Horizontal or vertical navigation? It’s a trick question

Since Jan. 11, an interesting debate has been playing out between fans of horizontal navigation on Web sites and those who prefer navigation to be vertically organized. Lots of good arguments have been raised for both views and I won’t make any attempt to boil down the discussion into one or two little bouillon cubes here. If you are interested, take a look at Smashing Magazine from where the attack against vertical navigation was originally launched and at the case of the defense here.

What I find most surprising is that both sides seem to think that this is a simple either/or choice; either horizontal navigation is superior to vertical, or the opposite is true. To me, that seems a little bit like asking if I should wear trousers today or if a shirt would be a better choice.

At least when looking at complex Web sites such as those representing newspapers and other news media, more often than not the best solution might be to combine the two — that is, use both horizontal and vertical navigation. And if introducing a third dimension had been an option, that could easily have come in handy as well.

Here is why: The art of intelligent categorizing is a difficult one and the contents of a newspaper Web site can be extremely complex. Typically, you will have news divided into different topics. But you will also have different genres: Besides plain news, there may be feature stories, analysis, columns, photo essays, blogs and so on. You may also have different channels, such as words video and audio. And different areas, such as editorial and advertising. Additionally, there are likely various departments of the publishing house – subscription, customer service, printing, distribution, etc. – and perhaps of the media corporation as well, like radio and TV stations. Please continue the list yourself.

Transformed into Web site architecture, this will materialize into an awful lot of labels which can be pretty hard to organize in a meaningful manner if you have decided to make use of only one dimension, be it horizontal or vertical.

Politiken screen grab

Look at any newspaper Web site and you will see what I am talking about. For some time, horizontal navigation has been in fashion, frequently leading to page designs with three or four navigation bars stacked on top of each other, as in this example from Politiken ).

By discounting the vertical dimension, Politiken (and many papers with it) deliberately reduces its own toolbox and limits the means with which the contents can be visually distinguished, thereby making it harder for the user to interpret the site architecture and find what he or she is looking for.

Right now, there are signs that the trend may be about to change. Is vertical navigation making a comeback? The New York Times is already using it, Yahoo.com began to do so half a year ago and iGoogle changed last month, so in a few years, maybe the majority of news Web sites will again have vertical navigation. Instead, one could hope that Web site designers would begin to base their work upon content/user analysis and not just go for what is en vogue. But in hoping so, I may be over-optimistic.

OLE MUNK is a graphic designer, design and communication consultant, and illustrator, based in Espergaerde, Denmark. He holds an architectural degree from the Institute of Visual Communication at the Royal Academy of Arts in Copenhagen. He has been managing director of Ribergaard & Munk Communication Design (www.ribmunk.dk) since July 1995. He was president of the Society for News Design/Scandinavia 1997-99.