do people really need to see the prison records of your relatives, details of your gruesome operation, or the series of much-too-large amateurish photos that you took the first day with your new camera? Stick to things that have to do with your business. Otherwise, just get a nice free account on Blogger or Flickr for all that other stuff.

Flash Intros on Restaurant Sites.

I’m happy to report that this previously universal trend has almost entirely died out! Nothing to see, please disperse.

Site Design by Engineers.

This is a curious sub-culture of bad web design that is remarkably consistent. Engineers, while great at being, um, engineers, get full of themselves and start thinking they should design their site, too. Don’t let this happen to you. And this one is worse – thrill to the hideous dropdowns, and if you want instant nausea, move your mouse to the left and right near the middle of the page! I confess, I’ve built bad engineering sites. They look awful, and I’d never include them in my portfolio. The engineers involved were 97% impervious to any design advice, because after all, they know best! I was young, I needed the money!

Architects are just as likely as engineers to have something dreadful. Sometimes they’re fancy awful, and sometimes just terrible awful, like this. Or if you can stand loud music AND Flash immediately, this.

Sites Chock Full of Crud.

This is really an expanded variation on TMI. To me, this is an unfortunate byproduct of otherwise highly useful Content Management Systems – someone will include lots of lots of extra nonsense, not because it has any value, not because anyone cares about it, but just because they easily can.

Physicians and other professionals can be prone to this. They can talk a blue streak. They cannot discriminate between information that’s useful and appropriate for their website and business, and what is simply extraneous detail. Might we want to know that you’re currently board-certified? Yes. Do we need to know the title of every academic paper you’ve written, as well as photos and bios of every staff member? No.

Another possible symptom of Sites of Crud is that you have more than two levels in your menu. If your site is an enormous repository of information, chances are you should be using searches, not ginormous menus, unless you want lots of pages that are never read. You may also make your visitors swear because they can’t navigate easily or find anything. Finally, you don’t want to make people doze off with your technical jargon. Generally, small-to-medium sized businesses sites don’t need a tremendous amount of content, they just need enough to introduce themselves, explain what they do, publish current news, give contact options, and maybe sell some stuff. Anything else is usually a waste, and simply adds to the price of building your site. You would not believe how big and convoluted small business owners’ sites can be. If they were to put Google Analytics on their site and then read the reports carefully, they would get quite a reality check as to how many pages are completely ignored on a too-large site. There is an X-factor that can make a site really great, and that is unique, excellent writing that people want to return to again and again. This is extremely rare, though. Not to worry – having the basics presented attractively is good enough.

PDF’s everywhere.

Adobe must have done a hell of a sales job, as beginners are cranking out PDF’s more than ever. Everybody’s a designer, hooray! But with this new toy, people start wanting to include them in web pages. Think hard before doing this. Annoying your visitor by requiring both a download and a possibly an installation of the Adobe Reader is not the way to make a visitor happy. Use excerpts instead, in regular pages. To add further irritation, these PDF’s are often full of pimpish sales jargon or boring technical minutiae. Some exceptions come to mind where PDF’s might be appropriate, such as owner’s manuals and ebooks (with a warning of the large size of the file, please).

Graphic Designer-itis.

If you get a design from someone who is maybe proficient in Photoshop and/or Dreamweaver, but has no clue about content organization and navigation, you may get something like this. The right-brain is working, the left-brain is completely off. You might rightly say, that’s just ugly. But there are “pretty” sites like this, too.

Designers like that do make sales, probably based on dazzling a non-tech-savvy user with a one-page demo. This, admittedly, may be hard for a layman to detect at a glance. You could ask the designer about how they will manage site organization, content management, and navigation. If they look baffled, then you might have one of these special people. To be sure, there are designers who understand content thoroughly and can even program. Short of that, they should at least have enough sense to work with someone who will handle implementation of their design with actual content in mind. Also, many of the cases I see of this ailment are newly-minted designers who only grasped the visual parts of their classes and didn’t understand the coding parts – these are really two discrete skills.

As a final example, I leave you with this astoundingly ridiculous design that clearly took some effort to make, which I ran into at Web Pages That Suck. Don’t be alarmed – it looks like a website error – but the only error is in the designer’s mind. Enjoy!


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