The Design Spectrum"Design"
encompasses a very wide spectrum of disciplines and applications, which
address an enormous range of different problems.
When designing a product, the techniques and priorities a designer
should use change according to its purpose.
This article introduces a simple
conceptual model that I find helpful when designing or critiquing web
When embarking on a design project,
it is very important to be clear on its objective.
The design spectrum is a way of
visualising the relative aesthetic and functional priorities of a
What is design?
Design, in all its forms, is a
discipline of making something to do a job. Anything that is
deliberately and consciously created is 'design'.
Often, design's job is to influence
consumers to have certain feelings or emotions. Products that have this
objective belong somewhere on the left portion of the spectrum (below).
Conversely, often its objective is to
help the user achieve her own tasks. Products that have this objective
belong somewhere in the right portion of the spectrum.
Frequently, a product has both
aesthetic and functional objectives, needing to be both attractive and
useful. Such products would appear somewhere in the middle of the
Put in historical context
In terms of traditional human design,
you could say that fine art - art for art's sake - occupies the left
portion of the spectrum. This is stuff whose singular purpose is to be
enjoyed through the senses, so their sensory properties are most
Toolmaking belongs towards the
far-right. Tools are objects whose use lies in a particular physical
function, so their physical or behavioural properties are most
important. There is no real benefit in putting effort into making a
spade, pig trough or carburettor beautiful.
In the middle you would put crafts,
where function and aesthetics mingle: clothing, home furnishings,
cutlery, instrument-making. The ergonomic properties of these products
are usually important; sensory, physical and behavioural properties can
vary in importance.
So where does web design fit in, and
what has this got to do with me?
The spectrum model helps to
illustrate several important facts:
Design is not
opposed to usability
There has been a long-running debate
in the web design community, often described in terms of "design versus
usability" or suggesting that usability is diametrically-opposed to
design. This is absurd. All web site creation is design, whether it is
more aesthetically-biased or functionally-biased.
People often mean "design for beauty"
when using "design" in this context. It is fair to say that designing
for one end of the spectrum is opposed to designing for the other end,
in as much as they can have opposing objectives.
Design applies to the full breadth of
The effectiveness of your design
depends on the original objective
High-aesthetic sites are pleasurable
and effective when their aesthetic delivery is appropriate and skillful.
Alternatively, high-functionality sites are pleasurable to use and
effective when they allow the user to fulfil his goals.
Is this a fundamental
incompatibility? Only at its extremes. There are good natural reasons
why usability and aesthetics are at odds: it comes back round to how a
product is meant to be consumed.
The way to enjoy design at the most
artistic end of the spectrum is to notice it, stop in front of it, look
at it and let it sink in.
But the way you appreciate design at
the functional end is when you don't notice it at all! It has helped
you do what you came to do and go about your day without fuss or
interruption. In fact, if you notice this type of design, it generally
means that the design is failing in some way.
This is not a problem: it's natural
and it's okay. It only becomes a problem when designers labour under
false beliefs, and try to design at odds with a product's reality.
Two common skewed web design beliefs
are: "All web sites should be beautiful" and "All web sites should
follow usability conventions".
Example of design focus at odds with
real product objective
Not all web sites need to be beautiful
Designers often use too many graphics
in the false belief that it is important to make sites beautiful (as
illustrated above). In cases where the product's objective is primarily
functional, i.e. helping the user complete tasks to achieve goals,
aesthetic considerations may be unimportant. In fact, filling web sites
with gorgeous graphics can negatively affect the product's
effectiveness, for several reasons (two of which are slower page loads,
and delayed controls).
Some people criticise Jakob Nielsen's
for being unattractive, and hence not portraying brand identity.
However, Jakob is not a graphic designer and is not selling his skills
in graphic design. He sells his skills in usability engineering, his
site does a decent job at manifesting the essentials of that, and that
serves his brand quite effectively. (Having said that, the site could
definitely be made much nicer to use, which would definitely keep
people browsing longer.)
Usability conventions are not always
Many web sites have very little
functional purpose, but exist to demonstrate a designer's skill, or to
be enjoyed as art. High-aesthetic sites may deliberately break
usability conventions, such as hiding content behind 'easter egg'
links, or pushing the envelope on dynamic navigation for its own sake.
Graphics should help fulfil a purpose
For high-function sites, design
elements should be used sparingly where they directly help the user
fulfil their objectives. There are many examples of this rule being
broken. One such is my online banking system, which takes me to a
'Confirm' page when I logout. In order to complete the logout, I have
to select one of two graphical buttons: 'confirm' and 'cancel'. As the
buttons have no ALT tags, I'm forced to wait for the buttons to
download and render before I can proceed.
For high-aesthetic sites, graphics
should still directly support the site's objective. For example, if it
is one objective of a site to position a brand with certain
attrbitutes, say to appear trendy through skate style, all the graphics
used should be in that mode.
When you include a graphical or
pictorial element, be clear what purpose it serves and how - it's the
Sites can be both attractive and
Most web sites are between the two
extremes, and the designer has to balance the conflicting demands of
usability and attractiveness. UQW.com believes it is possible to
succeed at this, and it is possible to fail.
Figuring out a site's proper
objective is the most critical design task
The best way to increase your chance
of success is to get clear on your product's purpose and objectives
before you do your design or redesign.
Draw a design spectrum, and mark
where your site should sit between the poles.
Keep checking this against your
product as it develops. Is your design hitting the mark?