Defining Beauty on the Web

Back in October 2013, I attended An Event Apart in Austin where I listened to Ethan Marcotte give an incredibly insightful talk. Afterwards, I remember shaking Ethan’s hand thanking him for providing me with a “Eureka!” moment. A few days later the conference ended and I was back home, but Ethan’s arguments wouldn’t leave me. For whatever reason, I outlined what I had learned from Ethan’s talk and sent them to him in an email, thanking him again.

Yesterday, Trent Walton wrote a piece titled Device-Agnostic which reawakened the revelations I received from Ethan’s talk in Austin. Trent talks about what good web design means and how that definition encompasses not just aesthetics, but a fulfillment of the traits inherent to the medium of the web itself, such as universal accessibility and speed.

I decided I would share the email I wrote Ethan as I realized I need to remind myself of the points from his talk. They seem even more relevant now than when he shared them. And I'm sure they will only increase in relevance in the years to come.


I LOVED your talk in Austin at "An Event Apart". It was an eye-opener for me as a designer. Here's what I got out of your talk:

Perhaps it's time we start changing the definition of what “beautiful” means on the web. This new definition should encompass and be informed by the inherent attributes of the web, such as universal accessibility. We can begin by defining beautiful websites as those which are small in size, accessible on any device, progressively enhanced, etc. The web is universal and if your site can be served to anyone in the world, on any device, and empower that person, well that is truly beautiful.

In a way, this is the struggle humanity has faced for some time. It’s the search to see beauty on the inside rather than the outside. So often we judge a person by their looks, a book by it's cover, or a website by it’s aesthetic design. Yet we often forget the true beauty of a thing should be informed and judged through an understanding of the multi-faceted purposes of the thing itself.

A book is not just beautiful because of its cover (or its typographical layout). The reasons as to WHY we read books in the first place should help us define and measure its beauty. Things like the narrative voice, imagination, character development, underlying message, etc. These are all reasons why we read books. Thus, they help constitute what defines a book’s true beauty. That’s why classic novels are classic. The book Don Quixote has not endured the test of time because of the typographical layout of its original print edition, but rather because of its ability to fulfill the various purposes and reasons for which books are created in the first place. It’s beautiful because it fulfills the essence of what a book is.

Similarly, designs on the web that are to be considered “beautiful” will be those which inherit and fulfill the attributes of their medium: the web itself. Beauty is not found in mimicking what constitutes beauty in other mediums (such as native app or print design). Rather, the beauty of a website is found in embracing its inherent nature: in being accessible, useful, and empowering—the very attributes, essence, and fundamental mission of the web.

In conclusion, we might ask “what makes a design beautiful?” The definition will be shaped and informed by the inherent attributes and purpose of the thing being designed. For example, what makes a chair beautiful? It’s not how it looks aesthetically, but how close it comes to fulfilling (through purposeful design) the very essence of its being. It can be incredibly ugly aesthetically, but if it allows you to sit, rest, and relax better than any other chair then by all counts it’s incredibly beautiful. So it is with web pages. Even if they are not that aesthetically appealing, if they are accessible, usable, and empowering than that is beautiful. How can we not see that? We should begin changing our definitions of “beautiful” on the web to be so.

Jim Nielsen