Designing Websites with Personality

President of WebFX. Bill has over 25 years of experience in the Internet marketing industry specializing in SEO, UX, information architecture, marketing automation and more. William's background in scientific computing and education from Shippensburg and MIT provided the foundation for MarketingCloudFX and other key research and development projects at WebFX.

We all have personalities, and no one is exactly like another. Our relationships and memories are built on our interaction with other people. Like every person, web designers have unique and intriguing personalities.

But even with the clearly obvious level of impact our personality has in our lives and our work, there is still a noticeable lack of individuality in the web designs we see on the web. For example, why do the Chicago Tribune and New York Times have websites with such similar personalities even when these newspapers are unique in their own right? So often, we find ourselves getting caught up in typography, keeping up with the latest design trends, information architecture, content readability and the like that we forget or neglect to consider those who are going to be living through the experiences we’re building.

Users have meaningful and memorable experiences with other people on a daily basis, yet we want our dull and generic websites to carry just as much weight in their day. We need not be afraid of showing some personality with designs we make. Web designers need to rethink how we’re providing generic and strictly formal website experiences with a user base that is increasingly seeking a casual, informal online experience that’s rich with personality.

Made by People for People

What do people really love about the internet? The fact that we can communicate with our peers, do our shopping, spark a relationship, keep tabs on our bank account, and research new and exciting information on the web are all great. But beyond all of that is the fact that we can do them all without our pants on.

Have you ever submitted a resume for a job via email or a web form? Did you dress up for the occasion? I bet you would have if you were going into the company’s office in person.

Why are we so caught up in formality when our users are all probably half-naked, chugging soda, and stuffing cheese puffs into their faces as they browse our sites? The internet is the ultimate informal environment. That’s great because it gives designers a lot of room to be creative in building a site that has a lasting impression on people because of its personality.

In a lot of cases, personality is best generated with content, as this is the component of the site that users will be most engaged with. For example, one of my favorite sites to visit is Cracked, a blog oozing with humor, satire and wit. Cracked does not have a remarkable web design (far from it), but the fantastic content on the site certainly builds a distinct personality.

Cracked Content is a huge factor for incorporating personality into a site, but as designers, we have exponentially more options at hand.

Making It Last

The success of a website is most often determined by repeat visitors, and no one is going to repeat their visit if they can’t remember anything remarkable about a site. Building a relevant connection with people and a product creates strong loyalties among users. As web designers, we can build a more memorable and personal experience simply by using fundamental design tools such as space, color, texture, shape, and so on.

A wonderful example of personality by using visual style can be seen in the various sites created as a part of the Lost World’s Fairs project (a project by the Friends of Mighty to help Internet Explorer celebrate their support for WOFF). In the three sites included in the project, we see distinctly different personalities being displayed, even without a wealth of content. “El Dorado in 1924” by Naz Hamid “Atlantis in 1962” by Frank Chimero “The Moon in 2040” by Jason Santa Maria We collect so much information about the world around us based on what we see.

As a designer and artist of the web, we can find so much power held in the principles of design and art, and how they can persuade our users to see our ideas and visualize our personalities. Evoking a strong emotional response from your users, be it positive or negative, is a sure-fire way of keeping them coming back for more.

Is There Value in Error?

It would be easy to deduce, in seeking to make websites that are more human in nature, that there might be an inherent value in making mistakes. People goof up and fail — a website that admits to its shortcomings is one that’s built by people.

Instead of covering up imperfections, oftentimes, the best approach is to gracefully admit to them when they happen. For example, the Twitter “fail whale” has become a gag all over the internet, recreated, duplicated and mocked thousands of times. In the end, though, the “fail whale” error message has become a part of the Twitter story as an error message with personality.

If we’re going to fail, we should do so gracefully and in our own terms. Twitter Imperfection is a part of the world we live in, and the internet is no exception. The mistakes we naturally run into when creating a website provides designers with an opportunity to make the most of a bad situation and remind our users that we are people too.

When It’s Not Your Personality

Web designers rarely have the opportunity to design for themselves, so more often than not, our own personality will probably need to take a back seat to that of the person, product, or service that the project will ultimately represent. This is easier said than done.

In order to best build a new web personality from scratch, it is important to first take a step back and observe. The right website personality cannot be achieved without first getting a good sense of what the project is going to represent. Are you building a website for a quirky, local coffee shop?

A church? A small business or tech startup? All of these organizations provide people with a hugely different experience in real life, so it makes sense that their online presence reflects that difference as well.

The best way to put your finger on this as a designer is to immerse yourself in as much of the experience as possible. Can you visit the location? Are you able to interview various people involved in the project?

Every experience you have with the project is an opportunity for you to evaluate what personality this new website will/should have, and what factors come into play in creating the feelings and emotions associated with it. LongHollow Baptist Church’s website has an interesting design. What personality is the site trying to conveying to its site users?

The next step is to take measure of where you have control. Oftentimes clients will want control of their own content, so that may be something we won’t be able to control. Do they have brand colors or photos that must be used?

These are just a few examples where your creative license is limited. Fortunately for us, much of what it takes to build personality in a website can be done with the details. Does that coffee shop have wallpaper or floor tiling that users can relate to when they see it as design elements of the website?

Maybe the company you are representing has been around for 100 years and a black/white color palette will help users relate to the meaningful history the company has.

A Time and Place

Like so many ideas and design theories out there, incorporating personality into a website has its time and place. Ideally, most of your web projects will take on some level of human nature during creation and implementation, but oftentimes, we must limit how casual and personal we can be. Some clients would rather have a safe, vanilla website.

However, as designers, we should always look for opportunities to express personality in the things we create.

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