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Weblog Entry

Understanding Design

February 23, 2004

It appears that Microsoft promoter extraordinnaire Robert Scoble has sparked a debate about the value of design.

Robert’s claim that readability comes before ‘prettiness’ may be valid in some cases, but let’s not waste our breaths. Throwing arguments in favour of design at one with an engineer mindset is as effective as stapling Jello to the wall; it just won’t stick.

Something that we all need to keep in mind: when it comes to design, everyone’s a critic. Sure, they’re all allowed opinions, but here’s a little secret just between us: they’re not always (or even seldom) right. You’re allowed to walk away from the argument without bringing them around to your way of thinking, because those who take the time to argue will rarely be swayed anyway.

Yes, there are basic design principles that every designer needs to keep in mind; legibility and usability are two very important ones that sometimes receive less treatment than they deserve. But design is always about compromising and finding the best fit for the job. Legibility comes in varying degrees, as does usability. If there was a one-size-fits-all solution, why we’d all be out of work, wouldn’t we?

In the end, the designer is the one being paid to make the judgement call. Why? Because the designer has studied the issues and knows what works better for a large percentage of the population. A small and vocal minority may kick up a dust storm, but if they haven’t been involved in the decision making and don’t have the benefit of the designer’s knowledge, they can’t possibly understand how their concern may not be as important as they think.

Now pay attention, because this part is important. A lot of people will attack or question design in general, because in their minds they have reduced it to a simple and subjective styling issue. They don’t have any experience with typography, proportion, colour theory (and colour blindness for that matter), emotional response, form and function. Because design is simply a matter of decoration, they feel they have the same right as the designer to dictate the visual direction of any particular project, or lack of it as the case may be.

Many of our clients feel this way; some would fire us without a moment’s notice if they figured out Photoshop. We’re hired for our technical skills, not our creative vision. And many of us are content to let that mindset persist.

In fact, even in the general web community this goes on daily. A stream of “I like it because…” and “I don’t like it because…” inevitably follows the launch of any redesign. Some ask for the critiques, others don’t, but everyone gets them regardless. The response can be valuable to create overall impressions, but when work starts being tailored to quell any one particular commenter’s dissatisfaction, there’s clearly a problem.

Credibility is the issue here. You don’t walk up to a civic engineer and scribble on his blueprints. You’re more than welcome to voice your concern at a public forum, but it’s up to the engineer to take your concern into consideration, as well as the concerns of everyone else, and figure out the best way to integrate them into an existing workflow, on top of an existing project, without impacting safety and accessibility concerns, while keeping the whole thing on budget. If another well-respected engineer speaks up, you can bet that issue is weighted far higher than the voice of a member of the general public.

Designers can be too quick to relinquish their control over a project to members of the public: the squeaky wheel gets greased, and the problem gets patched. None of this is to say the public isn’t right; they often are, in a limited capacity. But without having the context of the overall project, they usually won’t be led to understand why their particular concern will end up being too minor to address, or an inevitable trade-off to make something else work properly, or ignored completely because of the impact making a change would have on another part of the project.

You’ll rarely see me allow comments on design work I post. You’ll never hear me ask for an opinion. You can take it on faith I considered your point long, long ago, and had a good reason for making the choice I did.

Debate can be healthy, but sometimes it’s just a waste of time. If you get paid for your decisions, you’re better off standing confidently behind them instead of reversing them at a hint of opposition.


Reader Comments

Eric says:
February 23, 01h

“Eric’s and miffeds arguments is that the graphic designer can’t possibly understand what the engineer does, and will always dismiss any objections as irrelevant to their ‘vision’.”

Not quite sure I’m reading that right, but designers don’t understand what engineers do, and vice versa, that’s why we have different jobs. Someone thinking they know how to write a page because they write a few pages and javascripts for their blog once in a while is like someone saying they know how to design because they put a pumpkin head on someone in Photoshop. As Tony points out, there are lots of bad designers, and I would add there are lots of bad engineers. Engineers who dismiss quality design are not just “being engineers”, in fact they are failing at it. The responsibility of an engineer is to solve a problem, and ignoring a part of the solution because you didn’t need to take an art class in school is wrong.

“I’m sure the folks at Speak Up!, some including the top designers internationally, would disagree vehemently”

I’m hoping that this page: http://www.underconsideration.com/speakup/ isn’t the url of the site you are referencing. I would sincerely hope that anyone considering themself a top web designer would have nothing to do with a site like that. Teeny fixed fonts, fixed layout, missing or incorrect alt tags, unecessary graphical list headers (no doubt because someone really liked that S). Yikes.

I guess it all boils down to two types of designers (along a continuum of course). There are the designers that understand why people are actually coming to their web site, and those that don’t. People don’t go to sites because they are pretty, they go because there is something they want. The job of the designer is to understand what people want and get them there. Of course you also have the marketing people getting involved, and the legal department, and different people coming for different reasons, and that’s where the compromises start. To bring it back to Scoble’s posts, he’s talking about overdesigned weblogs, and the reason people go to web logs is to read the text. Detracting from the reason 100% of your audience is on your site in any way is bad design, and you don’t have to be an engineer to know that :)

2
mb says:
February 23, 01h

I will be anonymous here because I’m going to talk about an experience with real designers and customers.

The last two designs I’ve worked look pretty. They’re usable. Under ideal circumstances. But they really hold a list of inderterminite length, and once you get over 5 items they look terrible and are very hard to use. As an engineer I will comment on it and suggest better options.

And as a user advocate. Too many designers say “I have years of experience and already considered all options” when they haven’t considered everything. Most recent suggestion was that we over-ride the user’s large font size so that the design would still look the same.

Lea says:
February 23, 01h

Actually, yes, I am referencing the Speak Up! forum you’ve listed. For one thing, it’s perfectly designed for it’s AUDIENCE, which is the key. It’s designed to make designers smile; not for web usability, accessibility experts or even the general public. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small font, because the AUDIENCE of Speak Up a) doesn’t care, dammit ;-) or b) are web savvy enough to press CTRL +

Also, it’s sad, but your prejudice is showing with the lack of underestanding you show for the design decisions Armin made with the Speak Up redesign.

As well, one website doesn’t necessarily mean that all their work are broken down to this type of design. For example, my weblog is purple and black, with a punky grunge style. Why? Because I said so, and it’s a personal page, and the audience that goes to my site appreciates it. Do I always design that way? Actually, no. I CHALLENGED myself as a designer to go away from my USUAL ultra-clean and bright designs.

I find it unfortunate you’ve dealt with designers with closed-minded viewpoints, but it’s also sad to see the same closed-mindedness in your comments. We’ve known from the beginning of time, that a more attractive looking piece (website or not) will garner more respect/attention and if done properly, better accessibility and usability, than if those weren’t taken into account.

People go to weblogs to read them, yes. But you know what? If it came down to reading a nicely designed weblog with the same content as a poorly designed one… which one will I choose?

Everyone should learn to respect each other, instead of taking elitist viewpoints.

How did Samsung climbed out of the mess that was the mid-90s for them? Now, they sell a lot of the most popular cell phones. Why? Design. Their products worked well before. What changed? Design. Their products became more beautiful and USABLE… end result? Sales. Better design = clientelle with bigger pockets willing to spend.

In fact, Samsung went to the Art Centre in Pasdena for consultation. They also spent an entire year just re-learning ways on how to approach design. There is a direct correlation to their success with their aggressive approach to design and implementation of it. I have the article on it at my desk right now about it.

So in order to conclude my “rant” (heh), everyone needs to just learn to respect each other’s strengths and weaknesses. A person who is *good* at their job will realise that it takes a team effort to create a good website or end product. And a team effort includes respecting both a designer and engineer’s viewpoints. Not to point fingers and establish stereotypes like all designers are flighty artists, and all engineers are boring and unflinching duds (I’m sure William Hung proved that wrong… hehehe)

Just because you don’t *understand* why a certain choice was made, doesn’t mean it’s “wrong.”

February 23, 02h

Trent: huh? I’m looking at my site in Safari on a Macintosh, on IE6/Win, and Mozilla/Win, and my column widths are limited. Can you email me a screen shot of what you’re seeing?

Lach says:
February 23, 02h

I guess not being a ‘real’ designer, I always keep discussionon my own redesigns open just to let people point out all the things that might be wrong with it. In this case, I view it more in the Open-Source sense, that more eyeballs are more likely to pick up mistakes. That doesn’t mean that I’m always going to agree with, or do something about, comments, but the more critical comments I get, the better I feel ‘backed up’ in a design.

Of course, I’ve tried to teach myself most design issues to help, but actually designing an attractive website seems to be the hardest thing of all for me to grasp. Until my latest design revision, I’ve never been happy with my work once finished. So how does one become a ‘real designer? How do you learn attractive design?

6
Trent says:
February 23, 02h

Robert [20], I’m at home now and your site seems fine. But when I was at work on Win2K using Firefox 0.8, your articles were aligned with the left side of the page and were running straight to the right edge of the page.

I’m happy to report that on my WinXP box using Firefox 0.8 (and Opera, and Firebird, and IE), your site looks normal. I’ll try it again tommorow at work and send you a screenshot if it still looks messed up.

Sorry if I seemed curt before :)

7
Zelnox says:
February 23, 02h

When you use the term ‘engineer’, do you mean the profession of engineering with the license, iron ring and all?

Software engineers are required to be creative and must learn how to design software and architecture (at my school and the program is accredited). Some even have to earn credits in human-computer interaction or user-centered design in order to graduate.

The engineers and designers being discussed here, do they apply design patterns or usability patterns to support their decisions or is it done by intuition? Patterns were first introduced by Christopher Alexander for architecture (the building kind). The software patterns also have empirical support.

I made the assumption that by design, it is not ‘magic’.

February 23, 03h

I think Keith made a good point. I’m not one to say that “undesigned” sites are useless, and that users should put up with whatever designers throw at them for their own good, but (obviously) I wouldn’t take Scoble’s viewpoint that design is just superfluous ego droppings.

My work has involved practice in both design and engineering. I wouldn’t claim to be a master at either, but I think the experience from both fields really helps me to take things from every perspective. When building a website, the designer must consider, in this order: what the users need, what the client wants, and what you know. As has been said before, the process of design is a series of tradeoffs, using knowledge about usability, color theory, balance, etc. to make good decisions.

It’s like a political spectrum. Each side has good points, but neither side is right on everything.

Eric says:
February 23, 03h

“How do you learn attractive design?”

Lach, I’m only a designer by hobby, but I can offer one tidbit of advice, you learn it by doing it ALOT. I’m sure the more experienced designers here can offer more proverbial advice, but I find you just need to have a semblance of an idea and fiddle and tweak. You’ll throw away and undo 95% of your stuff before your happy with it, not unlike writing. I read somewhere that if design ever comes easy to you you’re in trouble…

10
krf says:
February 23, 03h

Good discussion. As stated, there’s a broad spectrum of views and abilities.

My cohorts and I all have different skills and abilities and recognize what those are so we can bring them together to build a kick-ass web site or application. Front-end, back-end, usability, content writers(oh yeah, content!), etc. We all overlap slightly, but recognize our abilities and talents and work towards those. Being the (D)designer, and front end coder, I’m able to incorporate backend databases from one person, writing from another (usually) and usability/documentation from another, among other things. Sometimes we don’t have that luxury and do the best we can with what we have to work with.

Do we have opinions about each others work? Yes, but we have professional reason to back up what we do (which get altered sometimes to please a client) and make the case for our work. If you’re so thin-skinned that you feel the need to put down obviously lousy work, then it may be time to move on.

Eric, what so bad about fixed widths? Some of the best “read” sites use fixed widths to increase readability.

Live and let live folks.

Lea says:
February 23, 03h

Also, to add on how to learn to do “attractive design”– use your eyes. ;-) Seems obvious, but not very many people are observant. Flip through magazines, look at posters plastered around your city: find ones you like. Pick up those postcards, visit media websites. Then… apply your visual knowledge to your work.

In some ways, design is very methodical. There’s the golden mean, colour wheels that show you different color relationships and harmonies, and balance studies. It’s all math, but translated visually. :-) Designers are just visual mathetmaticians. Sometimes it adds up, sometimes not. But we keep plugging away at the “formula” until it works.

12
krf says:
February 23, 04h

That reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:

“Design is thinking made visual” - Saul Bass

foO says:
February 23, 04h

dunno, but i thought i’d take a crack at it… as when i read Scoble’s post today it almost sounded like a “challenge” to me…. then again, maybe it was the 2 latte’s i just gulped down and felt… nevermind.

anywho, i posted this over at Scobles:

http://www.forgetfoo.com/projects/scoble/des2/scoble_1.htm

which i just whipped up pretty quick this afternoon. taking his site, not changing much, but just tweaking it a little bit…. dont think he liked it too much, however. maybe he does, i dunno. make some points about my specifing the font-type, prefering to leave it absolutely blank and subject to the users default browser font… *blink*

as a ‘designer’ that just made me take a step back and go “what?” so let me ask: is this common?

February 23, 04h

Has it ever occured to you, David, that you might be overcomplicating the matter, like A List Apart?
Of course, you DO know everything about design, don’t you?

foO says:
February 23, 05h

well said, Lea!

Geof says:
February 23, 08h

Dave:

This aerospace engineer appreciates the reference to my general profession. :) You might have all sorts of great questions as to why this or that in spaceflight construction is or isn’t done, and we’d have a long dialogue. But if we leave it surface, everyone will go, “But of course you’d want to design the crew-compartment of the Shuttle orbiter to be detachable and parachutable!”

Until you take all the design considerations and risks/benefits/costs into perspective, you get to the Good Enough Point and just stop.

I think the Good Enough Point is just not well-understood by the layman. I don’t know how you get to evangelizing it, either.

Mark says:
February 23, 09h

Dave,
while I’m definitely from the engineering side of the camp I enjoy reading your posts and the resulting comments as they tend to (as expected) have a design-centric perspective. There’s a mentality shared by some that a sharp, black line splits the two worlds. While they may be at opposite ends of a spectrum, there is no discrete point where you cross the border from one to the other. Individual perspectives are scattered along the continuum, often relocating as the context of a specific project changes. It seems to me it’s the rhetoric from the extremes that causes most of the animosity. Fortunately we all have the right to express our viewpoints and means to put them into practice. Ultimately the market-style forces of the Internet will hand down judgment.

MJH says:
February 23, 09h

Dave, I’ve tried your little JELL-O metaphor out. You’re right: it doesn’t stick, but it does leave a nice red splotch on my wall… do you think bleach will take it out?

Milan says:
February 23, 09h

Even though I consider myself a “Microsoft promoter” in a way, too, the attitude exhibited by Robert is veeeery typical among the developers in the Microsoft camp. *sigh*

I put much effort in my design because it’s a matter of “practice what you preach”. Still, I think these discussions are healthy because they are finally drawing attention to the design aspect of web development. Unfortunately few people understand that web development is a science with careful research of colors, layouts, column width, accessbility, etc.

February 23, 09h

*shakes head*

Never let an engineer do your design work… and don’t listen to their opinions on design.

I actually have to attempt to dance on the fence being a CS student and a web designer. Of course, I mainly focus on usability design, but I never make anything outstandingly cool, just workable. That said, my fellow CS students couldn’t desin their way out of a paper bag.

Keep it coming Dave.

Dave S. says:
February 23, 10h

Mark - “It seems to me it’s the rhetoric from the extremes that causes most of the animosity.”

Bingo. I generally get along quite well with engineers, and I respect the work they do. I recognize that I don’t have nearly enough experience to comment on things like RSS/Atom, XML, PHP or Perl. I’d expect everyone to call me on my inexperienced fumbling if ever I were to.

But that’s a two-way street.

“Fortunately we all have the right to express our viewpoints and means to put them into practice. Ultimately the market-style forces of the Internet will hand down judgment.”

I like this.

There’s really no need to argue that design is necessary, because companies keep paying for it.

22
Chris K says:
February 23, 10h

AMEN! There is a level of truth in what Scoble said. Readability is part of good design. Just because something is colorful or has dynamic photos or graphics does not mean it is well designed. But just because something is readable, does not make it well designed either. A lot of the criticism toward designers, web and otherwise, I feel is due to how easily accessible desktop publishing systems are. non-designers think design is all technical, and they can do it just as well as the “pros” for a lot less money. Look at the bookshelves. Books like “The Nondesigners Design Book” and the like perpetuate this view. The problem is that people don’t know how to track the effectiveness of design and the impact good design has on promotional work, advertising, etc.

beto says:
February 23, 10h

A friend of mine - one of the most respectful designers I’ve ever known - used to say “design is opinion” and he was so damn right. The old design = decoration = “anyone can do it” conundrum is largely based, I think, on the plethora of software that has surfaced since the beginnings of desktop publishing that allows anyone with few or no expertise at all to create “instant design” that is “equal or better” to that of professional graphic designers. If you remember, Microsoft released some time ago an ad campaign for their MS Publisher product that exploited those beliefs to full effect.

Granted, any one of us with a professional design background know there is more to the design discipline than just dabbling around in Photoshop. But try telling that to the client that is holding your paycheck unless you finally put that ugly, flaming, spinning logo on their site.

Luckily for us, that’s a situation that seldom happens here. Once you get some big-name clients under your belt, clients start taking you seriously… as for our engineers, they rather ask ME for application design and usability suggestions. How could I complain about that.

TOOLman says:
February 23, 10h

I’m going to take a typical Swedish middle-of-the-road stand here and say that both you, Dave, and Robert Scoble have valid points.

I’m from the engineer camp, and I have no formal knowledge about design. I do like good design, though, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of readability. Some sites (not mezzoblue) go overboard with their design, making it very pretty but also hard to read. If the design itself is the main goal of the site, that’s fine. If the author wants to convey information, then s/he has failed.

I’d like to propose a compromise between the two extremes: design to the extent of your ability, but pay attention to accessibility and usability. I know, this is what most bloggers do already.

Oh, and having a degree in design doesn’t necessarily make anyone a good web designer. There are far too many examples out there of print designers who have designed their web sites as if they were on paper. Perhaps it’s those that Mr. Scoble targets with his post?

/Tommy

Eric says:
February 23, 11h

I guess I have to play the foil here…

“Because the designer has studied the issues and knows what works better for a large percentage of the population.”

I have to disagree here. Designers rarely seem to have a sophisticated view of their work. Designers rarely say “most people…”, but they are always saying “what i’m trying to do here is…” Sad to say but designers like some of you who actually care about accessibility and legibility (even if you don’t prioritize it properly) are in the minority.

“Never let an engineer do your design work… and don’t listen to their opinions on design.”

The second part of that is a great way to ensure a poor end result. It’s like the architect/engineer situation. You can have a building without an architect’s stamp, but not without an engineer’s. Why? Because they aren’t concerned with their “vision” as much as they are with the fact that you the thing won’t fall over.

If I need to have something built by a certain deadline, and my schedule has already been cut because of extra rounds of creative review, do you think I’m going to bring up fundamental design issues or am I going to do what needs to be done to make sure the person can get complete the task the site was designed for?

In general I have to say that engineers need to be included in the design process far more than they typically are. They are the voice of reason, and they are the ones that are going to turn your comps into something useful, so be nice to them. We see the alternative every day, sites that obviously had a good premise but broke down because there was a lack of reality in the initial design.

26
miffed says:
February 23, 11h

“Because the designer has studied the issues and knows what works better for a large percentage of the population. A small and vocal minority may kick up a dust storm, but if they haven’t been involved in the decision making and don’t have the benefit of the designer’s knowledge, they can’t possibly understand how their concern may not be as important as they think.”

Sorry Dave, I see your essay as just more “designer” snobbery. So you think the “designer” is the only one on a team who may have “studied the issues?”

Come on! Some of us are not even allowed to be on the design team because we are not graphic designers who, by default, think they seem to know everything about anything.

As a webmaster, I know the issues as well as the next guy regarding web development, but they are simply dismissed as bullcrap because I am not a degreed graphic artist.

Unfortunately, when you graphic “designers” are involved, the idea of teamwork or user testing goes out the window, because after all, if artists don’t know it, it ain’t worth knowing … apparently.

Thank you.

P.S. Even though, I still like you and your web site.

Trent says:
February 23, 11h

Before Scoble preaches about readability, maybe he should make it so the text on his page doesn’t run on for 15” per full line of text on my monitor.

Dave S. says:
February 23, 12h

Both dissenting comments so far (#9 and #10) have presented an interesting alternate take on the post. The underlying assumption in Eric’s and ‘miffed’s arguments is that the graphic designer can’t possibly understand what the engineer does, and will always dismiss any objections as irrelevant to their ‘vision’.

Are you sure about this guys? Designers aren’t always glorified artists, you know.

It sounds like ‘miffed’ works on a team where the graphic designers sit on top of the coders in a hierarchy, and call all the shots. Healthy for the final product? Depends on what that final product is.

But generalizing like this isn’t fair. Broadly lumping all designers into one category of ‘those who don’t need to squint at 8pt’ is about as dangerous as saying all engineers have no design sense.

(By the way, please stand up for yourself next time miffed. Use a real name. This is largely why I haven’t been enabling comments recently.)

Chris says:
February 23, 12h

What the designer thinks about a design is completely unimportant. For that matter, what the client thinks is fairly unimportant too. Clients pay us to design to some standard, usually the image they want to project or feeling they want to invoke. The final arbitrator of good design is does is do that when tested against real live users. My opinion and the clients opinion doesn’t really matter, and we frequently have to remind our clients of that. (Note I’m speaking purely of graphic design, we always seperate IA and graphic design)

Lea says:
February 23, 12h

Thank you Dave for this article. This is how I feel.

However, “miffed” is a little misguided in his/her thinking. It’s not further design snobbery that Dave is preaching–it’s recognizing that if you hire someone to do a specific task (say, DESIGN a website), then the person doing the hiring and team working with said designer, should respect his or her expertise. Too much have I seen that designers are left out of things are important as branding meetings to something as menial as implementing ID cards for the company. All of which should have consulted their resident designer.

The problem isn’t the professional individuals expertise, it’s the closed-mindedness of the individuals and frankly, personal arrogance coupled with fear of your job security. Miffed, how can defending your profession be considered “design snobbery?”

Also, Eric: “Designers rarely seem to have a sophisticated view of their work.”

I’m sure the folks at Speak Up!, some including the top designers internationally, would disagree vehemently. The point with the engineers vs. designers line is that you wouldn’t hire a contractor to design your house, would you. An engineer has a specific job; so do designers. If I want to decorate my house, I ask an interior designer. Not the house builder.

Keith says:
February 23, 12h

Not sure if this point has been made but…

Why does it often seem like these concepts need to be exclusive to each other? “Miffed” talks about design snobbery and there is quite a bit of that out there, just as there is an equal and opposite form of “engineer” (or whatever) snobbery.

I cosider myself a designer and I think I know quite a bit about teamwork and user testing. I imagine many designers don’t care, and just as many engineers don’t care about design, or what-have-you.

This debate is older than me and frankly there is no right or wrong, no black or white…Only a whole crapload of grey area.

When you sit in the middle, as many of us do, post like Scoble’s seem very shortsided and biased. The same could be said for many designer types who are on the opposite side of the spectrum when they talk about how, say, Google is ugly and needs a redesign.

Both arguments are pretty silly when you add context to them and look at them from both sides…or from somewhere in the middle.

Tony says:
February 23, 12h

Eric said: “Sad to say but designers like some of you who actually care about accessibility and legibility (even if you don’t prioritize it properly) are in the minority.”

Yes and no. I think one of the problems is there are so many untrained, uneducated (in design theory), self-professed “designers” out there mucking up the talent pool. These days, it seems that anyone with a copy of FrontPage and (possibly) Photoshop deems themselves a “web designer”, whithout the first clue about usability, interface design, information architecture, color, whitespace, contrast, proper coding techniques, and the list goes on…In my view, the “majority” of designers aren’t really designers…any more than I’m an accountant because I use Quicken.

33
Nollind Whachell says:
February 24, 01h

> Isn’t web design all about communicating effectively?

I agree. To me building a website isn’t about technology, its about people connecting and communicating with other people, even better if a relationship comes out of it, no matter if it is a business or personal site.

> I’m not the person posting as “miffed”, but last time I posted here, somebody wrote off my opinion as nonsense just because it was me posting it, and didn’t bother to respond to any of my points.

Actually that’s one of the things that I find so hilarious about people commenting on weblogs. For the longest time I would very rarely see people directly talk to one another! It’s almost like showing up at a party with a bunch of people in the room and everyone is talking but just to themselves standing alone. Now, however, I’m seeing more and more interaction. Authors of sites are actually responding to those commenting and even those commenting are talking amongst each other now on occasion. The interaction is nice to see, instead of just individuals talking into space!

> I’d like to pose a question to all the people who think that “engineer types” shouldn’t have any input into the graphic design side of things.

There are a ton of people who may not know how to draw a stick man but they know a beautiful design when they see it. I agree with you there. Actually every once in a while people actually get shocked and surprised when something unexpected sheds light on something. People are the same way, don’t stereotype a person by their job title. Every person is diverse. Diversity is good. It allows you to look at life from different angles.

pid says:
February 24, 05h

(too far down to get read, oh well…)

this isn’t a new argument.

in fact, this argument is very similar to the one that the “interaction designers|architects” still seem to be having periodically. perhaps it’s just another facet of it.

part of the problem about being a web designer is that the visual part of what you do is often perceived by clients to be more of the total work than it actually is.

there is a semantic issue here.

given the above arguments, if we were called web engineers (with or without comparable qualifications) what is the likelyhood is that clients (or other vested parties) would argue and interfere less?

because of photoshop, because anyone can read my HTML architecture and because anyone can quickly learn the basics the assumption is often made that this is easy.

we might on occasion even add to the devaluing process by making it look easy, in an effort to impress.


if people were more aware of the breadth of skill involved in web design*, they might be a little more afraid, a little less hasty to stick an oar in.

A “design” free title might help.

Discuss.

* (i’m thinking that you might know all about typography, colour design, accessibility, usability, information architecture, css & html authoring, layouts, hacks, search engine optimization, - you obviously have advanced skills with photoshop and may have skills in javascript, java, php, perl, sql and all manner of other things)

RMCox says:
February 24, 06h

Design is a very personal thing, really, and each of us has our own internal definition of the word “design” that we all assume is the same as everyone else’s. To me, I see there being similar yet ultimately divergent definitions of design that differ only by the _result_ expected by the viewer. Some, I think, would define design as the aesthetic, the composition – purely the cosmetic surface – where the result of the design is beauty. Others would define design as the structure – the system – and the result of the design is functionality. Both definitions are right and in an ideal world both results are expected equally, unfortunately, that is not always the case and often we each have our own bias as to what result is valued more.

When you’re at the top of your game, and you have already considered points long, long ago Dave’s point: ‘stand confidently behind your design decisions’ is excellent advice (and obviously there’s a responsibility to explain those choices in a meaningful way when challenged within the project team). When you’re developing your game, in the process of evolving your skill set and aesthetic, I would still keep this advice in mind and work that much harder to have the knowledge needed to get to that point.

Reading this thread, the discussions at Scoble’s site, it made me take a hard look at my own definition of design, and it’s obvious that I lean towards expecting beauty as a result. And even to a certain extent I sacrifice functionality for that goal. For me, these discussions are a great way to reevaluate my process, to better develop my game, so eventually I will be able to have skills needed to gain the confidence Dave wrote about.

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Nollind Whachell says:
February 24, 09h

Doesn’t the old saying go “Form follows function”? That to me is what design is about. Not one without the other, but one striving over the other. Think of it like the Tao symbol of yin and yang. I’m sure most people strive for the positive over the negative, but for wholeness to be achieved, they both have to be there. If you place too much emphasis on one aspect over the other though, you get out of balance and the entire thing suffers because of it.

Too much design may look cool but as you start navigating around the site you may say “This sucks!” because you hit too many roadblocks in trying to get what you want and thus have a bad user “experience”. Too much emphasis on functionality, on the other hand, may make a site easier to use and get around but strips the “beauty” away from it, making it a gray wasteland to walk within. Yet when both form and functionality come together and merge to form a perfect balance, you achieve that simple “beautiful experience” that people just can’t seem to get enough of.

February 24, 11h

I’m with Nollind on this one. IMHO, the whole point of having a webpage is to put some kind of content on it. For some websites, the design *is* the content (like the Zen Garden (wink)), but for most sites the content is something more “mundane”… text, non-design images, sounds, etc. If you sacrifice being able to easily access that content for the sake of design, you’ve just defeated the purpose of your site!

But… design is an important tool. It can (and should, IMHO) be used to enhance your content, and reinforce the message you’re trying to convey with it. Yeah, a site with just meaningful content is good, but a site with meaningful content and an attractive matching design is great.

Like most things in life, the “truth” tends to lie somewhere in the middle.

(Of course, this is coming from someone who’s in the middle of redesigning her sites and wishing she had better design skills…)

February 24, 12h

> Robert’s claim that readability comes before “prettiness” may be valid in some cases

Isn’t web design all about communicating effectively? In order for a design to succeed, it has to achieve at least *basic* readability, something that is often not the case when designers get carried away. As such, readability *always* “comes before” prettiness, in the sense that if something isn’t readable, the design has failed, no matter how pretty the designer thinks it is.

Yes, I agree that there are tradeoffs to be made, but actively making something difficult to read is going to be open to valid criticism in the *vast majority* of cases.


> Throwing arguments in favour of design at one with an engineer mindset is as effective as stapling Jello to the wall; it just won’t stick.

I disagree, I am very much the engineer type, but I can certainly appreciate the aesthetic side of things. It’s just that it’s a lot harder for me to be happy with a very nice looking but useless picture instead of a nice looking and *useful* website. Graphic designers have the handicap that their job requires them to focus on how something looks rather than how it works for most of their time, and so they can often miss the big picture. In a perfect world, designers would all be competent and not create useless but nice-looking pictures, and I would feel a lot happier trusting their judgement. This isn’t a perfect world, so when a designer tells me to “take it on faith” that he’s made the best possible decisions and considered all angles, warning lights start flashing.

> In the end, the designer is the one being paid to make the judgement call. Why? Because the designer has studied the issues and knows what works better for a large percentage of the population.

Sure, *competent* designers do that. It seems to me that competence is rarer than it should be.


> A small and vocal minority may kick up a dust storm, but if they haven’t been involved in the decision making and don’t have the benefit of the designer’s knowledge, they can’t possibly understand how their concern may not be as important as they think.

Perhaps on a weblog like this, the small and vocal minority are worth ignoring, but are you really stating that in a professional setting, when actual users complain, you just write them off as cranks who don’t appreciate your art? It’s a very common attitude in the web design industry as far as I can tell, and statements like that just promote it.

Remember that nine times out of ten, if somebody is unhappy with something, they silently make do rather than complain, so a “small but vocal minority” often indicates a larger problem. For instance, my mother didn’t use the web at all because she found it difficult to read because of all the small font sizes. She didn’t complain about it, she just didn’t use it. She found her default font size to be readable though, it’s just that the websites she had seen didn’t use it. That’s a classic example of a design failure. The same applies to most people with a problem - they just learn to live without or go elsewhere.


> You’ll rarely see me allow comments on design work I post. You’ll never hear me ask for an opinion. You can take it on faith I considered your point long, long ago, and had a good reason for making the choice I did.

Are you really stating that you always think of all possibilities beforehand and never make mistakes? That, as soon as the design is finished, nobody can offer any useful input whatsoever? That any possible criticism has already been pre-empted by you and overruled?


> But generalizing like this isn’t fair. Broadly lumping all designers into one category of “those who don’t need to squint at 8pt” is about as dangerous as saying all engineers have no design sense.

I agree. But it’s a strong stereotype, and posting things like “You can take it on faith that I considered your point long, long ago” only strengthens it.


> (By the way, please stand up for yourself next time miffed. Use a real name. This is largely why I haven’t been enabling comments recently.)

I’m not the person posting as “miffed”, but last time I posted here, somebody wrote off my opinion as nonsense just because it was me posting it, and didn’t bother to respond to any of my points. There’s a small minority of idiots that make it easier to post anonymously (and there’s also a small minority of idiots that make it easier to make up a name, as apparently only people with names are worthy of an opinion).

I’d like to pose a question to all the people who think that “engineer types” shouldn’t have any input into the graphic design side of things. If there was something *technically* wrong with a website that you were working on, would you bring it up, or would you assume the engineers already saw the problem and dismissed it, and consider your opinion to be irrelevent and that you should just keep quiet? If you’d mention it, then why, when an engineer sees a problem with a design, do you expect him to keep quiet about it?

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Duc says:
February 25, 02h

I’m a CS student and a web designer at once. Sometimes I have both views on design (the engineer’s view AND the designer’s view) and it’s just straight up confusing. Most of the time though, I take the engineer’s side when designers start whining about how people don’t understand how “hard” their job is. I’ve been in web design since I was 15 (I’m 21 now) and to be honest, I’m not trying to piss anyone off, but it really is easy to be a web designer. I hate it even more when people say engineers can’t design (one guy above says that his “fellow CS students can’t design their way out of a paper bag” or something like that).

February 25, 05h

Hey Duc: “The other” David S was just saying that the other CS students in his class couldn’t design. This is a lot different than saying all CS students can’t design.

I’m a graduate of a computer science and software engineering course, and I’d definitely say the same thing about my old class.

You say it’s really easy to be a web designer. To a certain degree you’re right. It’s easy to put a website together. What’s difficult is putting one together well. If you start worrying about typography, whitespace and giving the user visual hints as to the relative importance of content, things start to get really difficult.

I’m working on the design for an online tech magazine called “Antidisinformation”. From time to time I’d put up the in-progress design comp for the co-creator of the site to look at and comment on. I made a gallery of these designs: http://dave.antidisinformation.com/addesigns/1.html

(by the way, I think we can all agree that 1 and 2 are terrible)

It would have been easy to stick at around stages 3 or 4. Definitely at stage 5. But the design would not be as tight and as sharp as it is at stage 7. You know what the hardest part of the design process was? Moving from stage 5 to stage 7. The work involved was more difficult than that taken to move from stage 1 to stage 5. It was at this stage that I really started to look at how the brand was communicated, how the different text elements looked together, etc.

And the design is still not finished. The sidebar needs a lot of work, as does the main content area. But the point is, design gets hard when you start to worry about such important things as the brand, typography, emotional response, and usability. If you don’t concern yourself with such things, you get an easy ride but an inferior end result.

Dave Shea: It’s pretty easy to staple jello to a wall. Just put it in a bag, or keep it in the original packaging. This is the engineering mindset at work.

diong says:
February 25, 07h

The problem is software developers and designers are talking two different types of design.

For software developers, the design behind a piece of software product is not immediately visible to users. In this world, it is all abstract. Objects and patterns are used to satisfy the needs of users, implemented as code as efficiently as possible. Probably because with the complexity of making sure every piece of code works correctly, most programmers do not have time or attention to care how the piece of software “looks”. Presentation is just an afterthought buried behind requirements, efficient code, and quality assurance.

The problem is in the software development world, user experience is a concept that is not fully understood or talked about. Without understanding this important concept, I do not think any software guru should comment on the importance of what graphic design is all about or one aspect comes first than the other.

Yeah it is really easy to be a web designer; as easy as painting a picture that recreates the experience viewing Picasso’s Guernica. Software guys probably would say, that is so true.

February 25, 10h

> The problem is in the software development world, user experience is a concept that is not fully understood or talked about.

On the contrary, HCI is a well-established field, taught as part of many computer science degrees.


> Without understanding this important concept, I do not think any software guru should comment on the importance of what graphic design is all about or one aspect comes first than the other.

Graphic design is not HCI. As I understand it, many graphic design courses include a module for HCI, just the same as computer science courses. I fail to see why “software gurus” should be told to keep quiet.

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Zelnox says:
February 25, 12h

“It’s pretty easy to staple jello to a wall. Just put it in a bag, or keep it in the original packaging. This is the engineering mindset at work.”
– David Barrett
Hehe, I agree. ^_^ Real engineers are trained to solve problems.

“Diversity is good. It allows you to look at life from different angles.”
– Nollind Whachell
Yup yup, agree with this too. It is important to get as many points of view as possible, for one does not encompass all. I believe a web site designed with input from both an engineering perspective and artistic perspective will be better than simply one or the other. Of course, there will be conflicts.

“On the contrary, HCI is a well-established field, taught as part of many computer science degrees.”
– Jim Dabell
It is also supported by empirical research.

“but it really is easy to be a web designer.”
– Duc
Perhaps those “web designers” are designing from a craftsmanship perspective akin to artisans making pottery and passing knowledge by word of mouth. The process is ad-hoc.

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joel goldstick says:
February 26, 09h

Interesting reading. However, your font size choice is so small as to be unreadable to me unless I push it up to 140%. Zeldman sites are the same way. I’m a engineering type, not a designer. I appreciate design, but am lousy at it myself. In fact, I like the look of small type, but it does make it hard for people who are over 40 or so to read.

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joel goldstick says:
February 26, 09h

!!Never mind!. I found your typesize button. So, I amend my remarks to say, well done!

Tom T says:
February 26, 10h

Ah, the old debate. Some comments:

HCI. Yes, many CS programs teach this. Not all, though—although I wish they would.

Font size & readability. If a site isn’t readable, odds are there’s one of two reasons for it: the textual content is not the focus, or the person responsible for the design did not do a great job. You see lots of examples of both on the web; seeing a poorly executed example doesn’t mean that *all* sites designed with poor readability is a bad thing.

Now for my own 2 cents: form reinforces function, just as function can reinforce form. Both will always be there, and it’s really just a matter of what degree. And this is not just a web site issue, although it’s the most talked about around here.

Take the product lines carried by, say, Walmart…vs. the product lines carried by Target. The majority of the products at Walmart are of your “no-frills” variety; very low on the the form and high on the function. They get the job done.

Now take the products carried by Target. Seemingly higher on the form than the function (although that’s really not the case—they are for the most part very well balanced), these products tend to be much more sellable, mainly because they are both attractive and functional. This is how Target does well in the face of the WalMart giant. Many of the products sold by Target are a good combination of both form and function, and the really successful ones reinforce both.

There’s nothing wrong with having a good balance, and most of you will find—mostly subjectively, of course—that a good-looking site is inherently more usable than a bare-bones, all function one (such as Master Scoble’s site).

(as an aside, while there may be engineers that *can* do decent design, they are very, very rare—and usually in high demand because of it)