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Signal to Noise in Website Design

What's the difference between a website's signal and its noise

Signal to Noise Ratio In Website Design

Published June 8th, 2016

Creating a website with an experienced designer is easy. On the other hand, creating a website with a purpose is considerably trickier. Veteran designers are experts in what I like to call the "Signal to Noise for Design". They're masters of visual communication and think in terms of messages becoming connections. Their goal is to provide simplified solutions for a better user experience, higher quality content, and genuine graphic design. This is only thwarted if a design's signal to noise is too unbalanced.

In acoustics, signal to noise ratio (S/N or SNR) is the ratio of a sound's strength and its clarity when carrying the information, that's generally expressed in decibels. If the level of noise (interference) outweighs the signal (our message), the signal can't be heard as clearly and can become lost. The same principle applies to website design.

What is Signal?

The signal is the message. It's the purpose of a website. It increases the chances for a user connection when users see products or professional services for sale. It represents the clearest possible choice for a user to purchase a product. It's a no-frills communique between people. A signal producing website showcases basic details needed in order to make an informed decision about the validity, quality, and purpose of a product.

What is Noise?

Noise is everything that isn't the message. It dilutes the message and makes it harder to grasp. In design, it tends to be things that bar the message from becoming a connection. Noise has little to no offering to the effective communication of a website's message. If the message is "Buy our product because of A, B & C", a good designer and content writer understands that the ABCs are what should be focused on when demonstrating the product.

Sometimes there's the flawed idea of inundating users with complex content because "more is better and users need to be informed". Complexity is rarely better unless you're designing the new S8 engine for Audi. Simpler content is crucial to the signal because it's clearer and the message can become a connection quicker with less effort.

Here's an example of a very busy website where the message is completely lost not just because of bad design, but also because there is no clear signal due to noise. Sadly, it's Yale's School of Art.

Yale School of Art - Complete Loss of Signal

So this is the Yale School of Art website. I'm baffled. This website's not doing its users any favors. It's hard to discern what's going on because of the odd repeated background image about a graduation. The text is difficult to read and the main image is pure noise to its users because it adds no value to the message. This is an example of a website that's rendering its message inert due to self-inflicted noise.

Yale School of Art | All Noise & No Signal

The Feeday App Website - Great Signal

The Feeday app website lets you "Discover brands, people and tags from Instagram in one tap". Their message is clear and concise. You know exactly what they're doing at a glance. This website will perform beautifully for its intended audience.

Feeday App Website | Great Signal & Low Noise

Northwest College of Art + Design - Great Signal & Low Noise

The Northwest College of Art + Design website has excellent signal with low noise. You know what they're offering and how to apply for their programs because the signal is high and there's no junk blocking the message. Great job, NCAD!

Northwest College of Art + Design - Great Signal

About the Author

Tim Raymer is a professional designer with 10 years of experience in the design industry. He holds a BFA in Graphic Design from Eastern Kentucky University. He is a design and marketing consultant who enjoys spending time with his wife, Meagan, and two sons, Atticus and Gaius.