Jeff Croft

I’m a product designer in Seattle, WA. I recently worked at Simply Measured, and previously co-founded Lendle.

Some of my past clients include Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, and the University of Washington.

I’ve authored two books on web and interactive design and spoken at dozens of conferences around the world.

I’m currently accepting contract work and considering full-time opportunities.

Blog entry // 11.22.2004 // 3:14 PM // 6 Comments

On Design vs. Usability

Late last week, Dirk Knemeyer posted a follow up to his original Digital Web article, The End of Usability Culture. Both articles generated some discussion in the blogosphere as well as in my office. The gist of the article is that while the practical aspects of web design (usability, accessibility, etc.) are important, it seems that the visual and creative aspects are getting somewhat ignored. There is a balance to be reached, and it seems that it’s been a bit out of whack recently.

I generally agree with Drik’s sentiments, and I posted a comment on his redux article to share my personal feelings. It seemed appropriate for this site, too, so i’ve decided to re-publish it here. For the entire discussion, read Dirk’s article and the related comments.

My comment follows:

One thing that I definitely feel strongly about is that it’s not necessarily the case that the “usability folks” are coming on too strong — perhaps those of us on the creative design end of things aren’t coming on strong enough. There’s no doubt that the balance has gotten a bit out of whack, but I’m not sure it’s all their fault.

There are a million blogs and sites out there providing great forums for discussion on usability and technology. How many “standards-oriented” blogs are they? I suppose I even have one myself. “Web Standards” are a matter of technology that tends to promote usability and accessibility. That’s great, and it’s well worth discussing. But how many blogs are out there talking about the more conceptual, creative, and visual aspects of graphic/web design? How many are talking about branding, visual styles, typography, color theory, etc, etc.? Oh, there are some — I know. But, as you’ve said, the balance isn’t there.

A large contributor to this, I think, is the fact that so many of us “web designers” didn’t come from a traditional design background. Many of us came from technology background, or journalism backgrounds, etc. Many of us “happened” into this. I sure did. The web simply isn’t old enough for people to have spent all of their adult lives training to be a “web designer.” At age 28, and having been creating web pages since 1994, I’m about as close as they come to this — but in 1994, there was no training to be had. Even though I had the interest, I couldn’t go to college for web design. Times are changing, and in a few years we’ll start to see designers who have spent their entire adult lives learning to be “web designers.” Hopefully these folks will be a bit more well rounded than those of us who came from other backgrounds and happened into this.

Another contributor is the simple fact that in areas like usability and web standards, there are more clear-cut “right” ways to do things. We can often come to an agreement on what we should or shouldn’t do in order to make thing more usable or accessible. This isn’t so true when we start discussing other aspects of design, as there is more personal preference, creativity, and individual judgment involved.

But it’s time to talk about design. Yes, that includes usability, but it includes a helluva lot more, too. It’s time to talk about brand strategy, brand identity design, typography, color theory, etc, etc — and talk about them in the context of web design. It time that us “standards-oriented” designers stop shunning things like Flash and table-based layouts and realize that even if we don’t intend to use a particular technology, there may be great creative design concepts we can take from those who do and apply in our technological context. It’s time we start looking at print and other media and discussing how we can apply (or not apply) things we see to the web.

Now that Dirk has taken the initiative to talk conceptually about how this balance needs to shift, who is going to take it upon themselves to starting talking about design in a practical sense?

Comments

  1. 001 // Brian Ford // 11.22.2004 // 4:13 PM

    I’m not so sure that those who are being “taught” web-design are going to be much help. Many (but certainly not all) educational institutes aren’t going to break down walls to teach the “best” way to design something. My college experience taught me that many professors teach you what the market demands at the time, which means… FLASH FLASH FLASH and QUARK QUARK QUARK. Many students don’t even get a chance to think outside the industry standard, let alone work outside of it.

    No, I think those of you who “stumbled into” web-design are most likely to be the real pioneers of change, and quite likely… the eventual mentors on the subject. (If not the teachers.)

    I almost wish I had saved my college tuition and bought books, and spent time studying great design, and visiting great designers. Honestly, four years of that would have better prepared me for where I’m at right now. I can honestly say that my degree has done nothing for me, in terms of landing me a job.

    Those who stumble onto things learn to do them the hard way… that is without looking at someone else’s road map. The good thing about this is, a lot of educators are using the wrong map, and you guys are plotting a new one.

    I do, however agree that there needs to be some balance, whereas someone who is more visually into design can level out someone who is far better from a technical standpoint. I really don’t think design is always a one-man job. (Though there are certainly many who excel at both.)

  2. 002 // Jeff Croft // 11.22.2004 // 4:33 PM

    You may well be right about the folks being “taught” that are coming up. I guess you’d know, since you did go to school for graphic design.

    I completey agree that design, especially web design, isn’t a one-man job. There are some who excel at both (Shaun Inman comes to mind), but the bottom line is that the technical demands are so much greater than the one were (at one time, it was just HTML. Now we’ve got CSS, the DOM, XML, XSLT, PHP, ASP, etc, etc, etc.). And the design tools (CSS, Flash, XLST, etc.) are so much more robust than they used to be — we should be demanding more from a visual design standpoint, too. It’s harder and harder for one person to have each and every skill. As time passes, I think the one-man “webmaster” will be no more. This is already the case, in most places.

  3. 003 // Mike Stenhouse // 11.23.2004 // 4:38 AM

    Peter Morville’s article on User Experience Design might be worth resurrecting for this debate… He argues that there has to be a balance, not just between usability and visual appeal (desirability, as he calls it), but all the other factors that go into good web design to make a website successful. If a website looks rubbish then people are less likely to use it, regardless of how usable it is! And vice versa.

    I went to a few multimedia courses’ graduate shows a couple of years ago and I was amazed at how poor the general quality of the work was. There were a few stunning exceptions but for the most part, I was very disappointed. The work looked really dated… That could be down to the tutors (who will be self-taught) leaving the commercial industry and not really keeping pace or it could be that most students sack off the extra research/browsing that the whole industry needs to do every day to keep pace. Either way, I came away thinking that while formal training can definitely help there’s no substitute for a passion for the subject and real-world experience. That applies everywhere though…

    What I’m seeing at the moment here in London is an increase in the number of specialists within web design/development. There’ve been IA and usability folk about for a while but now I see ads for specialised accessibility, web interface design, XSL, CSS and actionscript jobs with less of the catch-all ‘web developer’ ones. We’re becomming a proper industry!

  4. 004 // Dustin // 11.30.2004 // 9:43 AM

    I’m not so sure that those who are being ‘taught’ web-design are going to be much help. Many (but certainly not all) educational institutes aren’t going to break down walls to teach the ‘best’ way to design something. My college experience taught me that many professors teach you what the market demands at the time, which means’¦ FLASH FLASH FLASH and QUARK QUARK QUARK. Many students don’t even get a chance to think outside the industry standard, let alone work outside of it.

    I TOTALLY agree with your statement, Brian. I’m going to college - for Bachelors of Web Design. I love it, and it forces me to learn about the technologies and programming languages that enhance the web. I don’t neccesarily see my schooling to be for web design, but rather for things like backend database, and other technical things that work with websites. I happen to “fall upon” web standards, mostly through Jeff. I’m not going to be a “web designer” but a person who knows how to connect, and manipulate websites through technologies like databases, etc.

  5. 005 // Jeff Croft // 11.30.2004 // 9:51 AM
    I’m not going to be a ‘web designer’ but a person who knows how to connect, and manipulate websites through technologies like databases, etc.

    …And that’s great. Someone has to know all that backend stuff. But to me, this isn’t “web design.” This is web programming, or web integration. If this is what they are teaching in a Web Design program, who are they expecting to do the front end design? It sounds like schools are teaching “web design” as if it was a computer cririculum. It sounds like they’re teaching about technologies. Fine, but who is teaching about graphic design on the web? Who is teaching about user interaction, web interfaces, typography on the web, etc.?

    Is the only way to learn this stuff to do it yourself?

  6. 006 // Dustin // 11.30.2004 // 11:53 AM

    I don’t know. I suppose someone has a great idea for a new business.

    Case in point - “Web Designers” in college are typically Computer of Information Science majors, minus the math.

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