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Dan Rubin's SuperfluousBanter

Design, random musings, and the Web. Since 1977


The Designer Is Dead, Long Live The Designer!

My first article, The
Designer Is Dead, Long Live The Designer!
, went up over at Digital Web today
(or rather yesterday, while I was asleep). This first article is part of a series
of columns entitled Art
of Interaction

Everyone agrees that a good user experience is important but many miss the
fact that design plays an integral role. In current and future columns I will
assess the importance of aesthetic quality (or attractiveness) in user interface
and web design, examining an assortment of topics.

In this first publication I discuss why aesthetics is important when it comes
to designing a web site, or any interface for that matter. Some
people on the web have argued
that “making things pretty” is irrelevant. Function and usability
first, design second, so it seems. I disagree. In this column I will go as far
as stating the contrary: design comes first, usability second.

It’s about time we put design back on the agenda! Read

This item was posted by dhilhorst on Thursday, April 8th, 2004.


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20 comments on “The Designer Is Dead, Long Live The Designer!”

  1. Posted by Mike on Thursday, April 8th, 2004.

    Wow man, what can I say, I freakin’ love it!

    There something about your little illustrations/designs that always get me, but you’re definitely right — first impressions are the most important, and before you ever use the interface, you look at it and form your emotional attachment to the UI right off the bat.

    Which brings me right into the pitch to check out Don Norman’s latest book, Emotional Design. Just do what feels good, baby!

  2. Posted by Edusilva on Thursday, April 8th, 2004.

    Hm… although I agree with your statement ‘… blaring random opinions about design…’ and their irritatingness, I kinda feel the same about your article. A wee bit blaring…

    Sure, you give the only-usability-folks out there a sting, but I for one think all of it should be integrated. Maybe because I got taught at Delft University, Industrial Design Engineering, a.k.a. Product Development, I feel that aesthetics is one of 4. (Integrate human aspects – i.e. ergonomics, market, organisation and aesthetics – with engineering, industrial production and sustainability).

    All 4 should be accounted for, or it aint a complete experience. Yet, all of them influence experience, sometimes one of them is enough, and sometimes three’s a crowd.

    Some thoughts:

    – If it aint giving me what it’s pretending too, it can be all gorgeous to look at, it still stinks.

    – If it aint attractive, I agree, it’s a place I want to leave as soon as possible, YET, if it’s giving me that one cd that I can’t seem to get on amazon, it’s can still be a crappy ugly site, the overall experience I get is satisfactory, ‘cos I got my cd (ok, an antiquated way to get music, still…)

    Therefore, I disagree with your visualisation (although pretty to look at ;) ) Aesthetics and Usabilty go hand in hand. If one is walking without the other… it better be damn good content.

    For that matter, informative websites are all over, and design is many times lame for them, but I am more interested if your rage holds up when you discuss web-applications…

    Sad ending: the one thing that matters most on every web-experience is ‘speed’… If I get to wait 10 seconds everytime your pretty design is loading, I won’t be click to the competition, I’ll just get irritated.

    Sad ending 2: It’s a designers trap to believe the way ‘we’ perceive websites is the way ‘users’ perceive websites. We (you have to admit) judge other sites with our eyes, maybe we judge the ‘feel’ of it by clicking around (interaction), but we hardly judge sites by their actual content. I for one will admit that I get led away by beautifull design, but I ain’t there to buy something, I’m just there to steal. ;)

    Regards for sticking your neck out with a controversial articel, did you send it to Christina (www.boxesandarrows.com) allready?


    MSc Industrial Design Engineering

    User interface Designer

    Founder of a company_of_four, chicken to not show the url ;)

  3. Posted by Didier Hilhorst on Thursday, April 8th, 2004.

    “A wee bit blaring…”, eh? I have to admit you’re probably half way right. But this remains a column, something to keep in mind I think. As opposed to some usability experts out there I do not claim to be right or back my opinions or findings with scientific research (or not as if often the case). It’s how I see things. Of course that includes some black and white thoughts, merely to emphasize some of my ideas.I absolutely agree with you that good design accounts for more aspects than only aesthetics. It’s afterall not a matter of “or”, but rather “and.” However my point is not that you should assign more importance to one of them (or what role each should play for that matter), rather my point is that aesthetics play another role than most experts in usability or user experience claim, a more significant role that is. In short: atrractiveness positively affects ease-of-use, while the opposite effect is absent.

    “But I am more interested if your rage holds up when you discuss web-applications…”

    Digital Web Magazine is of course mainly aimed at web sites as such, but my rage definitively holds up for web-applications. Not so long ago I visited SAP and tested some of their web based ERP systems (not thorough testing though). At its core it works and has a lot of funtionality, yet it looks like crap and is near impossible to use. The big issue with business application is that software vendors still see design as an option. It’s not. Fail to design it correctly and you’ll find employee reluctance all over the place. It has been known for a while that user acceptance is a critical success factor for ERP implementations.

    “Sad ending: the one thing that matters most on every web-experience is ‘speed’…”

    I think this is an important point, but not decisive in my opinion. What’s the point of a fast site if the user experience stinks? It may load fast, but if I take 3 times longer to find what I need (due to poor design) I’ll as easily click to the competition. While it may have been a factor of importance in the early days, I think the waiting paradigm is losing significance.

    “Sad ending 2: It’s a designers trap to believe the way ‘we’ perceive websites is the way ‘users’ perceive websites.”

    There is some academic research out there that shows that attractiveness and user experience have a positive correlation, most notably a reasearch paper by N. Tractinsky, A. S. Katz and D. Ikar entitled “What Is Beautiful Is Usable”. Don Norman’s latest book, “Emotional Design” is another interesting read, as Mike already mentioned. But yes, designers are biased too. Everyone has personal preferences. Color, style, placement, type, size and widgets. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, design is very much a subjective matter and that’s probably why it’s both extremely interesting and hard to fathom. Nonetheless, good funtionality should never be an excuse for poor design. If it’s already good, why not make it better? That’s why I argue design should be put back on the agenda. There’s enough rubbish in this world as it is.Thanks for your comments, very insightful and good for debate.

  4. Posted by Edusilva on Thursday, April 8th, 2004.

    With the fear of getting a wee bit off topic :)

    “my rage definitively holds up for web-applications. Not so long ago I visited SAP and tested some of their web based ERP systems (not thorough testing though). At its core it works and has a lot of funtionality, yet it looks like crap and is near impossible to use.”

    Thing is, you mention both here. For web-applications it’s easy to point out visual design flaws (and quick-wins), it’s a bit more tricky to point ouy usability-flaws (and quick-wins).

    Adding only good visual design (aesthetics) to an unusable webapplication won’t enhance it’s experience. It will actually decrease the overall experience, because in your example, it then looks good, ánd has the right functionality, but it’s still not usable!… Conclumendum: sjîteÂ…

    Besides that, a good visual designer shouldn’t even be able to add visual design to a webapplication of which the user interface concept doesn’t ‘slide’. A good visual designer seeks with user interface objects as well, he/she tries to identify components and consistency, and if that’s lackingÂ… it’s like trying to paint a wet surface, it won’t stick.

    The two of them come in a package, design as a whole if you want to call it that. Yet, your ‘article’ tried to push aesthethics to the front as being the more important oneÂ… Still not agreeing there ;)

    “The big issue with business application is that software vendors still see design as an option. It’s not. Fail to design it correctly and you’ll find employee reluctance all over the place. It has been known for a while that user acceptance is a critical success factor for ERP implementations.”

    Yup. Totally agreeing here, as a matter of fact, this is what I perceived to be the opinion of the ‘user experience design’ – corner of the fight, or have I been in the mountains for too long?

    User acceptance is critical, therefore user experience is critical, the whole user experience that is:

    – before the app (analysing / informing)

    – introducing the app (learning)

    – working the app (using/experiencing tha thing)

    – and fighting with the app (supporting/helping)Â…

    arghÂ… back to workÂ….

    Bottem line. Design is critical. And design is more than than the sum of its parts.

  5. Posted by Gary on Thursday, April 8th, 2004.

    Good article, very solid. Basically good design is usable. Somewhere along the line, even in the comments above, the word “design” got equated with heavy graphics and self-consciously artsy obfuscation – this is a misappropriation. I want to take back the word design to mean aesthetically appealing items that are nevertheless a pleasure to use (which incorporates download speed, usability, architecture etc). The false dichotomy of ‘ugly is good, pretty is bad’ is completely off the mark, as is ‘visually pretty is good at the expense of all other factors’. GOOD design is fast and pretty and understandable. Bad design fails to meet those goals.

  6. Posted by Didier Hilhorst on Thursday, April 8th, 2004.

    “Adding only good visual design (aesthetics) to an unusable web application won’t enhance it’s experience.”

    I’m afraid I will have to disagree with that statement to some degree. I still think getting aesthetics and attractiveness right will eventually enhance user experience (no matter how bad other factors are implemented.) Does it mean it will be good? Probably not. As you mentioned earlier (and I acknowledge that too) user experience is composed of an assortment of decisive factors. Getting one right is nice, but getting all right is what we should aim for. What I did in my column was questioning the role aesthetics currently play in the high technology field. I still think it’s a sham so many products and web sites alike are produced without taking good design into consideration.

    Moreover, I think Gary made an important comment. Aesthetics and design are not about gratious embellishment. Sure, I love great design and sometimes I will forgive bad usability practices for the sake of attractiveness, yet design is much more than that. In interaction you can’t have attractiveness for the sake of attractiveness alone. In art you’re free to do whatever you want. Paintings for example don’t have a functional level (there’s no interaction as with software). I either enjoy it or not.

  7. Posted by jharr on Thursday, April 8th, 2004.

    Wow, what is this? Your enthusiasm is admirable, but your misguided anger is not. You really seem to have very little understanding of what real, large-scale design is. Design is not just pretty pictures! It’s not just coolness, it’s not slick CSS tricks. It’s understanding who’s using the thing you’re building and who’s paying for the thing you’re building. I walk the line everyday between how aesthetically pleasing a product can be and how people will use that product. If we asked developers to devote the majority of their time to the “aesthetics” and changing whims of branding and marketing they would have no time to spend on functionality. I battle every minute of my work day to balance how we effect change that’s pleasing to the user and that serves their needs. But I have the perspective to understand how that balance works, in a software setting where people are paying money to USE what I design. You really should take a look at the work of usability/user experience design consultancies out there, and focus less on their websites, but on products they’ve been paid to create.

    How dare you assume that usability folks are anti-design. Design is what we do. Our focus just goes beyond CSS and pretty graphics (not that we discount them) we just understand the balance that is required to serve our users; not ourselves. I am proudly a usability engineer & visual designer.

  8. Posted by Damon on Thursday, April 8th, 2004.

    Interesting article and comments. I think jharr said it well. Usability folk design too. Usability and visual folk both contribute to making the product work. (At least they should. There’s probably bad, anti-visual usability folk out there, just as there are bad, style-is-everything visual designers.) DH, you make a lot of good points about the value of visual design for improving user confidence and thereby user/product success, but I think headings such as “Better usability through design” just encourages the misconception that usability is not design!

  9. Posted by Lee on Thursday, April 8th, 2004.

    It seems to me that much of this discussion rests(incorrectly) on the assumption that web design can be divided between the esthetic and the usable. I think this division is artificial. Good web design incorporates from many disciplines and approaches, as previously articulated by Edusilva. (see also Web Design is Web Design by D. Keith Robinson )

    I think it is unfortunate that a major premise of the article depends on usability being reduced to the total lack of esthetic. Given that straw man, of course the only reasonable remedy is more esthetics. This is the equivalent of a usability critique of

    The notion (put forward by Gary) that good design is usable design cuts right the core (though my conclusion my differ from Garys). There is no either-or. There is no one-over-the-other. They are not mutually exclusive. One cannot succeed without the other. Pretending otherwise leads only to folly. I think the real art in web design comes when one discovers/creates a solution that maximizes user experience by including usable controls and esthetically pleasing interfaces.

  10. Posted by Didier Hilhorst on Thursday, April 8th, 2004.


    ‘Wow, what is this? Your enthusiasm is admirable, but your misguided anger is not.’

    First, it’s not anger, rather sarcasm. What you seem to miss is that I don’t favor aesthetics over usability (in absolute terms), nor do I claim usability experts are poor designers, or that usability experts are useless, on the contrary. I’m just saying that the role of (perceived) aesthetics has been very much underestimated.

    “You really seem to have very little understanding of what real, large-scale design is. Design is not just pretty pictures! It’s not just coolness, it’s not slick CSS tricks.”

    Do I claim that design is just pretty pictures, coolness or CSS trickery? Reread my column, because from your comment I can only conclude that you missed my point. I used some examples to back up my statements, and those are a whole lot more than just pretty pictures. Moreover stating that I lack real world design experience is an extremely poor argument (and unfounded at that).

    “If we asked developers to devote the majority of their time to the “aesthetics” and changing whims of branding and marketing they would have no time to spend on functionality.”

    Now it’s my turn to say “Wow, what is this?” Developers shouldn’t spend time on aesthetics. More importantly they should never devote time to branding or marketing. Get the right specialist for the job. An architect doesn’t build houses he designed. An engineer is not in charge of the design (appereance, aesthetics or style) of a product.

    “How dare you assume that usability folks are anti-design. We just understand the balance that is required to serve our users; not ourselves. I am proudly a usability engineer and visual designer.”

    Again, I do not say all usability folks are anti-design. Yet I still think some prominent figures are unwilling to find a balance, or just don’t care about balancing. Moreover I doubt if usability experts truly understand user needs and wants. What about emotion, what about pleasure or enjoyment? I rarely hear them about that, it’s all about goal oriented and task oriented systems and flows. How we use and perceive products or web sites is much more than just being able to effectively use it. I think it’s great you are both a usability engineer and visual designer, and frankly I would love to see more usability experts who understand the role of design. My column is not a frontal attack on usability experts, I just think we would end up with better interfaces if we try to understand each others role. If people start telling me design doesn’t matter you can be sure I’ll open my mouth.

  11. Posted by Andrei Herasimchuk on Thursday, April 8th, 2004.

    “How dare you assume that usability folks are anti-design. Design is what we do.”

    While there are plenty of usability folk who value aesthetics in design, and see the purpose of a holistic approach to design to create quality products, until the usability field en masse start to vocally reject many of the things that the likes of Jakob Nielsen has been saying publicly in the past ten years — especially as it speaks to aesthics and design — there will continue to be animosity.

    Whose fault is that? Probably enough blame to go around, but I think everyone in the usability profession has take a burden a large portion of the negativity that occurs in this field and aim it squarely at the kind of tone one of the most vocal in the field has used. In other words, usbility professionals need to make it clear to someone like Nielsen that he needs to change his public persona. Quickly, before it reaches a point of no return.

    I know if one of my heroes, like a Paul Rand or Edward Tufte spoke about about usability folk the way Nielsen has spoken about designers, I might still respect their work, but in no uncertain terms would I tolerate their public appearance as representative in my field. I would vocally request they stop it.

    I checked out your site Jeremy, and it’s quite well done. I don’t think Didier’s column was aimed at anyone specific, especially someone like you who seems to get it.

    But the profession is somewhat at a crossroads. I think it’s time for many of those in the trenches start asking far much more of the leaders and experts in the field about how they speak. Then we can all get beyond it and focus on what it takes to get quality design into all of our lives.

  12. Posted by Hasan on Thursday, April 8th, 2004.

    Excellent article, I followed your points easily as they were presented with great clarity.

    Sweet irony, jharr, it seems you agree with the thrust of the article after all, as you redesign(s) for the upamn.org site show! What they have up now looks like useit.com, those you came up with are elegant!

  13. Posted by Sunny on Thursday, April 8th, 2004.

    The issue with most usability experts in the mould of Nielsen is that they perceive design as superfluous graphics. One can’t really blame them since most early designers pushed the new medium and produced graphics overloaded which were nightmarish.

    A good design, an aesthetically pleasing interface takes into account what is necessary and what is not. The shopping cart for instance. No need to write “shopping cart”, web users get the idea behind. The function is clear. That to me is usability.

    I may be accused of over-simplification, but I think this is what you are saying — when you have user-focused design, usability comes free.

  14. Posted by Dan Rubin on Friday, April 9th, 2004.

    I think you hit it right on the mark Sunny, a very user-friendly summary of Didier’s column :-)

    This doesn’t count as me posting to SB by the way — I have some ideas which, as my free time increases over the next few weeks, I will begin to post. My goal is to return to a regular posting schedule, after digging out from under the insanely huge backlog of projects and obligations outside of the blogging/design world that has swallowed me whole over the last few months. I shall refrain from calling it a resurrection in light of the pending Christian holiday, though I’m sure at least Didier would appreciate such a reference.

  15. Posted by Mindaugas on Friday, April 9th, 2004.

    Good article. I liked the most the thought that Web is still immature industry. Comments show that too ;o).

    On a bigger picture I tend to agree with Edusilva. In industrial/product design there is a thinking (theorethical at least) that aesthetic design (styling) people and engineers should work on product design project together from the very beginning–simultaneously. Only then can be designed a product in all its entirety (not relative, but absolute entirety in given circumstances)

    Why it can’t be the same in web design with designers, usability experts and inforamtion architects? I think we can write it down to human nature–it’s not the truth that stands between two opinions–it is a problem there.

  16. Posted by Michael on Friday, April 9th, 2004.

    Very thought provoking. I try to walk the line between down and dirty function and a pleasing design. Like all things in life, there is a give and take. There is no cookbook answer which fits all situations. This is the reason we designers get paid the big? bucks to find the appropriate mix for a situation.

    If function only were king, the packaging industry would be down the tubes. Everything would be in a plain drab box with the product name stamped on the front of the box in a plain font.

    I believe a pleasing design will add to a users experience even if only on a subliminal basis. But without good functionality, it will probably not serve the purpose of the site.

    I have seen really pleasing to the eye sites which I have left after being left without knowing how to accomplish what I wanted at the site.

    I look forward to reading some more of your thoughts

  17. Posted by Andrew on Tuesday, April 13th, 2004.

    Hey Didier, one suggestion for future articles like this: when you go up againest Nielsen and the others, you go up against rather a lot of data, research, and often provable facts. You need to be able to argue against Nielsen with other demonstrably true facts. You shouldn’t expect the “design is subjective” rationale applies to rhetorical arguments *about* design just because your topic happens to *be* design.

    Your article, while well-argued and good, kind of just comes across as your opinion. Now, it’s an opinion that say, Paul Rand, agree with on many levels, there’s no evidence to back up your assertions. Smiling faces inspire confidence and trust? According to whom? It sould be simple to find studies that prove this; you should cite them.

    Also, I think it’s a red herring to claim “usability experts disregard the role of attractiveness.” Many people think this for no reason other than Nielsen maintains an ass-ugly website. I mean, Don Norman did write an entire book on this topic after all.

  18. Posted by Didier Hilhorst on Tuesday, April 13th, 2004.

    Andrew: I agree with the point you are making. However I think people should remember that it’s a column. It is my opinion. Nothing more, nothing less. If I decide to seriously take on Nielsen or any other established name in the industry I would certainly think twice. I have nor the reputation or experience to be able to that at the moment.

    I have an academic background and very well know which methodologies to use when I need to make a point and back it up with research or data. But a column is not the medium of choice in such a case. Moreover it’s obvious that “usability experts disregard the role of attractiveness” is a red herring, it’s meant to be just that.

    In my opinion (there we go again) I think a column is mainly about stimulating debate rather than to scientifically prove a point. If it looks as if I was trying to back up my opinions with data I did something wrong and maybe I was trying to hard. Some people might argue that hiding behind the term column is weak, but I beg to differ.

    Some of my statements are to be taken with a grain of salt. I think my interview conducted by Justin Goodlett is a better place to read about what I think about the subject, without the bold and somewhat unbalanced statements. Sidenote: I’m currently doing research in the area which should be done in a few months. If everything goes as planned I will make it available to the public.

  19. Posted by Steven Streight on Thursday, April 15th, 2004.

    Sorry: you know very little about design and almost nothing about usability.

    “Good design is de facto usable”? Want to buy a lovely car with no engine?

    Usability pros proclaim “random opinions”? The good ones base their guidelines on User Observation Tests.

    “Buttons make users click”? Have you any idea of what you’re speaking of? I conduct User Observation Tests, and the vast majority of users ignore graphic nav buttons in favor of main menu left column text links or top of page navbars.

    “I determined that…” based on what? Oh, I see: random opinion. The shopping cart I can barely see.

    Your “perfect readability” is untrue: reverse white text on gray background is not “high contrast.”

    Study more design theory and practice…study more usability research (www.useit.com)…get some more experience, then write an article for a web design magazine.

    “Design speaks for itself” is only good for Picasso paintings that don’t have to do anything for a client. Web sites are to be usable, not adorable. While immediate visual impression is what users base credibility on at first, the content is what retains users and brings them back to the site for more information, entertainment, or task accomplishments.

  20. Posted by Didier Hilhorst on Thursday, April 15th, 2004.


    You should not be sorry. You have the right to think I’m wrong. I reply to this message because, as opposed to the first one, it gives me some room for debate.

    If a lovely car has no engine the overall design is flawed. It’s that simple really. Design is much more than just appearance.

    I agree about user observation tests. User testing is a very important, if not crucial, aspect of usability and interaction design in general. In an ideal world every web site would have been user tested before going live. If you read my comments above (blog) you would conclude that I do not claim all usability experts blare random opinions. Add a little sarcasm and irony and I think you will get my point

    I suggest you take a closer look at “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug. Search buttons, navigation buttons, shopping cart buttons etc. are ubiquitous on the web and not without reason. I agree that a web site is more than an assortment of buttons, but they definitively are powerful visual cues.

    If, after extensive user testing, it would appear that the shopping cart button is indeed a problem and that the main navigation text has insufficient contrast, the conclusion is simple: change it and improve it. I included examples not because they are perfect, but because they illustrate my point to some extend. Design is a trial and error process. Will I get it right the first time around? Unprobable.

    I think you misunderstand (or atleast underestimate) the role of design in general. I’ll end with a quote from Paul Rand’s book “From Lascaux to Brooklyn”:

    “There is no such thing as bad content, only bad form. This explains the place of form in art.”*

    *with few exceptions