Should museum websites be ugly?

Museum websites look more professional, than they did a decade ago. Now most are well designed and aesthetically pleasing, but recently I’ve started to think that museum websites are starting to look rather bland.

Is it possible for a museum website to look too polished? Shouldn’t we have more fun with the way we present ourselves online? Those questions were inspired by a brilliant presentation by Ling Valentine, the ‘boss of Ling’s Cars’.

The Ling’s Cars website is unique, incredibly memorable and pretty ugly, but it works brilliantly for the business. Because while their competitors look bland, her website screams personality.

Ling doesn’t try to appeal to everyone, knowing that some visitors to her website will be turned off by the design. But ‘they’re boring, and I’m not interested in talking to boring people.’ Ling says. She is happy to be memorable rather than instantly forgettable like her competition.

Ling says that websites are competing with entertainment websites such as YouTube and we must give people fun ‘so that they will stay on your website and tell other people about it’.

So should museum websites be ugly? No, but they could learn a lot about personality from Ling. Most museums are full of interesting stories, inspiring collections and exciting exhibitions. That needs to be communicated through their websites.

To achieve that they need to think a lot more about personality, and a lot less about what other museums are doing online.

What do you think the museum sector can learn from Ling’s Cars?


20 Responses to “Should museum websites be ugly?”

  1. Jo Leah says:

    The British Museum is one example of a website which could really learn something from Ling’s Cars. In the History of the World in 100 Objects Neil MacGregor uses his personality to great effect to talk passionately about items from the BM, but their website has none of this, it is dull as dishwater….

    I am not suggesting that they fill their website with animated gifs, but where is the passion shown by Neil MacGregor for this collection?

  2. geert nijmolen says:

    I don’t think there is much to learn from mr. Ling.
    It’s just a cheap marketing trick, and one that works only the first time…

    It is indeed non-designed, but that doesn’t mean that it represents passion or even fun.

  3. Jim Richardson says:

    Hi Geert

    Thanks for your comment. I am not really suggesting that we design museum websites like Ling’s Cars, but more that when you browse lots of museum websites, they start to look quite similar and many are really bland and lack any sense of personality.

    Perhaps using Ling’s Cars as an example has clouded what I was trying to say. Did you watch the film of her presentation above? –

  4. Ida Gustav says:

    Hi Jim
    In some ways I think you have a point! It is importent for a brand to find a personal voice, a clear grafic and visual brandstrategi. Of cause it shouldn’t be ugly, ugly is not the same as personal. But a website can still have a personal and modern look without looking like sh..! :-) For museums it is hard to find af visual identity which is both modern, fun and serious and i think that it is often a dilemma in the organisation. I agree that too many museumwebsites look alike – wright to me when you find the way til a personal museums website! ;-)

    • MuseumNext says:

      Hi Ida

      You’ve caught me out of course, because as easy as it is to make the point on a blog, the reality is that it is very hard to do this.

      I’ll let you know when I find the answer…

  5. Jim, I think you are right on target and it’s not that you’re advocating for Ms. Ling’s version of a website for museums but, rather, providing a thoughtful discussion of what can happen when a museum tries to capture a look that ends up being just like everyone else’s or not usable by the audience.

    I review a lot of museum websites, too, and many do start to look alike after awhile. It’s almost as if the same web designer is working for museums across the country and only the names and the background color are changed. Some times consistency is good but sometimes it’s just consistency and compliance….a bit of follow the leader. Not everyone is the Met and not everyone wants to be the Met. It’s so nice when I stumble onto a museum website that actually has found their voice, represents their goals and mission, and provides a unique experience to set itself apart.

  6. MuseumNext says:

    Hi Cherie

    Great comment, I couldn’t agree more with ‘It’s almost as if the same web designer is working for museums across the country and only the names and the background color are changed.’

  7. Hi there Jim,
    It seems to me that the answer is not in ugliness – rather in playfulness, wonder and the usp’s of the museum that should be reflected in the website. The child pages are often much more fun!

    • Jim Richardson says:

      I think your spot on Sophie – ‘playfulness, wonder and the usp of the museum’.

  8. Phil says:

    I’d pay good money for a British Museum website featuring Neil MacGregor in the style of Ling’s Cars.

  9. Hi Jim,
    My 2 cents: I think it’s not so much about (visual) design. Or rather it doesn’t start there. It starts with most museums’ decision to utilize the instititutional voice in their communications (not only web but other kinds of comms). The natural consequence is that the web sites have little personality. The usability of musem sites, as you write, has improved a lot over the last years but user experience hasn’t kept pace.

    That kind of more personal touch more oftens shines through outside of the museum’s own web properties, e.g. on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest. Likely due to many of those presences being the result of the work of firebrands and guerrilla development rather than coherent institutional strategy.

    Decide how to speak with your visitors and customers (or start by looking at them as active co-creators) and the design will follow that decision. So it’s the Service Design, not the Web Design.


  10. charlotteshj says:

    I tend to agree with you David. The personal – or maybe rather: informal voice of the institutions is far more dominant on social networkingsites.

    I think, that a point is, that museum (and other institutional) sites were not created to support the development of personality in the first place. Many sites were originally created as corporate sites, designed to fit in among a number of other products in a similar design. Only a few years ago, some of the most important features on a site were design elements, such as colors, logo etc. which branded the institution – and not the “real content”. I remember a lot of sites being designed almost as if they were printed leaflets.

    The ideal site was simple, cool, classic, with few – but well chosen elements, etc. And actually, that is often what people in a focusgroup may still say. It is interesting to compare this to sites, that are in fact heavily sought by users. Most of the top alexa-sites are neither graphically stunning nor simple. I don´t think I will offend anyone by claiming, that for instance Wikipedia will not win many awards for aestethics in webdesign. So my point is, that to look good is much less important than having the content users want – or the people, that they want to share and interact with.

    Another thing is, that the aestethic preferences of the professionals in the museums graphics dept. or the traditional users of the site may not at all appeal to younger users or users who are used to (and like) more popular or colorful sites.

  11. Jim Richardson says:

    Thanks for the comment Charlotte. I think we have the start of a manifesto for designing a website in all these great comments.

  12. Hi There,
    As a designer of museum experiences–virtual and real–we create websites, exhibit experiences, installations, multi-media, print media, and everything in-between that one might find in a museum. To us, a museum website is an extension of the “real place” and just one way to become provoked and inspired, before or after a visit. It is one way to become intrigued by the museum and what it has to offer. To me, and my firm, we fully believe that a museum’s website should be rich, exciting, dynamic and inspiring… and, completely unique to the place it represents. Branding is key, but so too is conveying a sense of the story and experience that is offered at the museum. Good interpretation sparks a visitors interest and that can begin at the website.

  13. Kat says:

    I agree in some ways, some are very bland. That said I do like usability over ‘exciting design’, as others have said. There are some very good looking museum websites out there that make it damn hard to find the info you want, like the link to their online collections, or their events. Or else design features like flash intros or constantly changing images in headers might look good on a purely aesthetic level but can make the website a headache to use as you wait for things to load. Even worse is when the homepage looks marvellous but they only give you tiny reproductions of their works of art!

    • Kat, I agree wholeheartedly that they are some beautiful spaces out there where no one in the audience can find what they are looking for. Navigation is almost a secret and you have to know the code to break into the site. I work with teachers who are looking for lesson plans and if they have to dive into microsites 5 or 6 screens deep, they probably will give up. Granted the site might have a lovely digitized collection, but it becomes a game of hide and seek. Is that really the message that the museum wants to communicate? We have wonderful stuff if you have loads of patience and take your time to find this buried treasure!

  14. Kelli says:

    I think the factor isn’t necessarily how the website looks… Yes, it should look professional, but it can also look fun! (take a note from nearly any discovery center or children’s museum website) I think the factor is ease of use. There are soooo many websites from museums that are not user-friendly. Things are hard to find, or require users to navigate through other pages. Or, worst of all, things like hours, mission, and job openings are missing altogether! There are entire conferences on making web-based media user-friendly (which does include an aesthetic factor). So my question is this – why aren’t we offering at least one session like this in our own conferences to help remedy the situation?

  15. Rob Landry says:

    No, museum websites should not be ugly, any more than their physical spaces should. Their websites should be beautiful galleries in their own right, taking advantage of the unique characteristics of the interactive space.

    They should address a site visitor’s hierarchy of needs: “What exhibits are on display? When are they open? What’s in their collection? How can I renew my membership?” …and convey the information in a way that ties into and amplifies the museum’s voice and mission.

    Finally, museum websites should seek to tie the organization to a distinct online audience. An elegant – not ugly – website does this best.

  16. Interesting post/thread ;)

    I think it’s all about outcomes baby!!!!
    …and I submit that most museum websites – - most museums! – - have no idea what outcomes and behaviors they exist to create, support, or amplify. In such an environment it’s easy to become adrift in a sea of concern about the superficial aspects of design, style, and branding. Most of it is wasted effort.

  17. Stuart Leech says:

    I think that the main problem is that museum websites have to be multi-functional much more than many others. The only way to cover all the bases is to keep the design to a minimum but it is getting slightly boring when the Tate, V&A, British Museum and National Gallery all look very similar and very Web 2.0.

    I think smaller institutions have a great opportunity to break this mould as they aren’t as stretched when it comes to covering all the bases so hopefully we’ll see some great examples of websites coming from smaller museums and galleries.