Apr 17, 2008
What could have more of an impact on visitors of a website than its design? It's the first thing that people notice when they visit the site, and it dictates what they see and how they interact with the site. A bad design can drive visitors away, whereas a good design can bring people back again and again.
It seems that a common misconception is that design is how to make a site "look good". While this is true, to an extent, the design also determines the flow of information from the screen to the user. In the words of Andy Rutledge, "It's not about the design, it's about communicating.". This only underlines the importance of good design.
37signals designs their interfaces first, citing two basic reasons. First, design is lightweight relative to programming. That is, it's much easier to change the position of a navigation bar than to change the data persistence layer of the backend. Second, is that the interface is your product--if the visitor sees and interacts and remembers the interface and its design only, then the design really is the site itself. I'm not sure how much I agree with the former, as I believe that design is becoming more and more heavyweight, but the latter definitely has some merit.
So it's a reasonably well-accepted fact that design is one of the most important aspects of a website, so why don't more people focus on it? I think that the problem is specialization: programmers--preferring to write code and think through the program logic--attempt to muddle their way through creating a user interface, while designers--preferring to perfect the margins, whitespace, and typography--attempt to muddle their way through defining logic of the backend.
Of course, I'm talking about smaller projects of only one or two members. Once they get larger than that, they need to bring a few of "the other" type of people into the mix. That being said, where are the people who are excellent dual designer-developers? Of course people like this exist, but these people are few and far between.
Part of the problem is that both disciplines are ones of constant improvement. As a developer, I know that I will never stop getting better and more experienced in my craft. I will always look at code that I wrote a year ago and cringe. This is part of what makes developing interesting to developers. As I understand it, the same is true with design. This property of both disciplines renders learning the other discipline futile, or at least makes it seem futile (which is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy).
Is it possible to become at least conversational in the language of design, when your experience and main interests is developer? That's what I'll be trying to discover in the next few weeks and months. I don't have more than a few hours a week to devote to it, but I've embarked on a bit of "independent study" about design, trying to learn from the best out there about grid-based layouts, color theory, etc.
The encouraging thing is that both designers and developers trend towards being bloggers as well, and that means that there's a wealth of great articles and information out there to learn from. Keep an eye out here for updates on my progress, my successes/frustrations, and other theoretical ramblings about design.