Successful Design is Invisible

Design is a central and powerful factor, force, and concept in our modern world – and it is both omnipresent and often overlooked.  One of my favorite podcasts is 99% Invisible (the title is based on a quote by Buckminster Fuller, a person I strongly admire: “Ninety-nine percent of who you are is invisible and untouchable.”) and it addresses all of the ways in which design subtly and overtly impacts our modern experience.  It’s safe to say that 99% of designed works go unnoticed, but they are all equally important.

Look around yourself at this moment.  Focus on any object – it might be anything from a t-shirt to a doorknob – what you are seeing is not one work, but thousands that have culminated in the object you perceive…but perceiving all of the work that went into creating it, including its precursors; is difficult if not impossible.  What we notice most often, unfortunately, is when design is done badly.  A failure of design is conspicuous in much the same way that excellent design is innocuous.

This is what I noticed most on the websites we looked at – when the design was done poorly, it screamed at me and I was almost compelled to leave the site, but when the sites were well-designed viewing them was a pleasure.

I’m using an iPad pretty much exclusively these days, and while I know that this makes me an early-adopter of a technology that wasn’t prolific when many of these sites were made, at the same time I do not consider this to be an excuse when a site is literally impossible to experience through this lens.

The most egregious offender that I came across was the Great Molasses Flood site, which seems more like some kind of outsider art piece than an information repository.  I believe that what we’re supposed to use to navigate the data are the colored highlights on the newspaper page, but because this device uses touch to interact, I kept accidentally pushing the paper around whenever I tried to click on something.  When I was able to open a link, the requested information arrived and covered the newspaper, making it hard to get back to square one so that I could look at something else.  I’m sure this was all done with the most noble intentions, it probably even took a lot of hard work (not to mention a great deal of guts and creativity) to come up with such a novel interface, but it simply didn’t work.

That’s another thing about design:  We don’t really have any way of knowing how many daring, spectacular failures were labored over in order to give us the innovations that we take for granted.  That website is kind of a disaster, but it’s likely to rest in the backs of the minds of just about everyone who sees it because it’s bad – and inevitably, it will go on to influence more successful projects in the future.  It’s even likely that the designers of these projects will incorporate elements of it subconsciously.  This is another reason why it’s impossible to trace the genesis of a well-designed work entirely.

Moving towards the middle in terms of successful design, consider the French Revolution website.  While it’s relatively easy to get around, it was either not built to be compatible with mobile browsers or its developers had a great love for negative space – a love which is only surpassed, it seems; by a love for fonts.  I counted seven different fonts on the landing page, in nearly as many colors.  These are fundamental sins of web design – the overuse of fonts and misappropriation of space – however, they’re not uncommon mistakes to the extent that this kind of thing is a meme.  It should be said that there’s nothing actually wrong with the site, as it gets the job done.  It just doesn’t look good, and sometimes the content is a little small – but that’s ok, I can double-tap to zoom.

In fact, the Valley of the Shadow also breaks some of these rules, although admittedly to a lesser degree.

At the other end of the spectrum rest the remainder of the sites, all relatively well-designed ranging from the minimalist Emancipation Project which is almost too spartan to really grasp to the almost-perfect Virtual St. Paul’s Cathedral.

When it comes down to it what these sites are attempting to accomplish is the communication of historical data, and often the target audience are non-historians.  To this end, their success or failure will be dependent in my view largely upon the strength of their design, and not attributes that a historian might consider to be at first blush more important – such as the subject matter and how dry or engaging it may be.  If it is difficult to retrieve, uses colors that don’t blend well, or is in other ways hard on the eyes the user is likely to abandon a site which contains a great deal of information which they are very interested in…unless of course the site is vital as a data source for research, in which case the user will simply bear down and do their best to make it work for them.

As digital historians, we cannot neglect the design aspect of our trade.  These efforts we put into our final presentation, when done correctly, will be unnoticed because they will function well and glaringly obvious when we fall short.  When it all comes together though, the content – which is the point of this pursuit, after all – can truly shine through.  In this way, successful design is invisible.


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