Tuesday, 28 February 2012

A Whiter Shade of Page

As a web designer I tend to visit a wide range of websites on a regular basis, you know, purely for research purposes. It is useful to see what kind of trends evolve in website design and the reasons for them. Recently I have noticed an interesting trend in redesigns of a few popular websites visited by thousands of people on a daily basis.

These websites previously presented strong identities through the appearance of their web pages, but have all launched new designs consisting of little more than white backgrounds behind busy, jumbled page layouts. I find this to be a worrying move for the future of web design as these websites are likely to be influential. The websites I am looking at are www.radiotimes.com, www.digitalspy.co.uk and www.bbc.co.uk.

Radio Times

I'll be honest. I've never been a huge fan of the Radio Times website but I do tend to visit it regularly for its TV guide, out of habit if nothing else. However, it did have a striking colour scheme based upon orange and soft shades of grey which made its navigation menus and buttons stand out from the background. The information was clearly and logically organised on its pages and it used pictures sparingly but effectively.

The Radio Times old Home page (left) and new Home page (right).

That design has been replaced by a design which I find to be much more cluttered, busy, and lacks a striking identity. The Home page pictured above demonstrates their attempt to fit in numerous different elements; a navigation menu, a glimpse of the TV listings, a logo, a 'carousel' of featured content, advertisements, a search bar, headings for categories of the website with matching thumbnail pictures and links for social networks. The layout is muddled and appears to be floating in the centre of the page like leaves collecting in a puddle of nothingness. This is due to an absence of clearly defined page areas which have been excluded in favour of a more 'magazine' feel.

Digital Spy

Digital Spy is a website providing a wide range of popular culture news, interviews and celebrity gossip. Its Home page displayed a prominently positioned logo and colourful banner with a simple colour coded navigation menu down the left side of the page, and the main stories with pictures and other headlines listed beside them. It was an accessible, simple design which successfully presented a lot of information on one page with easy-to-use navigation to the rest of the site.

Digital Spy's old Home page (left) and new Home page (right).

Sadly, in the new design the colours are gone, replaced by a minimalist colour scheme (really the logo is the only noticeable presence of an identity) and a horizontal navigation bar at the top of the screen. The rest of the page is largely the same layout as the previous look and it is less cluttered than the Radio Times website, but the reliance on white space and lack of clearly defined page elements are similar.

BBC Home Page

The BBC Home page is undoubtedly the most visited of these three websites. For many people it is the first stop in search of news, sport, weather, TV, radio and much more. This means that the design of its Home page is crucial in making a good impression upon visitors and is able to successfully navigate users towards an enormous breadth of topics.

The old design had evolved over a number of years since 2001, and had managed to achieve its objectives admirably. It communicated the identity of the BBC through its logo, a simple navigation bar, a graphically striking banner containing featured content, and below that a wealth of categorised information which could be arranged, added, or removed according to each user's individual tastes. It was everything a Home page should be; aesthetically striking, simple to use and navigate into the site, whilst providing enough information to satisfy users who visit on a regular basis.

BBC's old Home page (left) and new Home page (right).

All that is now gone, replaced by a design not entirely dissimilar from the Radio Times website, but far more cluttered and confusing. The warm colour schemes (which were also customisable according to personal tastes) have been cast aside in favour of white, with sparse use of colours to indicate tabs or buttons. The layout, like the other websites I've talked about, is much like a magazine layout with poorly defined boxes containing snippets of information headed by thumbnail images.

Most of the page consists of a 'carousel' of rotating content boxes which contain news, sport, TV and radio programmes and more, all jumbled up together. It is confusing, too busy, and lacks any element of identifiable design. As if that wasn't bad enough, almost every part of the page moves or is highlighted in some manner when the cursor hovers over it. It's unnecessary and annoying.

Perhaps some people like this development in the BBC's approach to its main online presence. However I couldn't find many positive comments in the two BBC blog posts defending its new design though (BBC new Home page blog post 1, BBC new Home page blog post 2). In fact at the time of writing there have been more than 2,000 comments and the vast majority of them are extremely negative, with many asking why their concerns during the period of 'beta' testing of the new design were ignored. The fact that its designers have felt the need to write two blog posts in defence of it suggests that it hasn't elicited the positive response they would have liked.

Of course, this is not the first time a website redesign has been unpopular with its loyal users; sites like Facebook and Twitter have experienced angry reactions from fans when new layouts have been launched. More often than not, people eventually warm to the new look, and websites must continue to evolve with tastes, required functionality and new technology. However, form and function must be considered together when redesigning websites, particularly sites with large fanbases. My worry is that we'll continue to see websites adopting the 'white space' look which results in uninspiring designs.

If you notice other websites rejecting their identities in favour of a whiter shade of page, please post them here!



  1. The BBC's "Old" page as you list it was actually a rather blatant rip off based on the Sky News page relaunch that happened a few months before. I agree this lack of "unique web identy" trend can only be bad for the diversity and design of the web, but ultimately it comes down to money (Read "profit") Being unique isn't the corporate image many shareholders and managerial boards want. Which is a shame. There was a similar backlash about the old BBC news homepage when it changed from the old, old version, probably because you can't find all the things you usually look at! Change and redesign brings commentary and uproar and therefore more visits, site traffic and therefore profits! Money make the "Virtual" world go round!

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