Consistent to a Fault: Boring and Confusing

March 16, 2010 | Design Basics, Web Design

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As a branding expert, I find I’m always preaching consistency.

Consistency in logo treatment, typography, color palette and design elements are things that can build a cohesive brand identity. When you try to change things up too much you don’t have an easily recognizable look and feel which makes it harder for people to know you and trust you.

Also, consistency in layout—such as navigational items on a web site or running heads in a book—helps make something more understandable for the reader. If a viewer moves through your web site and the navigation bar changes, or the way of highlighting the “on” state of links changes, it confuses the reader.

But sometimes consistency is too much.

Last night I spent the evening with the TechMaine Web Design Users Group. We critiqued two web sites to help the site owners improve their sites. One site that we spent a lot of time on was the Portland Food Co-0p web site. This was an example of when too much consistency can be boring, and even confusing.

Screen shots from portlandfoodcoop.org

Examples of three different pages from portlandfoodcoop.org

Here are three sample pages from the Portland Food Co-op site. There is so much similarity between them that it was sometimes not even apparent we had changed pages after clicking on a link. A few suggestions of things to try:

  • Have the h1 (main headline) be in color. Therefore, as that text changes it will probably catch the reader’s attention
  • Whatever section you are in should be highlighted in the main navigation. This would actually not help particularly with these 3 pages as they are all sub-pages within “about” but would help when going from this large section to another.
  • Change the photo in the banner
  • Put in “breadcrumb” navigation. Breadcrumb navigation shows a horizontal list of each level of page you’ve entered so you can see your path and retrace it backwards. It’s helpful for understanding where you are in a site. In this case, it would also help to show what’s changing.
  • Add graphics or photos within the text area so that it is quickly seen as new content. Right now, everything is just multiple paragraphs of black type. They are also similar length with nothing breaking it up.

Consistency is still important. Whatever treatment you use to correct the problem of being boring to the point of confusion, should be consistent page to page.

For example, if you decide to use a new photo on every page, make sure you can find enough photos: don’t have two pages keep the same photo and one be different. That’s inconsistent and confusing. Or, if you decide to color your h1 tags, do it consistently throughout the site.

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