Monday, January 08, 2007

Bad Design Has No Excuse

I made my living for around 20 years as a graphic artist, designer, typographer, and so forth, working in the book and magazine publishing, design, marketing, and advertising fields. One of the reasons I have been pursuing my fine art work for the past few years is that much of the book design work I had been doing dried up, except for the occasional freelance project. I am an expert in most desktop-publishing software on both Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows platforms, plus I'm learning UNIX. Through hard experience, I can fix a lot of computers when they break down; it's like with your car, once something breaks, you learn how to fix that something. I started doing computer-based typography and page layout in 1982, fresh out of music school, before the personal computer even existed, except for hobbyists and experts. I started using Adobe Photoshop with version 1.5, and I started using both PageMaker and Quark XPress with versions 1.0. I design my own typefaces. In fact, I have on occasion been paid handsomely to design typefaces, then design the books those typefaces were used in. I read books on typography and design for fun. I can identify a huge number of typefaces at a glance, and I can tell you who most of the greatest designers of the 1900s were, and what they did. I can even tell you who most of the so-called celebrity designers were, too, in the post-Warholian world, although not all the celebrity designers were necessarily good designers. I can also tell you where graphic design and fine art overlap, and where they don't.

In other words, I am a bona fide computer-aided-design geek.

So, here's what I have to say about design:

Most design is bad design.

Most of what you are exposed to on a daily basis has been designed by somebody. You think those logos and moving graphics on the TV news shows just magically appeared? No: someone designed them. Everything you ever see on TV was designed; somedbosy had to create it and shape it. Just as someone designed, and probably illustrated, every piece of packaging for every item you've ever bought at the supermarket or department store, or ever will. Somebody designed the roads you drive on, and somebody designed the car you drive. Most such design is done in teams, with a lead art director or engineer guiding the team. Even commercial illustration is a team effort, with the illustrator being hired by an art director, both of whom need to please the client. Advertising can be a field full of creativity and excitement; it can also be the most deadening and stifling job imaginable. Which of those it is depends a lot on the client you're working for. Working in design and illustration for corporate positions for as lone as I did, has made me probably unfit to ever work as a paid employee for a large corporation, ever again: I am no longer able to work for people less intelligent than myself, without opening my mouth and getting myself into trouble.

Your life is completely immersed in design, and most of the time you don't even notice it. Does a fish notice that it's breathing water? Not usually: it just breathes. Your immersion in design, in our technological society, is so total that most folks never pay it any attention. Even this website you're reading right now was designed; granted, it's built on a template, but I tweaked the template, because I wanted to, because I know how to, and because I can. And, it's fun.

My main website,, was hand-coded, hand-built, and hand-assembled by yours truly, designed from scratch, illustrated with my original photography and artwork, and assembled using very simple HTML code that doesn't even require sophisticated tools to generate (although I do have very sophisticated tools at hand). The typeface used on the banners and navigation buttons was a typeface I designed. So, it's a completely hand-made website, not a template off the shelf. I did it that way because I wanted to, because I know how to, and because I can. And, it's fun.

The problem is: most of the design you are enveloped in is bad design. The best one can say about a lot of design is that it's thoughtless, or indifferent. The worst one can say about it, well, it's beyond thoughtless, it's actively stupid and insane.

Design is a public activity. As such, it is often political, whether or not it intends to be. Materials produced in the so-called free-market capital sector are not free of ideology, even when they claim to be. The ideology they all share, even if they are otherwise non-political, is the assumption that it's good to make a profit from selling your product. Self-advertising is still advertising—and every artist, every creative person seeking to earn some of their living from their creativity must self-advertise. There's nothing morally wrong with any of this, it's just the way the system is currently set up to operate. (Again, like a fish who is breathing water, most folks don't consider that this doesn't mean that it's a natural system, the only possible system, or even the best system. It is, however, the current system.)

So, design can be political, although it doesn't have to be. I only mention this to warn you against those designers who would try to convince you design is always value-neutral. Sometimes it is, and often it isn't. Design can be very expressive of values, and also very subversive.

Most design that you see online is made by people who don't know what they're doing. The worst offense in web design is to overload your webpage with so many dingleberries that it takes forever to load. Sure, all those animated GIFs are cute, and fun, and addictive. But the more of that you put on there, the slower your page will be to load. I can point you to webpages that load instanteously, provide clean and easy navigation, and are models of clean and clear information-transmission: that is what good design does. I can also point you to webpages where there is so much crap, it can take you literally 2 minutes to load the homepage—and that is with a high-speed connection. The vast majority of homepages suffer from this problem. Most homepages on MySpace suffer from terminal clutter. Unfortunately, so do most blogs on most servers, including this one.

Good design is simple, clean, clear, easy to navigate, and doesn't get in between the reader and the content. It's incredibly easy to use good design principles in everything you do. It's merely lazy not to do so.

Elegance is a form of simplicity: using no more than you need, to get the desired result. Elegance in design is essential to creating good design.

How did this state of affairs come about?

Well, here's the truth: bad design has always been more prevalent than good design. (Just as there are always more bad poems than good, at any given time.) But with the invention of technologies that put communication, and design, in the hands of the everyday person, suddenly everyone was a designer, everyone was a typographer, everyone was an artist—or they thought they were. This happened with the first wave of personal-publishing technology, with the desktop-publishing revolution sparked by the invention of the mass-market personal computer. Now it is happening again, with the growth of the Internet, the blogosphere, and the development of online quasi-communities such as MySpace, and all the rest. Everything thinks that they can create a great webpage, a great newsletter, a great chapbook; but the truth is, most folks have no clue about design, or page layout, or the proper use of typography, or how form affects content. (Which is what design is all about: useful content in the container of form.)

Well, just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should.

Helvetica used to be a beautiful, useful typeface. By now, though, because it is one of that small group of typefaces that appeared on every computer's type menu since the beginning of desktop publishing, Helvetica has become overused, in so many bad applications, both online and in print, that it hurts to look at it. It's become bland and boring. It's become painful, because it is used with consideration or care, but just as a default sans-serif typeface that everybody has, and everybody uses. Most folks use their default typefaces without ever thinking about them. But then, most folks are not really designers, because a designer would never be so unconscious of what they werer doing, when it came to type, presentation, layout, etc.

So: have a heart. Think about what you're presenting, and how you're presenting it. Think about look and feel. Don't post a hundred dingleberries on your blog, or your homepage, then pretend to be baffled when folks complain about long load-times. That's either ignorant, or disingenuous. One can forgive a lot of things that are done out of ignorance, or stupidity; but ignorance, at least, is curable. Self-education doesn't really take much effort, after all; and it's fun. Laziness, on the other hand, has no excuse.

In other words, pay attention to what you're doing. If you still go ahead and do it after thinking about it, that's fine, but at least think about it first. Most civilizations crumble because not enough people are paying conscious attention to the infrastructure, until it's too late to fix it.

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Blogger HD_Wanderer said...

Nicely done.

7:53 AM  

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