Notes Information Apocalypse

Good Design Ain't Easy

Jason Santa Maria's Good Design Ain't Easy was one of the most interesting sessions for me, digging into a topic that I've been through so many arguments over in the past. It may have been old news to experienced graphic designers, but I found myself looking around the audience for developers, hoping they were being smacked to attention (I think some of them were). The key point, which still too few younger designers have taken onboard, is that despite the painful constraints of the web environment compared to print, there is incredible potential for compelling visual design if followed through with the right intentions. Constraints are the key to creative success, and online, we've got constraints a'plenty, just not so structured and spatial as what we're used to in print. Here, Jason touched on some things that were almost the polar opposite of Damian Conway's later assertion that "the Morlocks" don't care about typography at all. Interestingly enough at this point, Damian promptly contradicted himself to explain that actually they do care - at least enough to feel a strong affinity for Comic Sans and Impact. To me, This had the effect of reinforcing the importance of telling a story through design. The Eloi and the Morlocks might respond to different things, but on the base level everyone responds to narrative - threads of connection that give shape to communication.

One question that arose for Jason (I just knew that Phillip was going to ask this) related to the expense and time involved in finessing custom designed layouts specially for each item of content. This has never been seen as a problem for print designers - it's simply the way that the work has always done, from the days of metal type to photosetting and eventually digital layout software. But it seems much more complicated and problematic to do this on the web. For whatever reasons, web designers have become enamored - obsessed even - with template driven design, and this has only increased with the proliferation of CMS tools in recent years. I thought the comparison that Jason made between the print and web display of several feature articles from Wired was pretty much the proof in the pudding. As I've gotten deeper and deeper into programming, I've tended to forget why and how I got started in design, so this was particularly striking for me, given that my love for magazines and print design back in those dark 90's days, was the whole reason I became interested in web design in the first place...

But the real underlying question was what to do when there isn't a story? When there's no fixed 'content' to speak of or when the visual design is intended to convey mashups of data? Actually, I think that it's a cop-out to give up on the idea of telling a story when all we have is data and no structured content. Data is full of rich stories, but we may need to break out of the traditional bounds of typography and graphic design to communicate them. That's where visualization and mapping comes in. I think one of the most important issues for web designers over the next couple of years involves the integration of data visualization into our repertoire and learning how to seamlessly combine visualizations with compelling typography and layout design. This is an aspect of what Jason described as graphic resonance that I think is greatly under-utilized, and could be a huge area of growth. In his presentation on Ambient Findability, Peter Morville expressed a fair shard of pessimism towards information visualization and mapping, but I think he meant this in the context of finding needles in the haystack. In the context of telling stories, visualization has huge potential. EveryBlock is a particularly well executed example of this recent trend. That Stamen's Cabspotting is now being featured at the MoMA is a good indicator of the emergence and importance of this aspect of the design discipline. I'm interested to see what happens when these ideas are applied to smaller scale and more tightly focused web communication.

But as far as the CMS and template space goes, there's not really any clear answers yet. I don't think we should expect technology to solve all our problems, but I do think we need to - where we can - explore new ways of providing variation across templates, tuning layouts closer to the content, and finding ways of squeezing as much diversity and flexibility as possible into a shared structure. I've often seen web designers become obsessed with consistency above all else. I'm getting tired of that term used as a proxy for clarity, I think it detaches designers from dealing with the real problem, that things are never totally consistent, and that a key role for the designer is to mould variation into a cohesive whole. After hearing this talk, one thing that really sank in for me, was that any time you have a project where your major design constraint is 'the number of templates to build', you know that your design process is totally fucked. Managers should take note as much as designers.