After 14 years in the web design business I have, at long last, come to admit that I have a problem with design. Not design itself, just the word. I may not possess the most comprehensive design vocabulary, nor may I be able to hold my own in a design purists' debate but I just can't leave it alone and I'm here to publicly acknowledge that, because I solve problems, I have developed a design habit.
There, I said it. Step one. When I started out building websites, I hadn't a design accreditation to my name. To me, design was elusive, elitist and a little out of my reach. Deep down, I still wince at the notion of calling myself a web designer, however, I'm no longer in denial and to the outside world a designer is who I am and design is what I do so why fight it?
I came at web design from the printing industry, a business sector with over 400 years worth of design pedigree and practitioners. When people think about design, I guess the public thinks about graphic design and design for print. I have now come to terms with my design habit as I have realised that my problem is with the long shadow cast by the greats of graphic design.
This depiction and/or interpretation of design by the public is way too narrow. Design is everywhere. Dyson designs vacuum cleaners; architects design houses; town planners design road networks; chemists design drugs and me, I design websites.
I've read many design books and am no closer to having a set of hard-and-fast design 'rules' imprinted in my brain. Sometimes symmetry works and other times asymmetry works well; sometimes juxtaposition works whereas other times white space works best. When it comes to design it appears to me that there is no wrong or right - yes, there are trends and taste but ultimately there is only what works.
The designer applies themselves to solving a specified problem: ie
How is it that vacuum cleaners lose suction? With the problem statement out in the open, the designer then directs their experience, personal style and problem solving skills to the situation presented.
There is a rather famous quote by graphic designer, Milton Glaser, who described design thus:
I move things around until they look right. Glaser goes on to say that it's the path one follows towards learning that's the important thing.
People will either like or dislike your work as a designer and that's OK because design is subjective and there's no accounting for taste. The only objective measure is whether a design works or not.
Design solves problems - great design solves problems with elegance and simplicity.
For years I have worked in the shadow of graphic design[ers] and, thanks to my blog therapy, I am now the confident owner of the opinion that graphic design and web design are two totally different fields. Graphic designers solve different problems to those web designers are called to solve. As a web designer the problems I grapple go beyond:
Is this visually pleasing?
When you begin to consider your next website, please be mindful that saying:
I want my website to look like Apple isn't a problem. Saying:
My website's getting a bit old now isn't a problem. Tell us about the business objectives your website has to meet; tell us about the kind of buyers that your new website has to be able to reach and let us help you by designing a bespoke website that solves your unique business problems.
Frighteningly superb, beautiful use of the language, which is a rare treat these days.
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Wery wery interwesting...Mr Whiting.
I have come to realise over the years (gosh, that makes me feel old) that there are actually four different aspects to design. To illustrate this I'm going to use as an example a Ferrari car (because I gratuitously can!)but I could just as easily have chosen one of Sub@omics fabulous websites:
Visual - this is what you are mainly talking about I believe. In other words does it look right or is it pleasing to the eye? A Ferrari has to look right, and in general one look at a Ferrari and it says "I'm fast". Most people can immediately tell you if it is wrong (without normally telling you why, or what to do to correct it);
Functional - does it do what you want it to do? As an extreme, you cannot for example use a car to boil a cup of water. You need a kettle for that;
Ergonomic - does it fit the user well - a Ferrari has handcrafted, hand sewn leather upholstery with all sorts of adjustments to make it's seats ultra comfortable and supportive of your back, ensures the correct posture etc.;
Brand - is the item immediately identifiable as belonging to someone or something? Ferraris are in general, designed so that every model is immediately identifiable as a Ferrari without you needing to even see the badge.
There is obviously a heavy overlap of some of these aspects, but it is important to consider all four areas when you are designing something. Taking them in isolation is a common mistake, the number of websites that I have seen that "function" well but look and "feel" truly shocking are legion. Likewise I've seen plenty that are cutting edge design but you can never find the page you want! For a design to truly successful you need to create something that covers all four aspects in harmony.
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People talk about designing websites but 95% of the time what designers are actually doing is styling the 'front end'. When it comes to me and design I am fully aware that, for me, form comes from function. I don't start out with a primary intention of making something look visually pleasing - the thing has to work. Whether styling off-the-peg using our own website management system Web Diffusion or designing and developing a bespoke website, form comes from function. Pleasing looks are very important, obviously, but looks come second. With the website mechanics in place it's more a case of styling rather than designing.
To pick up your Ferrari analogy, the design's already been done. There needs to be a wheel on each corner, a front or mid engine, two seats, driving controls and instrumentation - all of which need to conform to accepted conventions (i.e. a steering wheel, not a tiller) for mass acceptance. Arguably, the vast majority of the design in a vehicle takes place under the bonnet during the engineering and development phase. All else is styling. Vehicle styling adapts the product to meet the aspirations, needs and requirements of the buyers and users in a way that vacuum cleaner styling doesn't.
Volkswagen are a superb case in point. The chassis of the Beetle is the same chassis as the chassis developed for the Golf - the engine for the two models is probably pretty much the same too. The styling adapts a standard product to the tastes and use cases of the buyer. And when it comes to styling the product to adapt vehicles for the budget of the buyer, Volkswagen have that covered too through their other two brands: Audi & Skoda.
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