Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe. Follow @RianVDM
The debate about invisible design is heating up again, thanks to a recent interview with Oliver Reichenstein in which he said this:
Good design is invisible. Good screen design happens in the subatomic level of microtypography (the exact definition of a typeface), the invisible grid of macrotypography (how the typeface is used), and the invisible world of interaction design and information architecture. Minimum input, maximum output, with minimal conscious thought is what screen designers focus on. And just as type designers and engineers we do not try to find the perfect solution but the best compromise.
I’m going to assume that this tweet from Dan Saffer is in response to the interview, and not some amazing coincidence:
Good design isn’t always invisible. In fact, it can be stunningly, beautifully visible.— Dan Saffer (@odannyboy) July 26, 2012
So, uh, which is it? Well, they’re both right — because I think they mean different things when they say “invisible design”. See, we talk about this stuff, but we rarely define the concepts before we do, and then we get into arguments and don’t even realize that we actually agree. So instead of just talking about invisible design, we have to discuss visible design as well, and how they’re different from each other.
When we talk about invisible design, I like Vitaly Friedman’s description in his excellent talk The Invisible Side of Design (my emphasis added):
Some things are so well designed that we don’t notice them any more. Our experience of them is invisible; almost beyond form and function… unless they break. The same holds true for Web design. Users stop noticing Web design if it works. Users keep noticing design if it’s broken, or when it gets in the way. Good design strikes a balance between elegance and invisibility. Invisible design relates to function and purpose, rather than appearance.
Invisible design is about the decisions we make about what goes into a product, what stays out, and how to get users through the experience as efficiently as possible. If those decisions are made well, and users can just do what they need to do without scratching their heads about where to go next — that’s when you get invisible design that works well.
But there’s also a striking visual layer to design that, in many cases, shouldn’t be invisible because invisible can be boring and soulless. Craig Grannell gives a good example of this in his article Office 2013 shows that user interface extremes aren’t the way to go:
The problem is, not all interface design scales, and when you go very minimal, interfaces can lose any sense of tactility and make it hard to focus. Peter Bright of Ars Technica’s shot of Office 2013 highlights that the opposite of Apple’s current design aesthetic isn’t necessarily any better. Acres of white space lead the eye to flick all over the design, making it hard to focus on the content (which is the smallish box on the right, with “This is an inline reply” in it). It’s unclear which components are buttons and which are content areas. Worse, there’s no sense of warmth at all. This feels like an email client designed to appeal to people bereft of emotion.
Look at sites like Slavery Footprint or MailChimp. There’s a very strong visual aspect to those designs, full of humanity and emotion. There is still an invisible side too — in MailChimp’s case, the functionality to create newsletters needs to be as invisible as possible — but it’s not an either/or situation. Invisible and visible design go hand in hand to create an appropriate product experience. In the case of Outlook 2013, there should be an invisible part of the design (the functionality you use to send email), but also a visible part that makes the software usable and relatable at more than a machine level.
I’m once again reminded of Matthew Butterick’s call to arms in Reversing the Tide of Declining Expectations:
Because what does design want from us, as designers? I think it wants us to take these items that are sort of mundane or boring on their own—like an annual report, or a website shopping cart, or a business card—and it wants us to fill them up. Fill them with ideas, and emotions, and humor, and warmth. Really everything that’s in our hearts and minds. Design wants us to invest these items with our humanity.
Designs that make technology completely seamless to the user often deserve admiration. But can we balance our desire for intuitiveness with a wider recognition that some tasks are complex, some interactions must be learned, and sometimes the goal isn’t invisible technology but appropriate visibility?
Instead of striving for purely invisible design, or design that is “stunningly, beautiful visible” but unusable, our aim should be to balance the decisions we make and the aesthetic we choose to arrive at a state of appropriate visibility. Now that’s good design.
They’re not always great at citing sources, and it’s not exactly the height of intellectual journalism, but I’ll admit: BuzzFeed’s publishing strategy is commendable:
We don’t show crappy display ads and we make all our revenue from social advertising that users love and share. We never launched one of those “frictionless sharing” apps on Facebook that automatically shares the stories you click because those apps are super annoying. We don’t post deceptive, manipulative headlines that trick people into reading a story. We don’t focus on SEO or gaming search engines or filling our pages with millions of keywords and tags that only a robot will read. We avoid anything that is bad for our readers and can only be justified by short term business interests.
Instead, we focus on publishing content our readers love so much they think it is worth sharing. It sounds simple but it’s hard to do and it is the metric that aligns our company with our readers. In the long term it’s good for readers and good for business.
That’s from an email that BuzzFeed’s CEO sent to employees, and it’s worth reading in its entirety because it’s such a good description of the principles that good online publishing is built on.
Earlier today a new design for Elezea went live. This is about the 5th or 6th redesign since I started the site, but it’s the first one that I think deserves a moment to stop and reflect a bit. With this redesign, I feel like the site finally grew up to become what it always wanted to be. I try to stay away from meta posts because I understand they’re mostly interesting to me, and no one else, but I trust you’ll forgive me for doing it just this once.
I had two major goals with this redesign:
- To have a design that’s completely focused on the reading experience.
- To improve site speed and performance dramatically.
With these two goals in mind, I asked my friend Alex Maughan to help me with designing and building a custom WordPress theme to accomplish these goals. He did an absolutely stellar job, and I can’t thank him enough. This design makes me happy. Thank you, Alex.
But let’s talk a little bit about each goal.
A design focused on reading
There is one single thought that became the driving force for what I wanted to accomplish with this design, and that’s Jeffrey Zeldman’s quote from 1999 (I’m afraid the original post doesn’t exist on Adobe’s site any more, so I’ll have to link to Zeldman’s discussion of it):
Most of all, I worry about web users. Because, after ten-plus years of commercial web development, they still have a tough time finding what they’re looking for, and they still wonder why it’s so damned unpleasant to read text on the web — which is what most of them do when they’re online.
I discussed this issue in detail in an earlier post called Please let this not be the future of reading on the web, so I won’t rehash everything again here, except to say – yes, it’s damned unpleasant to read text on the web.
And yet, that’s (finally) changing as more and more sites strip away all the fluff – and make their sites responsive. Speaking of Zeldman, his own site is a very interesting experiment to try to rectify this issue. Other sites that are doing a great job at providing good reading experiences include Contents Magazine, the iA blog, and Marco Arment’s blog. So I wanted a site that provides an enjoyable reading experience, regardless of device or situation. With that in mind, here are some of the reasons behind the design decisions we made:
- A header that explains what the site is about (set the context), then gets out of the way once you start reading.
- A typeface that’s elegant and focused on readability – we decided to go with Adobe Garamond Pro. (Yes, Typography Is The Foundation Of Web Design)
- A color scheme that not only fits the logo, but also feels similar to the calming Sepia schemes that many reading apps (like Amazon Kindle and Instapaper) provide natively.
- A sidebar that sits off to the right – not in your face, but there if you need it – and is focused on what I consider the main calls to action on the site: subscribing to article updates. Everything else is secondary, as it should be.
- My favorite feature: a responsive design that scales down well to small screens, to ensure a consistently pleasant reading experience on all devices. No matter how prevalent responsive design becomes, I think I’ll always see it as a kind of magic.
- And finally, there’s an appropriate space for one of the well-designed ads from the User Experience Ad Pack. These ads are not only relevant to the stuff I write about, it also covers my hosting costs. I recently switched to the more expensive (but much more reliable) mediatemple, and I’m very happy so far.
The end result is, I hope, a site that’s focused on words, ideas, and readers. As it should be.
In a recent post I said the following:
I often wish I could move all my link-sharing off Twitter and onto this site, but I know that’s not really possible, because the readership isn’t quite there yet. But I much prefer not just tweeting a link, but also adding some thoughts, or even just trying to set the context so people can decide if it’s a link they would be interested in, or not.
I mentioned this to Alex, and said that if we can get the site to be extremely fast, I might be able to start moving all my link sharing here. He saw that as a challenge, and went to work… So what we have now is the following:
- The site is now only a fraction of the size it used to be. It should also have faster server response times from a PHP processing and DB query point of view, as there is much less server side processing required to generate the site.
- W3 Total Cache handles all the site’s caching.
- I use Amazon Cloudfront as CDN.
- I also run CloudFlare on top of everything, and I’m really happy with that service so far.
Ok, I think I’ve rambled on long enough. The TL;DR of this whole post is this. I’m really excited about this design, I hope you like it, and thank you Alex!
Angela Baldonero in Just Say No:
We’ve all seen the all-important and all-knowing executive team. The team that has all the answers and yet isn’t able to execute. I’ve seen too many executive teams where personal relationships and politics are the real business drivers behind-the-scenes. Business is done over cocktails, after hours and not in broad daylight. Personal agendas trump team goals. People smile and nod politely in meetings, then leave the meeting and corner the CEO to say what they “really think.”
Eric Spiegelman writes about the virtue of brevity in email:
Long emails are, more frequently than not, the worst. When you send someone an email, you make a demand on their time. If you use more words than necessary, you waste their time. Sure w’re talking maybe a fraction of a minute, but given the number of emails the average person sends in a day those fractions add up pretty quick.
This makes intuitive sense, and anyone who gets a lot of email would agree. I’ve even tried to adhere to the Five Sentences philosophy for a while — with not much success.
But there’s something in me that wants to resist this move to get rid of all the “fluff” in email. Sure, it makes you less productive if you have to read through a bunch of stuff that’s not relevant — but I wonder if there’s a danger that the way we talk in email will spill over to the way we talk to our friends and family. Just like “LOL” jumped from text messaging and IM to enter our vernacular in all kinds of weird forms like “For the lulz”1.
Patrick Rhone recently wrote an article called Twalden (it’s worth reading just to discover why he chose that title), where he discusses why he’s taking a break from Twitter:
Ultimately, I don’t know if what Twitter has become is for me, or the people I care about, or the conversations I wish to have. The things I want to know are “happening” — like good news about a friend’s success, or bad news about their relationship, or even just the fact they are eating a sandwich and the conversation around such — I wish to have at length and without distraction. Such conversations remain best when done directly, and there are plenty of existing and better communication methods for that.
The phrase at length and without distraction really stuck with me. When’s the last time you had a discussion at length and without distraction? It seems to become rarer and rarer these days. I’m not trying to draw a causation effect between short, get-to-the-point emails and the general distractedness of our everyday conversations. I’m just saying that it’s probably ok to say “Hi!” and “Thank you” in emails every once in a while, because it’s nice to be nice.
Ok, maybe I just hang out with really weird people. ↩
Many of the design decisions were also influenced by the affordances of ebooks and their readers. The cover was designed to be very iconic so I had a design system which could transition to each reading environment. The page size of the printed book was chosen to be similar in size to what would be experienced on an iPad or Kindle. The illustrations are two-color, because I knew I could make them look good on a Kindle, iPad, and in print.
Basically, I wanted to design a system that was flexible enough to keep its identity intact as the words went from place to place. I think it is possible to craft books in a way so that no reading environment is obviously inferior to another, whether printed book or ebook. Each piece has to shine on all the other parts to make a better whole.
Carina Chocano takes a fascinating look at the neurological component of curation sites in Pinterest, Tumblr and the Trouble With ‘Curation’. It includes my new favorite German word:
If a rat is rewarded for choosing a rectangle over a square, it will learn to respond to “rectangularity” and start to favor rectangles in general. So maybe we are like the rats, and what w’re seeking while idly yet compulsively cruising Pinterest is really just the reliably unpredictable jumble of emotions that their wistful, quirky juxtapositions evoke. Maybe that is our rectangularity.
Ther’s a German word for it, of course: Sehnsucht, which translates as “addictive yearning.” This is, I think, what these sites evoke: the feeling of being addicted to longing for something; specifically being addicted to the feeling that something is missing or incomplete. The point is not the thing that is being longed for, but the feeling of longing for the thing. And that feeling is necessarily ambivalent, combining both positive and negative emotions.
(link via @iamFinch)
Matthew Butterick recently did a TYPO Talk in Berlin that completely blew me away. In Reversing the Tide of Declining Expectations he discusses how we have come to expect way too little from design, with the consequence that most design on the web is complete crap:
And that’s really what I mean tonight by declining expectations. This idea of what happens when we defer to technology, instead of standing on its shoulders. What happens when we choose convenience over quality. Eventually, w’re going to forget what quality was like.
One of the most interesting parts in Matthew’s talk is where he challenges the conventional wisdom that design is about solving problems. He believes that “solving problems is the lowest form of design” — here’s why:
Because what does design want from us, as designers? Does it only want a solved problem? I think it wants more. I think it wants us to take these items that are sort of mundane or boring on their own—like an annual report, or a website shopping cart, or a business card—and it wants us to fill them up. Fill them with ideas, and emotions, and humor, and warmth. Really everything that’s in our hearts and minds. Design wants us to invest these items with our humanity. And the problem that we’re solving—that’s really just the context where that happens.
I don’t want to quote from the talk too much, because you really have to experience the whole thing — it is such a great reminder to have the courage to create better things.
(transcript link via @jbrewer)
Michael Lopp discusses Apple’s famous secrecy in the context of the “One More Thing” keynote moments during the Steve Jobs era. As usual, he nails it:
The best stories, the ones we love, have a surprise ending. Since Steve returned to Apple, an essential part of the keynote was the anticipation of the unexpected, and that means aggressive and invasive secrecy. Not because they don’t want you to know, but because they want to tell you a great story.
His point is that “it’s not secrecy, it’s theatre.” Great article.
Michael Mulvey points out an interesting distinction between Microsoft and Apple in Very Soft, his response to the news of Microsoft’s first ever quarterly loss:
The thing is, Microsoft has never been a consumer-focused company to begin with. Windows was designed for businesses, not people. Microsoft got in good early in the enterprise market in the 80′s and 90′s and that trickled down to peoples’ home computers. “I have Windows at the office, I might as well get it for home.” That left Apple out in the cold until Steve Jobs came back in 1998.
Contrast that with:
Windows PC spread from the office to the home. In the past 10 years we’ve seen the opposite: Apple products are going from the home to the office.
This is true. As BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policies become more prevalent, corporate IT departments are finding that many of those devices are iPhones and iPads, and they just have to find a way to deal with that. It goes even further, because these devices are “gateway drugs” that end in employees dumping Windows PCs in favor of Macs (see How the Editor of Windows Magazine Became an Apple Fanboy for a good example). And before you know it you have a groundswell revolt against Microsoft Office for Mac, and a loud push to switch everything to iWork and Google Docs.
It’s a difficult situation for Microsoft, because the shift is mostly driven by masses of individual contributors — not executives. And it’s a situation that Windows 8 is not guaranteed to fix.