Bob Dylan’s guide to web conventions

Often regarded as an emblem for un-conventionalitly and free thought, unfettered by dogma, authority or tradition, Dylan has shown himself to be so genuinely unfettered that he appears to take discomfort in whatever he has come to symbolise and so rebels against his rebel following.

  • He was the humanist who refused to condemn the Vietnam war.
  • The musical radicalist who released albums of toe-tapping country tunes, a Simon and Garfunkel cover and an album of Christmas carols.
  • The poet who wrote words such as “wiggle wiggle wiggle like a bowl of soup”.
  • The agnostic turned evangelist turned Zionist (allegedly).
  • The joker who brought a new seriousness to pop music.
  • Perhaps most famously and most importantly to those of us who love his music, he was the folkie who outraged his audience, plugged in and went electric.

If you pigeonholed him as a proponent of fluid-width designs you could be certain he’d be confounding his followers by advocating fixed-width design in no time.

Don’t follow leaders, watch the parkin’ meters

While it may often be sage advice to defy the herds and self-ordained professors, Dylan did not eschew all conventions willy-nilly, however.

We can see from the image above that Bob has a strong end-user focus, but we can also find plenty of evidence in his words to support those of us who advocate following key web conventions and enjoy the collective effervescence of web standards and best practice in web design.

Web conventions exist for all of our benefit. There are times when we should aim to innovate and times when it’s most sensible to simply do what is most commonly done because it works best for everyone and people instantly understand it. The Highways Agency tends not to try out too many innovative new traffic-light designs for a very good reason.

To mark his 70th birthday with a self-conscious tongue in a satirical cheek, I’d like to take a look at web convention through the eyes and lyrics of Bob Dylan and present “Bob Dylan’s guide to web conventions”.

Oh yes.

I am my words

Your words and your content are the most important part of your site. In an infamous 1965 interview with Time magazine, Bob Dylan said:

“I have nothing to say about the things I write. I just write ’em. I don’t have to say anything about them, I don’t write them for any reason, there’s no great message.”

This is perhaps not the best approach to take with your website content. Make sure it says something.

Change and consistency

Sometimes I’m in the mood, I wanna change my house around
Sometimes I’m in the mood, I’m gonna make a change in this here town
Sometimes I’m in the mood, I’m gonna change the world around
But then again, but then again, I said oh, I said oh, I said
Oh babe, I’m in the mood for you
-Baby, I’m In The Mood For You

Sometimes you may be in the mood to change your website but are your site visitors?

My head tells me it’s time to make a change
But my heart is telling me I love ya but you’re strange
-Abandoned Love

Your site visitors may have come to accept your site’s flaws and sometimes correcting them may cause more problems than they solve. Sometimes it may be better to live with a few quirks and oddities than to confuse your regulars.

Don’t wanna confuse nobody, don’t wanna be confused
-Do Right To Me Baby

Right now I can’t read too good

I’m on the rollin’ river in a jerkin’ boat
Tryin’ to read a note somebody wrote

Your visitors may not be in a jerkin’ boat but they probably have a similar level of patience when reading your site’s content. Unless you are offering absorbing content which people are going to want to follow through in its entirety, they are probably just scanning for simple bites of information, key details and little more.

Lay out your content to make it as easy to scan through and pick out the key points as possible.

Tell me – I’ve got to know
Tell me – tell me before I go
-Tell Me

Twenty pounds of headlines

Keep your headings as clearly focused on the content under them as possible and break your articles up with liberal use of sub-headings.

Tell me what it’s all about
-Black Crow Blues

Don’t forget your page titles either – although they aren’t actually visible on the page they are one of the most important elements since it’s the bit of text which people will click on in search engines to get to your page.

Without good, meaningful, simple page titles it becomes a lot harder to search the web for your content

You will search, babe
At any cost
But how long, babe
Can you search for what’s not lost?
-I’ll Keep It With Mine

You look like the silent type

Don’t SHOUT with too many capitals, it’s off putting and harder to read. Speak softly and people will listen.

My love she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire
-Love Minus Zero/No Limit

Since capitals are harder to read, a capitalised message may go unnoticed.

When the pretty dancing girl shouted at Dylan in “Went To See The Gypsy” he followed her advice but was too late. If you want to get your message across clearly and promptly keep your majuscules to a minimum.

Roman in Durango: italics

May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
-Forever Young

Most of the young Bob Dylan’s lyrics slanted to the left rather than the right. As his career progressed he appeared less radically opposed to italicisation but still implored us to “Stand up straight and tall, In harmony with the cosmic sea” (If Dogs Run Free).

For this reason, and also because they are more pixellated and harder to read at smaller sizes on lower resolution screens, we should mostly avoid using italics.

In the valley of the missing link, there’s no time to think

And on every link a heart does dangle
-Silver Dagger

Make links look like links (underline, unique colour, possibly bold), don’t make anything else look like a link when it isn’t unless you want to leave your visitors as confused as Mr Jones.

Check your links

Dylan does not like broken links:

Broken links, broken strings
Broken threads, broken springs
Broken idols, broken heads
People sleeping in broken beds
Ain’t no use jiving
Ain’t no use joking
Everything is broken
-Everything is broken

Check your links work when creating new ones; return and check again periodically in case the link has subsequently broken or changed its topic. Broken or mis-directed links are very frustrating for your visitors:

The truth that I’m seeking is in your missing file”
-Something’s Burning Baby

Opening links in new windows

Much like the web community in general, there is some disagreement and ambiguity in Bob Dylan’s lyrics regarding whether we should ever open links in new windows.

In Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window he appears to suggest that opening new windows does not break the back button and it’s easy to return to previous pages viewed:

Can you please crawl out your window?
Use your arms and legs it won’t ruin you
How can you say he will haunt you?
You can go back to him any time you want to
-Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window

However Dylan was an advocate of personal control and choice and recommends that we enable a website’s visitor to choose how and when to move away from the current window:

Go away from my window
Leave at your own chosen speed
-It Ain’t Me Babe

Forcing a link to open in a new window takes away the visitor’s choice. If we do not force a new window to open the the visitor has several options to choose to open a link in a new window:

  1. right-click and select “Open link in new window”
  2. right-click and select “Open link in new tab”
  3. CTRL+ click (Windows)
  4. CMD + click (OS x)

Why take away visitors’ choice when they may have a different preference from you? We should not force them down any path which they may not want to go.

I helped her out of a jam, I guess
But I used a little too much force
-Tangled Up In Blue

Take your pick, Frankie boy

“Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream”
-Time Passes Slowly

It passes even more slowly when you’re lost in a website and it only takes a moment to click away. Your navigation is the most important part of your site – it doesn’t matter how brilliant your content is, if your visitors can’t find it and are left “shooting in the dark too long” then it may as well not exist.

How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home?
-Like A Rolling Stone

In short, it feels pretty rubbish. Your home link should be very clearly visible on every sub-page of your site and your site logo in the header should link home too.


Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their [type]faces
And give them all another name
-Desolation Row

Serif fonts, such as Times New Roman (whose waning popularity was heralded in one of Dylan’s most famous songs, The Times They Are A Changin’) are not as clear on the screen as they are in print. Sans serif fonts such as Trebuchet MS, Arial or Verdana are a better option.

Text and background colour

I’m blinded by the colors I see
-Spirit On The Water

Avoid getting yourself Tangled Up In Blue or any other colour-scheme by ensuring you have a good contrast between text colour and background colour.

Make sure it’s not too stark though: #000 black on #fff white is not as easy to read as a dark grey text on an off-white background.

As easy it was to tell black from white
It was all that easy to tell wrong from right
-Bob Dylan’s Dream

Paragraph and sentence length

Keep your sentences short like William Zantzinger’s and paragraphs too. Ideally a paragraph would probably be no more than two or three sentences long.

The white space around paragraphs makes your text much less dense and more inviting. Don’t have lots of dense dark text on the page, no one will want to read it:

Darkness was everywhere, it smelled like a tomb
I was ready to leave, I was already walkin’
-Day Of The Locusts

Disillusioned words like bullets bark

Whether disillusioned or not, bullet any words which form a list as this breaks up your paragraphs and makes your content much easier to scan or read as it jumps off the page.

Well, jumpin’ Judy can’t go no higher
She had bullets in her eyes, and they fire
-I Wanna Be Your Lover

How long must I suffer such abuse?

Keep your pages short and slice up long documents and spread them over several pages if necessary. This makes it much easier for people to find the bit they are interested in and jump on it like a leopard-skin pill box hat.

Eat the document

In an ideal world all our Word documents, presentations PDFs would be converted to nicely formatted sliced up and indexed web pages. They are much easier to read, easier to navigate, faster to load than a long PDF – so often I find that the item I’m looking for is buried away on my back pages.

Clip art

The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets
-It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

Cartoony clip art is best avoided. You may have several CDs/DVDs of it lying around which you can use free of charge but it really wasn’t intended to be used on a modern professional website.

Clip art was created to add a splash of interest at minimal cost to print publications. It usually has just one or two colours to keep printing costs down to a minimum, but that consideration is irrelevant on the web: we can display beautiful full colour photos at no extra cost once licensed.

Make the most of it, it’s like the difference between The Basement Tapes cover:

Bob Dylan - The Basement Tapes

and Shot Of Love:

Bob Dylan - Shot Of Love

I try to be friendly, I try to be kind

I’m on the fringes of the night, fighting back tears that I can’t control
Some people they ain’t human, they got no heart or soul
-Cry A While

If you want people to engage with your website, service and content, you probably want to make yourself sound human, approachable and friendly.

Try not to refer to yourself in a way which distances you from your readers such as “the organisation”, instead refer to yourselves as “we”, “us” or “I”. Similarly don’t refer to your readers as “the customer” or similar, instead engage them by referring to them as “you”.

It makes a very big difference in terms of how approachable you seem.

Of course, sometimes you just may not want to seem that approachable:

Student: When you meet somebody, what is your attitude towards them?
Dylan: I don’t like them.

Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is
To see you
-Positively Fourth Street

Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late

Too much information about nothin’
-Someone’s Got A Hold Of My Heart

If your text doesn’t say anything of use, get rid of it. There’s no purpose in those reams of happy talk which say: “Welcome to our site, we hope you will find it useful. We aim to keep the content up to date and accurate and blah blah blah”

Nothing was delivered
And I tell this truth to you
Not out of spite or anger
But simply because it’s true
Now, I hope you won’t object to this
Giving back all of what you owe
The fewer words you have to waste on this
The sooner you can go
-Nothing Was Delivered

So trim it out and “tell me quick man, I got to run”.

The best way to avoid happy talk is to think carefully about what you want to say before you start saying it; it helps you stay focused and clear.

“I’ll know my song well before I start singing”
-A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall

Can you tell me who to contact here, señor?

“You have many contacts
Among the lumberjacks”
-Ballad Of A Thin Man

Your visitors may want to engage more with you than merely passively reading your website. They may have a question, a request or may want to tip you off about something or correct an error. Give them a clear means of doing so.

Platform and browser

Under that apple suckling tree
There’s just gonna be you and me
-Apple Suckling Tree

Most people viewing your site won’t be using an Apple Mac so make sure you test on other platforms and browsers otherwise “life sometimes must get lonely”.


I hope this simple taster of Bob’s web wisdom has been useful to you.

For more of his guidance on web design and so much more I’d recommend you get a copy of Bob Dylan’s Lyrics 1962-2001.

I’m glad I’m not me

After writing the above guide (but just before posting) I made the mistake of watching a documentary on BBC Four “Tangled Up With Dylan” about an infamous publicity-hungry delusional Dylan stalker/obsessive who I won’t name here.

I became mildly troubled by the realisation that some people reading this who didn’t know me might actually think I was serious. Even worse: someone who does know me might think that.

So I feel compelled to add a disclaimer: there are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.

Incidentally, I’ve seen the website of the aforementioned Dylan stalker and think he needs a good web-designer, although some of his other needs are clearly even more pressing.

Happy 70th birthday, Bob, hope you’ve found sanctuary from the nuts.

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