I make films. I'm also a nerd.

In Defense of the Sidebar

While I’m certainly in favor of any design trend which continues to take us farther away from the eye-crimes of yesteryear’s Web—please don’t get me wrong—there seems to be a growing propensity among design nerds to strip away everything on the page other than the “content.” That’s all well and good when the things other than “content” consist of useless cruft, but what about providing some kind of context for your content? What about designing a page which makes navigation easy instead of really, really hard? Why should we be so quick to damn the sidebar and make our Web pages harder to use? In our quixotic quest for the most minimal layout possible, don’t we realize somewhere along the way that the most minimal layout is simply a blank page?

For an example of the attitude I’m talking about, let’s look to this pedantic article by Eric E. Anderson, a developer of templates for Squarespace. No one (who’s sane) will argue that Squarespace templates don’t look great, but I have to question Anderson’s (self-conferred?) Design Guru Credentials when his stated goal is to make your Web site “more useful,” and that goal is stated right beneath a giant, pointless stock photo which consumes the entirety of my browser window1. Yes: he’s pontificating dismissively about usability right after making me scroll down before I can even see all of the article’s headline2.

The fact is, none of this is about “usability” at all. What we actually have here is a reactionary response to the excesses of the past. Sure, maybe we don’t need to see a link to every site you’ve ever read, or to have our screens filled with your 70 latest tweets while we’re trying to read an article. Arguing for cleanliness is admirable—but only up to a point. Clutter may hurt my eyes, but overly minimal designs in which navigational links are in the footer make me want to hurt you. Just give me some damned navigation in the place where I’ve been finding it for 20 years, thank you.

  1. On a 13” laptop display. Yeah, yeah, maybe his article looks better on a 27” desktop display. People are stepping away from desktops these days, though. 
  2. Yeah, he’s writing for Medium and probably had very little personal hand in that page’s layout. That fact doesn’t make his rant any less misguided; no one takes a preacher seriously when he’s surrounded by liquor and strippers.