Just because you can, doesn't mean you should

Published August 17, 2019
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Web development has come so far in recent years that it blows my mind thinking back to the time when using Bootstrap was as normal as using React for a project. Truth be told, much of the tooling and processes have changed significantly, but the fundamentals of good design and web standards have not.

I wanted to briefly blog about the topic of design for design’s sake today, because it’s been on my mind for a while now and it irritates me to no end when I come across a website that mistakes ornamentation for innovation. Worse still, are the sites that jump on a trend just because it’s popular, with no consideration for usability or accessibility.

There is a phrase you may hear if you are in the design world, and that is “design without purpose is just decoration”. This statement especially rings true for many sites I’ve come across recently that have been so over-designed, it’s blatantly obvious the priority was the ornamentation, and not the usability/accessibility as well.

Objectively speaking, good design can be separated from absolutely amazing, phenomenal design by the way it speaks to people. Whether the design is simple or complex, its overall success is really based on how it makes people feel through it’s overall aesthetic and form.

Innovation doesn’t mean setting out to do something that hasn’t been done before. To me, a large part of innovation is making something familiar yet new at the same time. Design that plays on nostalgia is often the most memorable form of design because it evokes people’s feelings of childhood, where experiences were new and exciting.

Evoking a sense of newness and nostalgia is such a glorious dischotomy and peak design in my opinion, but that doesn’t mean you have to go out of your way to design every little thing to flex what you can do and what you know.

Design should speak for itself- it should be nuanced, thoughtful, and understated when it needs to be. The goal of a design should not be an all out assault on your senses (unless it calls for it of course).

Design for design’s sake

If you peruse the websites featured at places such as Awwwards or httpster, you’ll find a lot of beautifully animated and possibly innovative websites. Many of them have a few things in common, the most important one being that for many people who are averse to motion, colour contrast, or designer sense, these sites will also be unusable for more than a few minutes at a time.

There’s a reason why these websites are featured and have such a high score, and that is because they make use of a lot of animation and processor intensive effects which are rarely used on your everyday website.

Sure, some of them may push and envelope, and actually, some of them are pretty great and well executed.

However, a lot of them are also over designed for designs’ sake, and here’s an example I came across the other day.

A screengrab from Milieu Grotesque

I was browsing some recommended sites and came across this neat-looking font foundry. From the outset, I liked their aesthetic and definitely wanted to see more of this particular font. The typsetting was lovely and this website had many interesting features that showcased each glyph really well on hover. The thing that ruined this design for me though was the rotating 3D objects that loaded throughout the page as I scrolled.

It was a pretty cool effect but it obscured much of the important text and features of the font, which took away from the font’s unique characteristics in the first place. In fact the objects were so obtrusive I actually remember them more than I do the actual font, which isn’t really something you want when you’re trying to sell the font through its features and glyphs.

Then I realised you could turn the objects off…with a toggle that was hidden in the top menu underneath some other junk.

I found the toggle button! It was hidden in the menu underneath some other junk.

This was a good few minutes after I scrolled all the way down, trying to make sense of the font and how it was presented. If a designer/developer can’t figure out there’s a button to toggle the objects off from the get-go, maybe it’s an indication that the design is flawed in terms of actual usability.

It makes me sad thinking about the hours spent implementing these useless objects because although they look cool they are absolutely unnecessary and an impediment to the site’s overall function.

Now, I know this issue is specific to this particular website but it’s not all that uncommon to come across finicky UX issues like these especially when you are looking for inspiration for a website design.

It’s things like these that make me really cynical about what is considered “good design” in the industry today. Personally, I can’t fully appreciate these sites knowing it also uses esoteric patterns and functionality, all just to flex the technology and design for design’s sake.

I love a fun and interesting website, but even more so when I recognise the restraint it takes to reign in and edit a design when it needs it.

Over-engineering is a thing in the development world, and in the design world, it is actually possible to over-design. Heck, I just edited a website the other day that had so many unnecessary design changes with no obvious intent or cohesion, yet it added on an extra 10+ hours to the overall development time.

Just because you can mock up something with a fancy animation, doesn’t make it thoughtful or well considered. Maybe the design meets the brief, and maybe some managers signed off on it, but a design shouldn’t be celebrated just for being different or using as many hot new technologies as possible.

A well considered design is self explanatory and inherently accessible to as many people as possible. I want these kinds of websites to be celebrated more.

To me, a website that meets this criteria is often quite simple in nature. Simple in the sense that you shouldn’t be hunting around the page for clues on how to navigate somewhere. But-

  • Simplicity is not simply slapping content in a div and calling it a day.
  • Simplicity is not just black and white.
  • Simplicity can be as complex as a page from a medieval manuscript.
  • Simplicity is incredibly hard to pull off successfully.

Front-end developers have an important role in controlling the final outcome of a website, and it’s for this reason that I want to highlight, more doesn’t necessarily mean better. A good designer should know when it reign it in, but this isn’t always the case because of egos. It’s at this critical point where a developer can have a say in what and how something gets produced.

My recommendation is to just question everything, make suggestions, and plan ahead, always. It will only help everyone in the process:

designers who don’t really know any better when it comes to all the nuances of developing for the web,
developers, in developing visual language skills,
and the user, who will hopefully be presented with a lovely and well built, well considered website.