The 3 Principles of Great Website Design

Wireframe for website design

I was listening to a video about the history of design a couple weeks ago (I know, I know, my life sounds a bit sad to some of you!), and they started talking about a Roman architect named Vitruvius who came up with these 3 principles of good architecture: 

  1. Firmatis (Durability) – It should stand up robustly and remain in good condition
  2. Utilitas (Utility) – It should be useful and function well for the people using it.
  3. Venustatis (Beauty) – It should delight people and raise their spirits.

On a side note, I love the way point 3 is phrased, “it should delight people!” I am going to put that up on my inspiration board. If it doesn’t delight people, it should be tossed, hahaha!

Ok back to the point. When I heard them talk about these three principles, I thought well shouldn’t these be the 3 principles of all good design? 

The actual principles of design are something more like this:

  1. Balance
  2. Proximity
  3. Alignment
  4. Repetition
  5. Contrast 
  6. Space

I will write a separate post about these at a later stage but these are more aesthetic principles and I think good design is about so much more than that.

So for today I am going to talk about the 3 principles of architecture and explain why these should be called the three principles of great website design (or the 3 principles of just good design).

  1. Beauty

I am going to start at the end and work my way backwards because I think beauty is the easiest one to talk about (maybe the hardest one to achieve?).

All designers hope to create something beautiful, I think we can safely say that no creator goes out of their way to make something inherently ugly, unless they’re trying to make some sort of statement.

What makes something beautiful is a whole nother story because as we the old adage goes; “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. I have seen websites that I thought were cringeworthy that have been picked out by friends as their favourites. 

There are principles that govern what looks good or “pleasing to the eye” (see my previous point on the actual principles of design), things like symmetry, which is what we look for in faces, and balance.

We are also influenced greatly by what we see around us so if something becomes trendy we might become programmed to believe it is beautiful. 

A great example of this, which is completely unrelated to web design, is the modern day obsession with a slim female form. In the 1950’s women were much more curvaceous and this was seen as beautiful and clothes were designed to accentuate voluptuous hips.

But why does a website have to be beautiful to be well designed? Well, that is the ultimate solution isn’t it? If you had to pick between two chairs that were equally comfortable, equally well made and equally priced but one was more aesthetically pleasing than the other, which one would you go for?

So to some up; beauty is subjective, ever-changing, damn difficult to achieve and equally important!

  1. Utility

Good web design should be useful and function well. Even writing this makes me feel happy. It seems like such an obvious point but you wouldn’t believe the number of websites that I try to look through that just don’t work properly.

One of the biggest issues I experience with websites these days is the speed that the site loads and something that is completely overlooked by less experienced web designers. 

How important is the speed of your site I hear you ask? Well according to this article (and numerous others that I have read) you will lose a visitor to your site if it doesnt load in 3 seconds or less!

That is a crazy statistic! And that is just the desktop version of a site, not a mobile version. For mobile sites, you have between less than 1 second before you start losing people.

There are many tools that you can use to increase the speed of your site and I will talk about these in a separate blog post but I think concentrating on optimising your images for web is probably the easiest and most effective way to help the speed of your site (try WP Smush on WordPress to help compress your images).

Speaking about mobile versions of websites, that is another area where useability seems to get overlooked. Is your site working well on mobile? More and more people are exclusively using their phones for browsing the internet, you really can’t afford to have a crappy looking mobile version of your site in 2020.

I could go on and on about useability but I think this subject deserves its own separate post so I won’t continue down this road because we could be here all day. 

  1. Durability

This is a tough one in 2020. How durable is anything these days? 

It’s something that drives me crazy actually. We are in the age of fast fashion (and fast everything) when clothes last a few months before they start disintegrating and clothing stores are getting new “collections” in every week!

I am dead against this, I am much more a “pay more, last longer” sort of person. I always have been and I apply this across the board, to food, clothing, furniture, everything.

Every time I have gone against this belief looked for a bargain I have been burned and it has reinforced my belief that cheaper is definitely not better.

Ok, ok, there are some exceptions to the rule. Google docs for example, which I am using right now to write this post, is free and amazing.

But in terms of design, it is difficult to design something that is going to age well in this day and age. Going back to point 1 where I spoke about how trends become the new normal, I know that websites will not look anything like they do now in 5 years time so how long can the design of your website really last?

Ultimately that is what we should aim for though, to create something that isn’t trendy but beautiful, useful, functional and lasts. 

I suppose if we use clothing as an example again, a tailored blazer or a little black dress never goes out of style. Sure the accessories or the embellishments might change but the structure has stood the test of time (sorry I’m full of cliches today!).

So those are the three principles of great architecture and now, according to me, they are the three principles of great website design


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