Ribbons and tags in web design

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June 30, 2011
Trends can be born so silently and subtly that we seldom notice them. And when you survey hundreds of websites, you often see patterns that you would otherwise miss. One such pattern is the frequent use of tags and ribbons. These small flourishes have become increasingly popular. This article addresses the two elements because they are used together so frequently. While ribbons are self-explanatory, by tags I mean the faux labels that hang down from the top of the screen, like a tag on a t-shirt. The websites that use these elements are truly outstanding in quality. Putting together this gorgeous showcase turned out to be remarkably easy. Few trends are like this: one usually has to wade through many poor examples to find the tasty ones.

Why use these ribbons and tags?

Tags are useful because they draw the user’s attention by creating the illusion of depth. They push their content out to the user. Tags are also often styled with punch, whether via 3-D effects or bold contrasting colors. These factors make the tag a prime location for critical information: logos, navigation, calls to action. We see this in the showcase below. Of course, as always, assess your needs before implementing this element on your own website. The ribbon shares the same qualities, which is indeed the reason we find it and the tag together so often: it draws attention and is a great place for important information. The shape of the ribbon sets it apart from the tag, though; the two arrows on its ends seem to point to the content within, subtly directing the user’s attention.

A family of styles

Another reason these two elements are often found together on websites is that they are both digital representations of fabric. No surprise then that many of the websites below have other fabric-related elements, including subtle stitching, textures and other organic elements.

Ribbons

Letter Learner

The ribbon nicely frames the name Letter Learner here. Also, the page is laid out as a single column; the ribboned title encourages the user to start their journey at the top and flow down from there.

Ribot

Ribot’s ribbon is fairly subtle. The flourish livens up the page, while summing up the company’s focus in a two-word tagline. A perfect way to set expectations, because the company name does not tell us what it does.

Alex Pierce

With the text being so enormous on the home page of Alex Pierce’s portfolio, it would take a rather bold element to balance it out. In this case, the ribbon does a good job of setting off the header. I also love how the folded layer in the middle of the ribbon adds focus to the designer’s name.

Rockaholic!

On the rather unusual Rockaholic!, the ribbon directs the user’s attention down, playing nicely into the vertical scroll of the website and helping the user dig into the content.

Paris Jones

The delicious red of the ribbon makes the band name Paris Jones pop out here. Even though the text treatment is rather subtle, the bold pattern ensures that you notice it.

Blog en Bois

On Blog en Bois, the arrow effect of the ribbon is especially powerful, largely due to the contrasting dark behind the yellow. I find myself drawn back to the logo over and over again. It’s certainly a powerful way to engrain the brand in the user’s mind.

HTML5 Boilerplate

The popular website HTML5 Boilerplate uses ribbons to draw our attention to the most important action items on the page. I love that the ribbons do their job without having to say “Download here.” The combination of ribbons and labels tells us this is where to download the resources.

Cantilever Fish & Chips

The purpose of the ribbon is not so clear on Cantilever Fish & Chips. The detail about being “Open 7 days a week” would seem relatively minor, but presumably it’s an important distinction for this restaurant.

Wells Riley

Wells Riley is a perfect example of ribbons in service of aesthetics. The ribbons look great here and become the focus of the page.

Dhiraj Singh Karki

I always love designs that depart from convention. The portfolio of UI designer Dhiraj Singh Karki is just such a website. Here, the ribbon is used rather cleverly and does not pack nearly the same visual punch as on other websites. It blends right into the page and yet has enough style to keep the design from looking too simple.

Chipmunk

Chipmunk is a great example of how well a ribbon can work with organic elements. The ribbon around the primary navigation fits in perfectly with the rich illustrations below. It also keeps the navigation from getting lost among the powerful artwork.

Ryan M. Stryker

Once again we see the power of the ribbon to focus attention. Its central location and bold contrast ensure that you don’t miss Ryan M. Stryker’s name.

Tags

Ennea

Given that Ennea is a clothing brand, it’s no surprise that the tag here contains the logo and brand name. Sometimes a straightforward approach works best.

Philip Meissner Design

The tag contains the main navigation on Philip Meissner Design. Usually I would be put off by this unusual configuration of links, but the arrangement and colors here ensure that the links are super-easy to find.

Tinkering Monkey

What could be more important on an e-commerce website then guiding users to check out? Tinkering Monkey has a nice little bold tag to help users complete their purchase.

Parkbud

With all of the smartphone applications out there, the good ones need to communicate their key differentiators. Parkbud is free, and the bold red tag makes sure you know it. The tag is nicely tucked out of the way but always visible from the corner of your eye, reminding you that this tasty app is free.

Lense

Lense is a perfect example of tags combined with fabric textures. Notice first the textured denim background; also, the scalloped border under the main navigation feels very much textile-oriented.

Coreymade

While a small detail, I really love the way the script font makes the tag on Coreymade feel more like a tag on a shirt than a normal website logo. And the pseudo-3D effect makes the tag really pop for the viewer.

Netastica

The tag on Netastica is mainly there to look pretty, although it still does contain important information and links visitors to the home page.

Ryan Havoc Taylor

The tag is in such a visible location on Ryan Havoc Taylor’s website that it does not need a lot of contrast to stand out. It works well with the flow of the website and performs its role effortlessly.

Ribbons and tags

In the final part of this showcase, we’ll look at websites that make use of both ribbons and tags.

ClearSpan Media

Ribbons and tags go very nicely together, as shown by ClearSpan Media. Here you’ll also find fabrics with patterns, stitches and subtle color variations. The two tags up top and the ribbon down below function as a kind of circle of interest for the user.

Krichevtsova Alexandra

While Krichevtsova Alexandra’s website is rather barebones in content, the tag and ribbon add extra life to key elements. You could enjoy this website without even knowing what the person does.

Wes Bos

Most of the websites in this collection have rather large ribbons. Not so with Wes Bos. His are much smaller, a good reminder that they need not dominate the design to perform their function.

Conclusion

Given the quality of the websites in this collection, none of these designers set out to build something “trendy.” Rather, they were faced with a set of needs, and from those needs emerged an effective visual device for focusing attention, communicating critical information and highlighting important actions. If you would like some nice CSS-based ribbons for your own website, the web-based 3-D Ribbon Generator is a handy tool for the job.

Patrick McNeil

Patrick McNeil is a designer, developer and writer; but above all things he is a passionate educator. He is a Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Missouri St. Louis where he focuses on teaching UX Design methods and front end development techniques. Patrick is also the author of the bestselling book series The Web Designer's Idea Book and the curator of DesignMeltdown.com. For more information about Patrick visit his personal site, pmcneil.com, or follow him on Twitter @designmeltdown.

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