Self-expression in Web Design

Professional web design isn’t about self-expression, it’s about effectiveness.

In The Power of Positive Whining, Jeffrey Zeldman writes:

“If web design were not an art, then we would always get every part right. But it is an art, and, like all arts, it deals with the subjective. The subjective is something you can never get 100% right.”

I think Jeffrey is right: no designer can expect perfection in design. They can neither expect to create the perfect design nor expect to be able to know it if they did. And even if they did, somebody would hate it just because it was perfect.

Web Design

But web design is design after all, and as such we need to know when it works and when it doesn’t. If people use it, it works. If people don’t use it, it doesn’t work. Though people’s comments about it might be subjective: “I like it!” or “It’s ugly”, web design, like all design, succeeds or fails based objectively on how well people can use it. We may argue about metrics: (do 60% or 80% of people need to succeed in order to call it good design?) but we aren’t talking about someone’s subjective opinion…we’re talking about their actual behavior. That’s the beauty of behavior: it’s verifiable and objective.

The obvious way to find out what works and what doesn’t work is to watch what people do with your design: how they use it. Every designer who has done this has undoubtedly been shocked to learn that non-designers don’t see the world in the same way that they do. When non-designers use web sites, they ignore everything that doesn’t help them achieve their goal. They are amazingly narrow-sighted in that way…pigeon-holed into their own context and problems. And the funny thing is: designers are this way, too, when we’re not designing. That’s even what prompted Jeffrey’s post: as a Flickr user he was a befuddled.

Designers Don’t Want to be Judged Objectively

The truth is, web designers are nervous that their (read: my) work will be judged objectively. They fear that their designs will prove less than useful. They hate the notion that their work will be edited, or even worse, redesigned because of user feedback. But it happens, to very well-respected designers and professionals. I know of many cases where the work of someone you probably have heard of was completely scrapped in favor of a redesign that just worked better. Unfortunately, we hear little of these stories that could serve as valuable lessons.

There is a lot of ego tied up in design. What makes designers want to achieve great things for users is the same urge that makes them hold passionately to their original ideas. It’s a conundrum. Designers are rebels, for the most part, and most of them don’t want people changing their stuff, which would inevitably happen if someone were to objectively judge it. Part of their resolve to distrust evaluation is that designers have a clear vision other people aren’t privy to. I sure as hell wouldn’t allow someone to change Bokardo, even if in some small way they were right. This is my design. My creativity. My colors. My flag.

I think that’s partly why MySpace is so successful. Even though we might find someone’s profile pages revolting…it’s their revolting page, not ours. As a few people have said to me since I wrote The MySpace Problem, MySpace is very much like a teenager’s bedroom…

For my job and my hobby I’m a designer. The other part of my job is that I watch how designers work and how designs fail or succeed. I get some perspective from both sides of the fence…but it’s really difficult to articulate the issues that I feel strongly about. The tension between creativity and success is one of those issues. I will probably continue to struggle with that…sometimes Jekyl wins and sometimes Hyde wins.

Art and Personal Expression

Many designers that I know design to express themselves…they are more like artists than designers, really. I’m glad that in this day and age artistic people can make good money doing web design, but they will often be judged objectively, not subjectively. It’s just a part of the design world. I think there is a trend here, too…and it’s not the direction that artists will want.

I want design to be personally expressive, too. I want people to appreciate my work and the time I spend doing it. The cold hard fact is, however, that my expression is subordinate to the needs of the user. No matter how great I think my design is, the resolution of success comes only after other people have used it. I have very little control over that. In this way I become transparent as a designer: my work becomes defined not by what I’ve done with it, but by what other people have done with it. Their achievement is my achievement. In Art, it can work the other way around. Not so in Design.

Reconciling Design and Expression

Thankfully, if we recognize this we can still win the game. We can design things that work for others but that still satisfy our own needs as creative beings. Kevin Mullet and Darrell Sano, in Designing Visual Interfaces, put this nicely:

“Unlike the fine arts, which exists for their own sake, design must always solve a particular real-world problem. Functional criteria govern the range of possibilities that can be explored; aesthetic possibilities that are not compatible with this minimum standard of usability must be quickly discarded, if they are considered at all. Fortunately, there is almost always a wide latitude for aesthetic expression within these bounds, and experienced designers realize that solving a problem in a manner that is uniquely appropriate brings an aesthetic satisfaction all its own”

It kind of sounds like killing two birds with one stone. We’re designing first to solve a problem, while also satisfying our own artistic needs. As long as we can do both, we can choose which one is the real reward.

Published: July 7th, 2006