I don’t exactly remember how I discovered Hacker News. My account is 1295 days old, which means I subscribed on August 20, 2009. HN’s homepage on that particular date was filled with stories about _why’s disappearance which, in retrospect, is probably the event that led me to HN in the first place, considering I was learning Ruby at that time.

Anyway, I eventually created an account and stuck around. I first wondered why it was called Hacker News because at that time, the word still wrongly carried a negative connotation for me. Reading through pg’s articles, I understood what Hacker actually meant.

Visually, the site’s design felt slightly austere but it didn’t bother me. I loved its straightforward approach: only links and text. That’s hypertext at its core. No avatars, no background-image, no rich color palette, no custom font, no stylish elements. But most of all: a high density of information. I’ve always been more comfortable with having everything layed down before me, whether it’s a digital interface or objects on my desk.

A functional focus

Two days ago, the HN Wishlist appeared on HN’s front page. It unsurprisingly spawned some discussion about HN’s design. The 3rd most upvoted wish is Refresh the visual design.

As a designer, I can understand such a desire. But it misses the point: the web is about content, and HN is one of the few websites that has remained entirely focused on this notion.

A user browsing a news aggregator is here for 2 things: clicking links and reading/writing comments. Skimming through dozens of news on HN proves to be very efficient considering the links density and the lack of futile elements.

A community filter

Maintaining what most people consider an antique layout actually prevents newcomers who can’t see past the surface from deciding to join the community. The design also de-emphasizes the value of a user’s profile. I believe both features have indirectly helped HN’s community develop what it is often praised for: high quality discussions.

On a related note, the ability to collapse/expand comment threads is something some people wish for. But I fear it would give too much weight to top-level comments, and diminish the core of a thread: the discussion it generates, in which counterarguments and additional details prove to be equally or more important than the comment they’re replying to.

As a side effect, whenever I decide to contribute to an HN thread, I find myself wondering for a few minutes if what I’m about to write is adding any value to the discussion. If so, I mull over the idea I’m about to develop, carefully construct my sentences (looking through dictionaries and French/English translation sites) and avoid posting too radical statements.

The big picture

It may sound far-fetched to say that HN’s design directly impacts how users will contribute to the site but it’s actually all related. The orange header, the light yellow-grey background, the small font-size, the lack of graphics… They all amount to a bigger scheme that reflects both the mind of the site’s author and the profile of its community members.

A design is more than a visual signature: it carries the raison d’être of a website. And I’d be sceptical if HN’s design suddenly changed because it’d necessarily imply a deeper mutation.