Hello there, you are viewing the previous version of my website. Check out my current website »

03rd of Nov. 2010

Back to Basics

By Yaron Schoen


Related links that inspired or helped me create this article.

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 aestetics 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 accomidate 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 deisgned 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.

Comments (15)

So what do you think? The world wants to know!

Leane Wells
November 04, 2010

As a print designer, I must say this is the first time I’ve come across a web designer with a correct and succinct understanding of design, how it is applied; and that it is not solely making something pretty, or raw programming for that matter. As an old school designer, I believe that interface/readability design is foremost. It matters not how pretty something is, if I can’t read it, easily be engaged, or navigate it. Those who can THEN make something aesthetically attractive, that visually draws me in (along w/useability+readability)—well, that’s truly a designer.

November 04, 2010

Design is (almost) everywhere. So is art. How often have we tried to answer a the question “is this art or not?”. I don’t think it’s much different with design. Pretty much every website that aims to do something was designed in one way or another. Is it good design? Maybe. Is this painting good art? Maybe. They both have to fullfil their goals. For some of us they do that in a very aesthetically pleasing way, for some of us they don’t. Good design might be more measurable than good art, but even if a design performs badly, it’s still designed.


PS: No, art is not design or vice versa.

Berthold Barth
November 05, 2010

You raise three important points.

First is the misconception of what design actually is. It surprises me on a regular basis, how design, decoration, aesthetics and art are used interchangeably. And not just by students either, but by people I consider masters - John Boardley of ilovetypography.com for instance declared typography an art in 2008 (http://ilovetypography.com/2008/04/04/on-choosing-type/) thusly: “That typography and choosing type is not a science trammeled by axioms and rules is a cause to rejoice.” I could not disagree more, and I even wrote an entire article in response that detailed how art actually *is* a science (and I will have to migrate that one to my new site one day, too). Truthfully though, I’m not sure I’m in any sort of position to argue with these guys, seeing as I am a lowly student with next to no experience of my own. It’s a fine line we’re treading here, that’s for sure.

Secondly, there is the transition away from webdesign being considered a primarily technical discipline ( suggesting to people unfamiliar with the industry, that their neighbours son, who is into computers, would be just as competent at designing a website as a proper graphic designer) toward a primarily visual task, with the technology only there to support the design. As it coincides with my own transition from the IT world to the design world, I find this change very refreshing. It also offers up a lot of new projects, since businesses now realise that a site doesen’t only have to be online, it also has a specific job, namely attracting customers and earning money.

The third point i want to touch upon briefly is that of levels of enjoyment, a topic that I tackle in my series of “Ship it” articles, and which directly relates to the definition by Stephen Anderson. Setting the text like the readability script does, elevates any page to level 3 - usable, the highest it can get without a “proper” design, as long as it has decent content. Beyond that, to create sites that are convenient and enjoyable, a designer has to work at fulfilling the specific needs of the audience. This is where we excel.

November 06, 2010

I feel compelled to respectably disagree with Webster’s definition of design. To create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan, just sounds far to vague for me to accept. I’m just going to make these statements (right or wrong).

Design is the physical practice of problem solving.
Aesthetics is the art of producing a desired feeling.
And art is either whatever rich people want to pay for, or whatever the hell you enjoy making (if both are embraced, you get paid).

All have theories, best and worst practices, eras, and goals. All overlap, yet each can have more of the spotlight than the other. Good design solves problems, period. Good aesthetics reflects good virtues like: honesty, clarity, courage, substance, creativity words (please attribute this to Marty Neumeier). Good art is perfectly subjective, yet can’t exist outside the practices of design and aesthetics.

Bad design does not solve any problems. Bad aesthetics reflects bad virtues like: dishonesty, deceit, selfishness and ignorance (please attribute this to Marty Neumeier). Bad art is again, perfectly subjective, yet can’t be judged without arguing design and aesthetics.

Funny as it may seem, if you solve a problem in a compelling manner, people often consider it to be a piece of art.

Yaron Schoen
November 06, 2010

@Kai: Great minds think alike. I had a whole paragraph, in my draft, that was called “Design Is Everything”, which basically talked about what you just wrote. But I took it out for the sake of a shorter read :)

@ Berthhld: I will have to disagree with you. Art is not a Science. It has to do with ideas, reactions, emotions and thought. Though methods and materials can be reconstructed, Art is not empirical, the idea of it cannot be repeated. Science, on the other hand, needs to be proven and in order to prove it you would need to have empirical research with identical results each time.

@Benjamin:  I appreciate your input, but I would have to disagree with you as well. Saying “Design is the physical practice of problem solving” is almost saying the same thing, but narrowing it down too much. I would also remove the word “physical”, if anything. What if I said “I am designing the perfect crime”? Design is creating a plan and executing it. Usually, plans aim to solve problems.
Your definition of Aesthetics is narrow as well. Aesthetics is a philosophical study, that talks about art and culture’s definition of the nature of beauty and of taste. Your definition is relevant only when it is associated with visual production.
I would have to respectfully say that your definition of Art is way off. (my response to that would be too long for a comment :)

Yaron Schoen
November 06, 2010

Speaking of design, I need to do something about the design of my comment. They are really meh… Will keep note of that in the redesign of the site.

Dalton Hurd
November 24, 2010

I agree with everything you’ve said, except for the comment implying that aesthetics are shallow. The concept is simple, but it takes a lot of skill and experience to master something like aesthetics.

Which is interesting to me, since you’ve clearly mastered aesthetics. Perhaps it comes so easy to you that you don’t consider it as big a part of design that it is? :)

December 07, 2010

overall, i think the biggest problem it’s just the fact that there is not a unique way to conceive this proffesion and it’s seems that’s never gonna be, so “good” and “bad” will continue being subjective appraisals in this field : / , and (saddly) most of the time it translates into the viewer, audience, people, client and so on as a confusing speach, not from the designer but from the proffesion itself.

December 07, 2010

I was at a conference (interaction design 11) where a keynote speaker said as the closing remarks: “Thanks for not discussing what design means”. I could not agree more. Defining “design” is the most futile and meaningless discussion ever. Get over it, and start designing.

December 07, 2010

Sorry, I felt compelled to correct the above comment I just made. To what it should be: “Interaction Design 10”. “Interaction 11” hasn’t happened yet. This will be another great conference, coming soon, and on everybodys mind. Including mine. Sorry for the error.

December 07, 2010

Nice article, but with all due respect, you dis one term (aesthetics) to elevate another (design). They are certainly different and used interchangeably like “national debt” and “national deficit,” but again, the age-old bias against aesthetics as mere decoration and, as such, vacuous, goes back all the way to ancient Greek philosophy and Plato.

I would say that the problem is that these terms often describe very broad areas and consequently susceptible to being used incorrectly.

Yaron Schoen
December 07, 2010

Thanks everyone for your great comments! I love seeing different opinions.

@Edgar I did not mean to dis aesthetics. I am first and foremost a visual designer, and aesthetics is my favorite part of a design. Sorry that didnt translate into this article. Note taken for future articles.

@Dalton Sorry if that appeared that way, I definitely did not mean that aesthetics are shallow, but that defining a design purely on aesthetics was. I wish designing would come easy to me, but alas, it does not come easy to me at all, and I am still learning as I go.

@Thomas Even though I was not at that conference, and his sentence may have been taken out of context, I can see where the speaker was coming from (especially in conferences, where there is a lot of bla bla). That said, I will have to respectfully disagree in this case. Saying something like that to a young designer is pretty risky, especially when they cannot differentiate between the different disciplines (visual design, information architecture). Saying that to a client can be risky since they may not understand that the white space you have in the design is intentional and that it is part of the objectives of the project.
So I think saying something like “stop taking and go do” is a great sentence when used correctly, when not it is just a good joke in a conference, or just someone that is trying to be cool :)
BTW I am thinking of attending 11’

@Everyone Thanks for all the comments guys!! The common thread I see here is that I do not appreciate aesthetics, which I think I made the grave mistake of misrepresenting in this article. I think I will need to write a new post about how much I think it is important. In the mean time my peer (and swell guy) Mike Kus wrote an article about it in 24ways.org, I suggest you read it!

December 07, 2010

Well, it’s a bit naive to say that the NYT is “undesigned” because it “clutters whitespace with ads”. Those ads are rather essential to the NYT’s business model—arguably more so than the content.

Your second paragraph set an interesting stage for the discussion implied in your headline, but the rest that follows largely backpeddles into equating “design” with “mere aesthetics”—in particular, your penchant for simplicity and minimalism. So “design” is merely making cluttered things less cluttered?

Ditto your arguments for customization—Mr. Steve Jobs, as arguably the most successful “design” case study of the last decade, would wholly disagree that more options (i.e. customization) is better. What about doing it “right” the first (and only) way? Apple has built their success by institutionalizing “the Apple way”. Sure, there’s been plenty of backlash against such a totalitarian approach, but at the end of the day today, it is Apple that has the most valuable tech stock in the world, knocking Microsoft (with 6 “customized” versions of Windows 7) from the throne.

Good design is about effective choices. If it works well at what it’s supposed to do, it’s good design. Even “bad” design can be good, in the case of Craigslist and the numerous (unaccepted) attempts at redesign that have followed.

I second @Thomas: “Defining “design” is the most futile and meaningless discussion ever. Get over it, and start designing. “

FYI, I teach Design at a major university. While we spend a certain amount of time calibrating the students to what design can be, we spend far more time insisting that they discover it themselves.

Yaron Schoen
December 07, 2010

@G Thanks for the response! It’s good to have an academic’s thoughts, much appreciated.
Since I have worked with many very large publications I know for a fact that adding ads, are not as strategical as you may think. They are usually added to fill up space. While yes that provides them with money, it makes things like Readablity and Instapaper more attractive to use, so in the long run, it may cause them to loose money. Some food for thought. But they don’t only add ads, they also add lists and crap on their side bars, for example, that ruin the experience.
This article is mainly a response to the article mentioned in The Atlantic, so my second paragraph addresses just that. The original author indicates that non-clutter = undesign and clutter = design, I simply tried to explain how that is a false accusation. It is harder as a designer to remove things than add.
Stating that craigslist as “bad” design is again, missing the point. Craigslist is a great design, it is simply not visually appealing. As for apple, yes less options is absolutely better, but no options isn’t the way to go either (just like the chair example I provided). There needs to be a fine line between them, which currently is non-existent in the web.
And again, saying “stop talking about design, just design,” is so wrong to say, especially to students (if they do not know the difference between principles). What you are effectively saying is that your job as a teacher (which I am sure you preform well and I say this with respect, just for argument’s sake) is effectively redundant?  I say it isn’t. There are times when reflecting on what one does, is important. Just like you say, I spend most of my time designing, but a certain small part of my time I spend talking, reflecting and defining what I do. I think that is healthy and I would preach everyone to do so.

July 15, 2011

Arietcls like these put the consumer in the driver seat?very important.