Why Are Programming Languages Sites So Ugly?


For some reason I’ve been spending a lot of time on Hacker News lately. And I couldn’t help but notice that the Go language is getting a lot of hype.

I don’t know much about Go, so I naturally looked up the language’s homepage.

Now there are two possible reactions when seeing this page:

  • “Wow, that’s an unappealing site!”
  • “Hmm, that’s a perfectly normal programming language site.”

Of course, both are valid.

While I singled out Go, the truth is that the overwhelming majority of programming languages have sites that would never fly as the face of a company.

Look no further than the official PHP site, which looks like it was cryogenically frozen back in 2001. Tiny fonts, ugly color scheme, ugly typography, no mobile version… It’s like the past 10 years of web design never happened!

“But”, you say, “PHP is an old language, a relic of a bygone era! Surely modern languages have nicer sites!”.

And there’s some truth to this. More modern recently popular languages like Python or Ruby have somewhat decent sites. But why settle for “decent” in the first place? After all, those are two of the most popular web development languages.

I brought up this topic on Hacker News, and got some interesting replies.

A False Dichotomy

The answers I got seem to indicate a strange (at least to me) way of thinking:

I prefer a simple and easy layout like Go’s website over some pretty typography and new hip layout. – Monstrado

When looking for software to depend on, I think I prefer a visual design that does not attempt to be in any way “mysterious,” but rather simple and predictable. – IvarTJ

Things need to be in the right places, typography should be spartan and correct. It is a usability problem, not about appeal per se. – BasDirks

Why would you assume that good visual design would result in a site that’s “mysterious” or “hip”? It seems people are opposing visual design and usability, even though they are usually positively correlated.

Seriously, do you really believe that bringing in a web designer will make your site harder to navigate and more complex? That’s pretty much the complete opposite of a good designer’s job description!

So I can’t help but feel that this is a bit of a strawman argument. It’s absurd to equate good visual design with bad usability.

GitHub: proof that tech sites can look good

If you want proof of how silly that argument is, look no further than GitHub and Git, who both manage to clear, usable sites that are also modern and looks great.

Lack of Resources

Another argument might be that being open-source, these projects simply lack the resources to hire a designer.

That may very well be true, but I can’t believe that’s the only reason keeping these sites from looking better.

After all I’m pretty sure many designers would jump at the opportunity to redesign the PHP or Ruby sites, even for free. Think about it, PHP is the most-used language on the web. Having the PHP site in your design portfolio would open doors with a lot of people.

Plus, a lot of designers are already spending their time working for free anyway. If you don’t believe me, just look at the number of Instagram redesigns or iTunes icons on Dribbble.

We Like It That Way

I think the real reason is simply that people like it this way.

All these sites send a very specific message. Namely: “this is a serious programming language, and we’re not interested in trying to seduce you with fancy gradients or fonts. If you don’t like it, go away”.

And I get where this is coming from. After all, if you did use fancy gradients and fonts, people might start wonder why your language can’t be evaluated on its own merits, and even if *shudder* you might have something to sell.

Gradients and icons? Something’s not right here…

But you do have something to sell: you’re trying to convince me to try out your language, remember? I know you pretend like you don’t care, but I’m sure that down deep you’re wondering why NodeJS is getting all the attention instead of you.

So there’s a choice to make between these two positions: do you try to appeal only to the elite by making your site look like it’s been designed by a programmer? (something that Hacker News itself does quite deliberately). Or do you make your site more approachable and friendlier to try and appeal to more people?

But then again, I think back to GitHub and wonder if this is not another false dilemma. After all, is anybody not using GitHub, Heroku, or AppFog, because they look too nice? Are engineers fleeing from the Haskell site because it has a logo and uses webfonts?

Haskell: at least they’re trying

I think that this is a counter-productive attitude that needs to be overcome. And that the languages, frameworks, or open-source projects that do overcome it will be the ones who are eventually the most successful.

In the meantime, I’m not content with sitting by idly and waiting for things to happen. So if you manage a site for a language, framework, or any other open source project that might need help, get in touch and I’ll do my best to hook you up with a great designer.

And as usual you can also discuss this matter over at Hacker News, too.


4 Responses to Why Are Programming Languages Sites So Ugly?

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