It’s the age-old debate among the web design community: Should a website be creative or functional?
Some insist that using creative elements like interactivity and animation can make a site truly stand out. Others, like Neil Patel, insist that a website should be simple, intuitive and clean. Petar Stojakovic of the UX collective calls purposeless design “pretty pixels” that lack usability and relevance for web visitors.
We may never settle upon a definitive answer to this question — but as marketers, salespeople and web designers striving to create conversion-driving websites for our businesses, it’s still an important question to explore.
So we decided to explore it at New Breed. Chris Mathieu, our Chief Design Officer, and Kelly Molloy, one of our Web Strategists, met for a friendly debate about the level of creativity and functionality that should go into a website.
Here’s what they had to say.
So, how creative should web design really be?
“Websites should be intuitive,” started Chris, citing Patel as an advocate for the predictability and functionality of web design. In other words, they should allow users to find and consume the content they’re looking for as quickly as possible.
“But,” he continued, “there’s also something to be said about the value of those unique, compelling experiences. So the question is: How far do you go?”
Kelly, who acted as a key influencer in New Breed’s decision to transform our web process to focus on content strategy and user experience design, believes the answer to that question lies in UX. “At the end of the day,” she said, “users [visit websites] to do something, so giving them the path of least resistance to get there should be the objective of the designers.”
But how do you create that path of least resistance?
“I think setting proper expectations is the proper way to do that,” Kelly said. For example, you might want your website to be as visually compelling as possible, but you can still ensure it’s user-friendly by providing users with clear and predictable methods of engaging with the interface.
“The objective of the website can define where that balance falls — whether it’s more creative and less clear or more clear and less creative,” she continued. “That’s a really important distinction.”
A website like Amazon, for example, should give users the ability to find and purchase the products they’re looking for as quickly and easily as possible. The design should be clean and simple so as not to interfere with the actual function and objective of the website.
“But that’s not a blanket statement,” noted Chris. “It really depends on your audience, your content and your industry.” In other words, Craigslist might be able to get away with its stripped-down interface, but a creative B2B firm like Duarte, one of New Breed’s former web clients, should showcase some style, personality and creativity through their web design.
With these many nuances in form vs. function, how would you define “good” web design?
“Good design doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s very creative,” said Chris. “[A website] can be very simple, yet very polished too.”
Apple is a classic case study for the power of simple design. Their sleek, clean web design manages to intrigue and inform users at the same time. Some would argue that this simplicity is the secret to effective web design; research indicates that companies who simplify the decision-making process for their customers were 86% more likely to make a sale.
On the other hand, simplicity isn’t everything. “Even if you are a B2B company with a utilitarian audience and you need a very clean, traditional website,” said Chris, “you should still partner with someone skilled in web design in order to make it sing.”
A good example of this is New Breed’s work on the SpringCM website. When SpringCM realized that their creatively-driven homepage was suffering from poor scroll rates, Chris and the rest of New Breed’s web team worked with them to pull the key creative elements from the original design into a new, more functional design that would ultimately perform better for their business.
In other words, there’s no one, all-encompassing definition of “good” web design. Instead, it’s a matter of balancing the necessary utility with just enough of those unique, eye-catching elements to help your brand stand out from the crowd.
“I am glad that people in the industry sometimes choose creativity over usability, though,” said Kelly, “because it enables us to push forward. If you think about the internet even five years ago, it was a completely different environment. The only reason we’re seeing as beautiful of websites as we are today is because people took those risks. I’m sure some of them were less user-friendly and maybe not as effective for their end-users, but that sort of trial-and-error is what enables us to continue moving forward.”
In that way, web design could be likened to the music industry. If musicians only made the type of music that they thought popular audiences wanted, the industry would get stuck in a cycle of sameness that eventually becomes boring, white noise. When musicians do take risks, there’s no guarantee that everyone will like those risks — but ultimately, it’s those risks that help shape the future of the industry.
“The main problem with overly-creative websites is that users will have to take some time to understand how to actually engage with them,” said Chris. “The main pro of creativity is that you’re memorable, for better or for worse.”
What comes first in web design: functionality or creativity?
“Function comes first,” said Chris. “That’s why we’ve shifted to this content-first approach, but even that is shaped in part by the client intake and how much they want to push the creativity.”
“Plus,” added Kelly, “the content-first approach is kind of interface-agnostic. So no matter the level of creativity, you can begin to plug-and-play based on the interface where you’re sharing content and the audience you’re trying to engage.”
That flexibility is one of the key benefits of a content-first approach to web design. For example, if you’re looking for a very visual website, the type of content you include on each page might skew toward sliders, pictures or drawings. The function or purpose of the content and the creativity with which you present that content should work to enhance each other, not interfere with each other.
“It’s always a chicken-and-the-egg scenario, right?” said Kelly. “As I’m planning out web content, I feel fortunate that I can visualize the modules in my mind that would work best for that content — but without much prior experience in web design, our clients can’t necessarily do that. So that’s one of the difficult hurdles to get over. You may not be able to visualize the creative possibilities of your content, but a good web designer can, so you need to learn to trust them.”
So how do you actually bridge that gap between staying true to the purpose of web content and making room for the creative possibilities of that content?
“For the most part, we like to say that the sky’s the limit, outside of budget and timeline constraints,” said Chris. “But if clients bring us creative ideas without a solid content strategy to back those decisions, we’d push back against that.”
In other words, you have to remember that your website is really meant to function as a digital hub for your business. You need to use it to convey certain messages and encourage users to take specific actions, so if you can’t justify your creative decisions, then those probably aren’t the most profitable decisions to make for your business.
Unlike paintings, poetry or other art that could arguably exist just for the sake of art, the quest of good B2B web design should be to present specific messages, features and images that ultimately lead to commercial gain for your company. However, you can bolster this functional, purpose-driven design with high-quality imagery to elevate the creative component of your website.
“You could have a really traditional layout and UI,” said Chris, “but it’s the type of imagery you use that evokes that creative, unique feel. Those visual assets can make or break how daring something feels.”
Damotech’s website, another project led by New Breed, is a great example of how a website can use visual elements to truly stand out. Though the website’s interface is clean, intuitive and easy to navigate, the Damotech team used custom, high-quality photography to emphasize their brand personality and style where pure user functionality couldn’t.
Now, imagine the same site full of stock images of men wearing hard hats. Would it still have the same effect?
“There are some great and hilarious stock photo options out there,” said Kelly. “But if you fill your website with stock photography, users will recognize that even subconsciously and feel deterred from staying on the site. Cheesy stock photos degrade user trust.”
The ultimate consensus from New Breed’s web experts is that:
- B2B web design should, first and foremost, fulfill the company’s basic utilitarian needs. Creativity can be layered on top of that.
- Creativity and functionality should work together, not against each other, to elevate the design of a website.
- There’s no ubiquitous definition of “good” web design. Instead, it’s up to you and your web designers to work together to decide what “good” web design means for your business.
- As long as you’re working with experienced web designers, you should trust them to find the right balance between creative, brand-boosting design and a functional, purpose-driven interface.
As Kelly said, “really smart, driven, entrepreneurial people can have the right messaging and ideas — but man, maybe they just suck at design.”
So when it’s time for your next website redesign, come prepared with your wildest ideas and your non-negotiable site objectives — and then leave it up to the experts to sculpt a killer website that drives tangible results for your business.
Elizabeth is a former New Breeder.