Whenever I see computer-generated graphics, I find myself liking or disliking them based on a pretty simple Occam's Razor. Does the thing look natural? And by cracky, very little of this stuff looks real.
Years ago I was involved in a cover design for an annual report. Prepress people were just beginning to be able to manipulate images, change colors, and blend photographs. In the true spirit of "gee whiz" technology, we wound up with a cover showing dark, summer green grass with a foreground overlay of spring green and pink Hopa crabapple sprays. The picture literally screamed fake.
As web developers get fakier and fakier in their garish attempts to capture the youthful, computer-literate generation's attention, I find myself wondering how much longer these shakers of the marketing world can keep pumping this stuff out before someone just says "enough is enough."
I find the attempts to get something -- anything -- on the Web page to assault my eyes a really annoying design feature. Spare me flapping graphics, the disembodied hand wiping out one cute saying so another can appear. Spare me the gyrating day-glo red globs oozing around on the page. And trust me. I never click on the sound track. We seem to have lost sight of the whole purpose of the Web, which like the Internet, is to locate information. Somehow the marketers have convinced the powers that be that Web information must be packaged for the attention level of two-year olds. Since a lot of people are still trying to figure out how to make Web pages pay for themselves, the packaging attempts, I suspect, may well be misdirected.
When most Web users still aren't paying for much of anything they browse, it seems a bit premature to design everything for two-year olds. Steve Outing, who writes the column Stop the Presses!, also maintains an online newspaper list where newspaper Web editors and managers spend a lot of time discussing how to make the Web versions of their papers pay for themselves. On this list, subscribers discuss sites they regard as well designed and useful, but sites which still fold at an alarming rate for lack of funding from users. Subscribers discuss magazines which hit the Web in a cloud of kudos, only to disappear a few months later. These editors, coming from a background where ads pay for hardcopy newspaper production, have some fairly grumpy things to say about Web readers who want to peruse their papers' content for free.
When the shoe is on the other foot, however, the tune changes. Steve feels that it would be very helpful if he could update his list software, but he does not have a list sponsor to help defray the cost. It was suggested that those regular readers of Online News who valued what they gleaned from the list make a $25 donation. This modest proposal caused a veritable uproar from the venerable newspaper Web community who just the previous week were complaining about the freeloaders who read their online newspapers without wanting to pay for the privilege.
My point? Nobody wants to pay for content on the web. So why are marketers putting so much emphasis on wrenching the attention of the teenagers and twenty-somethings with what glitzy ad people have decided can't help but catch the passing fancy of youthful surfers? Why are we pandering to a group of Web users who are probably even less likely than newspaper managers to pay for what they see on the Web? Why are we violating just about every rule of good graphic design in the hopes of catching some youthful reader's eye?
So what should be the goal of Web graphics? Why not start with the old classic "to enhance content." Somewhere along the Web yellow brick road, an awful lot of designers have forgotten this well-established principle. Perhaps its time to stop hyperventilating over flash and avoid making the same mistakes we all made when desktop publishing suddenly gave us the ability to easily use multiple fonts -- pages full of copy using as many type styles as we could possibly cram on one page -- creating patently ugly pages to boot.
The best design is the design that appears simple. The complexity is in the subtlety.
Would that the Web world wised up to Occam's Razor of good design.
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