Tell me what I want

There was a time when it was progressive to build a website in Word. Well, maybe that’s a bridge too far. There was a time where you could build an acceptable website in Word, because at least a website built in Word would make sure your tiled background matched up and didn’t look as grainy as hell. Not that that mattered back then, the point was that you had a creative avenue and if you wanted to go with the tiled 100×100 pixel animated nuclear fire blast background, then dammit, that’s what you would do.

Of course times change, and now it’s a lot easier to put a website together that looks at the very least acceptable together. You no longer need an FTP client (although you can use one if you still hate yourself), it’s all drag-and-drop file uploads, and even then a lot of sites have created a platform where you don’t even need to do that. Wix, Squarespace, and even to a certain extent WordPress have simplified websites so that it almost feels harder to make them look bad than not.

It’s interesting though, because like a magazine, you see a website first, and then you read it. If you’ve gone to a website, it’s unlikely that you’ll close it immediately if the visual design is sub-par, but at the end of the day you’re there to read the content or get some kind of information out of the page, rather than marvel at the fancy splash page. The interplay of design and content is the balance between immediate reaction and ‘stickiness’ (and sometimes a tragic combination of both creates a fascination all its own).

Now, some of these design features are trends, and they’re often so insidious that all you notice is a change that you can’t put your finger on. Typography and design were huge draw cards for the original Apple products (as Steve Jobs had famously took a calligraphy class and brought what he had learned to Apple) and there are indeed typography trends. Kevin Marks wrote a whole article about web standards in text and the text contrast policies at various companies. When you just find out something is happening (like a trend in typography) and then you find out a company already has an extensively documented policy about it, it’s safe to say that there’s a whole ton of other stuff going on that you haven’t ever even thought about, but it’s all built around making you find the information that you want easily, and improving your opinion of their company.

They’re piggybacking on aesthetics (which tap into pre-cognitive structures that are pretty hard to dissect) to try and establish authority and authenticity. A personal website can look like whatever I want, but it’s not okay for McDonalds to chuck up a WordPress site and have guest bloggers in once a week. It’s a fascinating process because back in the studio we have cigarettes being sold in plain packaging (so that we don’t get too excited), people are suggesting that fast food should be sold in plain packaging, and we have cognitive psychologists working as UI designers. It’s the exact same as the fast food industry – what hope do you have against the system when they’re hiring mouth-feel experts to make sure that your crap food experience is as sublime as possible? How can we help but be awed by flashy design built especially for their company when the rest of us are using public templates for our pages instead of employing a whole team of designers and brand specialists?

I haven’t even touched on how the increase of mobile devices has changed the way that design works – we’re no longer developing websites to be friendly to monitors of a certain size, we’re developing websites that first check your means of accessing the site (phone, tablet, desktop, operating system) and adjust the page accordingly. I can’t get my head around it – as a designer, do you go into that environment with a fixed idea of what the websites should look like and in what way you should compromise is so that someone sees everything, or do you just give it rules about what should move where as the screen size decreases?

Design might seem like a weird thing to worry about when it comes to technology, especially when there are established and generally embraced standards for website accessibility, but it’s important to remember that your entire web experience is determined by website design. Companies have built them based around your mental hardware – they’ve studied how eyes move across as webpage and how that differs from a printed page. A good designer will make sure that everything is where you look for it, which stifles innovative design because you’re frustrated that one time out of ten where things aren’t where you want them to be, or don’t work the way that you expect them to. Going back to site-creation platforms, those are more viable now because we have a better idea of what a website should look like, and it’s easier to build on an existing framework than expect every user to develop their own. Standardisation of design features has informed our expectations, rather than being shaped by them.

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