is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
Here are two superb articles about the role of aesthetics in the design of digital products. The first is from Emmet Connelly, director of product design at Intercom. Connolly laments the recent commoditization of design aesthetics. He argues that, increasingly, products look more and more indistinguishable from one another.
When you squint your eyes and tilt your head, don’t a lot of these products look awfully, well, similar? Don’t they look pretty but, at times, a little dull?
When it becomes necessary for virtually every business to signal they value design by adopting an up-to-date style, it becomes a commodity, a box to be ticked. That fresh look quickly becomes a cliché. This descent towards aesthetic monoculture was helped by the ease with which this particular style can be cheaply imitated: stick a blurred photo in the background, lay some centered Helvetica Neue on top and you’re already halfway there!
What other opportunities might we be missing out on? The internet and its surrounding technologies are the driving cultural forces of our generation. Taken individually all of these designs are quite beautiful. But who wants to live in a world with only one type of beauty?
The second article is from designer Eli Schiff and it’s the latest installment in an excellent series that he’s publishing called “Fall of the Designer.” (Part one is here, and also well worth a read.) Schiff delivers a nearly epic inventory of all the ways that designers and design tool makers have lately deemed aesthetics to be an unworthy pursuit for designers, and how these are reflective of a “larger movement that expects interface design to come a distant second to development.” The trend is to push the role of the designer closer and closer to the role of developer, and extinguish the role of the visual designer, effectively negating the aspect of design concerned with the subjective and the unquantifiable.
It would be ideal if both visual and interaction design tools could export directly and seamlessly into code—things are moving in this direction more rapidly with each passing day. Improving tools is a noble and necessary goal. But until we have such an integrated design environment, there is no need to scapegoat the field of visual design and aesthetics as Victor does by labeling practitioners as ‘helpless, dependent bullshitters.’ Those with an aptitude for visual design should not be siphoned away simply to satisfy an anti-intellectual bias towards aesthetics.
You can see in Schiff’s argument a clear explanation for the symptoms that Connolly identifies; as we have diminished the role of aesthetics in our working definition of design, we have naturally created an environment in which only one kind of aesthetic is desirable. This is the bigger-picture ramification of the past decade’s emphasis on coding as the most effective and most authentic means of executing design: we’re constraining our modes of expression at a time when we should be expanding them.+