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.