The Curse of Information Design

When I worked at a small design boutique in downtown Boston, the sites we built had a loosely defined structure. Our boss would talk to the client about the site map and what pages would be in the site. But, by and large, site architecture lay in the hands of the visual designer, and me, the humble HTML coder.

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Working straight off Photoshop files painstakingly composed by one of the best design teams I’ve ever collaborated with, I would build each page by hand, lovingly, agonizingly, experimenting the entire time – “What if we placed this directory here?” “The nav – HTML or graphics?” – helping to create an organic site that grew naturally from the experience of actually creating it. Near the end of the production schedule, my bosses and I would sit down together for final tweaks and QA, and that would be it.

If it looked good, if it worked, if the client was happy, we congratulated ourselves on a job well done.

Now, this boutique dealt mostly in brochureware: sites that were more informative than interactive. Being a small design firm, we would contract out for such technical tasks as search engines and mail forms. It was not until I hooked up with a larger firm and worked on a backend-heavy site that I first encountered the Page Spec.

Slave to the Spec#section2

The Page Spec was a bland PDF file. It looked like a web page, sure. It looked like a boring web page, the kind of thing you’d see in Lynx, maybe, but a web page nonetheless. It laid out the whole damn page, the entire site, from links to pop-up windows to what should appear in the status bar.

It didn’t affect me all that much – it was common sense, and it helped me in small ways. But I wondered about the graphic designers. The information architects, the busy fussy people using strange terms like “user flow,” seemed to have done all the work for the designers. The designers – the ones who went to school for years, studying layout, color, and the effective way to deliver a message in any medium – were now glorified painters. Pick a font, slap a color on, and send it on its way.

And God forbid if there had to be a change in anything! Instead of just working the change into the design or the production, the Page Spec would have to be revised, then approved both internally and externally. What could have taken five minutes became a bureaucratic nightmare.

This is the situation that many designers and front-end developers find themselves in: hemmed in and held hostage by the Page Spec.

Now, many will argue that usability is an important, if not the most important, goal of a designer. You don’t have to be Jakob Nielsen to appreciate a well-structured site. But the problem is, any good visual designer already knows the value of clear layout. The antipathy designers feel towards Nielsen and his cadres of “usability experts” stems, in part at least, from the fact that the message is one that designers have already absorbed.

Therefore, to many, the information architect seems redundant. If the project involves heavy back-end implementation, the system and user flow will already be determined. Click here, go there – the tech people will have already figured this out. In terms of layout, a good visual designer will know not to make a page too damn cluttered. (It’s usually the client that insists on putting 3,000 links on the front page or making the logo spin.) So why the information architect and his unparalleled influence in creating the site?

In a word: quantifiable.

Give Chance a Chance#section3

Jackson Pollack and John Cage would run screaming from the web for one reason: there is no room for the happy accident, the odd synchronicity, the random pattern, the part of the creative process where Trickster smiles and throws something completely unexpected into the works. Everything about web design is precise. The HTML coder building a page lays out every element down to the pixel. The visual designer can only approximate messiness, blurriness, or imprecision through graphics, and in the end it won’t matter anyway because the whole damn thing will be cut into rectangles. The whole enterprise is about structure.

Even with that, there is still plenty of room for artistic growth and experimentation. But alas, art is subjective. A designer may develop a daring layout, an innovative interface, and there is always the possibility that one theoretical user might not understand it, and that crucial $20.99 CD order might go to a competitor. The client chews her fingernails, wondering if something so unorthodox is worth the gamble.

And in march the usability expert and information architect. Look, Usability Expert charges the client $20,000 to pass judgment on a layout that violates his pet rules! Watch out! Information Architect has a study showing that 85% of users prefer left-hand navigation, 95% hate anything unfamiliar, and 67% still sleep with stuffed animals! The client is saved! He has rigid rules to follow and specious statistics to back them up! Forget your innovation, Mr. Fancy Pants Designer – we’ve got a real plan!

So a site that might have introduced new ways of presenting information is axed in favor of a site that looks exactly like every other site out there. Jakob is smiling.

The Static Vision#section4

Before you object, let me do it for you:

  • Not every site is cool and sexy and fun to work on.
  • Designers should quit being so immature and cocky.
  • A site that loses a certain percentage of users is unacceptable.
  • A client isn’t going to risk innovation on a multimillion-dollar project.
  • It’s the way the web is going: organized and structured.
  • Designers can have their own personal sites to fuck around with.

These may all be true in varying degrees and at certain times. Why should I get my feathers in a dander because Jane Information Architect is trying to build a coherent framework for this here financial site or online store or whatever? What’s the big deal, really, if a few designers have to play by The Rules?

First of all, let’s take the individual approach. Every designer I know is an artist. They paint, they play music, they DJ, they sculpt. Most got talked into design because someone didn’t want them to be another starving artist.

Now, I don’t know how bad it is for an artist to have a 9-to-whenever job designing websites for companies. I do know, however, that it is horrible to try and constrain the artistic imagination of a designer. It is trying to force something protean to assume a square shape. Instead of relying on their instincts and abilities, designers are forced to conform to a static vision that springs from nowhere but the cold gray realm of statistics and authority. Resentment, anger, and burnout inevitably follow.

Putting the Fun in the Funhouse Mirror#section5

Fine, you say. So some designers need to grow up and face certain realities, you say. But consider this.

The Internet is the single greatest collaborative effort ever in the history of mankind. It is a funhouse mirror of our collective imagination: there is nothing here except for what we bring into it. Its scope may be somewhat limited – after all, this is a realm purely of sight and sound –  but it represents an attempt to create a new experience for people to have and contribute to, a shared one that eliminates the physical boundaries we are accustomed to.

What are we saying, then, when we structure this virtual imagination so rigidly? What happens when the most visited destinations on the web are the most boring and lifeless? What suffers when we sacrifice imagination for utility?

At the company I work for, the architects are called “experience architects.” It’s a way of acknowledging the fact that the architect, in essence, determines the experience that the users have.

I would like to believe, however, that there is more than one experience that they can offer, both to their clients and to the web. I think that designers, programmers and architects can conceive of different and new paths for users to walk down. Heaven help imagination if they can’t. Heaven help the web if they are not allowed to.

About the Author

Scott Jason Cohen

After many a season at not-so-hot shops, Scott Jason Cohen enjoys life as a production developer and new media editor for one of New England’s best.

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