Optimizing for Design Unusability

Nicholas Felton of the New York design studio Megafone does some beautiful work, but the piece that’s really caught my eye is his Feltron 2006 Annual Report. Not a corporation, “Feltron” is Felton’s nom de guerre, under which he publishes, I suppose, personal projects and experiments. It’s hard to say because, like many designers’ indulgences, there’s frustratingly little information available at Feltron.com.

Doesn’t matter. Because this ‘annual report,’ a follow-up to a similar project he did at the end of 2005, is a work of delightful inventiveness. Using the pro forma conventions and banalities of corporate annual reports, Felton summarizes the notable trivia of the past twelve months of his life: the number of days he spent on vacation, the amount of time he spent on jury duty, the many remote geographic locations visited, and even a summary of plants he’s killed. All of it is executed in the kind of highly detailed diagrammatic vernacular that designers tend to fetishize — “info-porn” is the term — and with Felton’s precise, disciplined and, here anyway, his nearly unfailing aesthetic eye.


WWW3C Say?

None of it, however, is Web standards-compliant, 508 accessible, semantic, social, interactive et cetera, and all of it is riddled with that most unseemly of all HTML tags: tables. Here in 2007, it’s the least Web 2.0 thing you can imagine: a series of static images that dramatically, unabashedly privileges presentation over content. (To be fair, the site does state that this year’s annual report was conceived as a print publication, but it’s formally identical to its predecessor, which was published exclusively online.)

Below: Report card. Nicholas Felton’s satirical overview of how he spent 2006.

But who cares? Who really cares? This is the most exciting bit of design I’ve seen online in many months. It may not be in perfect sync with grander ideas for how digital media can change the equation for design consumption, but it does something wonderful in that it provides global reach to a very personal expression.

Feltron 2006 Annual Report

Back in the Day

This is what design on the Web was like when I was first attracted to it: a series of sometimes crass, frequently oblique and overwhelmingly indulgent playgrounds for graphic experimentation. Designers, previously so often bound to the precepts of client briefs, were suddenly able to exercise their creative voices without constraint.

Clearly, it wasn’t a scalable phenomenon, and though it perseveres, it’s lost a lot of its luster. For my part, I have no qualms about the direction Web design has taken since: efficient, semantic, truly in service to what users want. That’s how I make my money every day, I like to think, and I enjoy it immensely.

In the process of transitioning from ‘graphic designers’ to ‘interaction designers,’ though, we’ve abdicated much of the role of visual entertainers to those graphic practitioners who traffic mostly in currencies of style, fashion, and ornamentation, where we can more easily ignore and dismiss it as somehow inferior. We’ve forgotten, I think, that there’s something powerful and engaging about expressions like these, too, that one of the functions of design is to delight and amuse the audience. There’s something to be gained from indulging ourselves, once in a while, in purposeless acts of design whimsy, even if we spend our days building minutely optimized interfaces that give no quarter to artistic idiosyncrasies.

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  1. I, too, thought this was one of the most awesome thing I’ve seen in quite some time. I’ve recently become completely obsessed with he idea of recording and storing virtually everything I do, and Feltron’s found a way to not only do that, but also present the data beautifully.

    I love this sort of thing. Totally self-absorbed, but totally cool.

  2. It’s an interesting piece of information design mixed with graphic design. The layout of information and the flow is amazing, which helps the sheer amount of information become less daunting.

    Definitely a very cool way to display daily activities we all take for granted. Plus, who doesn’t love Sufjan Stevens?

  3. I had the same experience, sucked into it, browsing around this guy’s travels, comparing notes on certain places, and then…

    ..ctrl-U-WTF?

    But, yeah, I like it, and identify with its self-indulgence. And don’t we all?

  4. While I more or less agree with your sentiment, I think there’s an answer to “who cares?”, and that is the people for whom standards compliant design was conceived. The problem is that for us – browsing the web on our nice big screens with all our faculties intact – it’s hard to see past “who cares” into making those wonderful things you speak of (the quirks, the flights of fancy) available in some form beyond the audience we’re speaking directly to.

    Artists have always taken their materials and forced them to perform unusual functions (this is, after all, the reason tables were pressed into service of complex layouts on the web), and standards-compliance is the spiritual opposite of that impulse.

    I’m reminded of being at the Pompidou Centre in Paris a couple of years ago and watching a blind person have her hands guided over the curves of a Jean Arp sculture: there is a way to make even the most abstract works accessible to the “who”, and it’s a huge challenge for us to find it.

  5. Wow, imagine the cool “info-porn” stuff you could do if one would use a portable GPS device.

    You could have a graph with daily traveled miles, percentage of time spent at specific locations (home, office, girlfriends house, etc). That would be awesome.

  6. Wow, imagine the cool “info-porn” stuff you could do if one would use a portable GPS device.

    You could have a graph with daily traveled miles, percentage of time spent at specific locations (home, office, girlfriends house, etc). That would be awesome.

  7. i think it should be noted that felton’s version on the website is but a “representation” of the actual artifact which is a printed piece – ie a real riff on an annual report.

    totally different experiences, inasmuch as “info-porn” relates to “porn-porn”, web-porn is different from vid-porn is different from zine-porn.

    maybe it’s b/c i am sorta “out” of the web standards game somewhat (or maybe i don’t really care that much), but i kinda bums me out that so many folks who respond to your blog get so hung up on the tyranny of details of standards compliance. i know it’s important (for all the myriad reasons), but for G-d’s, sake — felton made a work of art, and as a previous poster mentioned, art loves to subvert.

    it’s ART. non-compliant in its very definition.

    if it’s ok i am going to chime in on the new B&A site, cuz i’m tired.

    BOO. not art. they sold out utterly and completely and have adopted the visual language of mainstream corporate-looking mediocrity. perhaps this is their effort, their vision — we all know that to be more mainstream, is to , sic, be less-marginal. but this too bums me out.

    sorry for the tangent.

    g

  8. Beautiful. Why isn’t there more modernist design like this? (Incidentally, this very site is beautiful, too, for its structure, and look and feel.)
    а аWith my own work, I indulged in modernism and the Swiss grid for years. When I did so for the consumer market in print, it was considered too sparse, and clutter ruled the day. Perhaps I was too far ahead of the curve, because I hope this sort of look comes back in.

  9. Hey Mr. Vinh, I just wanted to throw in a quick “thank you” for this posting. It perfectly rounded up a train of thought I had yesterday night and therefore helped me to find some rest. :-)

    I’m really asking myself: many of us have seen the net growing – going from the experimental personal spaces era to the let’s-put-together-one-big-pie-times we’re in the middle of right now (delibaretly polarized a bit). Actually, I love both attempts – which is based on knowing both.

    But how is this for younger people joining the field just now? For sure, art and graphic design still exist somewhere. But those who directly jump on the “application-oriented tendencies” of the net? Those who are nowadays able to easily find very specialized information design education, rather focussing on the functional and efficient dimension of digital media?

    The following article does not answer all questions, but it definitely is a precious impulse I think: User Interface Design — Is it A Science, An Art, or A Craft? (especially the “Final Word”).

    Best wishes from rainy Hamburg, Germany.

  10. I’ve been admiring Feltron’s Annual Report all week, and have listened to his DJ set, too. Great stuff.

    Regarding not caring about standards-compliance, well, obviously you cared enough to view the source! Maybe it’s time to stop doing that so often. It’s kind of like fact checking John Hodgman or spellchecking James Joyce.

    There are tons of really creative things going on on the web, Khoi! I suspect that being professionally concerned about usefulness and usability, and being plugged into the standards-compliance “scene” so much might have a direct relationship with your perception that internet art and design experimentation is not “a scalable phenomenon, and though it perseveres, it’s lost a lot of its luster”. Standards compliance is great for any site that needs to reach a broad audience, or whose information is of real-world importance. But for art and experimentation, standards compliance is utterly irrelevant. Think about how many of your favorite artists, writers, or musicians might have felt about “complying” with anything.

  11. In the process of transitioning from ‘graphic designers’ to ‘interaction designers,’ though, we’ve abdicated much of the role of visual entertainers to those graphic practitioners who traffic mostly in currencies of style, fashion, and ornamentation, where we can more easily ignore and dismiss it as somehow inferior.

    This is an important observation. A lot of people in the web standards game seem to have forgotten that an important element of design is for it to invite the reader, to add visual flavor befitting the content, and to bear further witness to the humanity involved in its creation. Some people have gotten so downright tyrranical about information design being kept “pure” that they’ll decry any unscientific element of the process to be masturbatory. It echoes the coldest, stiffest aspects of modernism, and I think it’s a mistake.

  12. I wonder how far designs like this can go. A lot of the push for web standards has been for accessibility’s sake. But is it really all that important?

    Is accessibility something we should be ignoring? How do you decide between cutting-edge design and accessibility? Where do you draw the line between new technologies and backwards compatibility?

    I suppose a lot of it has to do with the industry. A company concerned only with its stock price will completely ignore accessibility if it is not profitable. However, a company that sees itself as a public service might be a bit more inclined to create accessible content. But that still doesn’t answer the question, does accessibility really matter?

  13. I don’t think you have to make a choice between cutting-edge design and accessibility, as long as you don’t assume that ‘accessibility’ is the just the pure, dry, structured-info accessibility most people think it is. I really believe that there’s a way to make a design language that’s relevant to people who feel it or hear it rather than seeing it.

  14. I don’t think you have to make a choice between cutting-edge design and accessibility, as long as you don’t assume that ‘accessibility’ is the just the pure, dry, structured-info accessibility most people think it is.

    You’re right. You don’t have to make a choice. But, in many cases, you do have to add considerable time and effort in order to do something in a way that is standards compliant, accessible, and usable. Consider the difference in time Feltron would have had to invest in order to make this piece the “right” way as opposed to just throw up the images. There is a tradeoff here, and the fact is that sometimes, the value proposition just doesn’t make sense. Would it have really been worth Feltron’s time to do this for a personal, fun project like this? Hardly.

    I think part of Khoi’s point (and also mine when I wrote “Has Accessibility Been Taken Too Far”) is that it simply doesn’t always make sense, resource-wise, to invest in standards compliance, usability, and accessibility. These are business decisions, and the bottom line just isn’t always there.

    And even more of Khoi’s point, I think, is that we, as designers, shouldn’t jump all over someone who doesn’t something great like this just because it doesn’t meet all of our technical requirements. We should check it out, learn from it, enjoy it, and be inspired by it. There’s far too much “that’s worthless because it’s Flash” or “that’s not good design because it was done with tables” or “this guys sucks because he can’t even write semantic HTML” in web standards circles.

  15. Not related to this post, but that’s a real nice job NYTimes.com did with the interface to analyze the frequency of certain words used by the President during State of the Union speeches.

  16. I disagree with Virginia, and I agree with Jeff (sorta): Often, one quite simply does have to make a choice between usability and innovation because of the sheer impact of time constraints.

    Jeff, I wrote “sorta” above because I don’t understand why you wrote “You don’t have to make a choice” when you then went on to describe how many designers often do have to make a choice between accessibility and innovation in order to finish and share their ideas in a reasonable amount of time. Maybe you meant that everyone doesn’t have to make the choice, but that some people do.

    While CSS wrangling has it’s creative opportunities and rewards, just like any other technical pursuit, let’s face it: cross-platform accessibility is basically a chore. I sometimes feel that every minute a designer spends dealing with accessibility and semantic markup blahblah issues is a minute that designer could have spent making their interfaces easier to use, more elegant, more fun, more interesting, or more useful. So I guess I think we all have to make that choice.

  17. I completely agree with what you have presented and it’s a great contribution to me and my design team.

    There is a slight change in thought though. What I feel is that if you build a background and develop skills in your respective fields, your thought process may be reduced and it may become more manipulative.

    Still me and my designers read what you said and were provoked by it :) Ingenious WWW

    Thank you

  18. Jeff, I wrote “sorta” above because I don’t understand why you wrote “You don’t have to make a choice” when you then went on to describe how many designers often do have to make a choice between accessibility and innovation in order to finish and share their ideas in a reasonable amount of time.

    Sorry, that definitely wasn’t clear. What I mean to say is, “You don’t have to make a choice, but insisting upon both incredible graphic design and incredibly semantic, compliant, accessible, and usable implementation is often not work the extra time and effort.”

    The point was to acknowledge that technically, it’s absolutley possible to do something like Feltron’s annual report the “right” way, but empathize that it doesn’t make a lot of business sense to do so — in this case and in many others.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.