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The Irony of Design

Posted on by arlen

Have in front of me Creative Computing’s guide to Dreamweaver. Someday, perhaps, I’m going to read it. Not because someday I’m going to use Dreamweaver; I own a copy of it now and work with it on an occasional basis. I bought the book in a hurry one day because I’d expected to use the tutorials, etc., in it to improve my techniques.

No, it’s not because it’s not timely, or because I don’t have the time; it’s because it’s too diificult for me to read. Not badly written, but badly designed: a mixture of what appears to be 7 and 9 point type on varying background colors. In other words, it’s laid out with no thought whatever given to who might be reading it.

This is a common enough problem. At a recent WorldCon, George Scithers was telling me about the magazine designer that was called in to handle the redesign of the science fuction magazine he edited. The first design sample had colored text in tiny print, low-contrast type on busy backgrounds. Luckily enough, George had some measure of control, and the young genius’s design never saw print.

Just as writers write for themselves, most designer’s first impulse is to design for themselves. But what works for a writer is a major flaw in a designer.

Writing requires passion; if you’re not interested in your subject, the chances are your readers won’t be, either. You won’t inspire in someone what you don’t feel in your own self.

In one way, that applies to design as well; if you don’t feel it, you won’t make your audience feel it. But writing concerns itself simply with words; the words are worthless if they can’t be read. That’s where designers come in.

A design can be beautiful, can even be breathtaking. It can be eye-catching. And if that is its only purpose, it succeeds. Paintings and sculpture are rightly judged on those criteria alone. But in magazine design, and most website design, there is another purpose that must be served. The design must lead your eye through the content, it must assist, even enable, you to understand more quickly and easily the words it surrounds.

It’s the difference between art and industrial design. Industrial design can create a work of art, one only has to point to the work of Brooks Stevens to illustrate the point. But the purpose of industrial design (or magazine layout, or website design) is primarily to enable the end customer to use the product easily.

And that’s the point the Creative Computing layout designers failed to understand properly. Yes, the colors make a visually appealing mix. And the shapes of the letters blend well. But they’re completely unreadable to anyone with less than excellent vision!! The magazine designer(s) working on that layout failed to understand that there may be people wanting to read it under less than optimal conditions (poor eyesight, color impairment, low light levels) and designed instead for the conditions they themselves were working under.

Designs should enable, not hinder. Admittedly, it’s impossible for a single print design to succeed under all possible circumstances. But this is where web designers have an advantage over their print brethren. Where a print design is firmly fixed, so that it always appears to everyone as the exact same piece, a web design can be adjustable.

The web is an interactive medium. For web designer to treat it as anything else is to work with one hand tied their backs. Imagine driving a Porsche, but never taking it out of first gear. It’s very little short of brainless to refuse to take advantage of one of the major strengths of the medium we work in.

What does this mean for web designers, in practical terms? It means we shouldn’t treat things like color scheems as fixed. Creating alternative color schemes for every design, making sure at least one fits a reasonable definition of high-contrast. It means not relying on specific colors as the sole purveyor of important information (Note: that’s not saying we should never use color to convey information, but rather that if the information is important, we should also use other cues, such as typography, borders, background changes, etc., to convey the information). It means not fixing on a single size of text. Creating designs that can handle a wide range of text sizes, or creating alternative designs which use a larger text size. It means not spreading logically connected text across multiple table cells or divs.

OK, I hear the wiseacres among you pointing to this blog and saying, “Pot. Kettle. Black.” I plead the case of the shoemaker’s children, who go barefoot because the shoemaker is busy making shoes for others. But that’s going to change. Watch this space for changes as I go along the road I just demanded you walk.

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September 2005
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