Web Development

Design aesthetics: One person's Pollack is another's spilled paint

Todd Fluhr tackles the elusive and and difficult subject of design aesthetics when it comes to developing websites. How do you balance artistic vision vs. pragmatic functionality and navigation?

When speaking of design aesthetics, many questions come to mind: What distinguishes a "good" design from a "bad" one? Why do some ugly websites achieve greatness while other, more visually appealing sites fail horribly? What makes for a good design aesthetic in the first place? Is it even important? And if it is, by what rubric is it judged? Who is more qualified to make a judgment, the programmer, client, or average web visitor?

A good website is a holy trinity of code, marketing, and artistic design. I tend to view it as a simplified version of Maslow's pyramidal hierarchy of needs, with the bottom foundation comprised of programming principles and functionality, the second tier as navigational principles, and the apex as the artistic expression of the site's intended identity. Remove any of the lower elements and the whole pyramid collapses. Neglect the upper elements, and you're left with a short, blunt mesa instead of a pointy-tipped pyramid.

Everyone has an opinion on what makes a web design "good." Some base their evaluations on the eloquence of the programming while others focus their attention on the design aesthetics. But assuming the code functions mechanically as intended, then the question becomes, "What makes a good website?" Is it the content and graphic design? Is it the artistic composition, color choices, theme, metaphors, and over-all "art" of the website?

What I wish to focus on is that pointy-tip apex of the pyramid, the most hard-to-define and elusive element of all, the artistic design of the website and what defines it as "good" or "bad".

Bottoms up!

Some web designers construct their sites from the bottom-up. It's a logical and sensible approach. But it also can result in a situation where the design becomes a slave to the code, or worse yet, to the skill level of the programmer. The programmer will assess the desired functional goals of the website and proceed along the path of least resistance to actualizing the site and placing content on the page. This may produce an exceptionally functional site, but it may not achieve a coherent artistic aesthetic or actually communicate the image or message intended by the client.

Don't misunderstand me. A "bottom up" approach to the code and programming of a website is absolutely essential, but to do so only from a perspective of desired functionality does a disservice to the client. If your end-goal is to produce only a technically-perfect product without any need to communicate the client's style or appearance, then this is the way to go.

But an aesthetically successful website doesn't start with the programming. It doesn't begin with determining functionality or navigation. It doesn't start with a discussion of databases or style-sheets. It starts with understanding what image the client wants to project. Content should be defined and artistic presentation considered. What will be the website's theme or metaphors? How should it be presented to best achieve the client's needs?  Are the colors, branding, and content consistent and well-planned? Once you have this, then it's time to create the wire-frames of the website, and there the art truly begins as the designer and programmer work together to create navigation and presentation strategies to actualize the client's vision. Like an Escher waterfall, we've started at the top but flowed back to the bottom to start the journey upwards.

But what if the client's vision isn't perfect? What if their desired design is impractical, or worse, just down-right ugly?

First, to state the obvious, art is art. Even bad art. Five individuals can view a Picasso painting and come up with five different opinions as to whether it is good or bad. Some art, like Pollack's spattered paintings, beg for interpretation at the expense of any definable rules or standards. In the end, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, not in the work itself.

There have been many websites with questionable navigation issues that actually served the style of the site. The viral websites for Steven Spielberg's AI and the film Donnie Darko were designed to be cryptic interactive experiences. Their approaches to navigation would obviously not work for a shopping-based website. But it did serve their desired artistic goals of creating mood, mystery, and style to promote their films.

So who's to judge of a website's aesthetics? Often the final verdict is rendered as a quantitative analysis of visitors or profits generated by the site, but mob consensus has never been the best criteria for judging artistic merit as exampled by the box-office profits of American Pie and other teen films.

One of the highest of the Golden Rules of Web Design is to give the clients what they want. If their desire is to produce cryptic or down-right bad navigation on their site, the best you can do is to try to educate and persuade, but the final decision is the client's. The client gets what the client wants.

Good aesthetics are a blend of invisible programming serving the creative vision of the website. Just as the U.S. dollar bill portrays a pyramid with an eye at the apex, so should your eye start at the top of your design process. Only when you can see where you're going can you design a way to get there. Anything else is merely a means to an end through the path of least resistance. It may function beautifully, but in the end the final design will only be a byproduct of code and committee. Aesthetic consistency and art does not occur by accident. It takes a combination of heart, mind, vision, and skill.

Anything else is just spattered paint on a blank canvas.

About

Todd Fluhr is a freelance writer and multimedia designer. A self-described "Shockwave Rider" of technology, culture, and creativity, he has been involved in the interactive entertainment industry since the early 90's. He hopes to find time to sleep ...

2 comments
toddfluhr
toddfluhr

I'm curious to know how others here approach the design process of a website. Have you ever had a client want something that you knew wasn't what they really needed? How did you handle that situation? In your experience, are clients more interested in image, functionality, or some unattainable fantasy with their web presence?

santeewelding
santeewelding

I thought your piece well-conceived and well-written. But, don't push it. These notions of "really" and "fantasy", akin to Newton and absolute time, could undo it.