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Navigation Menus: Trends and Examples

Navigation is the most significant element in web design. Since web-layouts don’t have any physical representation a user can stick to, consistent navigation menu is one of the few design elements which provide users with some sense of orientation and guide them through the site. Users should be able to rely on it which is why designers shouldn’t mess around with it.

That’s why in most cases it’s where simple, intuitive and conventional solutions are usually the best option. However, it doesn’t mean that they need to be boring. One year ago we’ve presented modern approaches of navigation design1. Let’s take a look at what’s different now, which trends one can observe and what ideas you can develop further in your projects.

This article presents recent trends, examples and innovative solutions for design of modern navigation menus. All images are clickable and lead to the sites from which they’ve been taken. We’ve missed something? Definitely! Let us know in the comments!

1. Trend toward “speaking” block navigation Link

The most significant task a navigation menu has to fulfill is to unambiguously guide the visitors through the different sections of the site. However, often it’s quite hard to communicate the content of a site section within one or two single keywords, particularly if horizontal navigation is in use. That’s why often navigation options aren’t simply listed one after each other using some appropriate keyword (“silent” navigation); instead, designers attempt to concretely explain which options are available and what the visitor should expect from site sections once clicking on corresponding links.

In fact, over the last months we’ve observed a strong trend toward exactly this navigation scheme; and since designers try to initiate a more effective dialogue with visitors we prefer to call it “speaking” navigation — contrary to “silent” navigation based upon the listing of keywords.


To make the perception of information easier, the navigation is often structured by using blocks of the same height and width; large icons are used quite often, but in most cases the decision whether they are appropriate or not depends on the content of the site and the overall layout. “Soft” hover-effects often support the navigation design by making the browsing more pleasant.


This navigation scheme can be used not only for the horizontal navigation; it can be applied to vertical navigation as well.


One can discuss if the Mac-style is the survivor of the Web 2.0 design attack or it becomes a standalone design element used independently from glossy colorful buttons with 3D-effects. Or maybe it’s just a temporary trends toward grunge style13 — nobody knows, really.

In any case over the last months a number of websites integrated Mac-styled-navigation in their websites. What’s interesting is that the style is used not only on Apple-related sites, but also on websites which aren’t directly related to Mac. Particularly when it comes to design of software products traditional Mac-style is often imitated. Reason: it is visually appealing and looks cool.


A navigation bar doesn’t need to look exactly like a typical Mac-style-navigation. Variations are also possible.

“Green” version of the traditional Mac-style menu

Since navigation bars can’t exist alone and need to be supported by the overall design, colorful one-page-sites with happy talk and overused stock photos designers are being replaced with more decent, serious and calm layouts. And that’s a good thing. However, when using the Mac-style please keep in mind that it shouldn’t be used for the sake of it but has to fit to the overall design.

3. Visually appealing icons are used more often Link

To communicate navigation options in a more effective way, designers often make use of appealing icons. In such cases it’s important to make sure that the icon is easily recognizable, clearly conveys the message, corresponds to the link it stands for and isn’t too small. Attractive icons are, of course, always preferred to the boring ones.

Icons can also be hidden into the links; this effect should be used sparingly.

Icons can be placed on the left-hand side…


…and on the right-hand side in the sidebar.


4. Vertical tabs Link

Although traditional desktop-applications almost never make use of vertical tabs, in the office vertical tabs are used at least as often as horizontal ones. In fact, designers often try it out; and the results can be quite interesting.

Before using vertical tabs you should make sure that it is possible within your layout and you actually have enough area to cover all navigation options on every single page. And, of course, the text is harder to read.


Tabs on the right-hand side.

5. Handwriting in use. Link

Recently we already discussed30 the hand-drawing style in modern web-design. And what holds for design layouts also holds for its specific elements — for instance, for navigation.




6. Experimental solutions Link

Although it’s usually not the best idea to come up with some strange and/or unique site navigation, designers tend to risk crazy and uncommon experiments. When trying out something new, make sure that you don’t put the usability of your site in danger by creating unnecessary barriers for your visitors. Any navigation menu fails if users can’t make sense out of it.

DesignForFun uses icons to help visitors to filter the content they’re looking for. Depending on the clicked icon the background of corresponding links changes. However, the selection of icons may be not the best one as it’s unclear hat icons stand for. Fortunately, title attribute is in use.


Interesting concept: the hover-effect on jBunti36 depends on the selected month of the year. Warm months are associated with reddish colors, cold months with blueish colors. 12 hover-colors in use.


Playground Blues38 tries out something completely different; each of 12 site sections has its color in the left sidebar. Once the visitor hovers the mouse arrow over the left-hand sidebar the icons pop up providing visitors with navigation options. Title-attribute is used as well. And to make sure visitors actually can find the navigation the icons pop out like harmonica first time the page is loaded.


Steven Holl40 is an architect. Which is why his navigation menu looks like an architectural sketch. Each navigation option is given some weight in the map — apparently according to its weight on the site.


Polkdesign uses a calender as the central navigation element. Flash.


Hopkingdesign42 offers not a tabbed-navigation; it’s a vertical navigation placed at the top of the page. Looks at least unusual.


No, has navigation options also placed at the top; however, these are only external links.


Flash-based 3D-effect used on The menu can also be expanded.


The navigation on fits to the brochure design. Or the other way around.


On Kriesi.at48 the hovered navigation option is dynamically expanded and shows the icons which illustrate what to expect in the section of the site. The effect is in this case not necessary.


Not really new, but still beautiful. Folietto.at50 uses the free area effectively and sparingly. You may notice an interesting visual effect when hovering the links.


inBloom has a menu with animation. The beetle doesn’t care what option you choose, it crawls its long path through the navigation tree anyway. This is an example of how animation can be unobtrusive.

Screenshot uses only BIG typography…


…and HelloColor.com54 uses small typography with rainbow colors.

Screenshot55 delivers a Flash-based navigation menu with sound-effects. It may sound annoying, but it isn’t: every navigation option has its own sound. If you train yourself a little bit you can even play your own melody while listening to birds in the background.


Maxandlous.com58 provides hover-effects with visual hints. It looks nice and unusual.


Scrollomania in all possible directions on Letters-Numbers.com60.


OK, how can you come up with this one? Nickad62‘s Flash-based construct becomes visible only if the mouse is clicked and remains being clicked.


Nike offers a kind of remote control. To navigate you need to click and drag. While dragging, move the mouse up to move forward, down to move backward, and left/right to turn.

Footnotes Link

  1. 1 /2007/03/14/css-based-navigation-menus-modern-solutions/
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  13. 13 /2008/01/29/grunge-style-in-modern-web-design/
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  30. 30 /2008/01/03/hand-drawing-style-in-modern-web-design/
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Vitaly Friedman loves beautiful content and doesn’t like to give in easily. Vitaly is writer, speaker, author and editor-in-chief of Smashing Magazine. He runs responsive Web design workshops, online workshops and loves solving complex UX, front-end and performance problems in large companies. Get in touch.

  1. 1

    Really like A great list. Thanx.

  2. 2

    Most users don’t use universal navigation. These might be new approaches, but they don’t really serve any useful purpose. Most actually hinder navigation. Reading horizontally strikes me as particularly silly, while having to explain a link is admitting that you can’t express yourself concisely. All they tell me is that the designer can either code some abstruse CSS and/or a graphic designer is in charge of the design.

    Contextual navigation (especially through breadcrumbs) should be the future. My site has no universal navigation apart from a logo in the top left corner that links to the home page.

  3. 3

    I really like the navigation on this site:
    Anyone here know how they did that? Is it ajax? I’m sure there’s some code available somewhere…

  4. 4

    I dont think mac style is still popular…

    My fav:

  5. 5

    Very nice collection again. Thank you…

  6. 6

    I’m not a fan of vertical tabs, but that’s just me I suppose – I find they’re ever-so-slightly harder to read than horizontally aligned text.

    ‘Speaking navigation’ is ok too – but one could argue that if the main link isn’t self explanatory, then it needs to be reworded – that extra text may ‘help’ explain, but in many cases, I feel it’s overkill.

  7. 7

    I good variance in navigation types. This should be a good reference to come back to whenever a navigation creative block comes about.

    Personally, I think navigation design is what makes websites in today’s world so popular. Intuitive, and more importantly user centered navigation is what makes some sites so popular. Content is easy to reach without a lot of time searching mindlessly. The experimental navigation systems are nice, but I would always suggest only using them on “personal playground” sites, where a committed community is already willing to spend a few extra seconds to navigate to the content they desire, because they know the overall outcome is going to be beneficial.

    My suggestion for personal portfolio sites and more organized company showcases is to keep it simple. Sure, the client sees first hand exactly what kind of cool stuff you can do with Javascript or Flash, but if they have a hard time navigating to the section of your site that they want to see, it is going to say a lot about their own user centered design concerns.

    I feel like I am rambling…great list!

  8. 8

    Nice collection, thanks…

  9. 9

    Really nice collection! Thanks.

  10. 10

    Nice collection!

  11. 11

    I would like to ask question about css, isit possible to make the mac button in css which can be used in all browser? Anyone can help how to code it ?

  12. 12

    You are Smashing some great articles of late! Navigation is a topic I love to revisit often – it’s inspiring and fun to read of the new, old, new again trends etc.

  13. 13

    very useuful list, especially for inspiration for a new design im working on for my site! i ALWAYS loved the Mac designs, but im moving towards sites that have more icons on them to give user feedback.

    im not a fan of the grunge designs but i can see why they are popular.

  14. 14

    Nice collection, thanks for share.
    By the way… link doesn’t work. I think you forget the “http://”

  15. 15

    Very nice collection!

  16. 16

    Well done Smashing Magazine, another great article and a great collection of menus.

    I also like the effect used on this site:

    Looks like it uses Mootools for the menu effect and also hiding of the navigation.

  17. 17

    while it’s cool, NickAd’s site navigation raises my anxiety levels.

  18. 18

    Nice selection of menus there, made me feel like I’d better pull my finger out and sort mine now.

  19. 19

    Great selection as usual!
    I love the pink one, it could looks nice on my weblog. :)

  20. 20

    Very nice collection


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