Balancing Creativity and Usability

A short comment on “Why Do All Websites Look the Same?”

Redesign of Hacker News by Fabian Dinklage and Florian Zia

Last week, Medium has featured my most recent essay Why Do All Websites Look the Same? (aka “On the visual weariness of the web”). The essay is currently getting a lot of attention. While I am writing this, it has received over 55.000 views, 27.000 reads, 11.300 claps and 60 comments. I obviously hit a nerve.

So — thanks for all the feedback! It’s great to initiate a lively debate! But it is difficult for me to address each remark individually. The feedback I got is diverse and the comments on Medium and Twitter are quite controversial. Without going into the details, a lot of the discussion boils down to the well-known “creativity against usability” argument.

My essay is certainly full of polemics. I criticise a specific trend towards a template-driven web that leaves very little breathing space for innovative and challenging design approaches. I do not criticise usability per se. That would be absurd and a complete misinterpretation of my text.

The whole “creativity against usability” debate is running for over 100 years now. As I wrote before, it is deeply linked to technological developments and industrial revolutions. History has shown that we need both — creativity and usability — in order to make real progress in the world of design and technology. And in order to have a balanced relationship between creativity and usability, it seems we have to have this discussion again and again. With my essay, I wanted to tilt the balance towards creativity.

Furthermore, I would like to address a couple of particular arguments from the debate. I wrote the following section as a reply to the first comments. It still stands and I think it is a good addition to the original essay. The reply is a bit difficult to find so I re-publish it here.


1) Templates should work for the design

Templates are part of the current web. One polemic essay will not change that.

Templates make sense. They allow for quick publishing and they combine technical reliability with streamlined work flows. They are very efficient.

But my impression is that right now, designers tend to limit their creativity so that the design works for the template. And I strongly believe it should be the other way round. Instead of asking how they meet the demands of the template, designers and developers should ask themselves how they can create templates that meet the demands of the design. This is one of the reasons why I believe that designers should be able to code for themselves. If you want to push the boundaries, you have to understand the limitations.

2) Form — Content

Please allow me to quote myself:

One of the fundamental principles of design is a deep and meaningful connection between form and content; form should both reflect and shape content.

In other words, you need specific design solutions for a specific design problem. A one size fits all approach rarely produces satisfying results. A hospital information system is clearly not an appropriate space for experimental typography. I would not ask David Carson to design books for primary schools.

But there is more to design than hospital typography and school books. There are many applications — especially in culture, music and the arts — where visual design can do more than just ensure readability. This is true for print — and it is also true for the web.

3) The paperback web

If we draw an analogy between the world wide web and the world of books, then we are in the paperback-age of the web.

Paperbacks are small, inexpensive books for quick consumption. They are held together by glue, use low quality paper, have poor image reproduction and often mediocre typography. But they work well for a mass-market. They are very efficient.

There is nothing wrong with paperbacks. In many contexts they make sense and there are even a number of really well-designed paperbacks out there. But the claim that there should only be paperbacks is downright silly. There is a space, a market and a need for hardcover novels, photographic travel journals, extravagant exhibition catalogues, lavish cookery books and so on.

Nobody would demand that all books should be paperbacks. But I have the impression that a lot of people regard web pages as “paperbacks” — cheap, pragmatic information machines. This position ignores the fact that the web is an enormous cultural space and that even the most minimal and practical web site is an artefact.

There are many different kinds of books, from pragmatic paperbacks to experimental art books. I would like to see this cultural and visual diversity on the web.