Thought Tree

The Gap Between Design and Reality

A recent client meeting got me thinking about the sometimes severe disconnect between designers — meaning those who create visually stimulating artwork, web or otherwise — and the rest of the world.

I think I can summarize the disconnect with the following: designers assume the only people viewing their work is another designer

I know this sounds incredibly simplistic, but the things I hear from designers always seem to just reflect the designer’s point of view, and nothing else. For instance, “we need the width of this Flash file to be exactly 300px, because that represents the graphical balance we’re trying to achieve with this page.”

Never mind the fact that the page has so little actual room to put content in that it renders the page virtually useless and full of blank space. Never mind the fact that the page download speed is cut in half. Never mind that now anytime a change is needed on for the content we need to redo all the images that make up the page. Never mind the fact that a search engine has no idea what the page is about because it’s either entirely in Flash or entirely made up of images.

Everything is approached in the design world from this make-believe viewpoint that the only people looking at the website are site design critics. That the people using the website are going to understand the “balance represented by the image offsets” and so on.

Frankly, as a developer and a business owner, I’m much more interested in whether the user is able to find what they’re looking for 1) quickly and 2) easily. If the site design doesn’t allow for this, or it’s entire purpose of being is to be glossed over as a piece of artwork, the site loses its meaning. Furthermore, if the site design is so inflexible that changes to it are cumbersome or so confined to the design’s “unique layout”, then again, in my mind, the site design is useless.

In my opinion, web designers need to get back to reality and think about the purpose of their designs, especially when those site designs are for businesses, not just personal sites. I’m all in favor of web designers who want to “create brand identity” through a unique layout, but not at the expense of usability.

Some things that bug me about some common web designer outlooks:

All Flash Sites

Here, we’ve got a perfect case of designers misusing a great tool. Flash was never intended to create entire websites; it was a tool to create movies or animation to enhance a website. Designers have taken the medium to new heights, creating pointless splash pages and menu animations that add nothing of benefit to the site. These kind of things are merely for squirrel-lke humans who are distracted by shiny objects.

Perfect example of this would be Deep Blue web design‘s home page, where an enormous Flash file takes up virtually all the above-the-fold space on their home page and adds absolutely zero intrinsic value to the page.

Using Images For Everything

This goes to a lot of designers lack of knowledge about a) what HTML is and b) how search engines work. The brilliant Photoshop file in hand, ImageReady is used to slice up the artwork (note: em>artwork) into a gigantic HTML table that’s a) slow to load and b) filled with markup errors. Many of the images are of text, which the designers choose to include as images because they can’t stand the thought of a browser adjusting the font size away from the (usually) miniscule size which they feel works for the design.

Thus, because the pages have no text markup, search engines have no clue what the page is about, and summarily disregard the page is contentless, meaning no search terms will be related the the site. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this happen to businesses. They get a website design and it’s all images and they wonder why Google can’t pick them up and their competitors are getting more sales from the search engines.

I’ve also heard a million excuses from designers about this one, ranging from “Search Engines have come a long way; they can read Flash file content just like normal HTML” (No, they can’t). To “Having the site laid out with HTML tables and images ensures the design remains untouched”. Sure, it does, but so what? A good design should allow for users to adjust at least some of the text sizes, and allow for impaired viewers to read the site’s content with a non-graphical browser like lynx. Again, this point is entirely lost on designers because they don’t think that anyone other than a designer will be looking at the website.

View in 1600 x 1200 Resolution on a Mac

Again, because most designers use Macs, and many of them work on flashy monitors and laptops that support very high resolutions, there is an assumption that everyone viewing the site will be using the same tools as a designers. Not the case.

Ridiculously Small Font Sizes

Is there some unwritten rule in the design world which states that font sizes must never exceed 10 pixels in height?

A recent client who asked for the default font size to be moved from 10pt to 12pt because “her audience was getting up there in years”. I can’t imagine what a designer would have said of the request. Probably just ignored it.

Forced Size Layouts

This one really gets my goat too. Ever notice those sites which have this artificially fixed layout, usually quite small, in which all the content is forced into a tiny little area instead of having the content stretch to a height which is natural, allowing for the web browser to scroll naturally? Or sites where the designer has made the small content area “scrollable” inside the main layout so as to preserve the layout’s proportions? Almost as bad. Just make the design scroll normally within the space of the window. Don’t create artificial scrollers for just one section. Most viewers will have no idea how to use the page.