Unreadable Design Isn't Cute

March 24, 2022

Update August 20, 2022

I'm amending this to include a link to a wonderful book, Building Accessible Websites by Joe Clark, written in 2002(!!!). Much of the actual web design component is extremely dated, but I think everyone reading this should read the preface, the Access Manifesto, because it encapsulates the thoughts I was trying to express here in a way that is superior in every aspect. If you still don't feel like retrofitting your website is worth your time, I also encourage you to read Why Bother? Much of the specific advice is geared towards commercial web development, but I think it's worth reading for anyone.

Since the publication of this post, I've completely overhauled my website design. Part of this overhaul was the inclusion of a dark mode in the styleswitcher because photosensitive people exist. I have the opposite problem: I can't read light text on a dark background without hurting my eyes or putting the screen up a few inches from my face (which still hurts my eyes), so I had to make some guesses for colors and have friends who can read in dark mode tell me if it was usable or not. I'm not saying this to brag or virtue signal or whatever - my point is that, if I can put in the work on a page design that I can't even read, you can do the bare minimum and not be an ableist ass.

(One more thing: telling me your website is inaccessible on your splash page doesn't fix that your website is inaccessible. I am actually inclined to think worse of you because you recognize that you have a problem, but don't think it's worth your time to fix it.)

Anyway, enjoy the essay! Or don't.

I've noticed a recurring theme on customizable webpages (Neocities, Carrd, Tumblr, whatever) in recent history that frustrates the hell out of me: unreadable/inaccessible web design under the pretense of "retro aesthetics." This includes but is not limited to unreasonably tiny font, low-contrast font-on-background color combinations, flashing GIFs everywhere, unnecessarily busy and distracting background images, confusing image-based navigation with no labels, and so on. You've probably seen one of these websites. Or maybe you're a fan of this particular look and you're getting ready to egg my house, but hear me out before buying those eggs!

To address the "retro" component: most older web design was not like this. Eye-searing, cluttered, obnoxious websites certainly existed, but from my experience in the late 00s and based on testimony from people who were on the 90s-early 00s internet, this was never the norm. If you think it was, you might be putting too much stock in what anti-web1 people are telling you the internet used to look like. (For instance, searching for "90s web design" gives you a selection of the worst that 90s web design had to offer from articles designed to ridicule it.) But this look was never widely desirable, and you're not sticking it to the man for trying to bring it back. There have always been people who wanted to make truly good-looking websites, or, if nothing else, websites that you can actually read.

I'm not trying to be the arbiter of what constitutes "good" web design, nor am I anti-fun, creativity, and all things cute. I'm certainly not claiming this website is good or you should be emulating it (please, no). But there are plenty of weird, unconventional, even straight up "ugly" websites (including nostalgia bait ones) that are fun to look at without forcing burn-in on your eyeballs! Believe me, there are a lot of aesthetic choices I'll accept if your website is actually legible. On second thought, I suppose I am trying to be the arbiter of good web design, in the sense that I'm telling you that inaccessible web design is shitty web design.

The rebuttal might be that it's your website and you get to pick the layout. It's supposed to look bad, Kale! It's irony! Okay, yes, whatever. I'm not here to tell anyone what to do, because I'm just some dude on the internet. At the end of the day, though, you put your website out there for people to look at. If you're fine with preventing a subset of the population from reading your website, nothing is stopping you (especially not me)! But just as it's your right to make your website unreadable, it's mine to tell you that you're being an asshole for the sake of whatever you think your "vision" is.

This isn't a diatribe against misplaced nostalgia or bad web design or whatever. I just don't like the myth that all of web1 was an obnoxious mess, because 1. people are using it as an excuse for inaccessible design and 2. it discredits the hard work that most people were putting into making their websites look nice. Still, even if it was all GIFs and rainbows, there's absolutely nothing preventing us from doing better. I promise you there is nothing inherently artistic about making your words neon pink on a flashing black space background, and you're not surrendering to boring corporate design principles if you make your font size bigger than 8pt. I would even argue that it requires more creativity to make a website that's wacky and fun yet still legible. (I mean, how much thought are you really putting into your page by putting GIFs everywhere they can fit?)

If you read all that and still want to egg my house, egg away, but I hope you engaged in a tiny bit of introspection before making that decision. Also, if you think I could be doing something better, let me know! I'm by no means an expert here, as I am but one person with bad eyes, but I'm trying, and that's all I can really ask of people.

P.S. Leetspeak and its relatives were never cool and it makes life hard for people with screen readers. Please just let it die already.

P.P.S This is an article about visual design, so there wasn't a sensible place I could put this in the main text, but autoplay is fucking annoying, it has always been fucking annoying, nobody likes it, please stop putting autoplay on your websites. Thanks!