updated: January 30th, 2011 / Ross Johnson / 7 Comments

Design Is Not What You Think It Is

Growing up I had many hobbies that I was passionate about. From computer to cars, fine arts to film, I always thirsted for information and relished learning more. This of course was before the internet had gained popularity leaving me fewer options to find the knowledge I hunted. Having to “hunt” for knowledge feels like a bad dream in todays river of publications and publishers. There isn’t a day that goes by with out articles about design being published. In all honestly I do love this free flow of content that the internet mediates so well, but nothing is with out its trade offs.

It is easy to be excited and passionate by design. Our culture is motivated and stimulated by our senses and predominately our visual sense. Everyone in the world has preferences, tastes and passions when it comes to things that they see. Even the most curmudgeon of people would be delighted to see a sunset over the mountains or a natural waterfall.

Design, especially on the web often taps into this visual pleasure part of our brain. It is the pleasure that we get out of seeing something that fits our tastes that makes it easy to scan through design galleries daily, read the next article about typography and spend hours looking through color pallets for that right combination (not that I do any of those… really I don’t…) By and large this should be recognized and embraced. After all when designing a website you should strive to get that reaction by those that are looking at your work.

This is of course tricky because design is subjective. But I would stress that it is more than just being “subjective,” rather different for every group and every person living. Further the “visual excitement” one gets from looking at the design is only a fraction of what is really important. How the site functions and achieves goals and objectives is much more important than how it looks. While I won’t be so crass to say that the visuals are not a factor or that they are inconsequential, they are a piece of a much bigger puzzle.

A site that has a look and feel that resonates with target users will perform better in most cases. Additionally users perceive a good-looking site to be easier to use even if this is not the case. Aesthetics can build engagement, increase retention and encourage use… but I often ask “Do we put too much emphasis on them?”

I have long thought about this and I am fully aware I too can have clouded judgement based on my own personal preferences. It wasn’t until I came across the rash of “Best of Design 2010” style articles earlier this year that I really become frustrated with the “fast food” style design articles that have become so popular. Reviewing the sites and designs that these posts showcased I fully agree they are beautiful, from a web designers artistic perspective. But what qualifies them as the “Best Design of 2010” from a “performs the function and achieves the goals they were designed for” perspective? How do we know the target audience loved the visuals instead of just web designers as a group?

This illustrates a perpetual miscommunication about what “good design” really is. Our community rewards, showcases and promotes work based on our groups visual preferences and tastes. While not all designers fall prey to peer pressure and attempt to design for the styles that are showcased a lot of them do under the assumption that it constitutes as good design. In reality it would only constitute as good aesthetic design if you were designing for other web designers and even then one would be failing to consider the more important issue of  “Is it going to achieve the goals you have set?”

Rather than treating our work like art we should instead look to the advertising industry, who have a much greater sense of results and success as a measure of great campaigns. Ad agencies expect that they will be critiqued on results in addition to the craftsmanship of their work, why should we be any different?

I encourage you to reevaluate how you look at design and how you are influenced by it. If you are someone who does design on any level you are going to be effected by what you see and is around you. If your mindset is that of thinking about solutions to specific situations and problems rather than what creates a pleasurable reaction when you personally see it you are going to be much closer to producing design that does create results. Maybe you won’t get the fan fare that designing for the CSS Galleries would, but since when are they your clientele anyways?

7 thoughts Design Is Not What You Think It Is

  1. Hello Ross,

    Thank you for such an eye-opening article.

    I would totally agree with you. I myself judged and create templates and designs according to how I want it to be and the things that inspires me most. I sometimes forgot that it’s not all just about “I” and “me” but how would people react and the possible result.

    Now, I really need to go out from my comfort zone and explore more new and inspiring things.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. This is really great and I agree fully with you wau!

  3. An amazing article. It’s nice to read a quality blog post. I think you made some good points in this post.

  4. Yes! well said.

    Too many designers, and I include some top designers, design in an industry bubble.
    They forget that the whole meaning of design centres around the targeted fulfilment of a goal, most often expressed in a brief.
    If you are designing something to look nice rather than to fulfil a brief what you are partaking in is not design, it may be art, but it isn’t design.

    Next time you hear a designer evaluating a design look out for whether they evaluate it in terms of it’s successful outcomes and brief fulfilment or whether they judge it only aesthetically. Or worse, by an extremely narrow aesthetic criterion only designers are privy too.

    Take the (yes I know done to death) example of the 2012 Olympic logo, where claiming to like the logo became a measure of your design prowess “You peons don’t like it but that’s because you don’t understand design” being the implication.

    This is missing the point that an Olympic logo, to be a successful design, must have popular appeal. To evaluate it’s success as a design without taking this into account is a pretty good indication that you do not understand what design is let alone have the ability to evaluate it.

  5. Nice Post…Everyone in the world has preferences, tastes and passions when it comes to things that they see. Even the most curmudgeon of people would be delighted to see a sunset over the mountains or a natural waterfall…Even if you are not familiar with the technical aspects of website design and publishing, you can still create an online presence, and build brand reputation by engaging web design service providers that can create a design for you that fits your budget .

  6. Nice article. After reading this article I am clear that Design Is Not What We Think It Is. Thanks again bro.

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