Is content really ‘king’?

Content is king…so goes the widespread meme popularised by Bill Gates’ essay of the same name

Is this true? Well often it is, but not always. Sometimes it is not all about the content, because the content simply does not hold the intrinsic value.

Perhaps it might be reworded as communication is king. Because, if a website cannot communicate its message, there is no point in it being there at all. In order to communicate, there is an important prerequisite – people have to come and read it – which usually means it needs to be a good resource.

Let’s say you visit a beautifully designed website and take away the pretty layout, the colours, the attractive images and logos, and strip it down to bear bones elements that are simply communicating the messages.

A lot of the time, you’d be left with a fairly minimal set of messages, and the marketing department would probably be horrified at the low number of really useful messages left sitting there on the screen, a bit lonely looking. Yep – it’s the designers worst nightmare!

You might be taking away a lot of the aesthetics – but that’s all it is. It’s like looking at the core content of a pure CSS-styled website. For some, removing this skin over the top of the content will bring the website down to a more approachable level. There’s no pretending to be something it’s not, there’s no subliminal messaging – no feeling of being persuaded to do something. Just bare bones and plain English.

By doing this, you’ve removed a number of social, visual, cognitive, expectational and ethnographic barriers – a good thing. Ok, not pretty, but good going!

Now, if you are a marketing person, you’ll quickly realize you can increase the density of useful messages on the screen and get a corresponding increase in effectiveness of the website – i.e. greater communication per unit area.

Result: There’s any number of marketeers who make ugly websites, but even marketeers can see there are limits in effectiveness of communication with increasing density of information, so simple mark-up and small amounts of whitespace still get used to highlight and separate messages. This prevents a ugly working website from becoming an ugly non-working website.

Let’s be fair; marketeers aren’t stupid. They can see when a change to their website starts getting less visitors or making less money – they’ll be watching it like a hawk. In actuality, your ugly (but working) website is probably very finely tuned!

Wikipedia is not a pretty site, but it’s functional, it communicates well, and it’s been designed within a tight specification because it’s what works for the people who use it. So is functionality king then?

Wikipedia, Craigs List, The Drudge Report – they all are highly functional, highly communicative, and indispensable resources for many people. They don’t need aesthetics – if they did, they wouldn’t do their job so well.

So when it comes down to it, perhaps the holy grail of web design really is achieved when there is special and exclusive meeting of the three wise kings: content, communication and functionality. Thus perpetuating another popular saying “all good things come in threes”.

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