It's not your website

Every website should have a reason to exist. It may be for information, entertainment, marketing a product or services or maybe just a brochure for your business.

Anyone landing on the site will be there because they want whatever it is brought then there. It doesn't matter if this is from a search engine, a social media post, advert, email marketing, a forum, blog or news site or even the dead tree press. They are on your site because they want to read, look at or buy whatever it is you are offering.

They don't really care about your palette, the font, logo, ethos, background, skills or anything else. All they want is the thing.

When I go to BBC news I'm there because I want to read the news. I go to Amazon to buy stuff. I look at images on entertainment sites. What I don't want is lots of guff and fluff getting in the way.

It's not your website. It's a website for your visitors. What you like doesn't matter, you design the site to meet the needs of your visitors.

Start your design with the content. if you don't have the content you can't design a site. You need to plan the navigation system, calls to action, internal linking, pages structures and so on. You need to source images and write the words. Consider legal and privacy. Work out the interactions (such as allowing comments) and information flows.

Once everything is in place, test. Get people to play with the site to makes sure everything works. Use software to track how people navigate, how long they spend on a page, where they click and most importantly, if they convert.

Once you have everything working you can now design the look of the site. But design it on a phone. Don't build the site on you 60 inch high res super screen. Design it to work on a phone first and then on your desktop.

Get the content > build the functional site > test > create the styling.
They don't really care about your palette, the font, logo, ethos, background, skills or anything else. All they want is the thing.
I do agree that a website is more about the visitor than the designer, but that is true for all design. It is created for a purpose and is not about the designer – with the exception of Scotty, of course.

However, what I would say is that you seem to be discounting and demoting the idea of design, brand identity and story-telling as decorative afterthoughts. These things are as much a part of the buying process as practical considerations. To a greater, or lesser degree, depending the product or service, an emotional response can often be the final decision maker.

For example, when I used to care about fast cars, I had a succession of Alfa Romeos. Of course, functionally they were amazing (and contrary to popular belief, I never had one let me down – and I’ve quite a few over the years), but a fair bit of my of my decision making was emotional. I have driven plenty of other friends’ high performance cars, that just didn't do it for me. A lot of my loyalty was, I’m sure, down heritage – both automotive and my own. That Italian spirit is imbued in everything about them, from their bloody awkward driving position, to the romance of the Amalfi Coast, to the Mirafiori track, to Monza, etc, etc. I have driven BMWs that, on the face, of it were pretty amazing cars. Some faster, some not so. But they always felt, accurate, measured, perfectly engineered, in short, very Teutonic. Admirably amazing, but completely without passion.

Alfas, on the other hand, always made me smile; the noise, the passion, the beauty. This is not completely functional, practical decision making. Of course there are practical considerations. I have a preference for their Twin Spark engines, for a whole host of practical reasons, but ultimately, they made driving an absolute joy.

So, for me, your premise that styling is a last consideration; a prettifying of the function, is not entirely accurate. Design is not about pretty, it is about solving problems. It is about telling someone else’s story to the audience they want to attract. Otherwise Boots No7 would look the same as Givanchy, or Bentley would look the same as Lambourghini. They tell different stories to attract different customers with different likes, motivation and aspirations.

The question of design and story-telling cannot be extracted from the practicalities of website building. They have to be considered together and equally. One does not work without the other. A completely practically, effective site that has all the functionality you could ever need, executed well, but which is not ‘designed’ will fall over just as much as a site that speaks to its market, but is impossible to find anything on.

You are of course, correct, that most visitors don’t care about palette, font, logo, etc. In itself, that is not important. They don’t consciously, but those things help build a subliminal picture of who is talking to them, in much the same way you take subliminal clues and make assumptions about people you meet face to face. They all help to build trust in a brand, be it a company selling product, or offering a service, or eliciting money for a good cause.
The question of design and story-telling cannot be extracted from the practicalities of website building.
Totally agree. This is all part of the planning process.

I've done some tests on a number of my own site. In one test I removed just about all the styling, it was plain and very boring. Bounce remained low and conversion were unchanged.

Amazon is pretty ugly and functional and they seem to do OK.

But I do take your point.
Amazon is pretty ugly and functional and they seem to do OK.
That’s measured and intentional. Amazon and other similar businesses, like eBay, are special cases – early businesses to be entirely internet-based. Their aesthetic was borne of the early days of the internet, when it was all still very utilitarian. Amazon’s brand has evolved from this functional, development-driven look of its early days. By the time the internet developed to allow more flexibility, these companies had already built their brand and customer loyalty.

Amazon has a warehouse aesthetic, which makes us all feel as though we are paying lower prices than on the high street – which we are in many cases. Who doesn’t love a bargain?

Part of design is also knowing when to leave something alone, or just subtly evolve it. Amazon is fit for purpose. It is ugly, but because of customer expectation and familiarity, if it suddenly became more sophisticated and refined, it would almost certainly hurt their business.

The site itself has changed quite a bit over the years, but with an almost, unnoticeable, geological evolution, so that you don’t really notice and still feel that you are in the same warehouse. They went through a few logo incarnations in the early years up to 2000, but since then, have stuck with the, now iconic a-z smiley, friendly, approachable logo we all know. This is not arbitrary. It’s a very considered strategy.

I really can bore for Britain!
And once again, I agree with you.

The whole point of my post was to say focus on the content not the colours. Too many people try to begin with a logo or agonise over a font or pick a particular shade for their buttons. They start their website with an Adobe product and become fixated with a particular layout.

Websites evolve and change. But you begin with the content. And the content is driven by your marketing plan. Until you know who you are selling to and how you can’t create the content.
Sorry, I was just wide awake at 3am, so went off one!

Funny though, my gripe, from the other side of the design/development fence, is I see so many sites by second rate developers that don’t even consider the design, or worse, think they know what they are doing and you know the sites are just not going to work, or rather they will function, but not reach the right people and say the right things.

Just shows how these things are always a matter of perspective and whenever you think you have the right opinion, something always comes along to blow that theory out of the water.
Amazon is pretty ugly and functional and they seem to do OK.
Depends on what you class as functional....

My usual experience of Amazon of late (and this is with an adblocker) is basically sifting through the Chinese stuff (don't get me wrong, I've had some good Chinese stuff but I don't want to be waiting till the new year right now) we can't remove, ignoring the 'sponsored' items and then finally finding something I'm looking for about 3 to 4 pages later..... mind you they do at least despatch and deliver their items unlike curry's. Having said that ebay has the same 'Chinese stuff' problem plus they often pretend to be UK businesses too which means searching in the company info etc. It also really grates to see a company that is selling stuff plastered with adverts as well, even if it's for stuff they sell (we know they're getting paid)

Don't even get me started on amazon prime video, trying to find something to watch in that is just painful.