Essay :: Navigation Design

By Thomas Van Hare

Navigation and design go hand in hand. From reviewing thousands of sites submitted to the IPPA, we have come to classify navigation into two predominant categories, what we call passive and managed, directed navigation.  Further, we have come to recognize a basic flaw in the online design community — a failure to truly comprehend what is important on the page….


Passive vs. Managed Navigation

In passive navigation, a site designer offers all of the links in a menu bar either at the top, side, or bottom of the page. This is the most popular presentation option and it dates from the earliest days of HTML. Each link is weighed equally and offers viewers a democratic approach to working through a site. Today, despite advances in virtually every other area of online design, this outdated method remains the most common form of navigation design.

Managed navigation, the second classification, channels viewers through a site in accordance with a carefully constructed marketing strategy. Certain links are emphasized on each page, allowing more sophisticated marketing messages to be implemented.

For example, a simple form of managed navigation involves a completely linear site where viewers are invited to select links to the next page with simple phrases like, “give me more”, or “continue to next page”. A more refined approach involves multiple paths or tracks that have been weighed against a viewer’s preferences. A clothing catalog may publish links to formal wear sections from the bottom of the women’s shoes page. However, a different set of links would be presented from the men’s casual polo shirt page. At its best, managed navigation is also transparent.


Navigation is NOT Design

One of the greatest wrongs in online design today concerns the web designer’s natural tendency to believe that online design is about putting the links on the page in a new, creative or interesting way.  This is flat out wrong.

Somehow, navigation design has become the centerpiece of web design — and it should not be that way. Content is king — and that fact never changes.  Designers should focus the viewer on the content, not on the navigational elements wrapping the content, yet they don’t.

A good exercise is to review your BEST design.  Take a screen shot of several pages, particularly on the internal pages where you are presenting the “meat” of the website content.  Divide the page up into a grid and, as percentages, estimate how much of the screen real estate is used for content presentation and how much is used for navigation design.  You will be shocked to discover that despite the widely trumpeted phrase, “Content is king,” your best designers rarely attain even 40% of the screen real estate for the content itself.

Can you change that?  Absolutely — it is simply a matter of exploring better, minimalist or folding link designs.  Nonetheless, I don’t expect much from the bulk of the community of web designers.  It is apparent that they will focus their design work on the navigation elements rather than on the content of the page and sadly, it will probably always be thus.



With rapid advances of the HTML specifications and with the addition of new technologies, these navigation models for online presentation are continuing to evolve. With the disparate talents of thousands at work creating new sites, it is just a matter of time before another navigation model emerges.

Let’s hope it doesn’t take much longer. The WWW is long overdue for a fresh navigation approach for what is otherwise an area of online design that remains locked in an antiquated model.