Why a Misunderstanding of Art Can Kill Your Conversion Rate

by Daniel Paley

Last updated on February 19th, 2018

When you close your eyes and imagine “art” what do you see?

A painting? A sculpture? Calligraphy? Being dragged through a museum by your significant other?

I bet you didn’t visualize a website.

In this post we’ll talk about the difference between art and applied art and how an understanding of the distinction will increase conversions on your website.

Art History?? Zzzzzzzz…

Art is something produced or intended primarily for aesthetic stimulation, rather than utility. The Encyclopedia Britannica Online defines art as “the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others”.

Applied Art/Design applies aesthetic principles to the design or decoration of useful objects of function and everyday use, such as an iPad cover, a pair of sunglasses, or a decorative park bench. Examples are found in industrial design, architecture, and, for our discussion, web design.

Show Me the Conversions!

Most art is pure and, according to the French philosopher Victor Cousin, it is created for its own sake. You do the applied stuff to get paid. Painters who throw buckets of paint against a canvas are creating art for art’s sake. Sculptors who make 3/4 models of cars for wind tunnel testing instead of abstract lumps of clay are doing applied art.

Are you looking to design a website for the fun of it?  Or are you trying to get paid?

Whether you’re trying to get visitors to sign up for your free newsletter, donate to your charity or buy whatever you’re offering, your website serves one purpose: to convert your visitors into customers, clients, or subscribers.

Your website wants to get paid.

Steal Like an [Applied] Artist

Another key distinction between art and design is that art is unique and can’t be replicated.

Painters, for example, are truly creative. They transform blank, white canvases into colorful eye candy that the world has never seen, and we are indebted to them for it. But we don’t consider a person who copies their work a creative genius. At best, they are skilled with a brush, not great creators.

This is not the case with web design. Web design, to be sure, is an art. But it is an art with certain principles. While you don’t want to copy a great website, you should follow the standards or conventions that have been established within this applied art to then create your own masterpiece.

Designers need to create sites that follow conventions and usability principles. Visitors won’t look down on you for that. Actually, they will greatly appreciate it. Because these rules keep users navigating quickly and easily through your website.

If you break these rules, you confuse your visitors and kill conversions. Close adherence to these principles is what your visitors find beautiful and trustworthy.

But as business owners, entrepreneurs, start-ups, and individual freelancers, it’s easy to fall blindly into the trap of wanting our company or brand to stand out.

This trap is lethal.

Because when we ignore principles in favor of beauty and sacrifice proven standards in the name of being unique, we unwittingly abandon the keys to effective conversion in favor of beautiful confusion.

Southwest Airlines

Sorry, Southwest. But you’re never going to live this one down.

Here are four ways to ensure that you are creating applied art, not art for art’s sake.

1. Never compromise function for form

Yes, a website may be nice to stare at, but if it’s not getting the job done, it’s worthless—unless you want to hang your website in a museum, which doesn’t make any sense.

For example, people who spend time on the web know they’ll find logos at the top left of a page and navigation across the top. So don’t be unique and put your logo in the bottom right, or your navigation in bubbles floating around the sides. Otherwise, your visitors will get disoriented (and annoyed) and leave.

When you approach your website as a work of design rather than a work of art, you’ll have better control over your designer and the design process.

2. Understand the purpose of your site

To convert.  Keep this in mind at all times and you’ll be saved from falling into the art trap.

Do you want people to print out a screenshot of your site, frame it, and hang it above their fireplace? That would be flattering, but it’s not what you want.

You want them to trust your company, fill out a lead form, make a phone call or purchase a product.

Beauty, in this sense, is not achieved by being unique. It is achieved by everything being in the right place, where a visitor would expect it to be.

For example:

  • Logo in the upper left
  • Main navigation across the top
  • Call-To-Action above the fold and easy to find

Consider the human face as an example. We expect a face to have a forehead, two eyes, a nose, a mouth, etc. While the size and color and shape of each feature vary wonderfully from person to person, there isn’t anything unique as far the placement of the parts.

Even when people try to improve things with plastic surgery, they don’t usually put their ear on their cheek. Yes, that would stand out. But not in the way that makes you want to walk up and say hi.

You want to walk up to a person whose eyes and ears, nose and mouth are exactly where they should be.

When you put things in the wrong place on your website just to be unique, or to try something no one else has done, it’s like turning someone’s nose upside down on his or her face. That’s not attractive at all. In fact, it will scare people away — and potentially cause a person to drown when it rains. 🙂

3. Question each design element

Always remind yourself that there are more elements to web design than flashy graphics. Color choice, layout, and copy are huge, just to name a few. What are those elements doing for you?

  • What is the visitor supposed to do here?
  • What is the visitor supposed to do next?
  • What is this button accomplishing?
  • How is this piece of copy actively working toward a conversion?

Every single artistic element on your site has to be doing meaningful work. It has to be aggressively applying itself. If it isn’t, fix it or toss it. Which brings me to my last point…

4. Keep it simple

Simplicity is really a matter of focus. Reduce your site to the most essential elements and decide what your visitors should focus on. Here are four elements to help you keep it simple:

Simple Layout

“Web users ultimately want to get at data quickly and easily. They don’t care as much about attractive sites and pretty design.” –Tim Berners-Lee

Put things where people expect them to be. Your visitors aren’t going to criticize you for having a typical layout if it’s easy for them to use. Visitors move fast and move with a purpose. They don’t have time to soak in the brushstrokes.


Logo is where it should be. Navigation is where you expect it. You know exactly what to do when you land here.

Simple Colors

“While it defies all logic, choosing a button color that fits in with your overall color scheme can actually hurt conversions.” –Sherice Jacob

When it comes to colors, it’s not about being unique or fancy. It’s all about contrast. Choose colors that contrast with your background so that your call to action buttons stand out, and your visitors don’t miss them.

Mail Chimp Color Scheme

MailChimp is full of color and very unique, yet falls within the conventions of effective web design.

Watch this video from Derek Halpern for more information about colors that convert.

Simple Copy

“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” –Jack Kerouac

Use simple words that are clear and can be understood by other humans. There should be no room for misunderstanding. Your visitors should know exactly what you want them to do.

When you have a choice between a 10-dollar word and a 25-cent word, go with the 25-cent word. Big words often mask imprecision. Better to use precise and familiar words that people understand.

Copyblogger simple words

Is there any confusion here? No. Because Brian Clark and Copyblogger know that websites aren’t for winning Pulitzers.

Simple Fonts

“Don’t confuse legibility with communication. Just because something is legible doesn’t mean it communicates and, more importantly, doesn’t mean it communicates the right thing.” –David Carson

Choose a font that’s clear and easily communicates the call-to-action expressed by the copy.

Most of us choose fonts based solely on the design of the letters. But the single most important element of type is contrast. People need to be able to read what you’ve written. It’s not about the letters themselves. It’s the contrast with the background and the space around the letters that determine whether or not your words are easy to read.

So follow the standards related to color choice (dark type on a light background, or vice versa), kerning (space between letters, which can be adjusted in any font), line height (space between lines), and font size.


Livestrong makes great use of clear and readable fonts.

“If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.” –David Ogilvy

Our website is the face of our company and we want our company to stand out from the crowd. We want to be unique. We want to be beautiful.
But above all, we want to get paid.

Make a splash if you can. Make your brand and company stand out. Make your site as beautiful and unique as it can be, so long as it follows the conventions of effective web design.

Open your eyes to see your website as your visitors see it. How does it look? More importantly, how does it work?



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Daniel Paley

Dan Paley is a freelance writer and entrepreneur based in Irvine, CA. He's ghostwritten several Pulitzer Prize winning books, but he's not allowed to tell you which ones. He also helps small businesses think through complex problems to develop simple, straightforward strategies. You can connect with him on Twitter @danpaley23


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  1. Anonymous says:
    June 7, 2016 at 4:05 am

    I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog.
    I too am an aspiring blog writer but I’m still new to everything.
    Do you have any points for inexperienced blog writers?

    I’d genuinely appreciate it.

  2. Nate says:
    September 14, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    Can’t wait to share this with a few of our clients that want something “state of the art” for the website design – something so out there that it just “wows” people.

    Sticking to what works, keeping it simple and easy to follow, and keeping your overall objective for the site in mind are the “wow” factors businesses need to be thinking about for their websites.

    Thanks for the great reminders.

    • Russ Henneberry says:
      September 16, 2012 at 8:58 pm

      Agreed. For the most part, sticking to conventions and keeping things simple are what “WOWS” people.

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