After Reading Zeldman’s Silence and Noise

Reading Jeffrey Zeldman’s Silence and Noise the other day, I couldn’t help but think: why on earth do we talk about design so much? What is it about design that makes us interested in it enough to “rage about minutia”? To help answer that question, I offer a simple observation of the amazing design-blogger phenomenon […]

Reading Jeffrey Zeldman’s Silence and Noise the other day, I couldn’t help but think: why on earth do we talk about design so much? What is it about design that makes us interested in it enough to “rage about minutia”?

To help answer that question, I offer a simple observation of the amazing design-blogger phenomenon in which much of the raging takes place. My observation is this: in terms of designing usable and useful systems for other human beings, we are like children wondering at the sky.

We’ve got a ton of theories about what makes good design, but very little evidence to prove them right or wrong. We’ve got many people who claim to know the way, but few other people who are convinced they’re right. And we’ve got a few great designs that are measuring sticks for the rest of us, but remain elusive in terms of revealing how they’re great. Unfortunately, we’ve also got that nasty water animal the red herring to contend with: a plethora of design ideas that continually distract us from the one thing that truly matters: the use of our design by other human beings.

Forgive me for being pessimistic. I know how unhelpful it can be. However, I truly believe that humans learn by observing differences between two things, judging which one is better or worse, and acting on it. But if designers can’t see those differences or don’t know how to act on them, then they begin to focus on anything, everything, minutia. We focus on minutia when we think we’ve satisfied the bigger goals, when we don’t know what the bigger goals are, or when we don’t know enough about the bigger goals to make any decision concerning them. This is what I think is happening and part of what Zeldman is talking about.

Here’s something to try: Think of your favorite web site. (make sure that it’s one that you’ve at least visited twice in your lifetime)

Now, ask yourself: why on earth do I like this web site? What is different about this design from all the rest? What have the designers done that makes it such a special place for me? (In other words, look for the differences)

You might not be able to find them. It will probably be a good looking site, but there are many other good looking sites. It will probably be easy to navigate, but there are many other sites with good navigation. You will probably consider it usable, but perhaps not more so than other sites you’ve visited.

The difference between this site and others is that it fits your lifestyle, your context, your big goals. You’re a web designer, after all, and that is your concern. That is how you make a living (or want to). In some way this web site helps you do that, either directly or indirectly. It may simply provide the entertainment you need to get you through a hard work day. Or, it may be a site you like to shop on for web design books. It may be a site whose visual design you’re trying to emulate for your next project. It may even be a design-blogger site.

Whatever type of site it is, it helps you to be more of the person you want to be. No single design element, nor the technology with which the site is built, can do that. Instead, the design as a whole has succeeded in providing you with information that helps you be yourself. In many cases it won’t be crystal clear why this is so or how it is done. But it will be hidden somewhere in the details. In most cases though, I daresay, it will succeed for the same reason that others rage about minutia: because someone gives a damn.

Published: August 17th, 2004

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