Does design matter?

Submitted by Larry on 25 November 2011 - 12:38pm

Last week I was at DIG London, in London, Ontario. It's normally a gaming conference, but they've added a web track and asked me to come speak. It was a fairly good experience, helped in part by their keynote, the infamous Jeffrey Zeldman talking about responsive design and related topics.

One of the points Zeldman made was that users want content their way, not the way we (web designers, web authors, and web devleopers) want it. Visually impared users want content read to them, or resized. Color blind users want a different color scheme that they can actually read. Smartphone users want content in a narrow column, without a dozen sidebar blocks. Mobile users want content offline, so they can read it on a plane. Many users want just the content, no design, and so use tools like Instapaper to strip out everything but the text of an article. RSS feeds have been around for a decade, and are now growing rapidly thanks to mobile devices, and those are generally (mostly) layout-free. If you're doing responsive design, then you're not making a design but the framework of a design that will change, and possibly mostly disappear, under certain circumstances.

Of course, that to me begs a very important question. When I asked it during Q&A, even Zeldman didn't have an answer. (Yes, I stumped the King of Web Standards. Woohoo!)

In the modern web, does web design even matter?

Of course, what qualifies as web design is an open question. Some, like Mark Boulton, argue that it encompasses everything from copywriting to IA to graphic design. Long-time web standards gurus, and most web engineers, would argue that content and presentation should, duh, be separated. (HTML and CSS, PHP and templates, etc.) For the moment, however, I am looking specifically at graphic visual design and layout of web pages. Good copywriting and good IA are still important to any site, regardless of the user agent.

Sure, we want content to be "presentable". We want it to "look good". And the artiste in us all wants to show off how good we are at making things look good and presentable.

Sure, we need space for ads, because on many sites that's how they make money. But users have been going out of their way to remove those for years, and we're struggling to figure out how to make ads work in a small-screen responsive design.

But really, users don't care about how good of an artiste we are. Users don't care that we have ads we have to show to pay for things. Users care about content, and they want it now.

Responsive design principles say to give up on total control over the page; the screen will be the size the screen will be, and you just have to learn to deal with it and adapt (er, respond, whatever). But take that only one step further, and your content may not even be in your design in the first place. RSS feeds, Instapaper, browsers that let users vary the color scheme or font size, these have all been on the market for a while and will be growing fast. Most of the phone-sized designs that I've seen that have actually worked have been barely any design at all beyond a tiny header banner. And of course that ever-important user, the search engine, doesn't care about your design in the slightest and is usually better off if you don't bother with it at all.

So for the sake of argument, I will make the following claim: Graphic design on the web is dead. User choice and user freedom is in the process of killing it, and will kill it. Fancy graphic designs will eventually fade out the way table-based layout did, because they will become increasingly irrelevant to most users. Users will circumvent them or simply ignore them, and it will eventually become simply not worth the investment to bother designing something that fewer and fewer users will ever see.

Instead, we should be focusing our efforts on things that will matter: Solid IA; Natural and obvious navigation structure; Content people actually want; Semantic indicators, be it HTML5, Aria, RDF, microformats, or whatever is cool this week; And just enough layout design so that those users still using a desktop browser don't think we forgot about them entirely, even if they will be a minority.

In short, focus on the data, not the presentation. The user will control the presentation, not us. Give the customer what they want, which is data, not an opportunity to marvel at how good a color choice we made or if our vertical rhythm is off.


*dons flame retardant suit*

I agree that the day of fancy, pixel perfect (if there was ever such a thing) designs in web are gone. The challenge is that the same users that are complaining that their favorite site doesn't load nicely and cleanly on their mobile device are also the same people asking for fancy, appealing designs in their own websites. Everything they have come to hate about their own personal mobile experience goes right out the window. Our challenge, is not going to be convincing ourselves as designers, site builders and developers, but educating the hard-headed client.

Mark Boulton (not verified)

25 November 2011 - 2:05pm

Your underpinning observation is a sound one: that content and presentation are separate, and this dislocation will continue as long as web content is consumed on a plethora of devices. Your definition of Graphic Design is, however, inaccurate.

Graphic Design is not [only] a visual discipline. Purely Visual design is not a thing. Good graphic design gives content form: by understanding audience, goals, message, context and a lot of other variables that can determine a user's experience. You cant define the look of something without understanding all of that other stuff. Making something beautiful is not a solitary activity.

The thing that is changing for designers is the level of control, and how/where that control is exercised. At the moment, the design can 'travel' with the content and intepreted by the browser on the device. In the future, I see a designer's role in more creating the client-side rendering of that content on certain devices. We're already seeing the start of this with iOS and Android developers defining how web content is consumed on those platforms.

So, I wouldn't say Graphic Design is dead at all. Just as the declaration of print dying isn't strictly true. Things are changing, and the process will adapt. But Graphic Designers will still give content form; be it on the canvas or the platform.

Making something beautiful is not a solitary activity.

I agree entirely.

In the future, I see a designer's role in more creating the client-side rendering of that content on certain devices.

Right, but on which devices? Just as we cannot rely on a given screen size, we cannot even rely on a given medium. Right now I'm reading an article on an Android tablet running a 3rd party ROM image using a 3rd party Instapaper client. Much of my news these days I get via RSS on my desktop using Akregator. How do you design for that?

I think a couple of the articles I have queued up in my Instapaper are from you, actually. :-) None of your design work on your website is going to come through at all. I won't see anything you did, except the actual text you wrote.

How do you design for that? And as that mode of reading becomes more popular, at what point is it not worth it to do the visual-treatment part of design?

Anonymous (not verified)

25 November 2011 - 2:46pm

I think when you're a web developer and deeply involved in the world of new technologies it's easy to overlook the overwhelming fact that a large majority of people still use the internet on a desktop or laptop computer for a significant part of the day, every day. For those people their first and lasting impression of your website will usually be whether they like the way it looks. If you build a website and your primary presentational goal is to make it readable on many different devices, you are designing for the 10%.

Matt Farina (not verified)

25 November 2011 - 3:23pm

I think this really depends.

I break up design into a number of categories. There are the visuals, the branding, and the other signifiers. The paint one the layout of the room if you will. I think these are still important and nice to have. I like them. It makes the web look less homogenous. When I see a page on I know it. But, there are many times I'll use mobile safari reader mode (or something like that). I use this when the mobile site is bad and unreadable. If pages are already readable I don't switch into that mode. I can't speak for others but I'd love to see studies on this. IMHO, the need to switch a page into a more readable format is only needed if you have a hard time reading the page.

The design itself is more about breaking up the bland and brand recognition. At least for me. These are both good things. Especially for organizations that have a good reputation.

Then there is the design of the content. In Drupal we have content types and fields. How should these be visually represented? When I switch into a reader/instapaper style display it can't know the visual layout and intent so it's never going to do a great job. A good visual layout will trump all these technologies because design and content go hand in hand. gamecast on mobile devices is a great example.

Then there are the UI bits. These are the considerations I first learned about from human factors engineers who worked on displays for military apps. These are obviously important and I don't think you mean them.

To sum it up, these technologies are important because so much of the web does a bad job at mobile. The sites that do a good job are ones I don't use these technologies on much.

Note, RSS is dying in use. Google and Mozilla have both noted it. I've personally seen sites with fallen RSS subscribers while pageviews, visitors, and social media use have all increased. RSS should not be used as an example as it's a geek specific technology.

So it sounds like your response is "make your design suck less and users will stop bypassing your design"? :-)

There's probably something to that, certainly. But then we must ask, once a design doesn't-suck enough to work on everything from a 30" monitor to a 3" phone that is offline and so has no ability to download additional graphics or stylesheets... what's left? Just how much visual treatment is left at that point, and is it worth the effort?

Really, I'm just taking responsive design to its logical conclusion and asking what "good" design means in that case, and how you can make it not bland. Bland at least has the advantage that no one can object to the taste. :-)

Good visual design does matter. Let me share two thoughts with you.

  1. A question to ask yourself is, do window treatments matter for windows in a home? You don't need them to regulate the light coming into your home. It's not a matter of function. But, if you ask anyone I know with a sense of style they want them. You can expand this to a lot of interior decor. Does it functionally matter? Maybe not. Are many of us artistic creatures who crave style, what design in our lives, and look for a break from homogenous? You bet. I think this applies to the websites we browse as well. The world isn't just information and features. There is design, creativity, style, and more in everything from plants in nature to our phones.
  2. Branding is important if you have a good brand or want to build one. Whether people love or hate apple you have to admit they have a strong brand. You can tell apple products from others by their style. While Apple is a good example there you can find lots of other brands that use visuals to convey that brand. This is useful for building trust, a relationship with users, etc. You convey branding through your visuals. Whether on a bill board, a computer screen, or a phone. Whether it's digital, a pamphlet, or the box a toy comes in.

The world we live in isn't about bland stuff. For most of us it's about style, creativity, relationships, and so much more than information and features.

I think so much of it has to do with audience too. What type of site is going to see a larger mobile/tablet audience? I would say things like news, media and blogs fall in this category. Other sites, such as those geared towards development and graphic design won't.

I only bring this up because I caught myself in this very question yesterday. I'm working on putting out a site for the Netbeans Drupal tool and was going all responsive in the design. I then stopped and thought "hey - why?". Yeah the occasional person might hit the site on a mobile device, but unless you are really good or a total masochist, you aren't going to be doing development inside of Netbeans on your Droid phone or tablet, even if you could get Netbeans to build in Droid or iOS.

OTOH, this really isn't a big shock. The web has been moving more towards this for years now. It was first seen in the big players like Facebook and YouTube. Look at how simplistic their designs really are.

Another issue I feel is really important in the graphic/mobile front is asset size. All major cell providers in the U.S. now cap monthly bandwidth. Keeping graphics to a minimum is just in good manners. If someone comes to your site and realizes that loading your front page is eating a big chunk out of their monthly bandwidth as compared to other sites, then you are going to lose out on mobile visitors. What you said Larry plays really well into this. It amazes me the sites I still see out there that have 400+ kb in graphics loading just for the design.

On the plus side, there is still a lot of eye candy you can do in a site if you leverage the features of HTML5 and CSS3. No more having to make tons of graphics and going waist deep in elements to give your blocks that fancy shadow. A couple lines of CSS and you got it! Same thing with gradients. Of course none of that matters if you are reading a site through an RSS reader or service like Pulse.

As a Drupal themer, I think this is very timely. I see my job changing and I am going to adapt. The days of taking a designer's Photoshop files and bringing them to life with XHTML / CSS2 and finally into a Drupal theme may be numbered. Now it's all about responsive theming with rich CSS3 and HTML5 (Omega base theme) insuring that the site will work and render on multiple devices (resolutions), readers etc... I have to admit, I am becoming nostalgic for the days when it was simply desktop browsers but if I want to ensure a future in my profession, I need to adapt to these new technologies.

Graeme Blackwood (not verified)

26 November 2011 - 4:04pm

You raise some interesting points, however I don't think it is fully thought through. Even if we remove all embellishment and are left purely with type, even this should be considered and planned - typefaces need to be selected or created; the content curated and edited to fit the medium on which it is being presented.

More importantly, I would argue humans generally find order, balance and a degree of embellishment appealing. If we all wanted everything in its most simple, functional form, we would all love minimalism. Imagine walking into a supermarket and every product being packaged in white cardboard with type on it. How would you find anything or discover anything new?

The truth is that creativity is a fundamental part of what makes us human, and doesn't just begin and end with content.

What I think is incredibly important about the point you raise is that far too often, web "designers" actually obfuscate content, rather than improve its identity and accessibility. I also think it is important to remember that no design will ever be perfect, but that if left in the wrong hands, or not given enough respect, the results will often disappoint.

As already mentioned by others, I too do think your blog post is insightful, but only truly applicable to geeks. 90% of your visitors, unless you're very geek-focused will continue to consume the web "the usual way" for years to come.

Only if you're sufficiently technically apt, you will choose to deal with RSS, Readability, Google Reader, Reeder on iPhone/iPad and Pinboard (this is my set-up) to maximize your reading efficiency by minimizing friction caused by ads and/or annoying design.
Effectively, we're either minimizing the time necessary to absorb and classify all this information or maximizing the amount of information we can ingest within a given timeframe.

The geek in me says: hurray! But not everybody is a geek. It's the 90% that earn us geeks a living. So we have to accommodate them first.
What we may be able to do, is bring some of Readability's reading focus and lack of clutter to more websites that we build/design, but this may not be accepted by our clients. Back to square one.

Wim, you're dead on. These are real issues for a very small minority of internet users, currently. Though, it is a sign of what the future will hold, it is still just that: the future.

I think the most relevant point of this discussion is that the content is the important thing.

Design, as Mark points out, partners with the content, though, and is not separate. Design is important depending on where the content is. I think the real change is that better decisions about resources and focus will need to be made around where to invest in design, considering that there are many venues for content. So the question is which venue does a content provider focus on, not do we focus on design.

Many of these things start as geek only, but then all of a sudden become relevant to everyone.

No one cared about the Internet when Gopher was the height of technology. Then along came the web, and overnight it was relevant to every business, everywhere.

No one cared about mobile-friendly web sites when mobile browsers were HTML 3.2-barely, and ran on Palm OS or Windows Mobile (if you were lucky!) on a GPRS connection.

Then suddenly along came the iPhone and a year later Android, and now accessing web pages from a 3" screen is an everyone-task.

Phone browsers today already try to mutate a web page to "work". Apple has the beginnings of such built into their OS. Once Apple builds something into its application and talks about it in a keynote, it's no longer a geek-only feature.

Right now, "screw the designer, I want it my way" is a niche task. Within the next 3 years, I predict some killer app will make it a non-niche task and we'll all be caught with our pants down. No, it won't entirely replace desktop-designed pages, but they'll stop being the de facto "duh" standard.

What then?

On the contrary. Not only do people want to visit websites on their computer, phones, tablets, bathroom scales and lamps (!) but they expect a consistent perfectly branded experience.

Design, like development, is stretching and expanding.

The future is hardly bland.

Yes! Design matters. Look at the success of the iPhone if you have any doubt about the importance of design. Design is first and formost about function. You said,

"users don't care about how good of an artiste we are. Users don't care that we have ads we have to show to pay for things. Users care about content, and they want it now."

and also,

"Most of the phone-sized designs that I've seen that have actually worked have been barely any design at all beyond a tiny header banner."

Design is not about complexity or pretty colors, it is about function. I've heard simular comments made over and over again and it all seems to stem from a confusion of art and design. You are right, users just want to read the content. A good designer knows this, and designs the interface to give them the best reading experience possible.

On a side note, I'm curious why you refer to Jeffrey Zeldman as infamous?

Your post is akin to Gutenburg saying "since I have invented moveable type, illumination and all forms and varieties of ornamentation in books are now obsolete. Henceforward all books will be printed in black ink on white paper in this single legible typeface that I have designed!"

And you'll notice that the vast majority of books printed these days are black ink on white paper in one of a small number of type faces. Illustration and pictures are reserved for certain types of books (mostly magazines and textbooks), and fully illuminated manuscripts are virtually non-existent.

I don't know that Gutenberg actually said anything like that, but if he had, he would not have been all that far off...

Your ignorance of design is so staggering it's laughable. There are hundreds of thousands of typefaces, and, since the time of Gutenberg, billions, perhaps trillions of books, magazines newspapers etc. have been printed containing virtually every conceivable combination of type, illustration and design. You should have quit while you still had a small shred of insight. Now you have exposed yourself as a pure luddite.

Walk down to your local Barnes and Nobel and browse the shelves. I can guarantee you over 80%, probably over 90%, of the books there will be black text on white paper in one of three typefaces. Vanishingly few will have illuminated text or fancifully designed letters, if any. That's not being a Luddite. That's looking at the market today.

I am not suggesting that all designers are redundant or will be out of work in a year or anything farcical like that, as you seem to be implying. I have a great deal of respect for good designers.

Consider how painful it must have been for the illustrated manuscript industry, when in order to mass produce books you had to move away from "every copy is a unique work of art", because that simply didn't scale. Why do a new artful design for the first letter on every page when making a new slug for your printing press was expensive, and you couldn't get all of those fine lines anyway? The technology forced a change in the design, toward standardization.

Consider how painful it was for print designers to let go of a fixed size canvas. In the early web there were many screen sizes, and early designers dealt with that. Then "professional" designers (print designers, because web designers were too new to have real solid standards and conventions) came in and for most of the late 90s and 2000s, fixed-width designs ruled. Finally, with mobile devices we're seeing the design world let go of fixed width designs out of necessity, because we're finally admitting that no, you don't have any control over the width of the display for your web page. So the role of the designer is changing, and the designs produced are changing, to deal with that shift in technology.

Now consider the next step, which is for the content to get sucked out of the visual treatment on a web page entirely. When I read most blog articles, I don't see them with the design (layout, color scheme, typography, etc.) that the blog author intended. I see them with the design that the author of my RSS reader intended. I could very easily change the color scheme on every page I visit, or the font size, to better suit my eyesight.

So how will web design, as a field, respond to that technological change?

I have no idea. I am just asking the question.

That I'm not sure where to start.

1. Again you betray your ignorance of design by talking about "three typefaces". What your eye sees as three typefaces is, in fact thousands of subtle and beautiful variations on classic serif typography. Add to that the myriad design choices involved in laying out any page and, even within the world of black type on white paper you have an infinite variety of forms.

2. You completely misread my historical reference, again because of your ignorance of the history of design. The advent of moveable type brought on a flourishing of typography and design never before seen. I expect the same will be true now. As the variety of modes of delivery of information increases the variety of creative approaches to working withing those mediums will increase as well, not fall away, as you suggest.

3. The fact that the design can be pulled apart from the content does not mean that it will. Market forces embodied by the thousands of designers, brand managers and marketing directors around the world will drive the industry towards a standard for carrying design information along with the content.

Dharmesh Mistry (not verified)

2 December 2011 - 2:28pm

It is good that you are thinking of concepts that are so deeply ingrained in the web world and questioning them. However, I have a different opinion to share.

• Users: You might agree that there are a variety of people who use web and their skills with using the web are varied too. Some are very savvy while others still struggle with the otherwise “standard” web norms. With different mental models, and different motivations, they all are seeking information. But the challenge is to incorporate all these different variables of varying degree together. A good design is the one that glues them together. It is the design (with content of course) that creates the experience.

• Emotions: The role of emotions is particularly interesting and fascinating (especially to me). One would be surprised to know the sub-conscious (or conscious) decisions that people at large make based on the emotion they receive from a person/thing (web in this case). If the emotion does not adhere to the intended emotion from the particular web element, users will abandon it. A prime example is shopping cart. I have seen users who refuse to put in their credit card details to websites if they thought it is not trustworthy enough. Design has the rare capability of invoking emotion. It is the design that could generate the intended emotion. Presenting just information will fail to evoke the emotion.

• Cognitive psychology: We are constantly receiving and processing digital information. However, during this process many processes (inside the brain) operate in parallel. Unfortunately, during this pre-attentive processing there is a chokepoint (perhaps more than one) that makes it necessary for the brain to prioritize the information received. Besides the pre-attentive processing, the element of working memory is also important to keep in mind. According to cognitive psychology, it refers to a limited capacity system allowing the temporary storage and manipulation of information necessary for complex tasks as comprehension, learning and reasoning. Currently, it is design that allows fixing these limitations. In a design-less web world, how do we intend to solve it?

All said and done, a good read. Keeps the brain working ☺


2 December 2011 - 6:00pm

In reply to by Dharmesh Mistry (not verified)

In a design-less web world, how do we intend to solve it?

Precisely my point! If design is emotion, and I as a user now have the ability to change or remove the design, that means I'm changing the emotion. The user is no longer constrained to the emotion you're trying to impart. What does that do to the design process? When I read something through instapaper, there is no emotion left in it from what the site designer intended. There's just the words, black on white in a standard font.

I have no idea, honestly. Perhaps it means design has to become more subtle, so that all that's left is the stuff users won't strip out anyway?

That's what I'm getting at. Designers have less and less control every time we turn around. So with the next wave of "user decides, not the designer" after responsive design... what's left?

I don't have an answer. Just a question. :-)

Episode 9 of The Web Ahead has some additional and interesting commentary on this subject from Mark. In particular, he suggests what design turns into when "the page goes away", essentially, "the relationship between content".

This is why Mark's such a well-respected designer. :-)

Daughtry (not verified)

24 January 2012 - 3:03am

Working with app development I usually have lots of requirements about design in particular as the customers can sometimes be illiterate about some technical issues while they judge by the appearance of the applications, sites, projects.