The Amish Guide to Intelligent Web Design

image of amish crossing sign

Less than an hour from where I live in Pennsylvania — if you point your car in the right direction — you see road signs that warn you to beware of horse and buggy carriages using the road.

The Amish people live a life very different from yours and mine.

For the most part they don’t use electricity. They avoid most machines, preferring a simple lifestyle that revolves around farming and handcrafting everyday items.

Amish furniture is coveted in some circles for its high quality and classic beauty. Their food is simple and delicious, and their household items are made with masterful craftsmanship and attention to detail.

The Amish don’t use computers, so what could they possibly teach us about web design?

The key to gorgeous site design if you’re not a professional designer is to keep it simple.

Does simple mean plain? Boring? Unadorned?

No. Simple — in this case — means effortless (as in, effortless to read and absorb), and accessible (as in, easy to find what you need).

In today’s post, we’re going to talk about how to achieve the kind of simplicity that leads to a sophisticated, ultra-functional website.

It’s easy, once you know how.

Start with a well-proportioned theme

Your design job will be much easier if you start with a theme that has “good bones.”

By this I mean plenty of white space, and an open, airy feel. You want your words and images to be surrounded by open space like you’d put a matte around a beautiful painting.

Plus, working with a solid WordPress theme gives a cohesive structure to your site, and makes each page look like it relates to the one before.

Use a reduced color palette

Amish clothing is very low key and modest.

The result is that when you come face to face with an Amish person, you really see them. You don’t see their flashy clothing or notice their hairstyle.

What you see are their faces. Their personalities shine through, unembellished by the trappings the rest of us use.

How does this translate to our web pages?

On your site, this means using a design style whose goal is to let your content shine through. Your message should be the star of the show, and your design style shouldn’t detract from the purpose of your pages.

One way to accomplish this is to use a reduced palette of colors. I recommend starting with two main colors in addition to black text and a white background.

Using a reduced color palette helps direct attention where it belongs, which is on your words.

Because — as we know, the writer runs this show.

But, the designer makes you look. :-)

Do more with less

The Amish are masters at making the most of whatever they have on hand.

Used clothing becomes a beautiful quilt to huddle under in the cold winter months.

The sap from maple trees is tapped and boiled down to become delectable maple syrup.

Wood is reclaimed from barns and turned into furniture.

One quick and effective way to apply the “use what you have on hand” concept is pare your fonts down to two. Use one for text, one for headlines. Pick fonts that have a full family of weights: bold, semi-bold, and italic.

Then put those fonts to work all over your site. Use different weights, or try them in all caps. But don’t go beyond your two fonts.

Designing within these “restrictions” will set you free. Your pages will hang together and look cohesive because your fonts will be consistent throughout.

Lighten up your sidebar

Most of our websites have some sort of content area, as well as what I like to call the “business side of things,” which is usually a sidebar.

It’s tempting to cram your sidebar full of all sorts of ads, social media icons, opt-in forms and affiliate banners. The result is that each item competes visually with all the others, and no one wins.

Instead, approach it like the Amish.

They don’t use big, blinking neon signs to point out their businesses. They state their offerings simply, and present them in uncluttered surroundings so the customer has space to think and really see what’s there.

On your sidebar, this means paring down your offerings and making some hard decisions. If your theme allows it, it might mean running different combinations of sidebar content on different pages of your site. This allows you to spread your offerings out and feature them where they’ll make the most sense.

Look at your sidebar and decide what one action you’d most like your visitor to take. Then make a call to action that stands out visually. Make it larger and more colorful, and place it and higher up in the column.

The rest of your sidebar options should be less colorful and smaller so they don’t compete.

‘Tis a gift to be simple

Simplicity can be beautiful when your aim is to create a site that’s intelligent, effortless to navigate and easy to understand.

What can you do to apply some Amish craftsmanship to your site?

Let’s talk about it in the comments …

About the Author: Pamela Wilson teaches small businesses to grow using great design and marketing at Big Brand System. Brainstorm ideas, solve problems and achieve goals with other small business owners in Pamela’s Leap Year mastermind group.

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Comments

  1. I designed my blog with each one of these steps in mind. What’s the purpose of blogging? To direct your audience to useful stuff, to improve their lives. So, can’t be too much useful stuff, and certainly can’t be too much clutter. Keep it clear, simple, direct, focused, and keep the frills to a bare minimum.

    I run a spartan-looking blog but I get my readers to do what I want them to do. Because I include plenty of white space, a light side-bar, simple design, and a few clear and distinct calls to action. The Amish know the great secret: simple works best.

    Thanks for sharing Pamela!

    RB

    • “It can’t be too much useful stuff” is very true. Sometimes we have to make the tough decisions and eliminate things for the sake of clarity. Thanks for your comment, Ryan!

  2. Great comparison! I lived in Pennsylvania for 8 years near Amish country, and these are all very true.

    Perhaps also nurture your relationships, be modest, leverage the feedback and input of others in your community….

    I love those posts that draw wisdom from everyday phenomena.

    • Great additions, Ruth. In the case of leveraging the input of your community, that could be your readers or your peers: both groups can teach you a lot, right?

  3. great tips. just what i needed to hear today as i’m working on my site. thank you!

  4. Excellent post. I have a very hard time keeping it simple, but the key is to not give everything away up front. I recently revamped my blog and took down most of the links on my sidebar. I am sure I can do more to simplify it even more.

  5. “Your message should be the star of the show, and your design style shouldn’t detract from the purpose of your pages.”

    Great point! Design is so subjective that if you ask 10 people what they’d like to see in a website you’d get 10 different answers. Great messaging has to shine through your design; that’s what is going to encourage people to act.

  6. Pamela,

    Super suggestions! I love a simple, streamline look and sometimes I need to “clean house” a little because I get carried away with putting too many items in the sidebar (or other places).

    Having too much can really detract from the visitor experience and running different sidebar content on different pages is a great fix – thanks!

    Theresa :)

  7. Brilliant! Now let’s get this to all of our clients who are convinced they need every bell and whistle invented on their site.

  8. I’m just starting out my blog site, as you can see I haven’t even invested in a domain of my own yet. I really like the idea of keeping it simple. I’m trying to focus on the improvements that we are making to the house we recently bought. In doing this we are using as many “green” techniques as possible. This made me think that the possibility was there for a blog that would help other people find ways to make improvements in an eco-friendly manner.

    Keeping the blog simple and easy to read sounds like a win-win situation to me. Thank you for the great advice.

  9. Hey Pamela,

    Love the post. The title drew me in – as a Brit I probably have some misconceptions about the Amish, but I wanted to see where you were going with it.

    Anyway, I couldn’t agree more. A nice simple design that lets the writer strut his/her stuff without distraction is perfect for me.

    I hate cluttered sidebars. There is one particular animated “opt-in” form which I find enormously distracting and which I hate with a passion. I will often scroll down a couple of paragraphs just to be rid of it – if I don’t leave the blog altogether that is.

  10. Something you could add to the list that relates to your first point is freshness. The Amish certainly rely on fresh farm produce among other items. To my knowledge, their cupboards are not full of canned and boxed stuff with 5 year expiration dates.

    It is also my understanding that Google now rewards sites even more for content that is fresh. I guess the new tweaks to the algorithm don’t apply across the board (yet) but fresh content has always been something Google, and your readers want in a website.

    Even though the term fresh usually applies mostly to content, it can apply to design as well. I’m sure we’ve all been to sites that look like they’ve been around for a while and haven’t been updated in forever. The design and navigation styles may appear very out of date and the whole thing just has an out of touch feel to it. When that happens, we also may wonder what else about them/their business is out of date.

    Taking a cue from the Amish, fresh foods means healthy eating and to many visitors, a fresh, current site is the sign of a healthy business as well.

  11. Hi Pamela;

    Thanks for this great post; simplicity is something I work on with PR clients on a regular basis. It’s important to keep website and blogs simple and clean, so that visitors can easily avail themselves of whatever you are offering. If a site or blog is too cluttered, your message can disappear. And I really agree with Hamish (above); also – floating “opt-in” or “share” buttons are super distracting and can be a fatal turnoff.

  12. Great advice Pamela!
    Keeping things simple is the way it works best, in all areas of business.
    Why is that everyone wants to complicate things?
    Is it to make them feel superior, or a way to make you feel as if you need them?
    Either way, great post.
    AJ

  13. Interesting article. It’s defiantly something worth remembering. Design is only one aspect to a website and if not done properly it can become a distraction.

  14. I prefer simple and I’ve kept my website that way. I do not like a website or blog that has flashy things, things that move, too many columns, too many click-throughs, or text that changes color. Also not like – text that goes from one background color to another and then you can’t read it. Slow down-load? I’m outta there! Clean, simple, easy – LIKE!

  15. Great article. However, I suppose I am witness to an exception to the rule of the Amish not using computers. I worked for an Amish Farm Gate Manufacturer here in Southern Ontario and he in fact did have two computers and a laptop. He utilized e-Bay and Kijiji and other auction sites to purchase equipment as well as maintain accounting and production etc. As well, he drove horse and buggy and used to stop at McDonalds and paid with debit and also purchased elsewhere with credit cards. A great family to work for. In his community, many of his friends also had computers especially for accounting and invoicing. They too used the internet for auction sites. The also know how to keep things simple as you say Pamela.

  16. I always shy away from cluttered websites, they are too distracting and you do not even know where to start, am glad you brought out the point of actually using the sidebar as a way of helping the visitor navigate the website, funny thing the headline made me think of “stifled” freedom, but I really like the way you have married the two topics, very informative indeed! Less is always more…

  17. I need to keep reminding myself to keep things simple and uncluttered. I like to fiddle by adding stuff to my sites and before I know it, I have buttons everywhere and flashing things galore.

    • It happens to the best of us, Steve.

      That’s why I talk about the topic frequently: it’s like a routine maintenance task we need to do on our sites. We should step back and ask “is it becoming cluttered?” on a regular basis. If the answer is yes, it’s time for some housecleaning.

  18. Pamela, I visited an Amish farm while holidaying in the US earlier this year. There is a lot be said for simplicity!

    Some of what you’ve said, here, reminds of a post on your blog about the difference between design and decoration. Too much decoration can detract from the simplicity of good design.

  19. When I search over for a good wordpress theme, the ones I like the most are simple ones that let the content (images and text ) to get in front. When I activate on the blog ( without the images ), they look useless ans stupid, because there is no content to show.

  20. Hi Wilson! Nice article. Good suggestions are posted. Designing a website effectively is very important to develop the website in good manner.

  21. Great post! The title got me too – I grew up in Lancaster (my grandparents are Amish), this clever comparison definitely resonates. Suggestion for a follow-up post: The Amish Guide to Building Online Communities.

  22. There’s nothing simple-minded about simplicity. And the same principle applies to brevity and clarity in writing as well as design. Thanks, Pamela!

  23. Great advice. There is nothing worse than seeing a busy and cluttered website. Especially one that is over-designed! Keeping things simple sounds so obvious yet so many people fail to do it.

  24. I love the approach. It’s funny how many people overload their sites and don’t even think about how it could be hurting them instead of helping.

  25. Great Post. Now I have to simplify my blog design :-)
    I guess one factor is when we start out our blogs feel too empty, we keep wanting to add more. The worse case of course is a large company where 10 departments and 100 products are competing for space. It becomes a political bun-fight with the poor web designer in the middle

    • Giles, the good news is that you can always go back in and simplify. Here’s hoping the simplicity message makes its way into the consciousness of large companies so the poor web designer in the middle doesn’t have to fight the fight with no ammunition!

  26. I can’t agree more Pamela. And Mark’s comment above about the difference between design and decoration also resonated with me. It can be difficult being honest enough to admit the difference sometimes!

    Do you have any particular two favourite fonts you like using together, Pamela?

    • Stephen, you’ve asked me the most difficult question one can ask someone who does what I do. It’s kind of like asking a chef what her favorite spice is!

      Font choice always depends on what you’re cooking up. For the web, I happen to like the look of a somewhat chunky sans serif font for headlines, partnered with a very readable serif font for text. But that’s this week … next week I might be on to something else! ;-)

      • Thanks Pamela. I often change my mind about fonts too.

        Do you have an opinion about whether serif fonts are easier to read on webpages than sans serif fonts, or do you think the whole argument is trivial?

        • The number one question to ask when comparing fonts is, “is it readable?” so I don’t think the question is trivial. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as easy as stating one entire class of fonts is readable and the other isn’t.

          It really depends on the font itself. I recommend people set a full paragraph in the various fonts they’re considering and look at the paragraphs side by side. There’s a great tool for this called the Web Font Combinator: http://font-combinator.com/

          In the end, your own eyes are the experts. Use them to gauge how quickly and easily you can skim through a paragraph of text set in various fonts, and go with the one that wins the test.

  27. Ahhh….love those pennsylvania Amish pretzels. Simple, yet delicious.

    Something else that I learned just recently was to keep my paragraphs slim and use simple sentences. I have the tendency to write complex sentences, and when I first started my blog, I noticed that people were on the site from 5 to 10 seconds even though I thought I had really good content on my site.

    I had a few colleagues at work take a look at the blog and the first thing they said, ‘man, you got long ass sentences and huge paragraphs.’ I spent a weekend re-writing the sentences to simple sentences and breaking up the paragraphs so that they were a lot ‘thinner’. Sure enough, average time on the pages increased from seconds to minutes.