Ben Hunt is the author of the best-selling “Save the Pixel “ the Art of Simple Web Design”, available as a PDF e-book (£27)
It turned out that having a reflecting logo, lots of clever functionality, or a catchy message didn’t matter a jot. The only things that made a positive difference were clarity and ease of use.
This experience helped crystallize something in my mind.
The vast majority of design isn’t about making stuff look good. It’s about making something that does a job well. When it comes to the top line, sex really doesn’t sell. Shiny Web2.0-effect graphics, professional-looking logos and trendy fonts really don’t factor compared to the really important steps of:
- Working out what a web site needs to do, and then
- Making it achieve that as simply and as transparently as possible.
Following good basic graphic design principles will produce something that has a kind of natural beauty to it. Having a clear focal point, a well-spaced “getable” layout, readable text, obvious and transparent navigation, well-written copy and appropriate imagery will produce a web page that feels natural and right, whether or not it gets your heart going.
Jazzy visuals are secondary. They can’t help make a page feel simple, clean, and easy, so whatever benefits they deliver are minor.
What good design is
Design is the process of creating something that facilitates a communication experience.
Good design is doing this successfully.
Great design is where you solve the communication problem with such elegance that the interaction becomes easy, or even enjoyable. Entertaining TV ads that we stop to watch are great design, and so is the iPhone because it lets us achieve what we want in the nicest possible way.
(Much of the time, good design is good enough.)
The great news is that the art of simple web design is accessible to everyone. You don’t have to be a gifted graphic artist to design a really good web site. There are formulas you can learn to know where to put stuff on a page, what nav to use, how to write accessible copy, and how to space everything out. The skills are available to everyone who wants to learn them.
There is no shame in reusing a formula that works. If I follow a Gary Rhodes recipe and produce a delicious meal, haven’t I delivered a great experience? Would it be better for me to make up my own recipe? (The only benefit is likely to be for my own ego.)
There’s still a strong belief among a significant minority of web designers that you need exciting, original graphic design to have a great web page design. This is not true. Actually, anyone with the willingness and capacity to learn a few basic formulas and disciplines can make a highly successful web page.
Design “aficionados” who promote the elitist theory are just trying to keep a moat of exclusivity around what they do, and projecting their own subjective reality onto everyone else.
When you live with a particular medium every day, the ordinary can fail to inspire, and you start to crave the edgy and the different. You only get excited about seeing new angles on design that you haven’t seen before, which make you stop and go “Wow, that’s interesting”.
To this breed of designer, novelty, originality and heart-stopping, thought-provoking visuals are the signs of great design because that’s what they love. Design done for its own sake is called “art”, and there’s a place for it. But when someone tells you that the only good design is shiny, sexy, powerful, and difficult graphic art, they’re wrong. That view of things is nothing more that masturbation. In professional terms, it’s “design toss”.
And let’s not forget that making snazzy graphic design is really hard. And it’s human instinct that, if you’ve invested lots of effort in gaining a skill Ã¢â‚¬“ often with little outside help or resources – as most web designers have had to do, you don’t want every man and his dog turning up and setting up shop next door. You don’t want it to be easy, so there’s a natural tendency to attack the thing that threatens your hard-earned skillset, creating a defensive moat that only the most determined young turk can breach.
Design tossers often congregate together, praising each other’s work and ripping apart the efforts of people that don’t have their level of graphic skill. They tend to judge based on style and emotional content alone, rather than how well a design meets its goals.
Note: If you find yourself in a place where you only care about the opinions of other designers, there is help available. The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem. The path to recovery involves a daily commitment to designing only what’s necessary to achieve a web site’s goals by letting its visitors get what they want.
In praise of vernacular design
The fact is that 99% of the time, provoking thought and stopping hearts are the enemy of good design.
People who come to the majority of web sites don’t want to be stopped in their tracks by a beautiful conceptual design, dramatic or challenging imagery, or original twists on navigation metaphors. These make a bad experience in most cases.
The only time these things will be a positive benefit is:
- When the goal of the site is to promote these same skills (e.g. In a graphic artist’s portfolio), or
- And when the visitor’s goal is to see those skills in practice (either for artistic enjoyment, or looking for certain skillset)
When you’re in web design circles, it’s easy for this tiny corner to seem much bigger than it is. But don’t get carried away. Sites that really need to make a splash like this make up a small minority, and these goals are relatively rare.
The majority of sites have different goals: to sell products, to inform people, to promote a cause, to build a brand etc.
Unless you need to stop people dead and make them admire your virtuosity in graphic art, concentrate your efforts on designing the content of a site and not the box it comes in. Design of the site should get the hell out of the way, and the designer should focus on designing effective content and flow, crafting a clean, fluid, crystal clear, thoughtless experience.
Of course it’s natural to try new things! Nature does it continually, in the search for something more efficient and effective. But Nature also kills of the 99% of the new things that don’t work better. Web designers should be very careful when taking the risk on something new. (My own approach is not to invest creative energy in solving a problem if there is already a conventional solution that works.)
A site can be really easy to use and easy on the eye and appealing. In fact, it should be if the basics are right.
The basics include:
- Simplicity (requires strong design disciplines)
- Getability (requires a concise appreciation of the site’s brand and copywriting & layout skills)
- Clear scent to goals (requires understanding of both site’s and visitor’s goals, clear navigation)
If you get these basics right, you’ll have good design. Maybe not great, but good, which should be good enough.
I love this quote, which I’ve used in my book Save the Pixel
“When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem.
But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”
R. Buckminster Fuller