Design is about taking a stand – CS icons, MTV.com and more

Over the years, I’ve had the chance to work with some top notch designers, and I always try to learn what I can from each of them. One quote I that has stuck with me over the years is from Michael Gough, who taught me that design isn’t always about finding the “best” solution to a problem, it’s about deciding what the right solution is, and taking a stand.

The original discussion about design happened years ago, during the redesign of the Macromedia website. We had decided to show hyperlinks by using a light blue background color on hover. This is pretty common now, but back then, no one was really doing this. I was wondering why we were using this method of displaying hyperlinks, and we got into a discussion about the philosophy of design. It made me realize that I was looking at things from the usability angle and he was looking at things from a different angle.

The usability angle and the design angle

Back in the 80s, I was drawn to the mac because of the philosophy around usability. I did software projects on the mac and devoured the Inside Macintosh books. I read the human interface guidelines and I thought about usability. I took this perspective with me as I worked on projects like Dreamweaver, Contribute, and so on.

When you look at interfaces from the usability angle, you think about software from a purely functional perspective. Does the customer understand how to use the thing? Does the software do what they want it to do? In a sense, you get the sense that for any usability problem, there is a “perfect” answer out there somewhere for the most usable design, and that our job is to strive toward that “perfect” answer.

Meanwhile, Michael was looking at things from the design perspective. Usability is one of the considerations in design, but it’s not the only consideration. Great designs are more like alchemy than science. Think about the designs of people like Saul Bass, Paul Rand, and Ray and Charles Eames. Their designs take a stand. They express a point of view. They evoke emotion.

The importance of taking a stand

The point of “taking a stand” is not to be needlessly different or to throw out conventional thought. In fact, designs that are needlessly controversial tend to fail, and great designs usually build on conventional wisdom (grid layouts, etc). The important thing, in my mind, is to have confidence in following your ideas and to express them in the fullest. Designs that aim to avoid controversy end up being watered down, “lowest common denominator” designs. In order to push designs forward, you need to take a stand and be prepared to face the naysayers.

Recent design controversies: Adobe CS icons and MTV.com

During the last few months, I’ve been following a few design controversies. The first controversy is around the CS3 icons. Some people love them, while others hate them. I personally love them. The more I look at them, the more I like them.

Before, I could never remember the difference between the hexagon shape and the weird one with the feather. Now, I know what everything is. Not only that, I love the saturated colors. Splash screens tend to be mostly grey or white, with some icons and text. I love the big block of saturated color I get when I launch the new apps.

Whether you like the new branding or hate it, I’m sure you can see that the new branding system has a thought process behind it with a definite point of view. I don’t think you’ll see the designers backing down from their point of view on this one.

Another interesting case study is MTV.com. They launched an all Flash site called MTV Overdrive that caused considerable controversy. Some of the concerns may have been valid (too slow to load, too much stuff going on), while others were just reactionary (Flash sites are stupid, etc). I personally thought this was a good design direction for MTV, given who they are. The MTV site needs to be dynamic, focused on video, and willing to push the envelope.

I learned, via Ryan Stewart, that MTV changed their site back to HTML. You can read about the reasoning and see the comments at the MTV blog.

Now I don’t have any insight into what happened backstage at MTV, and perhaps there were very good reasons for switching back, but from my perspective, it looks like they are not helping themselves any by flip-flopping back and forth. If you read the comment thread, you will see that there are lots of angry people (again).

So what’s the lesson here? Is it that Flash is better than HTML? Or vice versa? I don’t think so. I think the lesson is that when you go for a gutsy design, you need to really believe in it and fortify yourself to see it through. MTV went for a gutsy design with MTV Overdrive. There were some issues (it was overwhelming for some, and slow for others), and from my outsider’s perspective, it seems like they should have kept iterating on it. Again, there may have been very good reasons for the switch, but that’s the way I see it.

Does that mean I have to stop listening?

Does “taking a stand” mean not listening to customers? Not at all. In the end, if people don’t buy into a design, then the design isn’t working. The advice to “take a stand” may seem like a directive to stop caring about what customers want, but in an odd way, I feel like the advice to “take a stand” is the paradoxical answer to how to reach customers in a deeper, more authentic way.

To me, it’s a bit like the conundrum that politicians face. People say they want leaders who are “authentic” and “know what they stand for”. At the same time, if the leader doesn’t follow the will of the people, the leader is “out of touch”.

It is important for politicians to listen to the people, but not at the expense of being who they are. In the final analysis, a politican who derives his/her opinions purely from polls is a politician who doesn’t stand for anything and can’t be trusted. In the same way, a design may require iteration based on feedback from customers, but not at the expense of being what it is.

So don’t be afraid to take a stand. But listen to your customers and be willing to iterate.

6 Responses to “Design is about taking a stand – CS icons, MTV.com and more”

  1. Michael

    Thanks – really interesting read!

    I often struggle between innovation and usability… and find that I can only ever be truly adventurous when designing/developing for myself (not that any of that is public, yet).

    Generally, innovation seems to exist in small iterations of previous methodologies – which is a little depressing until you realise that it’s necessary by definition; if everything was new, then nothing would be.

  2. Brent Bonet

    Well it seems to me that what MTV had a problem with was the usability of its Flash site. If they just want to blame Flash, to me, if you have usability problems with Flash, you’ll have it with HTML.

  3. German Bauer

    It seems to me, in the drive to “take a stand” and make designs as glossy and desirable as possible, Macromedia has often favored desirability over usability. The part where it says that design in every industry progresses from useful > usable > desirable does not mean that leave behind usability while racing towards desirability. That, to me, is why design is not art.

    In today’s AAD driven world, desirability has the shelf life of a digg post if not thoroughly coupled with problem solving and usability.

  4. Doug

    The MTV.com site wasn’t just slow to load – it pegged my CPU usage at 100% with the auto-playing video (which was mostly ads for their own programming) by opening one window. I didn’t like the flash site in general, but they made some really poor decisions that made it completely unusable and a no-brainer to go back to something more simple, which happened to be HTML. (and I love the HTML site for its functionality over design).

  5. sho

    German – I can understand how Macromedia (and now Adobe) comes across as wanting UIs to be “glossy”, but if you talk to our internal teams (the Flex team, the XD team, etc), I think you would be pleasantly surprised at how much we agree with your point here. Personally, I have been trying to get us to move away from using the word “rich” because it puts the emphasis on visual flair.

    Really great designs solve user problems in deep ways. IMHO, the purpose of an advanced UI framework like Flex is to give designers and developers the flexibility to solve UI problems in a deeper way than traditional UI toolkits can.

    Doug – Totally agree with performance being the #1 issue that the old MTV.com site had. However, I liked a lot of the innovative UI that they experimented with (contextual navigation bar at the top of the app, live filtering of searches, etc.) My only point here is that I wish that MTV had continued to iterate on the design to address the issues while still keeping true to the design spirit that they were going for.

    As far as “completely unusable”, I think it’s in the eye of the beholder. There are plenty of people who are now saying that the HTML site is hard to use compared with the Flash site, etc!

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