Design for Design's Sake

In business, design should enhance and support web site goals rather than be the goal. Design involves so much more than just pretty visuals, and visual design is not the single most important aspect of web development. The same goes for usability, code, copywriting, and every other aspect. They all serve a purpose, and any site that intentionally forsakes the big picture for the sake of one or two aspects without an extremely good reason is missing the point.

All too often I hear designer’s touting the importance of design and coming across as simply egotistical that their profession is the most important. Design is not more important than usability and usability is not more important than design. The same goes for every other web design specialty out there. No one aspect can solve every problem. They have to all work together to create the right experience. And like any good plate of food, some sites require more of one spice and less of another. Too much salt or cayenne pepper can ruin an otherwise tasty dish.

Too Much Flash

While I’m sure they exist, I have never, ever, seen an all flash site that is usable or even remotely practical. This is a remnant of traditional print and marketing people coming to the web and deciding that big loud messaging and lots of pictures and movement is the way to a user’s heart.

There’s an excellent post over at 43 Folders that explains the mistakes that most band and label sites make. Not surprisingly two of the five reasons are that there’s too much decoration and not enough real content. This is such a simple and straightforward example of design for design’s sake, and it’s horrible. Design should support the goals of the site.

Perfect Examples

I’ve been looking for lofts recently, and almost every site I visit uses some 1998 combination of flash and JavaScript popup windows to get me around. Let’s take a look at Loft 588 for a second.

Design over Accessibility

The homepage is one big image map. Sure it uses unique fonts, but there really is no reason for this to be an image. It’s not easy to maintain if they decide to change some of the text. It’s inherently inaccessible due to the sheer quantity of text that would be required if they chose to include title and alt tags&8217which they don’t. It’s a splash page that had to be there because the whole site is in flash. Last I checked, splash pages had gone the way of the dinosaur. This page could have been just as easily created with pure HTML and a hint of sIFR. Of course, if the site wasn’t in Flash, this page wouldn’t be here at all.

Design over Technology

Once we enter the site, a new window pops up maximized with the restore button disabled and all of the browser toolbars removed. I can only assume this is to immerse the user in a wonderful design of nothing but flash and completely control the experience. Unfortunately, I have yet to meet anyone who enjoys it when a browser window takes over their computer. People want to control their own experiences rather than have it dictated to them. Don’t take away the interface that we’re comfortable with and force us to learn your inherently poor navigation choices.

Design over Usability

Lets try to “View Floorplans” next. After all, this should be the single most important and usable feature of this site. We’re taken to an artist’s rendering of the building where we are only allowed to browse the floorplans by selecting a floor of the building. Of course once you’ve selected a floor, you have to choose a floorplan before you can see the size and price.

This might be cute from a design point of view, but it isn’t how people look for a home. Your visitors want three quick and easy pieces of information at this point: size, price, and floorplan. They want this information upfront. Hiding it behind a poor metaphor of navigating a building is like having a potential buyer walk into your office and not telling them the price or square footage until you’ve taken them on a tour of the property.

Design over Information Architecture

The navigation here uses a series of words that barely explain their purpose. For instance, what does “House of Style” mean? How about “Story Time” or “Must Haves”. These labels are used in place of perfectly acceptable and much clearer labels that visitors might expect. Naturally, every

Design over Search Engine Optimization

Not surprisingly, when I search for “dallas lofts” I don’t get results for complexes themselves. Instead, I get realtors. Oftentimes, even when I find one and search for its exact name, it’s not even in the top 10 results. That search engine ranking is purely courtesy of using image maps and flash exclusively. If search engines can’t read that text, they aren’t going to pick up the site.

Parts of these are a little better and parts are a little worse. Unfortunately, in every case it’s clear that aesthetics were valued over the other factors that should be involved.

  • Santa Fe Lofts It’s a little better, but it still suffers from valuing design over the aspects of the experience.
  • Mockingbird Station Everything is one big set of images. There isn’t an ounce of HTML text on the whole site. You really have to try to make a site this inaccessible.

Summary

Naturally, these are more extreme examples of design for design’s sake, but it’s easy to find bits and pieces of these examples all over the web. Whether it’s ignoring basic usability principles or poor choices for labels because they sound fancy, designing for the web successfully requires a lot more than some pretty visuals.

Of course this goes both ways. I think we are all familiar with a particular site that could stand to benefit from a little bit of design. Unfortunately though, it’s designers who frequently ignore or completely disregard other aspects of web development in order that they may show their masterpiece exactly as they intended.

On the web, precise control of how a design is experienced is a lot like squeezing a wet bar of soap. The more you tighten your grip, the more likely it is to fly out of your hands.