Web Rhetorics for a Digital Age: The Medium AND the Message

By Jason Snart, College of Dupage

The Web

"The Web"

We know that this catchall phrase describes a vast array of different Web sites and tools. "The Web" includes everything from Amazon to eBay to the millions of personal Web logs that users are creating and updating all the time.

Within this wide diversity, however, some basic principles of effective Web communication hold true.


Users of all kinds of Web sites like simplicity, whether or not sites are for commercial purposes, educational purposes, or for pure entertainment. "Simplicity" means that information is laid out in an obvious and intuitive way. Above all else, keeping things simple means keeping clutter to a minimum.

The "F" shape

Studies show that people don't "read" the Web as they would read a printed book. In fact, Web users don't really read the Web at all. Most users scan pieces of text and images looking for information they want or a link that will take them to wherever they'd like to go.

Users scan most Web pages first horizontally along the top, from left to right, once or twice.

The next step for most Web users is to scan down the left-hand side of a page.

This scan pattern follows an "F" shape: two horizontal lines and one vertical line.


In most cases, Web users are not interested in reading long blocks of text. The eye is easily fatigued by too much text all in one place on the screen. As such, you will notice that many Web sites break text up into "chunks": short blocks of text interspersed with images or other design features. Just as often, Web design will make use of empty space, which is actually a very important feature of effective Web sites. The empty space can be used to guide the Web user from one piece of information to another, and it can provide much needed relief from too much clutter.

"The Web" annotated screenshot

Consider the three Web sites listed below. As you visit each, take note of how—or IF—each adheres to the basic principles of Web design outlined above.

Is simplicity achieved? And if so, how?

Does the layout take advantage of the "F" shape?

Is text provided in manageable chunks? Also ask yourself if there is really much text at all.

How is empty space used effectively, if it is used at all?

National Public Radio (www.npr.org/)

ESPN (http://espn.go.com/)

W. W. Norton and Co. College Books (http://books.wwnorton.com/books/)