Designing Hyperlinks: Tips and Best Practices

Oct 25 2010 by Jake Rocheleau | 20 Comments

Designing Hyperlinks: Tips and Best Practices

A hyperlink (aka link) is the most basic interface on websites. In fact, we can trace hyperlinks back to the origins of the web, with Tim Berners-Lee’s ENQUIRE, where each new page had to link to another. Links connect all of our content together and come in many forms; from links contained in a paragraph to a list of links that we’ve come to know as navigation menus.

This article is a discussion on designing hyperlinks, offering a few tips and best practices for designing them. We will conclude with a small showcase of exceptional hyperlink designs on live sites.

Why Is Hyperlink Design So Important?

Links are the most basic interactive component between a user and a web page: A user clicks on a link, and in turn, they are presented with another web page. They’re so important, yet easily get lost in the midst of newer and shinier UI elements like web forms, animated tooltips, and call-to-action buttons (which are essentially links styled to look like something else). Links are so ubiquitous that we often overlook them in our designs.

Basic Principles of Designing Hyperlinks

Before we go any further, it might be wise to cover basic things you should know about hyperlinks.

Hyperlink States

When conceptualizing link designs, it’s important to consider and know the link states you have to work with. There are 5 states that <a> elements can have:

  • a:link – this is the normal state of a hyperlink
  • a:visited – this is when the link has been visited before
  • a:hover – this is when the user hovers their mouse over a link
  • a:active – this is when the user clicks on the link (or presses the Enter key on a focused link)
  • a:focus – this is when the user uses the Tab key to navigate to hyperlinks

The technical term for these states is pseudo-classes. It’s important to note that web browsers treat these states differently by default. For example, in Firefox, :active and :focus are displayed with a dashed gray border around them, controlled with the outline property. Whereas, in Google Chrome (and other WebKit browsers), :active links will have no style and :focus links will have a yellow border around them by default.

Here are examples of each link state (shown in Google Chrome 6.0):

Links in Google Chrome

It’s best to have a style for each state so that the user is aware of the status of each hyperlink on a web page. For example, hovering over a link and having it look a different way (e.g. changing its color) improves the perception that it can be clicked.

Popular CSS Properties for Styling Hyperlinks

There are many link style properties you can take advantage of for designing hyperlinks. Some popular CSS properties pertaining to the visual appearance of links include:

  • color – The color of the hyperlink
  • text-decoration – Setting this to none removes the default underline
  • background-color – If used in the :hover state, can make the link’s background color change
  • outline – Setting this to none using the a:focused selector removes the default gray border around active and focused links in Mozilla and the yellow or blue border in WebKit (Chrome and Safari); this is not advised because the border helps with web accessibility
  • font-weight – Another distinguishing method for hyperlinks is setting them to bold
  • border – If you need more control outside of text-decoration: underline, try giving your hyperlinks a bottom border (experiment with thickness, color and style)

There are plenty more of CSS properties you can tweak, but the above seems to be the most common.

Below, you can see different styles of hyperlinks on Flickr. The text "Your Photostream" changes background-color when you hover over it. The main menu links are styled as bolded and without underlines. The "Recent Activity" link looks the most like the standard blue, underlined hyperlink.

Hyperlink Design Best Practices

Here are a handful of suggestions and commonly held best practices when dealing with the style and design of hyperlinks.

Keeping Link Styles Simple Isn’t a Bad Thing

I think we can all still relate to seeing the standard blue, underlined hyperlink. It’s the default style of hyperlinks and they work well.

Good hyperlinks should be distinctive from other types of text in a web page. According to several findings by usability researcher Dr. Nielsen, hyperlinks are most effective when they are a different color from other types of text in a web page and when they are underlined to denote that the text is clickable. Nielsen also suggests that the color of unvisited links should be "vivid, bright, and saturated." It goes without saying that the converse of these ideas are also true. It’s best to avoid underlining text for things other than links, and not using normal text that is the same color as your links.

Style Link States Differently

Earlier on, we talked about the 5 different link states. To avoid confusing your users and to speed up visual recognition of hyperlinks on a web page, it’s best to provide different styles for each link state.

Don’t Remove Outlines on Active and Focused Links

By default, most browsers will style hyperlinks when they are clicked or focused on. For example, in Firefox 3.6, the default style for a:active is coloring the link red and surrounding it with a red dashed outline. The default style for a:focus, which you can see for yourself by using your Tab key, is a blue dashed outline.

Don't Remove Outlines on Active and Focused Links

Both of these visual elements are used to aid in accessibility. People who cannot use a mouse need to tab to hyperlinks in order to activate them (using the Enter/Return key). Imagine having to tab through 100 links in a web page (which is not as uncommon as you might think, the front page of Six Revisions has over 130 links). Would it not be difficult to see which link you are on if there was no visual cue for them?

The same is true for active links; a different style gives users the visual feedback that they were able to successfully click on the link.

Keep Hyperlinks Consistent

Many principles of usability and psychology support the notion that things that are similar in function should look the same. For example, Gestalt psychology — which applies to human perceptions of design — suggests the concept of similarity; that is, "[w]e group things perceptually if they appear similar to one another."

To avoid the situation where users having to think whether a particular text is a link or not, it is a good idea to keep hyperlinks and regular text styled consistently.

Reserve Common Hyperlink Styles for Hyperlinks

The accepted and most recognizable convention for hyperlinks is that it is blue and underlined. Therefore, to avoid confusion, you should avoid coloring your normal text as blue and underlined.

Showcase of Hyperlink Designs

Here are a few great hyperlink designs to take a look at. I hope that these can inspire you to rethink the significance and possibilities of your own hyperlink designs.

Web Designer Wall

Web Designer Wall

Web Designer Wall is a popular design blog created by Nick La. The site’s hover effects for links on the site’s sidebar feature a pencil-style circle around the text. It’s unique and adds an additional level of intricacy to the entire site design. La even offers a tutorial on how you can recreate a similar effect. You can also notice some creative hover effects on links in the navigation and blog posts.

Carsonified

Carsonified

Carsonified connects web designers and developers together through conferences held year-round all around the world. Their website is an excellent display of consistency and similarity principles applied to links. You can move your mouse all throughout the page and see their unique hyperlink effects displayed in a similar fashion as their site logo. The most prominent area would be the top navigation menu that boasts an icon set for each link.

Far Coast

Far Coast

Far Coast has their entire website designed in Flash. After the initial page load, you’ll notice all of their links perform a fade-in effect when moused over. This visual reaction to mouse hovers gives users the idea that link elements are interactive, which is in line with the best practice of styling different link states to provide the perception of clickability.

WordPress.org

WordPress.org

You can see consistency of hyperlinks applied everywhere throughout the official WordPress site. Their main menu links look great and use CSS3 text-shadow to give them that extra touch of detail. The main menu links also have descriptive title attributes to help users learn more about a particular link when they hover their mouse over them.

Retinart

Retinart

Retinart is a freeform blog containing creative thoughts on graphic design and digital art. The design boasts an interesting hyperlink hover effect that reflects the background and text color over each other — a classic technique that works really well on this particular blog design especially because of the limited color scheme. This helps achieve an even stronger visual grouping of links as well.

Unmatchedstyle

Unmatchedstyle

This web design gallery is just one of many that you can find all over the web. The site’s simple design and impressive layout allows for easy browsing through their collection. An element of interest would be the navigation links toward the top of the page that display a creative underlined effect on mouseover.

made my day

made my day

This is the personal blog of web designer Marc Hinse. His page boasts a number of interesting hyperlink effects, all of which seem perfectly placed. Check them out and notice how the hyperlink states fit into the blog’s overall design theme.

Build Conference

Build Conference

The Build Conference is held for designers and developers and is hosted in Ireland. Their site has a unique effect added to their main navigation links that fades in on mouseover using CSS3 transition properties.

LogoPond

LogoPond

The gleaming fountain of all logo and branding inspiration, LogoPond has some great link styles. The most notable are in the footer area where you can discover links to popular pages throughout the site. On hover, you get a flipped background and text effect similar to the Retinart blog.

Suikerdraakje

Suikerdraakje

Suikerdraakje is an e-commerce store selling baby supplies and toys. Their design is remarkable and features many illustrations to fill out whitespaces in the layout. Their main navigation links display a rounded corner background shift on mouse over — one of the few sites to display this effect.

Nintendo

Nintendo

Nintendo has always been at the forefront of innovation, and you can see this on their corporate site. In the context of hyperlinks, their main navigation links fade into a light blue glow underneath when you mouse over them, reminiscent of the blue LEDs on the Wii.

Stephen Caver Blog

Stephen Caver Blog

Stephen Caver’s blog theme is very impressive and makes good use of hyperlink design and best practices. When you move your cursor over his blog posts, you’ll notice the links in each area will light up. This technique is simple to implement with a small bit of JavaScript and adds the interactivity your users may appreciate.

MapBox

MapBox

MapBox is a newer web application that boasts a handsome "Web 2.0" design. You can see some very neat effects all throughout the site, most notably their heading links that hold a nice hover effect.

Dribbble

Dribbble

With Dribbble being a site targeted towards designers, it would only make sense that their site design should be remarkable. Their hyperlinks display so many unique and customized effects all around the design layout that it’s hard to pinpoint one area to concentrate on.

G4TV

G4TV

G4TV is the cutting edge of video game and technology news. The site has a diverse design containing many unique hyperlink design states. Check out their main navigation and sidebar content specifically.

Related Content

About the Author

Jake Rocheleau is a social media enthusiast and an Internet entrepreneur. Having spent over 4 years working freelance web design, he frequently writes articles involving new-age design concepts and personal motivation. You can find him all around the web via Google Profile or on Twitter as @jakerocheleau.

20 Comments

Jerry Web

October 25th, 2010

Nintendo really does well keeping the navigation simple yet stylish, nice examples.

Martin

October 25th, 2010

“Don’t Remove Outlines” … without replacing em.

Curtis Scott

October 25th, 2010

I like the navigation of unmatched style and Nintendo. Also, the MapBox navigation works well with the style of the site.

Build Conference is a great example of a very simple that just works well.

Thanks for sharing!

Ryan

October 25th, 2010

Great examples, thanks for sharing!

Lars Ebert

October 25th, 2010

On my Blog, I always show a magnifying glass as a hover-effect whenever something can be enlarged by clicking on it. This can be seen on the small thumbnails of the posts on http://www.advitum.de/blog

ValeraZ

October 25th, 2010

Thank for sharing,
very useful, just right now thinking how to design style of menu :)

Amy

October 25th, 2010

Always enjoy reading articles on simple topics that highlight best practices, thanks!

Eko Setiawan

October 26th, 2010

Hi, thanks for share this. Increase my knowledge about the design of a hyperlink.

w3planting

October 26th, 2010

I like Web Designer Wall Navigation, really cool!

helium

October 26th, 2010

Thanks alot, I always find myself tempted to do somethink a bit crazy with a tags, but simple and underlined seem to be the best way. Never really play with active though.

thomas dobner

October 26th, 2010

good tips to increase my knowledge
thank you very much
thomas

Dreb

October 26th, 2010

i like how Carsonified and Build conference sites present their link interactivity to their users. Link that contains icon and text is effective and looks more professional but text alone would do the job but the simple with touch of javascript it is the more the visitors appreciate and understand it.

Scott

October 26th, 2010

Simple site elements can be the hardest to get right. Thanks for the examples and for sharing.

NevilleSpade

October 26th, 2010

BTW: It’s “Tim Berners-Lee” not “Tim-Berner Lee”

Jacob Gube

October 26th, 2010

@NevilleSpade: Thanks. Fixed.

Catalina

October 26th, 2010

We really enjoy experimenting with some cool CSS3 effects on our own sites and we like how that works for us.

We have seen a lot of designers using CSS effects for links so it is something that will be very popular (is already), so it’s pretty exciting to see where all that is going.

Nottingham

October 26th, 2010

Awesome!! Agree with the comment on Nintendo though :D

Casey

October 28th, 2010

Nice article. Would be useful also to discuss how to use the “title” attribute effectively, and what content to put in there.

daniel1336

June 29th, 2011

That was the information I’m looking for. thanks for sharing

Velma

September 29th, 2011

I have learnt a lot

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