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Billboard Design 101

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Keep the noise down to a dull roar

One of the great enemies of easy-to-grasp pages is visual noise. There are really two kinds of noise:

  • Busy-ness. Some Web pages give me the same feeling I get when I'm wading through my letter from Publisher's Clearing House trying to figure out which sticker I have to attach to the form to enter without accidentally subscribing to any magazines.

    When everything on the page is clamoring for my attention the effect can be overwhelming: Lots of invitations to buy! Lots of exclamation points and bright colors! A lot of shouting going on!

  • Background noise. Some pages are like being at a cocktail party; no one source of noise is loud enough to be distracting by itself, but there are a lot of tiny bits of visual noise that wear us down.

For instance, MSNBC's menus are a powerful and slick navigation device that let users get to any story in the site quickly. But the lines between items add a lot of noise. Graying the lines would make the menus much easier to scan. (Figure 11)

Users have varying tolerances for complexity and distractions; some people have no problem with busy pages and background noise, but many do. When you're designing Web pages, it's probably a good idea to assume that everything is visual noise until proven otherwise.

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