As anyone with a passion for design will tell you, the chance to attend a workshop at SmashingConf NYC led by the famously accomplished Stefan Sagmeister is a big draw. But even without the big name, my interest in the conference was piqued when I heard that it was going to be an amalgamated conference. Setting no ‘design’ or ‘development’ specific tracks, the organizers planned to weave the talks together using the common thread of collaboration and cross-pollination, with each talk building off of a prior talk. And, fortunately, that’s exactly how the conference operated.
I saw some excellent presentations, including one on keeping one’s eye on limitations within a design context and another on how important it is to understand how humans process information, with each speaker able to glean or build context off of other presentations given.
Photo Cred: Jerry Low
Even though there were different areas of focus and a variety of approaches presented, because of the conference structure a common thread emerged: in the pursuit of building a perfect website, things in the land of web design are getting too repetitive, too stale and ultimately, sometimes void of a soul.
As a designer working in the enterprise space who spends most of his days building to specific sets of standards and practices, this was a particularly interesting sentiment to encounter. And though it was a current running through several of the presentations, it wasn’t until the tail end of the conference that we had it verbalized.
In his talk, Andrew Clarke drove home the contention that web design is consciously becoming sterile in favour of leveraging “best practices and patterns” and ultimately letting data drive our design instead of serving as a mechanism for informing the design process. Even more interesting was his recommendation on how to help remedy this: more imagination, better ideas, and reintroducing the role that art direction plays in modern web design.
During my workshop with Stefan Sagmeister, his assessment of the state of web design was eerily similar. He even went so far as to suggest that, “Beautiful things enhance one’s experience, even if no functionality is gained or improved.”
Here we had two experts — one a traditionally trained and very accomplished print designer and the other one of the pioneers of the modern web — both pointing out the very same pink elephant in the room.
It feels like we’ve gotten a bit robotic in how we design for the web. That isn’t to say designing with data is wrong; working with data and designing for best practices has been enormously beneficial to creating smooth and functional designs that give users a great online experience. For a designer in the enterprise space, data will always be a key factor driving the design (and rightly so.)
No, it’s more that we’ve lost sight a bit of the weird and wonderful web that was. And to hear Sagmeister and Clarke note their experiences with this validated my own sense that a change is on the horizon.
And there are others who have touched on similar ideas surrounding this trend. I think we’ve all collectively felt this shift. It sometimes feels like you could ask 100 people to draw “what the internet looks like” and the majority would present you with more or less identical layouts.
The question now becomes: how do we ensure we’re forging a path that not only places enough emphasis on the data, user research and best practices that allow us to create intuitive and functional experiences, but do it in a way that doesn’t drive or commandeer the design? That still leaves room to create opportunities and play?
There are no easy answers, but I think we’re approaching a turning point. Big budget projects with big name clients will remain data driven, but there’s going to be a growing opportunity with smaller clients — or even just smaller projects from big clients — to aim for a more dynamic, less predictable experience.
In his workshop, Sagmeister noted that traditionally “ugly” design has life behind it, and that’s something that should be appreciated. I think we’ll start to see a more open approach to certain projects, ones with a different set of requirements than more traditional B2B projects that can have a different set of outcomes and expectations.
It won’t happen all at once, and for many of us who work in outcome-driven engagements, it may be something we explore in our spare time more than our everyday work. But I firmly believe the shift will come. And in shifting, we will hopefully account for that more experiential nature that, as Sagmeister put it, brings us all more joy and happiness even without any added functionality.