The internet is in a bit of a design rut. We have fallen in love with a particular visual style and we just will not let it go. Everywhere you turn there is a gradient. Drop-shadows are surrounding us. We are pinned down by rounded corners. This, my friends (and soon-to-be enemies), is a perfect example of how trends can show their ugly side. I am writing this article to ask if we are interested in designing websites or just decorating them. If we are in fact interested in the former, perhaps we should think twice about we are doing.
While I support standards, I feel like the web design community has become the design equivalent to the Puritans – drab and frighteningly conservative. While I have been known to be Puritan-ish on some occasions, I think there are quite a few that take it even further. Some may understandably ask what this has to do with the design of a site. My response is that we are so concerned with making a site standards-centric that we are not thinking about how the site should communicate. This conservatism leads to relatively un-engaging layout designs which immediately causes a dilemma for the designer – how to improve the visual aesthetics of a design where the fundamental form/structure is already locked in. This, in my opinion, pushes many down the road of decorating rather than designing.
Much of this psychological phenomenon seems to also be technically driven. A new CSS feature comes out that allows something visually new to be done. For example, a new CSS technique to add rounded corners to DIVs. If it is able to be done, we have to do it. This, at least in some part, stems from the lack of creative control we have in designing websites. We are like sexually repressed teenagers. Our hormones lash out with reckless abandon whenever they get the chance. Do those rounded colors/drop-shadows/gradients have a significance or are they strictly for style? Who cares – we can finally do it. That is all the excuse we need.
Where Does This Current Mess Stem From?
While blindly following design trends is no new occurrence, where did this current style originate from? Most people would say that Apple’s OS X had a huge role to play for what we see today. OS X was radically unique in terms visual appearance compared to all other major operating systems. Nonetheless, Apple’s use of many visual elements had significant reasons. The gradients/rounded corners made it crucially different than other OSs. Drop-shadows denoted depth – something very important to anyone with more than two windows open at once. In addition, Apple’s design seemed to be much more about emulating their products such as the PowerBook which contain the brushed metal look, rounded corners and subsequent gradients due to how the light plays with their shape. The design of OS X was brilliant in both aesthetics and the function of those aesthetics. There is no doubt why so many people wanted a piece of it.
As said, all the design elements for OS X had a purpose. The overall style alone had a function to differentiate itself from other operating systems. Ironically, this is my main argument for not depending on the above stated styles. At this point, these styles are so prevalent that one risks diving their design head-first into a sea of similar-looking designs and drowning in obscurity. This statement is by no means evidence that I am under the opinion that they should never be used under any circumstance. There are many sites that have judicious, well thought-out use of such design elements. Let me say that again – judicious and well thought-out use. There is no innate problem with using gradients, drop-shadows and rounded corners, if it makes sense. The problem lies in the audacious, gaudy overuse of such elements. It is almost as if such people are covering up their lack of visual concept with extra junk – thinking no one will be the wiser.
What is this DRAG Business All About?
DRAG stands for Drop-shadows, Rounded corners, And Gradients – elements that seem to be flamboyantly overused lately. To put it simply, to DRAG is to rampantly use such visual hallmarks indiscriminately. If something can be rounded, drop-shadowed and have a gradient applied, it will – without a second thought. I by no means intend to offend as this is all in jest, but I think there is a hint of truth in this otherwise crude acronym I have devised. Many of these DRAGed out sites leave nothing to the natural, simple beauty of basic design as it has all be hidden behind layers of visual coverup.
Concept Innately Drives Style
If you are having a hard time coming up with how you want a design to look, there is a pretty good chance that the concept is not mature enough. If a concept is strong and air-tight, it usually gives you a basic guideline for the basic visual language to bring it to life. Obviously, this is not always the case, but I have come to realize the better my concept is, the easier it is for me to find direction in my design. The more I notice myself adding little decorations to liven up an otherwise boring and lifeless design, it usually has something to do with a weak concept that is not providing any direction. To be more clear, there is a very obvious difference between conceptually-driven style and arbitrary style. People notice, albeit subconsciously.
Designs that champion style over concept do not have a long shelf life. Like the Cooper Blacks of the 80′s, the overlays of the 90′s and the pixel fonts of the early 2000′s, The DRAG design will go down in infamy as a style that marked our time – and one to avoid at all costs in the future. We should be adding visual elements/styles to drive home a message, aid in communication/clarity of the message or help with the usability of a site. Style should drive the concept, not get in the way of it. We hear this all the time and rarely do we (including myself) follow it. If one considers a good design to be a streamlined, aerodynamic car, too much style is like adding worthless spoilers and accessories to it. We are designing wind drag. Sure the car looks cool (sarcasm intended), but you have tacked on an extra 100 pounds to the car’s weight and you cannot drive it up a 5 degree grade.
Graphic design which fulfills the aesthetic needs, complies with the laws of form and exigencies of two-dimensional space; which speaks in semiotics, san-serifs, and geometrics; which abstracts, transforms, translates, rotates, dilates, repeats, mirrors, groups and regroups is not good design if it is irrelevant.
Trendy design is obviously very important for some identities. Obviously, the DRAG style is popular right now and it would make sense that organizations wanting to be visually current would take that into consideration. Nonetheless, if your design begins and ends with only DRAGing (or the next design trend), you are going to be a very non-descript tree in a very large forest. If you work those design trends into a unique and strong design, you are going to have a lot more luck. Remember, unique never goes out of style. We have to remember there is no default design style, font, or color that will insure a strong design. Design by its very definition is individual to the project it is intended for. I am strongly against “saving” designs for other projects down the road. We have all had designs that we have been fond of that have not made it past the cutting-room. We have all been tempted in re-hashing that design on another project because we were in love with some facet of the design. Sure, it is easy to do, but just like a suit custom-tailored for another person, it never fits quite right. We should not be coveting the visual executions for projects as much as the method and process that got us to the end result. Leave style for the fashion designers – we create ideas.
None of these ideas are new as they are continuously brought up by designers across the world. A good reason why they are continuously brought up is the very fact that many people out there continue to ignore them. We, as designers, are communicators that use various visual mediums to accomplish our goals. We need to ask ourselves, “Is this direction aiding in the communication of the intended message?” Much like writing, if four out of the five paragraphs you write do not address the subject, it is better to end up with one paragraph that clearly communicates than five that confuse the reader.
Visual Fundamentals Are Your Friend
I hold to the notion that the need/desire to add extra elements such as DRAG seem to disappear when your design’s foundation is strong. I would be interested if others have noticed this as well. Paul Rand speaks of many visual principles that are important to consider. A few of these which I tend to spend an ample amount of time on are the following:
Things like creating aesthetically pleasing proportion, contrast and placement are not as easy as it may seem. The time-intensive grueling fundamentals are many times ignored for the “plug-and-play” style elements. Ironically, getting many of the current design trends to actually render nicely on a website is quite difficult. All that time trying to get our drop-shadow to render in Opera 8.5 could have been spent tightening up the typographic hierarchy. I use the word ‘our’ for a reason – I have been just as guilty of this as any other person. I fell victim to the little date box trend. I catch myself defaulting to cute little visual elements rather than spending the time properly kerning my type or painstakingly going over pantone colors for the perfect hue of a particular color. As with all things in life, the easier road is usually less fulfilling and less prosperous.
The statement that is the closest thing to nails on a chalkboard is, “This page does not have enough content. Add some decorations to liven it up.” Websites are not houses with extra rooms that need to be filled. To me, the biggest sin is to slap a meaningless stock photo on pages that do not contain enough content or are considered “boring”. We are not decorators and we are not in the vocation of adding plants and throwrugs to liven up a space. If an area is lacking, perhaps it is not necessary. If it is, add worthy content and information in an attractive manner to fill the void. If no content exists, it is our job to consider what sort of content and/or information would be pertinent to the section and how it can be incorporated to aid in communication and aesthetics.
People will see right through filler content. It wastes the user’s time and ultimately wastes the designer’s time as well. Instead of adding useless stock photos, I suggest adding informational design elements (charts, tabular data, visualizations, etc.) when appropriate. These elements are powerful as they communicate large amounts of information to the user and have the opportunity to be extremely visually interesting. Once again, these sorts of things will take much more time than just dropping in a photo, but it will offer so much more to users.
Beating a Dead Horse, I Know
I am aware that this is a relatively common topic in the design community. Unfortunately, this topic is still very relevant and worth writing about. Personally, I feel the more people who write about this, the more it will eventually seep into the public consciousness much like the web standards movement. If the wheel squeaks loud enough, it will get the WD40 it so badly needs. This article is not intended to call people out as I feel we all are guilty of this mindset from time to time. Rather, it is just another voice asking for us all to take a step back and give careful consideration to what we do.