Should I Have a Multi-Column Newspaper Layout for My Website?

More Tips on Usability

Should I Have a Multi-Column Newspaper Layout for My Website? More Tips on Usability

by Christopher Heng,

A short while back, I was asked by a visitor how he could create a multi-column newspaper layout for his website. Now, he was not referring to the typical multi-column website like what you see on, or what is described in my Expression Web, Dreamweaver or BlueGriffon tutorials. What he wanted was a website that looked like a newspaper, where an article spanned multiple columns on every page.

Reasons Why You Should Not Have a Newspaper Layout for Your Site

I personally feel strongly that you should not create a newspaper-style layout for your website.

Basic Trick of Usability: Make Your Website Work the Same Way as Other Sites

(Bear with me in this section. It may not look relevant to the main topic, but I want to try to address one of the root causes of low-usability sites as a site with a newspaper layout would have been.)

Many new web designers want their website to look unique. They want their site to look special and memorable. As such, they have a tendency to come up with all sorts of interesting things to do with their site, including this newspaper layout idea, so that it does not look like every other site on the Internet. Unfortunately, in so doing, as discussed before in my article on Appearance, Usability and Search Engine Visibility in Web Design, they may sometimes inadvertently create websites that cause usability problems as well as search engine indexing issues.

Recall the (not so) early days of home desktop computing, when many people used an operating system called MS-DOS. Contrary to what you may think, not all programs that ran on DOS were command-line programs. There were full-screen or windowed programs like the ones you see on Windows and the Mac today. However, the task of learning to use new programs on DOS was not as easy as it is to use a new program on modern operating systems. Every program had their own way of doing things. For example, to save a file, different programs had different keystrokes and menus to accomplish the same task.

With modern operating systems, companies like Microsoft and Apple have clearly-defined "Human Inteface Guidelines" for programmers to follow. As a result, the interface of just about every program on your computer is fairly similar. For example, to save a file in Windows, no matter what program you are using, you can simply use the "File" menu and the "Save" item on that menu. Or hit Ctrl+S. Or click the icon that looks like a floppy disk on the toolbar. The standardisation of the interface means that anyone who has learnt how to use one program will also know how to use another. You no longer have to read the manual. After installing a new program, most people can simply grope around and still be able to accomplish their task.

Web design is pretty much the same way. Although there is no overarching organisation to give a user interface guideline to specify that websites are to work a certain way, there are millions (or more) of websites on the Internet that more or less behave the same manner. By their existence and similarity alone, these existing websites have established a de facto standard. Users who know how to navigate a site with one of those standard design styles will also know how to navigate other sites with the same way of doing things.

In other words, you don't have to be a web guru or a usability master to create a usable website any more. Just use the trick of following the standard pattern used by other sites — a one, two or three column website with navigation menus in the usual places (top, bottom, left or right), and the main content flowing downwards in the centre, links that work like normal links, and so on. (See my articles on usability if you want more information.) By making your site operate in a standard way, visitors will automatically find your site usable, because they've already learnt it from their past experience with other sites.

I'm not trying to tell you not to be creative. Even within the constraints of a "standard" appearance, you can still create sites that look visually pleasing and interesting. (Although you should also remember that the bulk of the uniqueness of your site should not be in the appearance but its content.)


Newspaper layouts present a usability challenge for your visitors. In your quest to make your website look unusual, don't underestimate the importance of making your site usable. At this point in time, with the current state of technology, using a layout where content flows from top to bottom works best in websites publishing text-based information.

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Copyright © 2008-2018 by Christopher Heng. All rights reserved.
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