Gratuitous Graphics and Human-Centered Website Design

Notice how frustrating most company websites are. Lots of pretty pictures that take forever to load. Hardly any information on a page. Notice how difficult it is to find the information you seek, and especially, how difficult it is to do comparison shopping. Don't companies realize that in today's world, the website is a great opportunity to practice customer-centered interaction -- make the customers happy and they will come back again and again? Frustrate them and, well, the competition is only a click away.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I like art, graphics, aesthetically pleasing designs, beauty. I want pleasurable things in life. My argument is against gratuitous graphics. I want appropriate design, design that fits the needs.

I champion human-centered web sites: where you can actually find what you are looking for, and where you don't wait eons for meaningless graphics to load. Where the organizational structure of the site matches the way the viewers think. Is this such a strange concept; putting users first?

In Defense of Beauty

I'm a fan of art and beauty, of aesthetically pleasing design. Up to recently, however, I could not make the connection between usability and aesthetics - they were distinct spheres of my life. Now, however, I have figured out the relationship. See my essay Emotion and Design: Attractive things work better.

Gratuitous Graphics

Consider the Gratuitous Graphics on this page Shame, shame.

(Netscape 6 users: You won't see any gratuitous graphics. Microsoft Explorer users will see them, as will Netscape 4 users, but not those who use the new, improved version of Netscape. Could I fix this problem? Probably, but then yet another would crop up, and another and another. Yet another reason not to have superfluous stuff on the web pages: different browsers work differently, and trying to maintain dhtml/Javscript code to work on all browsers, all operating systems, is a full-time job. Stick to the simple stuff and your website will work more easily, more efficiently for all.)

Consider the pluses of the graphics (for those of you who can see them):

  • They are fun
  • They are lightweight, so they don't detract from the experience by significantly impacting load times. They are written in JavaScript and Dynamic HTML so they should work on most systems (except for Netscape 6, see above) (and not harm if they don't work)
  • They are fun.

And the minuses?

  • They get in the way. After the first few minutes of delight, the next few minutes are spent trying to figure out how to get rid of them.
  • Not everyone can see them (see above). Which might be a virtue.

So, I did it -- I put gratuitous graphics right on this page, following the cursor about: don't ever let anyone tell you the Nielsen Norman Group is against fun and beauty, against experiences that are neat and cool.

But also notice that I put it on the fun page, not on the substance page. I wanted you to enjoy them, but not for them to get in the way when you were trying to read. Appropriate graphics fine, in-the-way graphics, no.

Hey, I discovered a better one! (Note added Dec., 2002.)

Look at . Now that is impressive.

Graphics and websites

Do I use graphics on the site? Yes. My photo. Images of book jackets. Graphs and charts where appropriate The point is, use them where they make sense.

If you are Disney or Sony, where being entertained is a primary purpose, then have lots of colorful images. Use Flash plug-ins, use sound. That is what the site is about.

If you are a newspaper or company selling something, or a personal website with essays and commentary, then don't get in the way of accomplishing those activities. Graphics should be used when they supplement the task, when they add to the enjoyment without getting in the way.  Don't make the site slow, ponderous, or distracting. (And be sure to provide non-graphic information for those who can't see the graphics, either because they have limited technology or because they might have impaired vision).


I found these trailing balls on Rik Belew's website -- he is an old friend and a Professor of Computer Science at the University of California, San Diego. I enjoyed the trails so much I decided I had to have them.

His, however, are on his main page, where I fear they detract. Mine are tucked away here, where they are the main point, so if they detract -- well, that is the point I am trying to make. Fun has its place in things, but some things are only fun for a while.

So I borrowed the code from his source code, but he in turn had borrowed it as well: as the note in his source code explains:

<!-- Original: Philip Winston ( -->
<!-- Web Site: -->
<!-- 'Scrolling Fix' by Troels Jakobsen <> -->
<!-- This script and many more are available free online at -->
<!-- The JavaScript Source!! -->

So enjoy.

Why my website has almost no graphics and no frames

This page was originally entitled, Why this site has (almost) no graphics. The Nielsen Norman group doesn't believe in graphics for the sake of graphics. We do believe in websites that fit their mission. If the mission is information, don't get in the way with extraneous stuff. If the mission is fun and enjoyment, well, do whatever your viewers want. Note that I did not put the trailing balls on my home page because I did think they would detract. I put them on the fun page.

My partner, Jakob Nielsen, has argued most persuasively -- and numerous studies over the past several decades have confirmed -- that content and the speed with which it arrives are the most important properties of a website. What good is it to have great beauty, subtle pictures, and fancy design if most viewers give up before the third download? Moreover, most browsers are not the very latest version, so they may not be capable of handling all those latest features. And anyway, html is not very standard, not with companies engaged in a battle to the death to ensure that their browser is better than the others, with proprietary features. User be damned, is their philosophy. Well, we put humans first, technology second.

Go for simplicity, elegance. Go for content and speed. So speaketh Jakob. So speaketh Don. Hardly a surprise that we both speak the same language. These are the principles that my books, my life, and the consulting group that Nielsen and I have founded are all about.

* Jakob Nielsen's site:

An excellent source of information on human-centered design in general and web-site design in particular. Most web sites neglect the viewer. They have pretty graphics that slow access and end up driving customers away. Ever click on a website and find a pretty picture that takes an eternity to load and then provides no information? Ever go to a company website and discover that in order to find something, you have to wade through pages of irrelevancies, and guess the company's organizational structure? Who cares about how the company is organized, we want information -- we might even want to buy something. Why do companies make this so difficult to do?

Ever try to make an airline reservation or compare products on the web only to discover that comparison shopping -- which is something computers ought to be really excellent at -- is a frustrating,. Slow, irritating experience?

Check out Jakob's website -- and urge web developers to do so also. Jakob is a fierce advocate of customer-centered design and quick-to-load, informative web pages. Jakob and I see eye-to-eye on these issues. For fun and enjoyment Yes, graphics and animation.

Usability alone does not suffice; websites and products should also be fun, enjoyable. This means aesthetically pleasing and exciting, depending upon the image one wishes to convey.

There is no such thing as a single rule for all purposes. A product for entertainment should be entertaining. Is the Sony website fun? Why not? Does Disney have animation and graphics? I'd be disappointed if it didn't. I like funky things, creative design. But only when it doesn't interfere with getting work done.

So, entertainment sites should entertain, news sites should inform, corporate sites should enhance the corporate image, help customers complete their mission, and help journalists and investors learn about the company.

All factors must be in balance. Usability and functionality should not overwhelm the user, but then neither should beauty and cleverness in graphics destroy usability and functionality. Things must be in balance, and in today's world of limited bandwidth and slow responses times, functionality requires lean, simple sites.

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