Whim & Aim
Great design is, more often than not, a delicate balancing act. On one side of the scale, we must strive to fulfil the needs of the task at hand; design something appropriate, usable, resilient, and clever. On the other, we must satisfy the needs of our more human selves; the personal tastes of ourselves and our clients, the itch pushing us to try something new, and the styles of the time.
The Shakers have a saying;
Do not make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both, do not hesitate to make it beautiful.
I like to think that this is the way in which most of us perform our craft. But the truth is a little more concerning. The truth is, we spend a lot of our time fighting the allure of trends. Trends and style throw off the balance we work so hard to achieve through our craft, to the point where it often dictates the direction of our design. Trends set contemporary constraints on our work – barriers which break at the seams in a matter of years or months, and let the work spill out from them.
Luckily, we’re in an industry which is heavily saturated. Saturation makes our work harder, in that we must create something arguably unique, or at the very least, better. But it also gives us clues into what the current trend is, its merits, and its weaknesses. The very best thing about trends is their ability to challenge the status quo. Trends have a habit of coming along and ripping a rug from underneath us, questioning the way we’ve been doing things. Sometimes, it happens in a very small way, and other times it becomes a reference point to the time that things changed forever. In the broadest sense, perhaps the most recent example of a change of this proportion was the advent of responsive design. The concept of responsive design changed the way that web designers think about and execute their craft forever. The ideas and practices associated with this workflow are unlikely to change for perhaps another decade.
But events and changes like responsive design are not trends. Trends share some of the same characteristics, which is what makes them so dangerous. They have the appeal of “new”, or, rather more accurately, “different”. We’re lead to believe, from previous experiences, that this “new” translates as “better” – not only for ourselves, but for our users. The latest trend may be resilient and clever – but is it appropriate?
This is a good, simple litmus test for all design – is it appropriate? Does the metaphor give way to affordance, or is it merely decorative? Is the way this content is presented actually usable, or interesting? How much of this design is the result of trend-following and tail wagging? Inappropriate design is like inappropriate copy; offensive, misleading, and counter-productive. Appropriate design/copy, on the other hand, is engaging, subtle, and long lasting. These are difficult characteristics to identify in a bubble, which is why we foster communities to encourage feedback and learning. But often, these communities can blur the line between constructive criticism and trend-flogging.
All of this is intensely challenging, and might just leave you wondering why you ever bothered taking up a career in design in the first place. You might switch to something more timeless, like book binding. But it’s also what makes design such a uniquely fulfilling industry – when it’s right, the rewards are endless. In my relatively limited experience, there is a sure-fire way to avoid the allure of trends, and it is again very simple. It’s as easy as establishing a voice and tone far before a visual appearance. If the design wants to be challenging, make it look challenging. If it wants to be formal, make it look formal. If it wants to be relaxed, make it look relaxed. If the trend matches the voice and tone, we can use it – but with caution – to our advantage.
The job of the designer is to challenge every visual choice in a product, so why not start with a simple one; what does the voice of this element sound like? After answering this question for the individual elements, we can see them as a whole; does the product match the personality we set out to achieve? Do the sum of these parts achieve something greater, or are there inconsistencies? Finally, we can examine the product from a birds-eye view, in the context of today’s trends and surroundings. Does what we have created disappear, or does it show strength in a saturated surrounding? Is it garish, or appropriate?
These questions are largely the result of trial and error, and I have no doubt that every designer has their own set of litmus tests against which they critique their work and the work of others.
We should strive to also consider our perspective; we spend so much of our time close to the canvas that we may forget the intended audience. Sometimes, to truly see the design, we should step into the crowd with the observers, and hear what they take away from the experience we made for them. It’s very easy to let the allure of trends force our hand in making decisions. We go with the flow of what’s popular for exactly that reason – it’s popular. After questioning if it is appropriate, we should also question whether it is familiar. Is it usable by non-designers? Does it really challenge the norm, or rather simply disturb familiarity so much that is becomes unapproachable and hostile?
A strong design should demonstrate call and response with its audience. “Why is this typeface used?” asks the designer. “For your users”, Design answers. The most dangerous answer Design can give is “For Change” – but it’s those answers which initiate true and useful change. It’s those answers that brought us the car instead of a faster horse. It’s those answers that brought us responsive design in place of mobile websites.
Our target moves with the hands of the clock. It’s our job to create solutions that align with the trends of today, tomorrow, and yesterday, with uniqueness, cleverness, and intention; all without losing our soul. I don’t know about you, but that scares me. Luckily, it excites me more.