The sidebar has been a part of the print world for years. It allows designers to feature relevant or complementary information without upsetting the flow of the main content. Today it has worked its way into the web world.

We use sidebars for various reasons, but generally it has become a safe place to put information which doesn’t belong in either the navigation bar or isn’t the main focus of the page. It’s all about easy access- the sidebar is a super place to put information or links you believe the user might want access to at any second.

Good sidebars are meant to improve the overall user experience. As designers, we organize the extra content the audience is most likely to want and place it in a sidebar, then BOOM! It’s right there at their fingertips. Things like search bars and contact buttons are always helpful to place in the sidebar. You can even use them to host a short list of your most recent blog posts, articles or news stories.

So why are we not seeing sidebars take over modern web design? It all depends on the type of website you are designing.

For starters, it’s distracting for the user and takes their focus away from the main content of the page. The sidebar shouldn’t stand out more than the main content on your webpage. It is important to keep in mind what actions you want users to take. The sidebar should assist, not distract the users from their primary path through a website.

Avoid the temptation to dump random information which has no home on your website into the sidebar. Cluttering up the sidebar with too many choices will actually reduce the chances visitors will click on any of the options. Keep focused on the most important elements.

Stay away from adding things to the sidebar just so it has content. Instead lose the sidebar completely. Select a full width option for the page layout and let the main content have the viewers’ complete focus.

Here are a few key guidelines to follow if you think your website would benefit from having a sidebar:

  • Keep it SIMPLE.
  • Try to keep your sidebar from extending below the fold with just two or three choices.
  • Break up the content with a button or graphic instead of just plain text the whole way down.
  • Be sure the content you place in your sidebar is relevant information for users. It should compliment the main content of the page.
  • Order matters. Place the most important information at the top of your sidebar.

A sidebar just makes sense in digital design, as it’s the natural evolution of good print design. How are you using sidebars in your web design?

Update:  November 2015 – Emily was right.  She saw the trend before we did.  Our new website won’t have sidebars.  For more on our decision to get rid of sidebars on our website.