Failed redesigns: Use web standards or don’t bother redesigning

Joe Clark has definitely taken his gloves off in the article Failed Redesigns, a call for people in the web industry to expose the incompetence that is so widespread within it:

A failed redesign is a Web page created from scratch, or substantially updated, during the era of Web standards that nonetheless ignores or misuses those standards. A failed redesign pretends that valid code and accessibility guidelines do not exist; it pretends that the 21st century is frozen in the amber of the year 1999. It indicates not merely unprofessional Web-development practices but outright incompetence. For if you are producing tag-soup code and using tables for layout in the 21st century, that’s what you are: Incompetent.

I agree fully, as most people who have been following this site for a while will be well aware of. The incompetent people need upgrade their skills or get kicked out of the industry.

After the hard-hitting intro Joe goes on to analyse a few of the failed redesigns of 2005, noting how they have failed. These examples of incompetent web development would be quite entertaining if the non-professionalism they display wasn’t so ubiquitous.

Are you aware of more failed redesigns during 2005? Of course you are. Joe suggests writing about them and using the tag failed redesigns to make these failures easier to keep track of. Feel free to post your nominations here if you can’t or won’t post them elsewhere.

Update: Tantek Çelik has posted some comments on Joe’s article at The Web Standards Project.

Posted on January 8, 2006 in Accessibility, Quicklinks, Web Standards


  1. I had a good laught reading that article. Websites mentioned there are ehh… outstanding.

  2. Joe Clark has definitely taken his gloves off…

    Joe’s always been a bare-knuckle boxer.

  3. haha yes I saw this the other day, it’s similar to my “Crusade” category although I haven’t necessarily caught a redesign in the net (excepting Disney Store of course). Joe’s take was sufficiently different that I added the idea to my to-do list as a topic adjustment. Now where to go to get news of relaunches (in the UK for starters)?

  4. I worked for University of Georgia’s School of Social Work IT department while a design of their website was imminent. Instead selecting me for the job (I was a lowly college student at the time, ‘unprofessional’ in the eyes of the administration), a recent graduate was chosen for the job. I that job left in disgust. The results are the epitome of a failed design.

  5. The Disney redesign should really be at the top of that list?

  6. January 8, 2006 by adam

    I appreciate his opinions about standards and accessability, but I am the only one who finds his blog very hard to read (visually)?

    Off topic, I know.

  7. I understand the idea behind it but when it comes to criticizing a site, there’s always something you can find wrong with it. From div-itis, to no semantics, to incorrect semantics. Any site could be picked apart to some degree.

  8. January 9, 2006 by amber

    I’m not comfortable posting this on my blog (and, as such, am not leaving my URL along with this comment). I have a failed redesign to point out.

    Until October 2005, I was a web developer at WebMD. When I started working there (March 2004) I was bowled over by just how bad most of their code was. This was due in no small part to their complicated and antiquated content management system, which (among other “features”) automatically converted all HTML tags to upper case, and stripped quotation marks from around attribute values. However, it was also due to developers who had been working there since (or nearly since) the site’s inception circa 1996 - and hadn’t bothered to update their skill set since then.

    In the time I was there, my boss and I undertook a monumental task - get the web development team up to speed, and educate people at all levels of the company about the value web standards. This was of key importance with people at the management level - as decision makers, they were going to dismiss anything we had to say as “tech talk” that didn’t matter to them, unless we could frame it in a way to show the business value.

    We did just that. We created a presentation that went over so well, we showed it to almost everyone in our office, and a significant amount of the people in an office in another city. Finally, management was endorsing web standards. It still wasn’t a perfect situation - there was still the CMS to grapple with, for one thing, and that wasn’t going away any time soon - but it was certainly worlds better than before. The development team was also now using CSS for more than just setting font sizes, and were defaulting to divs instead of tables. All the code we delivered now validated. If a developer tried to slip in a deprecated, presentational attribute or presentational tags out of laziness or ignorance, my boss and I made sure they changed it before we would approve it.

    Eventually, the redesign that had been talked about for so long actually got to the point where we thought it would be a reality. There were mock-ups. I set to work writing XHTML (instead of HTML, imagine that) and CSS - and had the full endorsement to make the redesign standards-compliant. The result was a beautiful design on top of lightweight, accessible pages. (The fact that WebMD, a health site, never gave one whit about accessibility would make me laugh if it weren’t so pathetic.) We demonstrated, with before-and-after stats, how we had cut the page weight in half, reduced the number of validation errors from something around 170 to 2 (due to ads, beyond our control), used 0 tables, 0 presentational images, etc. We showed how the page looked with styles disabled, demonstrating how easy to use it would be on a PDA. And so on and so forth. Everyone was extremely excited about seeing this thing launch.

    And then, new upper management stepped in. And he didn’t care. He did away with all we had done, and called for a completely revamped design. All our hard work never saw the light of day.

    The new Executive VP of Product Development (or whatever his title was - I can’t even remember) hired an outside firm to do all the design work for his redesign. It was a mess. My boss and I wondered if the company had ever designed for the web before. I refused to be the developer on the project, as I was disgusted (and looking for another job) at this point. The designs were almost impossible to code to standards to begin with, but we did our best and tried everything possible - and we’d get feedback (from the outside firm, who for some reason was now allowed to call the shots) saying, for example, “This is off by 1 pixel. Fix it!!”

    I didn’t stick around long enough to live through the actual launch of the redesign. I’d washed my hands of it even when I was there, but of course I still heard things, and I just had to shake my head at how ridiculous it was. The WebMD site that’s up today? Visually it is better than the previous site - but that’s not saying a whole lot, since the previous site was built sometime in the late 90s. And hey, at least it has a doctype now - that’s something, right? It also has more validation errors than previously (the home page had something like 300 on my last check) and a page weight that is much greater than before (I’d hate to try to load it on a slow connection). All accessibility considerations were out-and-out dropped. Want to increase the font size from the miniscule 8-point? If you’re using IE, you’re out of luck - all the font sizes are hard-coded. I could go on, but this comment is already way too long anyway!

    Sorry for being so long-winded; but I had to share. Thanks for this post, Roger!

  9. In regard to the comment above by amber; it is all to common in the workplace.

    I had a very similar scenario, which I won’t delve into, and the ending was almost the same. Sometimes, upper management doesn’t know anything about anything and they make blind decisions. What, most of the time, ends up happening is this. If you can’t read the text, the top says “management” and the bottom says “employees.”

    Isn’t it funny? A lot of times, management takes responsibility when things succeed, but it is the employee’s fault when an unwanted outcome arrives, or something fails.

    Also, when unexperienced individuals go with an outside firm, they don’t know how to do the proper research as to what qualifies the companies to be a good candidate for selection. “OHHHH, LOOK AT HOW PRETTY THIS SITE LOOKS, AND HOW NICE IT IS… LET’S CHOOSE THEM; CALL NOW, AND GET THEM ON THE PHONE” … When the site management is looking at, is completely done in flash. And, lets just say the requirements of the company’s project, is an e-bay type application. LAUGH

    Even after explaining to management certain, and many things, they still don’t listen.

    From what I have found, many small businesses and small business owners don’t seem to care about web standards. It’s unfortunate, but true.

  10. Straight off the top of my head. April of last year, What happened to PropserMag. They were one of the prime uses of sIFR at the time, a great example of a commercial medium using web standards, with big dumb and beautiful pictures and layout. Overall just a wonderful site then just blew it with a redesign.

  11. I’ve started a list of French sites on my site in: Refonte ratée. Feel free to contribute (French sites only please).

    Here it is:

    None of these are mom ‘n’ pop stores or personal websites. My guess is they cost a bundle. For whatever that price was, you have: no DOCTYPE, invalid code, table layouts, no accessibility, bad usability (Flash-only navigation on the first site).

    Each from a different web agency and, from what I gathered, redesigned in 2005.

  12. Amber, your story, I think, resonates with a lot of designers. Kintis nails it, too: so many of the decision-makers for web projects could care less about web standards, or anything below the [visual] surface, for that matter.

    It’s attitudes like this that have essentially driven me to leave the web development market in the small biz sector (working as an individual). I’ve had to spend too much time justifying best-practice web design to clients. Perhaps it’s simply too much to expect, I suppose, from small businesses owners who have to focus on their product or service.

    It’s not limited to small business-think either. I’ve watched new, know-it-all management gut a once-proud agency here in the Portland, OR area - nothing but a hollow shell staffed with contractors now. Sad. Why do few above those doing web standards get it?

  13. January 9, 2006 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Benedict: Hehe, yeah I suppose you’re right about that :-).

    Mike: Disney Store UK belongs on this list, that’s for sure.

    adam: No idea if you’re the only one, but I find Joe’s blog easy to read.

    Jonathan: Oh absolutely. Nobody (and no site) is perfect. But there is no need to nitpick to find huge problems with those of Joe’s examples that I have taken a look at.

    amber: Thanks for sharing your story. I feel your pain. I’ve seen similar things happen, but not quite as bad.

  14. I appreciate his opinions about standards and accessability, but I am the only one who finds his blog very hard to read (visually)?

    I agree with you there adam, but I tried reducing the text size and that helped a lot. Too much bold black on white for my eyes.

  15. January 9, 2006 by ebby

    A redesign done in 2005 not in 1995. The use of Frames and Tables reminds me of a long gone time but it’s still alive. Have a look at this site and you know what I mean. Does the management love their site?

  16. Reading amber’s story I am reminded of my own experience with my now former employer, who took on a fully integrated ‘Enterprise Resource Planning’ package from what was then called iCode, but has now renamed to Everest (the same name as their primary product). A fully Windows-based system for managing a business, this behemoth included everything from inventory, accounting, purchasing, ordering and even employee task management. One key element of the system is a fully-featured e-commerce webshop, built in ASP. As webmaster at the company (which had a specific interest in accessibility due to the nature of its customers: people with cognitive and sensory disabilities), it was my responsibility to ensure this webshop system adhere to both modern web standards and be accessible to legal requirements.

    But oh god, it wasn’t. To say the code was bad would be a modest understatement. It wasn’t merely invalid markup, it was full of table-based layout, spacer gifs, nested font tags and other junk. The most heinous sin was that the site literally wouldn’t function without javascript, depite having no discernable need to use javascript. Several kilobytes of inline server-side generated JS code occupied the start of every page, and was used for everything from populating lists of product categories, to the title of pages.

    Not being much of a masochist I passed on the decision to work on this myself (especially as the horrid code was being generated by a pile of ASP templates, a language I’ve not worked in in a few years), so Andy Clarke’s Karova guys stepped in, although by the time I left they’d still not been able to get it to behave. Hardly surprising, really.

    The thing that irritated me the most about it was that iCode (now Everest) demonstrated a wilful disinterest in helping us improve the code. Even making overtones about their duty to provide something that adhered to disability legislature didn’t motivate them, and so I can only hope that it’s not too long before somebody takes legal action against one of their customers so as to set that all in motion. The injustice there is that the customer themselves can’t really be held accountable (apart from for having purchased the useless software in the first place). Joe Clark is quite right to call developers like this incompetent, and I wholeheartedly agree it shouldn’t be tolerated any longer.

  17. January 9, 2006 by Greg Laycock

    Very things are more frustrating than spending a great deal of time and effort to create a modern, standards-compliant site, and immediately (and I mean immediately) have the client change it. That happened to me last year. Apparently, the client’s in-house developer had no idea what CSS was and so completely rebuilt the site with tables. ARG!

  18. January 9, 2006 by Who? Me?

    Like Amber, i’d like to mention a former employer, whom I left because they were not only ignoring web standards, but are actually a major web app supplier for UK local government, the Police and Fire Services - and were actively lying to their customers about using web standards!

    The developers there were actually a good bunch, but weren’t given the opportunity to learn new skills, but the directors were just a bunch of charlatans (and making a nice wedge from local government too).

    Due North

    And here’s one of their major public sector sites…

    NEPO Portal

  19. Unfortunately someone I work for is stuck in the age of tables for layout and no matter what I try and do he refuses to learn new skills. It’s really frustrating for me and I just end up doing the back end. I’m more than capable of doing the HTML but I generally don’t have the time for it.

  20. I agree with sad state of these sites but also think this holier-than-thou attitude doesn’t really advance the issue either. Many (if not most) clients only care about the surface (i.e. the graphic design). Why do you think there are so many flash sites that don’t do anything you couldn’t do with XHTML+CSS??

  21. January 9, 2006 by Diane

    I too have to add an employer as the culprit for spewing horrible tag soup, inaccessible web sites. I work for a healthcare company. Corporate has its own entity that provides web sites for medical facilities and doctors. The sites are built with a content managment system that spews the most horrid code I’ve ever seen and I’ve been coding HTML for amost 10 years. The CMS spits out a ton of VBscript and javascript and all the sites are a morass of tables, spacer GIFs, font tags, etc. It gives only a passing nod to CSS and even that is a horrible mess.

    For a healthcare company, NONE of the sites built by this ‘web design’ entity are even close to being accessible, let alone have a whiff of standards compliance in them. None of the sites work correctly with any browser but IE, most I can’t even navigate with Firefox. NONE of their sites have a DOCTYPE defined and the titles for the pages consist of ‘this is the site home page’ !! They pile in scores of keywords which we all know the search engines bascially ignore any more.

    I work for a smaller division and we do our own web designs for our sector of healthcare providers. We’ve had more than a few who had sites done by that corporate entity and one of their major complaints was that their sites never showed up on the search engines. It’s no wonder with page titles like ‘this is the home page’. Coporate’s ‘solution’ to search engine placement is to have people PAY for keywords..something that just isn’t feasible for our clients.

    The corporate ‘web design’ people can throw out sites fairly quickly with their CMS. Management is clueless to web standards and accessibility, which, for a healthcare company is pretty bad. The usual comment is ‘well, it LOOKS nice’ - yeah.. as long as you have no disabilities and only use IE.

    In addition, I’ve visited the websites for a few web design firms here in the city and almost every single one of them is still spitting out table-based web sites, a majority of the sites they build have no DOCTYPE and little or no CSS. And these people get PAID big bucks for this garbage ??

    Drives me crazy……….

  22. In the world of search engine optimization companies, web standards have become a selling point for services. Of those I’ve found offering web standard services, 90% are shysters or, charlatans. Some - Acutally - have W3C validation. They meet validation with tag-soup code and using tables because they have an external style sheet for fonts! Some have simply copied-and-pasted the W3C validation images for their noncompliant sites, e.g., no Doctype and in-line styles.

    I would be remiss not posting these shyster sites to the “Failed Redesigns” awards but it would be stoopid to do so. They would only get free advertising (which would increase their search engine visibility).

  23. Are we all banned from using tables for anything?

    I’m sorry but CSS just isnt always a valid option, be it time, budget, existing CMS’, or something else.

    I am so sick of every single “designer” turning round and hopping on the “lets rip apart anything with tables in it”.

    Get off your high horses and get to the REAL WORLD.

  24. January 9, 2006 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Thanks for sharing your stories. All interesting reading.

    Sean: You do have a point about linking to the failed redesigns increasing their search engine visibility. For what it’s worth, any links in these comments get a rel=”nofollow” attribute.

    Stew: Tables are perfectly fine for tabular data: Bring on the tables.

    As for CSS not always being a valid option, well, you can always find an excuse for not doing things properly if that’s what you want.

    It’s all about keeping your skills up to date. If a CMS, other developers, management or whatever is holding you back, at least do what you can.

    I, and many other web professionals around the world, live in the real world too. A real world where we use semantic, accessible HTML/XHTML for structure and CSS for presentation.

  25. I work freelance in between college work.

    I can code css and xhtml very quickly, but if I am dealing with a CMS or am simply very pushed for time I have no choice but to go for the fastest option - tables.

    It takes too long to debug IE6 bugs with CSS and to be perfectly honest other than the code mess with tables they work just fine in all modern browsers, if you want to browse around with Netscape feel free, don’t bitch to me when sites look like crap in it though.

    All but 1 of my most recent client sites is full semantic code, the only one that does use tables does so because I didnt have the 20 hours plus it would take to delve in and recode the CMS to stop outputting tables. So unless you want to pay me for the extra 20 hours feel free to get over the fact that it isn’t always possible to do everything “properly”.

  26. January 9, 2006 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Stew: Tables may be the fastest option for you, but they sure aren’t for me. “[tables for layout] work just fine in all modern browsers” is pretty subjective. Do you mean “tables for layout look about the same when viewed by a fully sighted person on a desktop computer”?

    About the CMS, like I said in my previous comment that can be a problem. In your case if you can’t do anything about it then you can’t. That’s acceptable as long as you would have fixed it if it was an option, which I guess you would have since you’re already using css and xhtml for your other projects.

  27. “Do you mean “tables for layout look about the same when viewed by a fully sighted person on a desktop computer”?”

    Yes, however how many of clients really have a market which views sites on something other than a desktop/laptop? In all honesty I think other than tech and news sites there is a very small number of sites which need support for handhelds.

    Regarding the accessibility issue I can’t argue that tables is any where near accessible and XHTML is the best option by far, again its a market thing.

    I do use XHTML and CSS except in circumstances where I can’t, be it due to CMS issues or time/budget constraints, however the problem is that as soon as a site is released and it isn’t CSS & XHTML almost all blogs start ripping them apart simply because they don’t use Web Standards… it’s not needed, if companies still get work without using WS good for them, it’ll dry up soon enough.

  28. January 9, 2006 by mattur

    Does this count as an “eye-gouging hissyfit” about layout tables from Joe Clark?

  29. January 9, 2006 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    mattur: The sites Joe mentions and those mentioned by people in the comments here have more fundamental problems than a few layout tables.

  30. Roger,

    URL “nofollow” is well documented on your site. :)

    Still, even publishing a site’s name or URL will get them found by search engines. Especially, when cited in an “authority” site such as yours.

  31. Just catching up on the thread - and actually leaving my URL this time. Yes, I am a risk-taker.

    I knew I wasn’t alone in dealing with this frustration, but it’s always good to hear other people’s stories! My new job still has some of the same problems, but not nearly as much as what I experienced at WebMD. It’s taken some getting used to!

    A few of you mentioned something to the effect of, “small mom-and-pop sites don’t care about web standards” or “they can’t be bothered to build a site to standards.” I actually disagree - but only somewhat. I know of plenty of smallish sites that suck; but WebMD is a testament to how large sites, which by all estimations should care, can also suck. There are many other examples out there. (I would use Disney UK as an example here, but they’re really a unique situation, having backpedaled from standards compliant design.) In fact, I think it’s often easier for smaller sites to implement web standards than the larger ones. Once you convince the proper people - no easy task, to be sure, but there are usually fewer of them in number to deal with - converting a bad site into a good one won’t take as long as converting, say, AOL. Bigger sites have more invested already - established content management systems which are tightly integrated with their processes, etc. etc. - and to the management-types, it appears as more of a “risk” to do a monumental overhaul of the site if “business as usual” is working just fine (which it isn’t, of course, but to their eyes it is).

    Don’t misunderstand me: I am in no way excusing this mentality, but just noting something I’ve observed in terms of bigger sites changing or not changing to comply with web standards. It is exactly this type of short-sighted thinking that my boss and I took such pains to dispel, breaking things down into a cost/benefit analysis, showing how putting forth some extra effort upfront to “fix” the site would lead to a more streamlined process in the future… and so on and so forth. Once we monetized it for them they were all onboard - but it was a victory that was squashed, sadly.

    Re: Stew - this is no place for a flame war - but your statement that “tables are easier” is ignorant. If you’re used to building sites with tables, then yes, building them that way will be easier. What you’re used to is always easier. There was a time when I said, “Building with tables is easier.” The learning curve for CSS was somewhat steep, but once I got it… well, now, building standards compliant sites comes as second nature to me, and “regressing” to use tables instead would be difficult for me. It’s no longer what I’m used to.

  32. Near-misses were given a pass, Jonathan. I put a lot of emphasis on semantics, as slightly-invalid HTML that knows what lists, paragraphs, and headings are is still valuable.

    I had a(n) heuristic combination of egregiousness and degree of commerciality I was working with (hence Disco Museum but also Salon). Disney Store UK went without saying.

    For whoever doesn’t like the look of my personal Weblog, have you tried any of the several alternate stylesheets provided? (And oddly, the colours are not strict black and white. I just made them even greyer.)

  33. amber:”your statement that “tables are easier” is ignorant.”

    You’ve taken me out of context, I didn’t word the sentence properly though and can see why.

    When you have limited time tables are a billion times easier to use because you do not have to any major fixes for various browsers, they all read tables pretty much the same way.

    Now compare that to CSS, I don’t know about you but I test the site I am working on in Safari and Firefox, 99% of the time its fine straight out of my code, however open it in IE and 80% of the time the site is buggered, simply because IE doesn’t render CSS correctly. So I end up spending a few more hours getting it setup for IE and hopping back and forward making sure I haven’t destroyed the site in FF and Safari.

    And for the record I have been using CSS and XHTML for a long time and use them all the time except when up against a CMS which will take too long to convert to CSS.

  34. Stew - I hadn’t read all the comments when I replied, so I apologize. I see your later point now. I do understand about dealing with CMS issues (obviously, as I said in both my comments).

  35. January 10, 2006 by Marc Luzietti

    At my last position (at a Fortune 500 company), I kept up pressure on my manager to move to XHTML/CSS (before I knew about the MIME thing). My chief “rival” was the Flash designer, who kept saying that XHTML was just a flash in the pan, as ephemeral as JHTML, nothing to worry about. After my contract expired, when they did a redeign, they went to an all Flash design, though after a few months moved back to a table-based layout, just using CSS to control fonts. Glad I’m not still there, as that would just have made me crazy.

    HTML4.01 strict + CSS2 on my current gig, though sometimes its dificult.

  36. The new Exec. VP at WebMD (the one who sent all our hard work down the toilet) wanted to do the entire site navigation in Flash. He also wanted to do the daily top story blurb on the homepage (this changes EVERY DAY) in Flash. He finally gave up both ideas when he learned he’d have to hire a full-time Flash developer. But I know that secretly he would love the navigation to be Flash.

  37. January 10, 2006 by Marc Luzietti

    The company for which I worked only had one type of product, geared at a clientel, which, by definition, had visual disabilities. They make contact lenses. LOL!

    Their excuse for not moving to XHTML/CSS was that they still needed to support Netscape 4.7 for Mac, because eye doctors weren’t the most tech savvy people and were unlikely to upgrade their software on their own (to be fair, 5,000 unique IDs a month came from that browser/OS combo).

  38. The state agency where I toil recently switched our intranet from static file-based to Oracle Portal. Ben Darlow said it best: “It wasn’t merely invalid markup, it was full of table-based layout, spacer gifs, nested font tags and other junk.” I still need a hug.

    Now they are looking at migrating our external site to a Portal system. And I am looking at starting my own web design firm.

  39. January 25, 2006 by crush

    I worked as an intern at a small web company in NYC. While I was there, I was ashamed of being part of redesigning Water Mill Center.

    “Web Standards? What the hell is that…?”

    “Oh, our CMS only allows us to use classes, but no id’s.” And please: create a different style for every f*ing single type of paragraph…

    “Why is that page getting displayed so weird when I try to print it?”. Either because we have positioned every little element with ‘position:absolute’, you incompetent I-am-the-tech-guru chief, or because we used freakin’ f*in tables all over the place.

    It was bad, I can tell you. Really bad. I can never believe how they made the client actually pay for this.

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