Let’s begin this lesson by my pointing out the obvious, and that is I am pompously attempting to sweepingly discuss the design of websites written in a language I have no hope of ever learning how to read.
That said, I must also confess to have a grand total of ten days inside of China, time enough to see one major city, a village, some suburbs, the usual tourist spots, and the airport. Therefore, I have no sense of the rich cultural gestalt that drives Chinese design, assuming most of my Jungian design insights from the decor of bad American Chinese restaurants which serve food that is about as related to real Chinese food as a can of Chef Boyardee Spaghetti-O’s is to a good tagliatelle con ragu in a trattoria in Porto Ceresio.
When I was at IDG, one of the world’s few truly global online publishers, with master brands such as Computerworld, Infoworld, and PC World translated independently at the country level in dozens and dozens of languages, I arrived with the misbegotten notion that brand hygeine demanded a templated design across all sites. Then I met the folks from IDG China, who were delivering traffic numbers that essentially blew the original US brand sites out of the water, and who were following an ad model completely unlike the CPM, impression-based, lead generation dog fight we all have come to know and hate in the US and West.
In other words, the Chinese sites were kicking ass in terms of traffic and money and not spending a lot of time worrying about eye-tracking, heat maps, golden triangles, and audience development.
To the Western eye, they are an utter hash. What Steve Gillmor at ZDNET calls the “Las Vegas” approach to online publishing, where everything blinks, slides, pops-up, takes over, and otherwise — to plagarize from my own earlier post — induces epilepsy to someone enamored of the stripped down Web 2.0 design gestalt pioneered by Google and exemplified by Fiickr, del.icio.us (neither of which has much if any in the way of ads) and the user interface genius of the iPod (of which I saw none in ten days in Beijing).
There are some rules of thumb in U.S. online publishing models which say that two ad impressions per page is great, three is acceptable, four is pushing it, and five is insane. Some Chinese sites are throwing off ten to 14 impressions on their homepage. The skyscraper unit — the vertical “tower” that runs in the margins (and which I claim to have invented at Forbes.com in ’95 when I had the insight in the shower that the first thing to vanish during a scroll-down was the 468×68 horizontal banner pioneered by Hotwired) — on Chinese sites the things follow you down the page, skipping along, and, in some cases, there are units that float all over the page, impossible to kill or stop.
If you want to read a good explanation of the chaos, I suggest you check out Virtual China and it’s post on the aesthetics of abundance. They write:
Hans Juergen-Bucher (Media Studies, University of Trier) has a provocative 2004 paper titled Is There a Chinese Internet? which reports the results of user studies he conducted in Germany with Chinese Internet users. One of his most interesting points is about what he calls an “aesthetics of abundance” that shapes Chinese website design and interface.
In Chinese culture we can find two different kinds of aesthetical systems: the “aesthetics of abundance” and the “aesthetics of emptiness” (see Pohl 2004). Websites in China are usually designed along the principles of the “aesthetics of abundance” which refers to the Chinese popular culture and what can be seen in New Years pictures, calendars or paintings on dishes. The “aesthetics of emptiness” is part of the Chinese high culture and heavily influence by Zen and Chan Buddhism. The principles of this kind of aesthetics did not influence web design up to now in a significant way. The attractiveness of the “aesthetics of abundance” not only relies on its integration into popular culture but also on its symbolic meanings: strong and rich colour, density, and opulent presentation symbolize happiness and wealth.
I’ll add some links later. It’s past midnight in Durham and I need to be up in 6 hours.