Visual and Social Design

Some weeks ago I asked Do MySpace Users Have Bad Taste? There’s an increasing tension between visual design and web site success, and that’s what I’m trying to figure out. There are so many sites that have become successful with mediocre (or just plain bad) visual design that somethings gotta give. How does MySpace succeed […]

Some weeks ago I asked Do MySpace Users Have Bad Taste?

There’s an increasing tension between visual design and web site success, and that’s what I’m trying to figure out. There are so many sites that have become successful with mediocre (or just plain bad) visual design that somethings gotta give. How does MySpace succeed while being so ugly? How does Craigslist survive with bland visuals? How does Google thrive with its amateurish-looking logo?

That’s the question I want to answer, and I think it has something to do with social design. Whereas visual design focuses on the way things look, social design focuses on the way things affect our social lives. And, given that visual activity has to happen before any social activity can happen, social design builds on top of visual design, in no way replacing it or ignoring it. In this way visual design is the core discipline, with interaction and social design standing on its shoulders.

Today in my referral logs I find a link from Bokardoan Joel Faber, who has been mulling over the same question. So I’m not the only person thinking about this. (this makes me feel a lot better…when I wrote about the MySpace Problem on Vitamin very few designers dared touch the topic).

Why the lack of uptake on this issue? Why aren’t designers wondering why the MySpace Problem exists and why some sites are so successful with such an obvious lack of visual coherence?

Isn’t it a vital design question?

My guess is that visual designers are rarely given control over the non-visual parts of the interface. It’s simply not their job to figure out why someone is using something…their job is to put a nice screen on it. From my own experience as a freelancer this is indeed true. I’ve worked on many jobs where I was left wondering…”well I can create an interface for this but without some serious changes to the core design model it’s not going to be valuable to people”. But at the time my role wasn’t to figure out how to make the system work, it was to create an interface.

This has become more clear to me through my work at UIE. At UIE I see all facets of the user experience, from the initial needs of users to their interaction with our site to the emails they send us and other things. I see the experience not from a visual designer’s point of view, but from an experience designer’s point of view. One of the outcomes of this is that we spend a tremendous amount of time on our copy writing, much more than any other part of the interface. If the copy writing is strong, the messaging right, the other parts seem to fall in place.

(an aside: copy writing is an integral part of design. Unfortunately, some design processes don’t allow visual designers, who are skillful at communicating visually, much leeway in terms of *what* they say, only in *how* they say it. I’m not saying visual designers should write all the copy, but there should be an interdisciplinary overlap here that takes input from both. The lack of overlap is unfortunate, and can result in the extreme case of something that looks great, but doesn’t say anything valuable)

I see a rise of what I call social design. And with that rise comes a recognition that visuals are sometimes less important than other parts of the design. In some cases to make a judgment on visuals alone can miss the entire value proposition of what’s really going on. We need to know how design affects someone’s life, their social needs, their place in society in addition to their response to visuals.

I know there’s an argument to make about something that looks better communicates better. But the evidence is just not there…and exceptions seem to be the rule right now. That said, we might as well (and should!) make everything as beautiful as we can…without sacrificing the message or the implications for society.

Published: January 17th, 2007

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