Back to Basics

Written by Yaron Schoen November 03, 2010

Read Now Read Later

Recently I came across an article from a tweet of an acquaintance of mine from Arc90, where I am just wrapping up some consultant work on a small project. The article’s name was: The Undesigned Web". It made me flinch a bit at how loosely the concept of design is thrown around without a full grasp on what it truly means. I was even more surprised to see that many web designers agreed with what was said in the article. Now, before continuing, I would like to mention that I have nothing against the author. I am sure he is a great guy that finishes all his vegetables at diner and helps little old ladies cross the street. That said, it does not take away from the fact that his article is a great reminder of something us designers and industry folk have to pay closer attention to.

Design is not solely aesthetics

I think the word “design” is misused mostly when it is confused with the word “aesthetics”. True, design has a lot to do with decoration and aesthetics but when used in that context, it’s goal is only to evoke a mood. The word design is not as shallow as that and has a much broader definition. To understand what design means, let’s sneak a peak at Webster’s Dictionary. Their first definition of design is: “to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan.” This, to me, is the core of what design really means, all the other definitions are mutations and complimentary add-ons.

Now, lets take Wester’s definition and apply it to the examples provided in the article. In the case of Readability, their main plan / purpose is to de-clutter messy websites and reformat the content to an easier and more pleasurable read. This plan / purpose is achieved, so based on Webster’s definition, Readability is designed well. Instapaper’s plan / purpose is to create an easy way of saving content for an enjoyable later read, anywhere. Instapaper achieves its goal and therefore, it is designed well. I would agree that the aesthetics of Instapaper’s online presence (reading list, homepage etc) can be a little more pleasing to the eye (sorry Marco), but saying it is not well designed or “undesigned” would be a wrong characterization. It is just aesthetically less pleasing than, say, this, and rightfully so. It doesn’t need to be that, if it were that, it would be bad design. Design should fit a need.

Google, Craigs List, (old) Twitter

Many more examples of extremely successful websites left out of the article, such as Google, Craigslist and the older version of Twitter, all come to mind. They are all based on minimal or close to no “pleasing” aesthetics (“undesigned”), but achieve their goal in much glory. They are all designed well but have less artistic expression than, say, this.

On the other end of the spectrum, sites that are thought of by the likes of the author as designed, such as Yahoo, AOL, The Atlantic, (even) New York Times and other major content providers, are actually very poorly designed. Their common thread is poor usability / readability, no customizable reading options, cluttered webpages so as to not leave empty white space (Let’s fill this up with an ad. Let’s insert an annoying most popular list that no one reads, so that the side bar won’t be empty). I would actually call these sites undesigned. We are now witnessing their fall, due to better designed options such as Reader, Instapaper and Readability. We are not witnessing the fall of the more utilitarian sites such as Google, Craig’s List or Twitter, because of their design. That should say a lot.

This new wave of uncluttered, easy to read, high on white space, customizable to one’s reading experience design approach and philosophy is in fact based on the essence of design. Sites and applications that use this approach have a goal of creating an enjoyable reading experience, which is, in fact, achieved. This is good design, not undesigned. What may seem obvious for our print counter parts, us web folk (especially myself) are finally starting to understand what content design truly means and I think we should embrace this as a better evolution of web design.

Customization is a negative word?

Customization on the web has earned a bad rep. There seems to be a notion that if you apply customizable options, it renders the work undesigned or sloppy design. That could not be further from the truth. It is true that up until now there have been very few websites who truly understood why and how to use customization, but that should not render the concept as evil. Customization can be an integral element in a design. For example, the chair I am sitting on now in my office has many adjustable configurations, in order to accommodate my sitting preferences. Now, I am pretty tall, I need to adjust the chair a bit differently than my shorter (but more beautiful) wife. Does this make the chair undesigned? It is just as designed as a chair that Philip Stark would create, only that Stark would add elements of artistic expression, making the chair more aesthetically pleasing (or displeasing, depending on your taste) evoking a mood, emotion or response from the viewer. In either case, since the goal of both chairs is to have me sit on them comfortably, if I do, then they are designed well. The same principles apply to everything, especially the Web. If I have bad vision, I would prefer to view the fonts in a larger size. Does providing this option render the work undesigned? That is just a silly notion and one we should disregard.

Apply to our world.

Now, I would like to mention again that I have no beef with Mr Tweeny. For me, this article is a wonderful case study, an example of how many people in the industry, even web designers, precive the word “design”. At the end of the day, I am not really writing this to correct the author but as a call out to my fellow designers to find their way back to the basics. We cannot go on under the misconception of form and function being one and the same. Misinterpreting this can lead us down a nasty path while working on a project. If a project brief calls for white space then it needs to be applied and if it calls for accessibility, we cannot go all crazy with coloring. Form follows function. All the rest is just make-up.

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Written in New York. © 2012