Is "Undesigned" the Next Great Web Trend? Fat Chance

The solution to frustrating web experiences is better design — which is often mistaken for "less" design. We talk to some of the top minds in the field today.

Did you hear? According to Dylan Tweney's twin essays in The Atlantic and Wired, the war between content and design on the Web is over — and design lost.

Tweney applauds digital tools and trends that eschew distracting "designery" flourishes in favor of naked content and argues that design-lessness is what the Web has been evolving towards all along. And then he goes on to praise the rise of beautiful editorial layouts on blogs and iPad apps.

He may be legitimately fed up. But it's his ideas of "design" and how we can fix it that are flawed. The answer is not retreating from design, but embracing and empowering it in its best forms.

Design Frustration: "Too Many Notes!"

It's all too easy to be frustrated with Web design, especially when technology enables us to designate it as something completely distinct from content — fully detaching the medium from the message, as Tweney puts it. "To me, 'design' means a guy in confrontationally architectural eyewear either entertaining me visually or forcing me to pay attention to certain things," one friend told me. If those who rabidly consume content on constantly morphing platforms see design as an exercise in either frivolity or tyranny, then why not call the whole thing off? If less is more, hell, none must be best.

"Just give me the content!" is the digital consumer's cri de coeur, as if "content" were some pure, powerful substance to be consumed directly from the source, like unobtainium. Sadly, no such magical stuff exists—at least, not until Mozilla invents a browser extension that performs mind melds.

In reality, design and content always merge at some point in the stream. "Content can certainly be electronically distributed independently of design," says Robert Stribley, an information architect at Razorfish, "but it can't be presented effectively without design." Those "undesigned" content-liberators like Instapaper, Readability, and Flipboard? All designed to a 'T' by some of the most innovative designers out there. (Spend five minutes with one of the Android Market's terrible Instapaper knockoffs, and you'll learn the hard way what "undesign" really looks like.)

[A video of Flipboard in action]

Readability offers 15 thoughtfully chosen options (from margin width to font appearance) to enhance the design of content, not strip it away. And the designer of Instapaper has written hundreds of words about all the important choices he made to optimize the app's user experience.

[A tour of Readability's app]

The only difference between these "undesigned" tools and the Flash-addled screenjunk they replace is that one is optimized for what we want to do with text—read it—and the other isn't. Neither is "less" or "more" designed. One is simply better designed for its function than the other.

What actually repulses us is distraction, not design.

"So much web design is not improving the content experience. That's what's behind this mini-rebellion," says Jason Fried of 37signals, who's been in the digital-simplicity business for over a decade. Saying there's "too much" design and demanding a revolt or a retreat is as silly as the inarticulate king in Amadeus telling Mozart his music has "too many notes." Of course, not every designer is a Mozart, but that's not the point. As legendary designer Milton Glaser said, less is not more. Just enough is more. We don't need fewer notes: we need the right ones. And designers, now as always, are giving them to us.

Design Evolution: It Gets Better

So what are the right notes? On this, of course, designers differ wildly. According to Scott Dadich, former Creative Director at Wired and current leader of Conde Nast's iPad-app charge, "a designer's job is to package and curate and convey information in a compelling visual organization — our entire goal is to create rich experiences that digitally instantiate the magazine." Fried, meanwhile, says users value what he calls "the speed aesthetic": "The Drudge Report is one of the best designed sites on the web because it's one page and it's instant. Or Craiglist: hideous, but functional and fast, and works. That's good design."

[A screenshot of Instapaper's iPad app]

Such strong design opinions can't please everyone, and these certainly haven't. But what Tweney resists about web design-as-usual, and what designers like Rich Ziade (inventor of Readability) and Marco Arment (of Instapaper fame) are actually reinventing, is the "one size fits all" model of digital content design. Tweney wants to pull control over experience away from designers and give it to users, but my hunch is that users don't actually want to be as literally in "control" as designers. We just want stuff to work.

"The future is all about designing for multiple use cases, not saying 'your use isn't important anymore,' or marginalizing design in general," says Timothy Meaney of Arc90, the digital consulting firm behind Readability. "If I use Readability on Jason Santa Maria's beautifully designed blog, I'm not rejecting his choices. I'm optimizing the design for an additional, different use case—maybe I'm reading on the subway on a tiny phone screen, or maybe I'll want to listen to his blog instead of read it because I'm jogging. We're not anti-immersive experiences, or anti-design—we're just pro-accessibility." In that respect, the ever-increasing distinction between content and design attributes in Web standards that makes tools like Readability possible — and which Tweney marks as the "the beginning of the end for the design-centric way of doing things" — has made web design more important, and more inclusive, than ever: in a word, better.

Digital design isn't fading, but it is changing: to keep pace with evolving technology, to drive new economics, to satisfy users' dynamic desires. Indeed, the fact that we tend to call them "users" in the first place—instead of viewers, readers, or audiences—is important to keep in mind when considering the role or future of digital design. Online, content is a tool. We use it. It's not passive and neither are we. And if its design hinders that use, we get irritable. That's why good Web design often has more in common with the invisible soft-science of industrial design than the in-your-face, "art directed" aestheticism that many of us associate it with.

But the amazing thing about digital content, unlike the physical tools we're used to, is that it can and does morph to match whatever use-case we like—and that is thanks to design, not in spite of it. Dadich's immersion, Fried's speed, and Meaney's context-specific clarity already co-exist in digital design's big tent. The future of web design lies in expanding that tent, not folding it up.

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  • Geert De Decker

    Believe that it is much more difficult to design a good undesign then one stacked with lay out.

  • Tim Letscher

    Much of the disagreement over "design" comes from a basic misunderstanding of what is meant by "design." The majority of criticisms against design are targeted more at ornamentation than they are at structure and flow. We as designers influence both and need to recognize the importance of both. Knowing your audience is paramount to any successful design, especially on the ornamentation side of the design scale.

    This article is the first I've read in the new Fast Company Design section where I've noted how poorly presented the comments section is! It's painful to read what other readers have contributed - can't you present the comments in a friendlier format? THAT would be good design :)

  • Mandy Katz

    "Flash-addled screen junk" is spot-on to describe not just HuffPo but loads of information- and gadget-rich blogs. Click to the first few on Rosita Cortez's list of 25 most successful non-profit sites: Lots of info ready to hand, lots of praised "features." But visually? BIZZ-zeee. Hard on the eyes.
    ('Course, I would argue FlipBoard, too, seems too much of a good thing.)

  • Jason Lombard

    Very well stated. A friend and I were just having this discussion the other day. And I've had more than a few clients mention that they were frustrated with empty white space on their layouts that "wasn't doing anything". Design and content are two sides of the same coin—and SHOULD be executed to lend users the ability to get the information that they crave quickly and easily with a minimum of distraction.

    Thanks for the great read.

  • Rob Smelik

    As an art director I can say the hardest thing for any designer to do is to restrain themselves when it comes to a design. "Step it back" as I would call it. Leaving the critical items in the design and restrictively selecting the appropriate embellishments. I indeed believe in the phrase "less is more" but I certainly agree with you that eliminating design from the equation could have catastrophic, mind numbing effects. We would also be remiss to overlook that some of the fundamental structures of design are never meant to be viewed but rather govern those things that are being viewed. It can be frustrating that most people view design in terms of what they see on the visual canvas and not the logic that went into their existence in the first place. Some of the best designs in the world are so simple but they are also complex in the construct and meaning they convey.

  • Pat

    just because it looks like there is just content doesnt mean theres no design. theres is design in the way you access the information, such as the physical product design which enabled you to interact with the digital data in the first place. then there is the software which enables you to interpret the data and lays it out for you. then there is a thin layer of design which organizes the content so as to let it appear there is nothing but content showing.

    on another note this almost invisible last layer of laying the content out will in most cases also bear some resemblance to the company/branding of the business which is providing the data. design can also be there to simply make that differentiation of one product or service with the next. how else would you choose what service/product you would prefer?

  • Dorian Taylor

    We seem to perpetuate this narrative that design and content (and technology for that matter) are orthogonal dimensions in some abstract space in which a given work is said to reside. I think this view is obsolete.

    Since it could ever be understood as its own thing, design has been steadily evolving from a place of decoration and flourish into a generic form of consideration that is agnostic of domain, media and intent—save for the intent of good fit.

    I submit that there is still a great deal of design happening in so-called "undesigned" works, though it is much more subcutaneous. There appears to be now a deep and growing consideration for how contemporary artifacts behave, which belies the traditional occupational division between engineering, rhetoric and artistry. It is enough to question why such things ever got divided in the first place.