Dear Bruce, your site is ugly. Sort it out.

It’s usually nice to receive feedback. But not always. Before Twitter became so popular an outlet for one’s ephemeral thoughts, I would occasionally receive emails berating me for having the temerity to publish personal blog posts and urging me to return to posting techy stuff. I would always answer these

Dear kindly correspondent, as you may have noticed, my site is not called freewebtips.co.uk, but brucelawson.co.uk – the unique portion of which is my name. This is not a co-incidence; it is because this is a personal site which I pay to register and I pay to host and therefore consider it my personal space upon which I can write personal posts if I so choose. Please do not read them if they offend you.

That seemed to work: I never heard from those people again, anyway.

This morning, someone had taken the trouble to write:

Im just getting into coding as i am myself a Graphic Designer. And i keep seeing your book advertised in most the places im learning from. I was suprised to see (with no offence meant) that your site is not the best looking around. Sorry i know thats probably not your general worry here, but personally i think for someone who seems quite well known you should have a much more attractive site!

When I launched this site in 2003, I was aware that I am graphic-design challenged. Being an old punk rocker, and admiring Jamie Reid‘s punk do-it-yourself aesthetic, I spent as long as two to three hours sticking bits of newspaper to paper and scanning it. In the intervening seven years, I’ve even added the Holy Grail of design, border-radius, and spent days and days reading the HTML5 spec to craft the best markup I could.

Should I now add all the other things that current web design mandates by law: hundreds of empty nested divs upon which to hang transitions, gradients, reflections and transforms that distract from the words, double the rendering time and drain mobile batteries?

Or point out that markup and semantics != visual design?

Or tell my correspondent to STFU?

31 Responses to “ Dear Bruce, your site is ugly. Sort it out. ”

Comment by Jan Henrik Helmers

I think the fact that you’ve added border-radius makes up for almost any other “flaw”. There are some compression artifacts in your extortion-type though, but that may be you saving on hosting costs? :P

Comment by James Lewis

I’m shocked. All this time I thought Bruce’s site was a postmodern ironic take on design trends, the result of intensive consultation with some of the world’s most prolific design gurus.

Comment by Matt Bee

I actually quite like it… and sometimes I feel that my site is a bit of a fraud since I had a designer friend design it for me.

I wish I had your balls (not literally, although I bet they are very nice) to have a near perfect coded site that may not win any design awards.

Comment by Steve Fenton

Dear Bruce, I would file this mail along with all of the other “We interested for increasing you traffic” emails. And anyway, we all love the cute guinea pig at the bottom of the… OH MY GOD!

Comment by Linda Sandvik

There are just a few blogs that I manage to read without using Readability (or Instapaper). Yours, and A List Apart. I think this is proof that these blogs are well designed.

Comment by Gabriel Izaias

Although I agree with you with the keep-it-simple way of doing things, I think markup and semantics != ugly visual design.

You can have both.

Yes, I think your website is ugly and Yes, your content is worth reading regardless.

Comment by nodleigh

I have better taste than you and I think it’s a delightful site, so yes, STFU, please. Now, when are you going to write about all the things in which I’m interested, because, after all, it’s always about me.

Comment by banz

“Im just getting into coding as i am myself a Graphic Designer”

hit him across the chops with a buy my faKKin book, read it and STFU

Comment by Chris Heilmann

This is a blog, it looks to me like all the other blogs I adore and consume ravenously every day: like Google reader. I adore this one especially as the content simply rocks. You could spend days redesigning your blog every time there is a new cool design idea out there – instead you spend it writing stuff of awesome. For that I thank you.

And you have an oolong / goatse mashup going – there is no other design needed to make any product better.

Comment by Kevin Sweeney

Of course you have final say. Your current readers aren’t going to mind. That said, and as much as I loathe the term “personal brand”, well…consider how others view your site when visiting it for the first time.

It’s the same reason web designers and developers alike complained about the W3C’s website for so long. Like it or not, Bruce, you’re meant to be taken as an authority on the subject of HTML5 and CSS3. Cut-up ransom letters and an animated GIF of bunny/goatse at the bottom of the site don’t exactly paint the portrait that I would hope you’re trying to convey. We’re just trying to hold you to a higher standard, that’s all.

Like I said, you have the final say…but if it’s not that big of a deal in the first place, why make a whole song and dance of it by making a blog post?

Comment by Eric Meyer

“Dear kindly correspondent, as you may have noticed, my site is not called freewebtemplates.co.uk, but brucelawson.co.uk – the unique portion of which is my name. This is not a co-incidence; it is because this is a personal site which I pay to register and I pay to host and therefore consider it my personal space upon which I can use any design I so choose. Please do not look at it if it offends you.”

Comment by Bruce

Thanks for the advice, all. This is what I emailed back:

Dear XXXXX. I don’t really know what to say (so I asked a few people on my site and got some replies on Twitter, too).

I’m an expert(ish) on HTML5. HTML5 is a mark-up language for the communication of information. The colours, design, visual prettiness of that information is a separate discipline and completely unrelated.

I don’t believe that the only politician worth voting for is the best-looking. I don’t think that Justin Bieber is a greater musician than Bob Dylan, even thought he’s more handsome.

I also believe that “best-looking” goes in fashions. Today’s best-looking is tomorrow’s ridiculously old-fashioned is next year’s ooh-so-ironic and retro. Should I chase the seal of approval of the cool kids for the way my site looks, or try to educate people to make more semantic and inclusive web sites with the information on my site?

On the other hand, if my site design puts people off reading it, then that’s a problem. It’s not that I’m too lazy to try to make a nice site design. It’s that I can’t, so there is no point in my trying: If I worried too much about it, I wouldn’t publish anything, which is presumably not the best outcome.

So, I agree with you: my site is not the best looking around. I would have a better looking site if I could – but I don’t have the know-how.

But you do. I’ve looked at your site and while many of the designs are not to my taste (subjectivity rears its ugly head in matters of attractiveness and design) it’s clear that you have considerable skill.

So feel free to send me some CSS and background images that I can use with my current markup (I can slightly tweak if necessary). It would need to retain my site’s punk ethos (and the main banner, as that’s kind of evolved into a brand now), while making it look “much more attractive”. It would need to work across all modern browsers, and degrade gracefully in older browsers (though IE6 doesn’t matter too much as long as the content is not ugly and it’s all readable). I’d credit you in the footer of the site. (I’d also need to retain the animated goatse bunny that’s currently in the footer, as people’s comments suggest that it’s part of “the brand”).

Up for that?

Comment by Devon Young

Unfortunately I think a lot of people don’t think a website is really a good one if it’s not designed well, no matter how good the underlying structure is. It’s like early Guided By Voices stuff… great band, but the lo-fi sound got in the way of people’s ears who couldn’t get past the sound quality enough to hear the song.

Comment by Kevin Dees

This is beautiful. However, I don’t personally think blogs need to look great. They need to be readable. They were about content last I checked.

And for everything else there is; arc90 readability.

Comment by Felipe

Like Chris Heilmann (yay!) and Andreas, I read your blog from Google Reader so I don’t really care about the design :)
Though it’s a sad thing I missed this bunny for so many months. It has a lovely pancake (or is a pie?).

Comment by dr lakra

Longfellow -
– Be still sad heart and cease repining;
Behind the clouds the sun is shining,
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life a little rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

Comment by hcabbos

Golden! Lots of laughs to start my day. I’ll bookmark this post for days where either I think I’m the suckiest designer. Bruce, you are my hero!

Comment by John Flower

I thought the “ugly” design is some sort of punk this-site-has-to-look-like-this design. if you didn’t confess to not being good at design, I’d have thought you’re a brilliant designer. shows what i know about design :-(

Comment by John Griffiths

totally with you on this, content is killer and you’ve certainly got that nailed.

you could (and i certainly do) obsess over the aesthetics but why bother, you do what you do well and you have a great following as a result of that.

…plus i like the design, kind of looks like a ransom note to the W3C ;-)

Comment by absolethe

I’d never really thought about it. But now that I have, if it were mine, I’d do a few nips and tucks and call it a day. Because design is about purpose, meaning, and function in addition to aesthetics…and aesthetics are subjective.

But, then, I’m told I’m a bad designer. Since that’s what I want to be, I suppose I’ll keep trying.

(My blog doesn’t even have a custom design … I’m just using a template.)

Comment by Indy Cooper

Today is the first time I’ve seen your site (your talk introducing HTML5 2years ago led me here). I also thought it looked a bit bare and boring, but hearing your explanation it totally makes sense. It’s perfectly coded and it’s exactly what you want, so who’s to argue with that?