Beauty in web design, part 3

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

In Part 1 we saw that the web presents an ideal vehicle for beauty, and in Part 2 I argued that beautiful design is reflective, exploring message and meaning. How can we use this knowledge to create beautiful websites?

Making the web beautiful

We are certainly making progress, and perhaps I’m being harsh on a field still in its infancy. The web is only 7,000 days old, after all. Technological improvements such as new authoring tools, better screen resolutions, more bandwidth and technical convergence will free us to experiment.

We’re already seeing fresh visceral approaches courtesy of developments such as CSS3, typographic tools like Typekit and FontdeckCanvas and SVG. Even the death of web-safe colours freed us to try new visceral design techniques. Better understanding of usability, better design patterns and better web education has also freed us to try new behavioural approaches, such as the horizontal, keyboard-driven navigation on Thinking For A Living. It’s too early to know whether these paradigms will stick, but it’s heartening to see previously locked-in approaches challenged.

However, the key to creating beautiful websites that our users actually love, rather than merely tolerate, is to think at the reflective level.

1. Get emotional

Appealing to emotion is an important way to create reflective design. It means we must understand people, not merely user tasks. What makes them tick? What would they never dream of asking for? How can we improve their life beyond this one visit? The focus is therefore on experience, not just usability. These days I see calling a website ‘easy to use’ as like praising a restaurant for serving edible food. It should be a given, not an exception.

One way to engender emotion is through stories – an area where what we patronisingly call ‘old media’ is streets ahead. Advertisers, writers and film makers have long known the power of narrative and created emotional content to reinforce their message. Content strategists in particular should therefore take centre stage in our quest for emotion, using not just text but other content types. Some of the most emotionally resonant content on the web today is photographic, such as Pictory or the Boston Globe Big Picture.

2. Think bigger

User and business form the classic duality of design. We’re well accustomed to solving for the needs of both, making compromises and tradeoffs where appropriate. I now believe this model overlooks a third piece of the puzzle: the ecosystem. We should design systems that are good for the surrounding web and for society.

Many experienced designers already consider this intuitively through their work, but there’s benefit in explicitly considering these issues in our design process. Are we trying to make a genuine difference, or just churning out more wireframes to keep the client happy?

3. Lead

When did you last see a statue of a committee? The classics of design have typically been created by one person with strong vision and the technical and political skills required to execute upon it. In film, this is known as the auteur theory: the director is regarded as the custodian of the creative vision and the final product is his or her realisation of it. At the least we need to appoint leaders who formulate and communicate a vision for the site.

Assuming leadership can be difficult in real business contexts and can foster problematic attitudes, but without strong leadership, clear vision and faithful execution, we have no hope of creating beauty.

4. Think long term

It’s relatively easy to make something viscerally attractive, but how can we maintain interest after the initial lust wears off? Just as in a romantic relationship, we should consider long-term seduction. The odd surprise can be rewarding, bringing joy in unexpected moments of the experience. By varying things we prevent over-familiarity and the contempt that this can breed.

Possible approaches include rewarding people who explore to deep areas of the system – a tactic frequently used by game designers – or something as simple as unannounced free shipping on your tenth order. Google’s holiday logos provide a real example of how the tiniest detail can keep users interested.

5. Notice everyday beauty

My mother, a retired teacher, told me recently of the ‘golden moment’ in education. It’s the point you always remember, when you discovered something and suddenly your worldview was shifted – that “one way valve to a new way of seeing” again. Educational theory suggests that to create golden moments, you must recognise them for yourself. So notice the world. Where’s the beauty around you?

As we previously discussed, there’s beauty all around us: art, writing, architecture, music, products, nature. We should breathe it in and learn from it. It may even be that inspiration lies close to home. Perhaps web standards specialists could take inspiration from developments in the Flash world, and vice versa. Maybe designers can be inspired by developers. We should be aware and scan the horizon to find our own golden moments.

6. Be brave

Finally, since reflective design is about meaning and message, we needn’t fear making statements. We should stand for something and convey ideals through our work: both ours and those of our clients. Surprisingly, the web design community seems reluctant to do this. At last year’s IA SummitJesse James Garrett asked why there are no schools of UX thought. Why indeed are there no major schools of web design thought? Our movements and sub-communities are, instead, almost entirely technique-driven. To me, it’s sad that we’re more interested in endlessly debating topics such as HTML5 v Flash, rather than exploring the important philosophical approaches that drive our work.

Caveats

There are of course some dangers to these approaches. The demands of client work mean we’d be unwise to blindly apply these rules, and there are some difficult questions left unanswered. The most important is whether beauty is always appropriate. I suspect not. When I’m filing a tax return, I don’t want the system to speak about who I am; I just want it to work. When getting the job done is more important than enjoying it, beauty is cruft. Better for designers to let the task and usability have priority.

Reflective design shouldn’t become dogma. Fortunately, when we take time to truly understand users and what they want, it soon becomes clear when it’s appropriate to strive for beauty in design.

Hero design

It would be easy to misinterpret our discussion of leadership and bravery and overestimate our authority. Designers aren’t heroes; instead we must serve our industry, our clients and our users faithfully, discarding ego. Too frequently, I see design that is more about impressing other designers than solving the problem and making the web better. There’s no beauty in hero design, only narcissism.

That said, I think web designers should appreciate that we can play an important role in society. We’re lucky enough to work on the coalface of the most exciting innovation of modern times. We’re on the brink of wonderful things. So yes, we’ve underachieved, but given the evolution of beauty and the tools now available to us, the web is an ideal vehicle for beautiful design. We’re the generation to turn that promise into action.

I hope in five years to look back on this essay and laugh. If we work hard, aim for reflective design, and believe in the power of the web, I’m convinced we can create our own beautiful design landmarks.