Does Anyone Really Care About Graphics?
29th April 2004 · Last updated: 21st December 2011
Does anyone really care if a site has abundant graphics and colours? Or do people prefer simplicity like Google? I'm thinking now that many people might just prefer a site to be as plain as you can make it. Why? Simply because it loads faster, and they can find the content easier. If the text is in one central column, with a side column of links to further information, then that may be good enough. No need to click on endless links to find what you want. (Ever been to one of those business sites where you go round in circles trying to find things?) Of course the classic format I'm describing here is the weblog.
A typical weblog dispenses with flashy intros, whirling text and enormous photographs that aren't related to the content. Over years, the weblog format has developed to incorporate standard elements such as a calendar (where you can view posts by their date), a list of archives, a search field, and much more. These elements have become like a jigsaw - you use the pieces you want to make a site. Weblog-creating programs have therefore brought about a standard look. Elements can be moved around easily and new ones added.
Graphics included on a weblog are often in the form of a header, or a wallpaper pattern for the empty areas of the screen. Photographs are commonly used for thumbnails that link to larger versions. The reason for all this is speed. Nobody wants to wait for ages for a site to load due to heavy use of graphics. Weblogs have pioneered a minimalist approach. If the weblog scene were to rely on large Flash intros or streaming video, they would simply not have grown as popular as they are today. Users also benefit from weblog-creating programs they can set up in minutes. Again, simplicity rules. A variety of easy-to-install packages are available, often for free.
Another benefit of weblogs is the reduction in adverts on a page. Many weblogs have no adverts at all, so are quick to load, and can be viewed without the annoyance of flashing banners. Weblogs that do use ads tend to have text-only ones that blend neatly in with the design, often using the same colour scheme.
But webmasters today have a new ace up their sleeves. It's called RSS (Really Simple Syndication). RSS, along with other languages like Atom, are revolutionising the web by providing extracts from a website in pure form. In most cases, the extracts are just pure text. Programs can read this and style it appropriately. Some sites offer a stylesheet with their RSS as well, so the result looks just like a web page. Why bother? Because RSS can be used to keep track of new posts, across a great many sites, without having to visit the sites directly.
News feeds are a typical use of RSS, providing a headline and a brief description of the news. An RSS 'feedreader' will convert any links in the feed, so the user can click on them to see the original post. Certain sites even give you the complete post in the feed.
The future will undoubtedly bring new ways to use RSS feeds. They will hopefully become interactive, links connecting to other links, plus new tricks no-one has invented yet. But what a typical RSS feed has done is essentially stripped away the graphics and colours from a site. The author has repackaged their site as a text-only single-column page. (Some feeds do include photographs and styles but most do not.) It is this process that has made me wonder - perhaps people no longer care about the look of a site. They just want to read the text quickly and move on.
When you've hundreds of sites bookmarked in your browser, you don't want to spend all day visiting them. RSS is a fantastic solution to this, if the site provides a feed. You can have a list as long as your arm of RSS feeds, and just one button can refresh them all! What a time-saver! Then you can quickly scan the headlines as if you were reading your daily email. In fact, that's just how version 7.5 of the Opera browser handles RSS feeds - as emails. Note that most, if not all RSS feedreaders can also automatically check for updated feeds, say once an hour.
Despite dabbling in RSS feeds myself, I still visit many sites directly. Some are so pleasing to look at, it would be a shame to miss out on the design. Yet recently I've come across two differing examples of sites that echo both sides of the argument. One is loaded with stunning colourful imagery, which would be a waste presented in a lesser format such as RSS. Take a look yourself, and you'll see what I mean. The site is called Alazanto, just recently redesigned. Great colours and use of typography.
Now look at another site called Weblog About Markup & Style. There, the colours are almost irrelevant. Text is black on white, links are red, the background is plain white, plus there's a simple header graphic. Yet it looks good. It works. The content appears instantly. I can scan it quickly, get the bits I need, and move on to the next site. (Though the content is interesting enough to keep me there for a while.) [Note: You can click on the thumbnails above to see screenshots of both sites.]
Now which site uses the best approach? Alazanto, with its graphical imagery and rich typography? Or Weblog About Markup & Style, with its back-to-basics approach? Does this depend on the type of site? If a site is trying to impress the user visually, then graphics are certainly needed. But if the site is merely aiming to provide information in the clearest form possible, then away with the graphics and colours, and in with plain text.
Now if we think about books, the argument is clear. Text-only wins out every time. Sure, you have picture books, art books and so on, that are mostly pages of photography or artwork, but think about fiction. The vast majority of fiction books use the same plain look on every page. This harks back to the days when books had to be printed from sheets of metal lettering. But even in today's glossy, fast-moving and colourful world, such books have retained their minimal use of type and layout. The reasons are the same ones that I believe make weblogs and RSS feeds so popular. The text is easy on the eye and can be read as fast as you can read.
Despite advances in colour printing, newspapers are another example of clarity and simplicity. It is common to see a mixture of photographs, some very large, along with plain text. But if you took the text away, the newspaper would probably be useless. Whereas if you took the photographs away, you could still use the newspaper. Weblogs, books, newspapers and magazines are dominated by text. When there are so many publications to read across a variety of platforms, the text must be reasonably legible, so we spend as little time as possible trying to understand it. Printers and designers have learnt over the years what colour combinations work best and what to avoid. Have weblogs? I leave that one to your personal judgement. Alas low-resolution screens and a basic set of typefaces don't allow for much experimentation. So a lot of weblogs share a similar feel. I hope this will change over time as high-resolution screens and new methods for making pages are slowly introduced.
So what about graphics? If people are moving away from them, should webmasters even bother to use them? More and more people are now enjoying speedy broadband internet connections, so graphics can be downloaded much faster. So you might think now is the time to spice up your page. But you need to remember that a huge number of people are still forced to use slow connections. Even if this weren't the case, there's no denying that less graphics equals a faster page. For this reason, I would advise continuing with the old rules: Keep graphics small, compress them as much as possible, and only use them when you need to. Make sure your pages are also usable without the graphics, which a user may turn off completely to save much loading time. If you've never done this yourself, try surfing with images turned off. You'll be surprised how much faster the web becomes. So my question remains: Does anyone really care about graphics?