Do aesthetics need to be compromised for the sake of usability?

Paul Boag

Gerry McGovern seems to believe designers are more concerned with aesthetics than usability. Do you agree? Is either more important?

As you will know if you have followed me for any length of time, I have great respect for usability expert Gerry McGovern. We work on similar projects and share a similar view of the web.

However, this week I parted company with Mr McGovern over his most recent post “Why web links are calls to action.”

In it he wrote:

It’s hard to read what Dustin writes on this black background; gave me a bit of a headache actually. But that’s okay. I had a great overall experience of the page because its black background communicated an important emotional, aesthetic thing to me.

Seriously, it’s a bit of a pity Dustin makes it so hard to read his stuff because what he has to say is quite interesting.

Later he went on to attack designers for their dislike of underlines.

Isn’t it amazing how many designers hate underline? They think it’s ugly, that it takes away from the look of the page.

Finally he reached the crux of his argument:

Have you read any grey books recently? I mean, have you read any books that use grey text or that have black backgrounds? Or, for that matter, have you read any print newspapers or magazines that use grey text? It’s well documented that it’s harder to read on a screen than in print. So why do designers deliberately create webpages that make reading even harder? Simple, really. Many web designers are more concerned with how the page looks than how it reads and functions.

In essence Gerry seems to be arguing that aesthetics should always take second place to usability. I disagree with this. It depends on the type of site. On some sites it is important to communicate more than information. Some websites are about conveying emotion and feeling too.

As for particularly targeting black backgrounds and underlined links, this is entirely unjustified.

Black backgrounds can (if done right) actually aid usability. Contrast is the issue here, not the colour of the background. As long as there is sufficient contrast a black background can actually reduce eye strain caused by white light, aiding on screen reading.

An example of a black background website with high contrast text

As for underlined links, I again disagree. Although I think it is important to underline links I tend to use border-bottom rather than text-decoration:underline. The problem with the latter is that the line intersects descenders making words hard to read, especially for those with cognitive disabilities. Not using underlines in their traditional sense actually aids readability.

An example of descenders intersecting underlines

The idea that most designers do not care about usability is incorrect. We care passionately. However, we do not always solve these problems in the way that usability consultants would prefer. Instead we try to balance aesthetic considerations with usability. We care both for how the page looks and how it functions.

So what do you think? Do you believe that designers care more about aesthetics than usability? Post your thoughts in the comments.