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Whitehouse.gov is a good design, but not because Obama is President

Politics and poor presentation mar what could have been an worthwhile discussion of the advancing state of web design.

In a recent Boston Globe article, Matthew Battles invited several designers to compare the Bush-era whitehouse.gov with Obama’s. They were asking: “Why does the site look better than Bush’s?” and “What does the new page say about Obama’s approach to governance?”

I’m not sure I completely buy their answers to either of those questions

The format of the article is to take some page element —the use of color on the page, for example— and compare the new with the old. But it feels like the comparisons aren’t objective for the most part.

Whitehouse.gov ca. 2009
What are you supposed to be looking at here? The colors.

For example:

“The Obama site now has bold graduations [of color], texturing; Like Apple.com, it calls for reaction and collaboration” The Bush site, by contast, was muted and chaste, a pastel blue limited to the margins…”a set of dinner plates that only come out for visiting foreign dignitaries.”

Really? Does that sound like an objective assessment or are we projecting with the metaphors here?

Instead of saying “the use of bold color focuses attention on headlines and interface elements” we get some partisan statement about how Obama is Steve Jobs and Bush is a stuffy old guy.

The article is seven paragraphs about form and one about function. If you compare the two sites, the content of the new page is not substantially different from the old one. In fact, it may be less genuine than Bush’s. Obama’s “blog” is a rebranded feed of press releases— there’s no two-way communication. Besides a coat of paint and rearranged furniture, what’s really that different about the new site?

The article is asking us to read too much into the new design. I like Obama and I like his websites, but I think there’s some cognitive bias at work here.

Congratulations, its 2009 and you have a new website

Websites go in and out of fashion rapidly. With rare exception, there are few websites from even four or five years ago that would look or function as good as they did when they were first launched. To compare Bush’s site with Obama’s as though they were somehow contemporary is akin to comparing a Pinto to a Prius.

If the Bush whitehouse.gov launched today, I’d bet you it would look very similar to the current whitehouse.gov.

Obama’s design looks better because it’s up to date. Large slideshow images, subtle texture, bold use of color, serif fonts, active voice in navigation elements, whitespace, center orientation — you’ve pretty much run down the list of the top web design trends of 2009.

You could argue that a Bush website that launched today wouldn’t be as good because he’s behind the times, but I disagree. I don’t think any web designer today (working for the President, no less) would put together something like the old White House site. It’s just not done that way anymore.

Let’s address the elephant in the room: maybe we like the website better because we like Obama better.

The Presidential reality-distortion field

Obama has a good brand— a very good one. So good, in fact, that it has spilled over into what people think about his website. Perhaps that’s the real story here?

I applaud the effort to get newspaper readers to think more about the design they encounter online, but I hate to see personal politics get in the way of what could have been a more objective discussion about better page design.

Thursday, I’ll speak a bit on another reason this article misses the mark: poor graphic design.

See you then!

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NickFeb 10, 2009
 

Comments on this post

1.

“Congratulations, its 2009 and you have a new website”

*cackles* Wonderful article. I also like Obama, but agree with your point that whitehouse.gov was overdue for an update. I am looking forward to your Thurs. article!

kati at 1:10pm on Tue, Feb 10th.

2.

Thanks for the kind words, Kati!

Nick Senske at 1:23am on Wed, Feb 11th.

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