Beauty in web design, part 1

The first part of a 3-part essay, based on my presentation at SXSW Interactive.

I think we’re underachieving. And I’m not alone in that belief. Armin Vit’s Landmark websites, where art thou? contended that the web design field has created nothing to rival the greats from other design fields, giving the examples of the NYC subway map, the Se7en titles and Paul Rand’s IBM logo. Jonathan Harris of WeFeelFine fame infamously contended at Flash On The Beach that there have been no masterpieces.

These acts of criticism stung the community. “But the web has changed the world!” This protectionist instinct is understandable, but while the web has indeed shaped modern life, I agree with Vit and Harris. The web’s sum is substantially greater than its parts. No one site stands as a landmark of design. Looking at some likely candidates – GoogleAmazoneBayFacebook – we would all agree that they’ve changed how we interact with information, commerce and each other, but are they truly design classics or, instead, disruptive business models?

The web is full of cool, impressive and useful sites, but beauty is missing from modern web design. This is a surprise, given its prominence in other design fields.

Automotive design gives us beautiful cars that arouse passion and extraordinary desire. Product design also gives us 1954’s Fender Stratocaster, one of the most important cultural artifacts of the last century.

We see beauty in architecture, for example the Beijing National Stadium, which inspired a city, a country and a global watching public in a way no website has.

In visual fields, Harry Beck’s beautiful 1933 Tube map (which I’ll take over the NYC subway any day) clarified the complexity of the Underground through the metaphor of wiring. Not only is it a classic of wayfinding, but it has become part of the collective consciousness and emotional fabric of the city.

We also see a more chilling beauty in Charles Minard’s map of Napoleonic advance, made famous by Edward Tufte. The beige line represents the French army’s advance to Moscow; the black their ignominious retreat. The width of the line demonstrates the size of the army and hence the appalling human cost.

The point of beauty

But why focus on beauty? Why does it matter that other design fields lead the way? Because beauty affects us in profound ways, however we may try to resist.

Studies have shown, for instance, that attractive people are more likely to be acquitted by a jury. We transfer this lenience to content, as demonstrated in the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates. The radio audience believed Nixon to have won the debate, while the TV audience felt the more attractive Kennedy had the upper hand. Surprisingly, this isn’t a learned bias; it seems to be hard-wired, even seen in infants.

Beauty also makes things easier to use. Our brains literally work in a different way, becoming more flexible when using a thing of beauty. This is the aesthetic-usability effect. Apple know the value of this effect more than most. The colour iMac heralded the first mainstream melding of beauty and hardware. When combined with the good user experience of the Mac OS, the iMac brought previously unengaged users to computing for the first time.

Beauty is also infectious. Because it makes us feel good, we naturally want to share it. Why do we put art on walls and take photos of sunsets? Because it allows us and others to relive the experience. This pattern of telling others about beautiful things is the cornerstone of loyalty and advocacy, powerful and much sought-after concepts.

But I believe the most powerful aspect of beauty is that it can change our perspective on the world. In the classic How Designers Think, architect and psychologist Bryan Lawson describes this as a “one way valve to a new way of seeing.” Not only could a beautiful web make our users happy, productive and loyal, but it could help to change the way the world thinks.

But can the web, an abstract, impermanent and functional medium, truly be beautiful? Let’s answer that by looking at a common vehicle for beauty: art.

The evolution of beauty

In Greek and Roman times, art (and the ideals of beauty it contained) was mimetic: that is, intended to mimic and replicate nature. This is consistent with the philosophy of the day. Plato’s Theory of Forms proposed that there exists one idealised, perfect instance of everything in the world – the perfect cow, the perfect grape – that exists on a plane that none can see. With beauty resident only in these ideal forms, art and sculpture were a means to study them. Every (literally) chiselled jaw is an exploration of the heavenly ideal. It’s from the Roman era that the word ‘art’ originates, tellingly coming from the Latin ars, meaning ‘skill’.

This style continued into Renaissance times; but while religious influence continued the thought that beauty exists in a heavenly plane, the Renaissance also introduced the earliest stirrings of humanism. From this point, beauty became apparent in things that mankind created.

turner.jpg

As we advance into the Romantic era, art is no longer literal. Representation becomes central. Turner’s 1839 The Fighting Temeraire is beautiful but not accurate. Instead, the viewer finds joy in the colours and emotive qualities of both the scene and the meaning. This abandonment of the literal was catalysed by 19th century technology. The invention of the daguerrotype, the microphone, and the printing press some centuries previous, allowed reality to be easily replicated for the first time.

As we reach the modern era, art takes a jarring yet consistent turn. Duchamp’s concept of objets trouvés (such as Fountain) mean anything can have artistic meaning in the right context. Subjectivity dominates: it’s beautiful if you find it beautiful.

Contemporary conceptual art now sees execution as secondary. Beauty lies within the thought, while the artifact itself can be banal and everyday. Tracey Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 stitched the names of former lovers, friends and unborn children into the fabric of a cheap tent. Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull (For The Love Of God) was made by technicians and interns: Hirst himself was director and project manager only. Duchamp himself permitted several replicas of his work. The idea is all.

Finally, we can examine installation art, designed for a specific space and a specific duration. It is by its nature temporary, and often interactive. 2005 Turner Prize winner ShedBoatShed (Mobile Architecture No. 2) was disassembled and reconstructed as a boat and sailed down a river. Tate Modern’s helter skelter ‘Test Site’ created enormous school holiday queues. Is it art? You choose. (Although to my mind, the answer to “But is it art?” is always “yes”.)

Classification aside, it’s certain that many people find this work powerful.

So our understanding of beauty has broadened and shifted. Beautiful things can be abstract, temporary, duplicate and interactive.

The web is all of these.

Continued in Beauty in web design, part 2.