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I’m not a big fan

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2000

I’m not a big fan of having conversations via Web sites (too passive aggressive…it’s almost Minnesotan in nature) or of beating dead horses, but this whole Scripting Rules!/Powazek Sucks! thing has me thinking about how design and designers are perceived by people. And I think that there are some important issues afoot here….somewhere. What follows is my rambling (and feeble?) attempt to uncover some of those issues.

Design, for most people, is subjective and aesthetic in nature. People know what they like and dislike. If a Web site or magazine layout which prominently features a color that a person doesn’t like, but is otherwise designed very well, that person probably isn’t going to like it.

For designers, on the other hand, design is mostly objective and only partially aesthetic. There aren’t any hard and fast “dos and don’ts”, but there are some (very) general guidelines for design, mostly in the form of questions such as “who is my audience?”, “what am I trying to communicate?”, “what’s the purpose of this?” and the like.

To me, the great thing about Web design as a discipline within design is that it borrows some of the best aspects from other areas of design:

Architectural design. Borrowed from architectural design is the idea of physical space. A Web site is something you enter, not something you look at. You click to get in, you move about within it, there are walls and long, meandering hallways. Is your Web site a square, one-story building with one big room with 14 little side rooms? Or is it a three story building with ample parking? What does that communicate to your audience?

Package design. Without using too much imagination, you can think of the front page of a Web site as that site’s package. When you open that package, what do people expect to find? How do people know what’s inside the box before they open it and how do you communicate that?

Industrial design. A Web site is not a pretty picture sitting on a bookshelf….it’s a tool, made to be used. You click to get places, to uncover information, to make connections, to communicate. How does this tool need to be designed to accomplish all that? Or rather, how does this tool need to be designed to accomplish the things you want it to accomplish?

Graphic design. A lot of the principles of graphic design work on the Web. People had been doing layout and typography long before the Web came along. Emotion and communication, both major aspects of graphic design, are borrowed as well. Red is bold and communicates something about the site a person is visiting….the user *feels* something about that site. Using large or small browser type on a site tells the user something about that site as well…as does the typeface used.

Film making. I know, film making isn’t a design discipline per se, but it’s close enough. Borrowed from film making is the idea of pacing and storytelling. As the user moves further into a site, how much time do they spend at each stage? Are there natural pauses and stopping points? Is too much information presented for the user to process all at once? Or is there not enough information for them to be able to make the next decision to move on to the next page? Does the voice of the site jive with the rest of the design?

There’s obviously a lot more that I could write here, but I’m tired. So, I’m going to close with this:

Once and for all, why does the Manila/Scripting/UserLand cowskull suck? (I’ll give you a hint: it’s not due to any mis-implementation on the backend). Because it takes one of the more important functions on the site and obscures it behind a small graphic element that has nothing to do with that function whatsoever (and probably has a lot to do with the fact that the site is running on Frontier, which from the user’s perspective, is totally irrelevant). I’ve been visiting (but not participating because the tone of the writing and design does not foster a participatory atmosphere) Scripting News for about two years now, and I still don’t get what the purpose of that thing is….and I’m a very experienced, savvy Web user. What’s wrong with making a text link that very clearly states what the user is getting into by clicking that link? How about a “Discuss this” link after each day’s content?