Good design is harder than it looks

A few months ago I worked a couple weeks on a new website design. Just to be clear website design isn't one of my specialties. Not be a long shot. I'm much more of an engineer at heart. That means I feel more comfortable coming up with solutions I can test objectively. Visual design doesn't fit the bill. It's more art than engineering. Open-ended. A seemingly infinite solution space. No clear fitness function that doesn't involve wishy washy, vague notions like taste and style.

But I approached the problem with my usual can-do, how-hard-can-this-be attitude and came up with a new design I thought was pretty sweet.

Then I showed off my work to a colleague so he could give me an unbiased opinion. This is someone I trust to give it to me straight. A person not known for sugar coating the truth.

Before unveiling my creation I excitedly shared my opinion that the new design was really good. As good even as anything a professional designer would have come up with!

His response was extremely disappointing:

"This isn't very good. The attempt suffers from overly fancy, poorly implemented design. There's nothing uglier than ugly ornamentation. It looks like a hobbyist in a misguided attempt to do professional looking design work, which is in fact, exactly what it is. As a hobbyist, you should try to do as little fancy designing as possible. Complex designs are hard to get right. The simpler the "design" the higher your shot at getting something that looks like well executed minimalism."

That's just a short snippet of course. The gist of it. The full critique described many specific problems by way of example and included terms such as 'ugly', 'clashing colors' and so forth.

Truth be told, I wasn't just disappointed. I was mad. I had put my heart into it. I did my best. Why was he putting me down? In his usual unabashed, direct style he had stomped all over my work with careless disregard for my feelings. Besides, the design couldn't be that bad if it looked good to me, could it? He went on to explain that in his opinion there was nothing to salvage and that it would be better to start from scratch and try something entirely different. How dare he? That wasn't constructive criticism, he was just being mean!

Eventually I calmed down enough to realize what had happened. Having put so much work into the new design I had fallen in love with my work. Like a parent's love for his baby. I wouldn't have reacted so emotionally if this was a critique of somebody else's design work. I was biased. I wasn't looking at things clearly.

I started thinking long and hard about my reaction and about design in general. The specific ways in which my design sucked didn't matter. Those were just symptoms of a much deeper problem. The root cause was that visual design is a really hard, specialized field that you can't just jump into and expect to do professional-level work in. It takes years and years of study and practice to get good at it, just like any other field. Duh right?

That I sucked at web design didn't reflect badly on me personally any more than if someone said they thought I shouldn't start trying to fly a fighter jet because I would most likely crash and burn. Don't kill yourself man. Start with a flying trainer.

So why did I take personal offense at criticism against my web designs? Well, flying a fighter jet looks dangerous and difficult. Anyone can see that. But good visual design looks so deceptively easy. Obvious. Like maybe anyone could do it without any prior experience or training and if you can't then there's something wrong with you.

Since then I've taken my friend's advice, trashed the old "new design" and gradually through iteration came up with a much simpler design that actually isn't half bad, even in other people's opinion. But I have to admit it was extremely hard work. By comparison programming was a piece of cake.

The experience left me:

  1. More wary of how bias can unconsciously warp perception
  2. A bit more humble in general
  3. With much deeper respect for visual design as a field. I'll take my hat off for anyone with a real talent for it. Just because it looks simple doesn't mean that it was simple to come up with.


Cliff's picture

As you say, there is no absolute 'right' in design, and HTML was never intended to be anything more than a Markup Language! When I am on my landscape 16:9 but low resolution laptop trying to browser sites that have been 'designed' in a long thin column with lots of whitespace, it drives me quite mad. I will take information dense over rounded corners and 'essential' whitespace any day. My Samsung Android phone by default lays apps out in a 4*5 grid on the screen, with loads of wasted space - so I had to install a new launcher as frankly 6*8 is fast more useful than 8 pages of apps and scrolling through. Don't believe all the design gurus tell you, it *is* in the eye of the beholder.
OnePressTech's picture

Hi Liraz,

I empathise. I went through the same introspective process when forming the OnePressTech Managed Office Cloud business model. How to offer cost-effective design as part of my package to clients!

It became clear from my hands-on experiments with off-the-shelf WYSIWYG design programs and initial design discussions with lead clients that a key challenge in design is in making the choices...where do you start...when do you stop. Ultimately good design is more art than science.

Based on years of research there are numerous guides that can assist in making a non-artist into a reasonable manager of a design sourcing exercise (font selection, colour pallettes, etc) but not a designer. Good artists are born...not created.

Having said that, even artists need to start somewhare and, like all services, price pressures tend to lead a market to sharing and re-use. Enter the theme market.

The modern cost-effective approach to design, from my research, is that a designer will get the client to select a base theme from a selection (usually based on client reference to sites that they have indicated they like the look of) and the designer then tweaks it to be more personal to the client.

For what it's worth I would suggest you pick an off-the-shelf responsive Drupal theme that you like, that has a good lifecycle management track record (updates closely following major Drupal updates), based on a customisable theme engine, then make a few tweaks to make it personal.

I would point out the obvious that themes are code. So you have to decide if time you would need to spend lifecycle managing your website and website's theme code would be better spent the hub, tkldev, or tklbam.

Just one man's two cents worth :-)

PS: Don't look to me for design inspiration...I have yet to commit to my site's design while I'm still in stealth mode...not due to a lack of a design way...uh uh... ;-)



Tim (Managing Director - OnePressTech)

Kali's picture

I wish every client, product manager, and software enginner I ever deal with was required to read this. It is unbelieavbly tiresome the number of people who live in the first part of your story "how hard can it be?" but never reach the conclusions you did. They have eyes and a mouth, and think what designers do is 'easy' we just have a 'knack' for it but training, experience, etc (the proof is in our portfolios) seem to be discounted. Since it is inexact their opinion is just as valid as anyone elses yes?


In the age of 'the sofware enginner knows it all' - please see the Dunning-Kruger Effect - the delusional condescending attitudes to those of us who have spent a lifetime developing excellence in a filed of intagibles (there are no finite solutions) is in a word, offensive.

Thank You.


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