Gap Inc.

Gap Inc. Retail Stores

Websites on Clothing Retail:,,
Note: These three websites are from the same company,

Browser Compatibility
(this is an addition to the original
critique, which was written in December 2001)

Gap Inc.’s retail sites seem to render best in Internet Explorer.
From a quick usability test with Netscape, none of the three sites have any
problems with the particular browser. However, with Opera, an JavaScript error
alerts the user that JavaScript is only compatible with versions 4.0 or above.
Excuse me? As an tester, one might use Opera 6.1 to test Gap but true enough,
the same error appears at the Men’s section. Furthermore, the JavaScript alert
is written in lowercase letters, without correct capitalisation, which negatively
affects the company’s ethos. Old Navy does not do any better with Opera;
the rollover effects are ineffective with Opera as the mouse virtually “erases”
the navigation menu. If Gap Inc.’s sites are not compatible with less popular
browsers, such as Opera, one highly doubt that such sites are text-browser
friendly, such as with Lynx.


Gap Inc., an American-based company, is amongst the leaders of specialty
retailers around the world. Consumers contribute to the company’s profits
by making purchases from one or more of these highly recognised stores: Banana
Republic, Gap (including GapKids, babyGap, etc.), and Old Navy. Although each
brand name, and thus, a distinctive store, belongs to the same company (Gap
Inc.), the three stores target different audiences. Although primarily retailing
in clothing, Gap Inc. also offer accessories and personal care products, with
every brand in its own style and quality. Most consumers would agree that
Banana Republic holds the highest quality, sophistication and class in fashion,
whereas the middle to lower end of the line is attributed to Gap and Old Navy
respectively. Product differentiation is reflected in various areas of store
and promotional design. Generally, designs for Old Navy are geared towards
the younger generation, and gradually progresses toward the career-oriented
consumers with Banana Republic products. Thereby, Gap Inc. is a product family,
as one can grow up with products from its company.

Product differentiation is not only reflected in Gap Inc.'s retail stores,
but is also seen across their online stores through design choices. As with
most websites, each has areas of weaknesses in design and usability. However,
to counterbalance minor drawbacks, attributes and strengths contribute to
the rhetorical effectiveness in communicating information of the sites. Design
choices will be analysed in separate sections to discuss the three sites in
greater detail.


Navigational design is a substantial portion of structural design, as it
provides an interface for the backbone. Each site follows a similar structure
of a persistent (global) navigation (Krug 62) and if one draws a sitemap of
site hierarchy, one can classify the websites as being multi-levelled overt
taxonomy structures (Kress and van Leeuwen 88). In all cases, the superordinate
(Kress and van Leewuwen 83), or the homepage, is slightly different than the
rest of the navigational layout and structure (Krug 109).

Homepages serve a greater purpose in addition to aesthetics. The homepages
have a function to not only promote specific sections of the site through
graphical saliency (Kress and van Leeuwen), but also to allow a user’s quick
navigation to various sections for a better browsing experience (Krug 98).
Although the homepage provides navigational choice for a user, if the menu
is not clearly defined, one may get lost at the first page. An example of
this is shown by Gap, as it does not readily differentiate the subsections
from the main sections: babyGap separates to Baby Boy and Baby Girl in the
same spot as the previous menu. However, Old Navy clearly distinguishes each
baby section by colour and typeface.

Perhaps these sites follow too closely to the design of a catalogue (see
Metaphoric Design), which would hence be the reason for failing to implement
a search feature to help visitors find specific items. Many retail stores
contain searchable databases of available inventory, yet these online stores
lack this function. However, much like Krug’s example (an older version of
Gap’s website), the sites contain distinctive identifiers including site IDs,
sections, subsections, utilities, and indicators to mark one’s place (Krug
61), which serves as a map and a frame to allow one to browse the contents.
This technique, when implemented well, may be more effective in perspectives
of marketing strategies, as browsing often increases a visitor’s chance of
purchasing another item prior to exiting the store. Additionally, designers
seem to keep users with 800×600 screen resolutions in mind as much of the
central pages are surrounded with negative “white” space, which
allows for an optimal experience as users browse throughout the online stores.
A frame at the bottom of the page leads a customer to and to other
related pages. However, without the proper guiding of hyperlinks and with
large graphic images, one might get lost in trying to figure out where the
“entrance” into the online store is located.

Page titles are apparent in Gap and Banana Republic, which are often defined
by large graphical banners that act like street signs for visitors (Krug 72).
In contrast, the clear identity of a page title is lacking in Old Navy, possibly
because it seems to be a part of the breadcrumb (Krug 78), instead of being
distinct enough to separate itself from the rest of the trail marker, which
may cause users a sense of displacement.

Banana Republic’s vertical expandable menu conveys sophistication, which
adds ethos, through the use of JavaScript. Gap achieves the “classic”
look by its conventional use of tabs and Old Navy distinguishes its style
with underlined links (harder on the eyes (Krug 93)) under a vertical navigation
menu, contributing to its clashing and wild character. Although Gap follows
convention, it fails to make obvious the direct hyperlink to babyGap (
However, this might be an intentional design choice, as the company may want
users to browse through other sections during their visit, thereby increasing
the chance of more purchases. Often, like this case, hyperlink design closely
associates with structural design.

Hyperlink Design

For users of the worldwide web, these sites may seem relatively simple to
navigate through. However, more thinking accompanies each click, as the majority
of the hyperlinks do not follow conventional guides, such as underlines or
guiding words, to focus users in purchasing items. One would be able to tell
that a hyperlink is present through a change in the mouse pointer icon, but
that would only result in more searching, guessing, and/or assumptions (Krug
15). The primary means of conveying hyperlinks in these sites is through the
use of graphics (images and textual graphics). Sites that are catered to a
younger audience also incorporate pull-down (drop-down) menus. Additionally,
Banana Republic and Old Navy uses JavaScript rollovers to indicate a presence
of hyperlinks.

Pull-down menus are used in Gap and Old Navy (stores of “classics”
and “flair”), which are of much debate as it gives a sense of a
depth. On the other hand, one needs to scan, which requires time to mentally
shift through lists of one-lined descriptions and guess at the options.

Using JavaScript with hyperlinks becomes a disadvantage when users try to
open links in new windows to avoid exiting the site. Only certain users would
notice (in the status bar) that there already exists an open (new) window
command in the code (e.g. clicking on the Gap gift box graphic pops up a new
window). To perform the same action only brings up a “This page cannot
be displayed” error, which is a very frustrating task and as a result,
may mislead the user to think that the page does not exist.

In the more interactive sites such as Gap or Old Navy, the e-mail text field
operates similarly to Krug’s examples of a search field (16). For a novice,
one may be unclear as to where to enter the e-mail address, but would know
to press the “Submit” or “Join” button.

Like street signs (or section IDs), breadcrumbs provide users with a sense
of direction (Krug 75). Each uniquely uses indicators (arrows) to “mark
the spot” (page) as well as to incorporate a colour change of the hyperlink
name. Subtly, these sites use conventional means to convey visited and unvisited
hyperlinks. Some links are set to be underlined in a cascading style sheet,
even if the user’s browser settings has the underline preferences turned off.
If, for example, the hyperlink setting were set to hover instead of showing
as underlines in Internet Explorer, Gap would show the underline links as
the mouse hovered over the hyperlinks. Unvisited links (blue) in Gap and Old
Navy differs from visited links (grey), whereas for Banana Republic, it makes
no such distinction. In Banana Republic’s thinking, it may imply that all
hyperlinks are going to be hyperlinks, no matter if one has visited them or
not, which gives credibility to its visitors. Because websites generally load
from the top to the bottom, with larger images last, the site ID and the location
of the navigational bar are strategically placed, not only so that loading
would be faster, but also because many hyperlinks would hypothetically load
first if they are text based instead of being graphical text.

Textual Design

San serif fonts are used across the online stores. For emphasis, large caps
and italics at the Gap distinguish certain text from the rest. Much of each
site’s text is graphical (either as its own image or a part of a graphic),
and thus has a greater salience than non-graphic based text, which aids in
capturing a visitor’s attention. In addition, designers opted to use American
spelling to accommodate the largest audience and because the company is based
the in United States.

Headers and titles generally are larger, bolder, and contrast with the background,
which catches the eye of the visitor and perhaps adds to the concept of street
signs and breadcrumbs (Krug 75). However, some textual descriptions assume
too much from the visitor. Intermediate users would understand to click on
the graphic to find out more about Gap’s “Click for coupon” statement,
but a beginner might just click the mouse anywhere on the page expecting that
a coupon to appear.

Graphic Design

Because the focus of retail stores appeals to consumers visually, much of
their advertising is based on marketing concepts. Online stores are often
a means of promotion and self-advertising, which is effective by not having
to distinguish itself from other ad banners (Krug 94). Graphics, along with
text, are merely signifiers of the signified (reality) (Chandler Ch 2). Many
graphics are designed to have users want what is shown on the images, and
consequently, to make a purchase online or at a local store. Colour schemes
and the choice of subjects are different aspects that contribute to this design.
Old Navy uses solely clothing to sell their items with the exception of the
baby section, which purposely perhaps stands out the most, as there is a greater
modality for photographs as type of media (Kress and van Leeuwen 170). Photographs
portray reality and real-life situations, whereas items of clothing are merely
inanimate objects. The photograph of a baby’s eye gazing out at eye-level
with the camera lenses establishes a connecting relationship with the viewer,
a gaze of demand, which establishes equality through the angle of the camera
lens (Kress and van Leeuwen 154).

Perhaps Gap and Banana Republic do not have a strict economical budget in
comparison to Old Navy, as a variety of people in different poses, sporting
goods from the store, are readily seen across the sites with the participants’
gazes in a demand or an offer (Kress and van Leeuwen 154). Although Banana
Republic does not sell products that are targeted toward the younger generation
(i.e. children and youth), the photograph on the homepage has a resemblance
of a young family unit, which creates a sense of unity and harmony, establishing
a sense of welcome to all consumers.

A multitude of people from various ethnic backgrounds and the colours of
the site create a sensory and naturalistic coding orientation (Kress and van
Leeuwen 171), which visually appeals to the general public. Many of the medium
and close shots of people are taken at a frontal angle, involving and intimacy
of the viewer and the participant (Kress and van Leeuwen 155). There is no
sense of power, authority, or an impersonal relationship to detract the visitor
from the site as participants in the photographs generally involve the viewer;
most of the poses are not (non) transactional actions (Kress and van Leeuwen
74). Gap’s front page, however, is quite interesting in that participants’
gazes are not directed at the lens, but instead, are somehow involved in a
non-transactional reaction (Kress and Van Leeuwen 74).

Many graphics reflect the fast approaching season and the festive holidays
of Christmas, including Old Navy's images of Christmas tree ornaments. Additionally,
models are geared with snowboards (Gap) and sport warm clothing, which suggest
the approaching winter. Such gear provides atmosphere and background setting
for winter clothing (Kress and van Leeuwen 75). One can assume that much of
Banana Republic and Gap also deviate from standard colours (e.g. blue and
white for Gap) and instead, uses a strong, persistent red colour scheme that
matches the season. However, Gap and Old Navy maintains its original colours
to a degree. Gap's blue and white is present in its site ID and Old Navy's
colours seem to clash throughout, fitting to what consumers may be familiar
with at the stores. Even though red is the season's colours, Banana Republic
uses red earth tones, possibly to relay the "safari" feel of the
company's original themes. Furthermore, younger audiences are often attracted
to a higher saturation of colours and colour diversification, which then becomes
a greater means of modality for them. The more mature audiences, on the other
hand, tend to identify with the colour modulation of dichromatic colours and
a lower level of colour saturation as the homepage of Banana Republic or the
GapBody section of the Gap site seem to emphasize (Kress and van Leeuwen 165).

The alt text that shows up when a mouse hovers over an image is generally
useful in providing a functional description of what the graphic says, especially
for those who use text-based browsers (e.g. Lynx on UNIX). Banana Republic
seems to intentionally leave out alt text for graphics that serve no function,
such as the one of the family at the front page. Other navigational graphics
include the use of arrows, icons, buttons and tabs, and are discussed in the
sections of structural and semiotic design.


Perhaps the designers omitted multimedia effect such as sound, video or animation
due to the fact that each site is graphics-heavy, which would mean that loading
a page would take more time, especially for users who have a slow connection.
The closest medium to animation would be JavaScript rollovers. Rollovers are
often used in Macromedia Flash animations, yet can also stand alone. Even
though Krug mentions that rollovers are often twitchy because of pop-up text
(113), Banana Republic and Old Navy avoid using pop-ups or uses it minimally
in navigational design to make its sites are more attractive. In the case
of pop-ups, the technique is used effectively as the textual description of
Banana Republic’s letter logos (e.g. W for Woman) are short and that they
are located near the pointed graphic (Krug 113).

Metaphoric Design

There is a common controlling metaphor present across the sites. One cannot
help but notice that the website designs resemble store catalogues, which
in turn is modelled after a department store. Much like a catalogue, each
online store contains various sections and many graphics that model what is
trying to be sold.

Icons are visual metaphors of real items. The shopping bag is a highly effective
and recognisable icon. Many retail sites (e.g. Chapters) utilise the shopping
cart concept, and yet if one shops for clothing, one would rarely wheel around
a shopping cart, but rather would have hands full of department store bags.
Although Banana Republic uses the bag concept, Gap and Old Navy's implementation
of this metaphor is more familiar, especially since Gap uses its own "bag".

Each site also has a sample of the items colours by reproducing a colour palette
or a swatch. Banana Republic tries to reproduce the texture and the colours
as closely as possible like an "art watercolour palette", allowing
one to view the colour samples (as available in the store) in a separate window.

Semiotic Design

Navigational icons are more semiotic representations as compared to being
metaphorical. Such include buttons and arrows, indicating that certain areas
are clickable, which directs a user to more information. However, semiotic
design may overlap with metaphoric design, such as the idea of the “shopping
bag”. With the “shopping cart” concept, users readily look
out for, transfer and apply the “proceed to checkout” purchasing
technique to similar ideas like a shopping bag.

Attributes such as the types and styles of clothing classify the distinct
brands, setting each of them apart from the other, which contributes to the
product family of Gap Inc. Such possessive attributes are a part of exhaustive
analytical processes where store models are the carriers that sport the brands
wear, or the possessive attributes that identify them as being as fashionable
(Kress and van Leeuwen 107). One would classify these images as analytical
processes as they are neither narrative processes nor are they classification
processes as an independent site (Kress and van Leeuwen 93).

Rhetorical Design

Like most companies, Gap Inc.’s primary goal is to be financially stable:
to do well and to make a profit. A strive to excel is reflected on each website
by attempting to get users to make purchases. A secondary goal may be for
the company to collect as many e-mail addresses as possible for future marketing
and promotional means. One way would be to promote a sense of belonging by
allowing one to freely choose whether they want to “join” the hype
or not.

Rhetorical design reflects every aspect of design, which may mean that Old
Navy might not get as many purchases as Banana Republic, or the Gap, because
much of its site content is scattered, whereby in the process, scatters the
communicative effectiveness. Old Navy’s navigation is even under a different
system: clothing goods are categorised by occasion, not by type, and there
are many different hyperlink systems present in every page. On the front page
alone, Old Navy implements rollovers, graphics, pull-down menus, buttons,
and customized (through cascading style sheets) and standard hyperlinks (underlined
text). Moreover, Old Navy changes its promotional feature every week, extending
a new appeal to the audience. However, the temptation to buy might be dependent
on the age of the visitor. Perhaps, Old Navy appeals to the younger generation,
as there are more options for interactivity.

As a recommendation, since online stores are popular not only in America,
perhaps Gap Inc. should consider extending their service to other countries
(like Chapters does), to generate even more revenue. Through a detailed analysis
of Old Navy, Gap, and Banana Republic’s websites, benefits seemingly outweigh
or, in the least, balance minor design flaws. Thus, one may assume that the
websites of Gap Inc. are rhetorically effective and contain successful choices
and decisions of design.


Chandler, Daniel. (1994). Semiotics for Beginners. [WWW Document]. URL .
Kress, Gunther and van Leeuwen, Theo. (1996). Reading Images: The Grammar
of Visual Design. New York: Routledge.
Krug, Steve. (2000). Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability.
Indianapolis: New Riders.

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