There is an unarticulated war currently raging among those who
make web sites. Like the war between dark- and
light-skinned blacks in Spike Lee’s School Daze, this conflict
is one that only its participants recognize. The war is not
between commercial sites and experimental sites. It’s not
between “Bloggers” and “Flashers.” This war is between usability
experts and graphic designers.
In the usability corner, wearing the blue and purple underlined
trunks, weighing in at just under 25K per gig… J-a-a-a-a-a-kob
Nie-e-e-e-e-lsen, usability guru extroadinaire, with over 16
usability patents and several “lists of 10”—do’s, don’t’s,
thou shalt’s, and thou shalt not’s.
And in the graphic design corner, wearing the greyscale trunks,
weighing in at 500K per site (that’s dollars, not bytes)…
Kioken(oken-oken-oken), firing clients left and right, and
wielding Flash as if the plug-in itself were built into Joe
Newbie’s genetic makeup.
Nielsen thinks today’s web is an advanced but ill-used database.
Kioken thinks today’s web is a fledgling but ill-used multimedia
platform. And each side KNOWS that their view of the web will
prevail. Observe the (over)confidence:
“Boo.com has closed. Good riddance. Boo was one of the very few
high-profile sites to launch in recent months that dared violate
my design principles and aim for glitz rather than usability…
It proves that overly fancy design doesn’t work.”
Gene Na (co-founder of Kioken): “We had to fire Sony the other week.
They weren’t listening to us, so we let them go. We actually had
to get rid of Bad Boy [Entertainment] in the beginning, but
they straightened up and came back. So did Sony. What the client
sometimes doesn’t understand is the less they talk to us, the
better it is. We know what’s best.”
Let the celebrity death match begin. Gentlemen, I expect a good
clean fight. Come out with your hands up, and may the best web
What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?#section1
I wager that after 15 rounds, after broadband, after standards
compliance, after the increasingly mythical release of Netscape
6, both the usability experts and the graphic designers will
still be standing. The web is just too big for one paradigm to
prevail. Some sites will need intensive whiz-bang branding that
Nielsen’s “principles” won’t allow. Other sites will need
moronically basic navigation and speedy download times that
Kioken doesn’t care to provide. Most sites will need some
combination thereof. So why the war? Why can’t the usability
experts and the graphic designers just love each other?
For better or worse, the divide between these two camps existed
long before “new media,” and will continue to exist long after
the web has become as commonplace as indoor plumbing. “New
media” merely brings this dichotomy into renewed focus because,
well, it’s new. We’re still developing the web’s vocabulary.
Consequently, we’re still trying to get a handle on this
“usability/design” conundrum, largely unaware of its primordial
origins. With that in mind, allow me to glibly and
over-simplistically delineate the situation:
Usability/ Information Architecture == the masculine == the left
side of the brain == doing == math/science == the rational ==
logical action == the articulatable == Mars.
Graphic Design == the feminine == the right side of the brain ==
being == art == the emotional == intuitive action == the
inarticulatable == Venus.
It’s no surprise then, that Master Nielsen makes most of his
dough writing and talking (the articulatable), whereas Kioken
makes most of their dough designing (the inarticulatable).
Indeed, to re-quote Na, “the less the client TALKS to us, the
better it is.”
You can see why each group would quickly get on the other’s
nerves. The usability experts find the graphic designers too
touchy feely. “What do they mean they need to mess around with
the look and feel to see what develops? Why can’t they just give
me a wireframe now?” The graphic designers find the usability
experts too blunt and by-the-book. “What do they mean graphics
are just the icing on the cake? Without graphic design, all you’ve got is a plan!”
In the press and on the bulletin boards, the graphic designers
tend to take a beating. And not surprisingly. They are the
inarticulate ones, remember? Thus you get articles that malign innovative
designers without rightly discerning the purpose of their
sites; or worse, you get outright dreck written by blind guides who
wouldn’t know aesthetic appeal if it stripped bare and gave them
a table dance.
But wait, the usability experts have their statistics! It has
been documented! The users are on their side! But what
questions are these usability studies asking? “Could you find
it?” “Were you able to accomplish it?” “Articulate to us IN
WORDS what you were able to DO.” Such questions presuppose a
“Martian” criterion for user experience. If the site is a
“Martian” site (logical, rational, left-brained), then it will
score well on Nielsen’s usability test. If the site is a
“Venusian” site (intuitive, emotional, right-brained), then it
will score poorly on Nielsen’s usability test. Were Nielsen to ask his subjects, “Write a short essay on how this site made you feel,” he would get dramatically different statistical results. But of course, testing like that would be touchy-feely and unscientific. To use his own jargon then, Nielsen-esque usability testing is, in the overall scheme of
things, yet another form of “voodoo” usability. It finds what it
is looking for and ignores what it is unable to measure.
But what if Levis doesn’t have a huge database of products that
it’s selling online? What if Levis just wants people to feel
that its vintage clothing is rugged and somewhat extreme?
What if a successful site to Levis is a site that conveys an
emotion, an attitude, a world-view? In other words, what if
Levis is branding? Most usability tests are impotent to evaluate
the success of a site in terms of conveyed emotion, because
emotion is something that most users (and most humans) have
difficulty articulating, particularly in response to multiple
choice questions. But just because a positive interactive
experience can’t be charted doesn’t mean it hasn’t occurred.
I Am The Lorax, I Speak for the Trees#section3
The graphic designers sense that something is amiss, yet they are
largely tongue-tied in their efforts to refute “the violence
inherent in the system.” Being young, punkish, rebellious youths
(all tattooed, shorn, and pierced to the hilt as well), they lash
out blindly, saying ill-conceived, inarticulate, un-endearing
things. Thus Sr. Nielsen scores even more opportunities to
indoctrinate the corporate movers and shakers, while an entire
subculture of frustrated designers churns away in obscurity,
thrashing their anti-capitalistic design statements into the
Until now. The graphic design community is finally getting some
poster boys: Kioken’s Joshua Davis, VolumeOne’s Matt Owens, Juxt
Interactive’s Todd Purgason, and a host of other thoughtful
professionals who are crafting graphic-intensive commercial sites
that big clients are finding increasingly hard to resist.
The theorists and writers advocating graphic web design have been
a little slower to emerge (for reasons already belabored above).
Graphic design doesn’t exactly lend itself to a specific list of
do’s and don’t’s. User interface jedi Nathan Shedroff has a
wonderfully conceived piece on interface seduction, but it’s still mighty
abstract. I’ve come up with my own list of ten fresh design
styles, which I hope is a step toward developing a more
articulate web design vocabulary. And there is always the odd enlightened piece on graphic design from
a classic “list of 10” perspective.
But writers about graphic design will never have as many easily
articulatable “principles” as Jakob Nielsen (if they do, beware).
Such inarticulatability is inherent to a vocabulary of the
aesthetic. Graphic design on the web is no exception. Still,
just because a truth can’t be reduced to a sound bite, it
nevertheless remains a truth.
I’ve Looked at Clouds from Both Sides Now#section4
Although the web began as a medium to exchange physics research
papers, it seems naive to expect it to remain predominately
text-based. Usability experts bemoan the evolution of the web
into something beyond a card catalog. Their “speedy download”
mantras belie their reluctance to jettison a word-based web. But
just because the web was born in text doesn’t mean it need remain
CD-ROMs were born in gaming, and now the CD-ROM medium includes
encyclopedias, experimental ambient environments, and virtual
cookbooks. You don’t hear old-school game designers saying, “The
William Sonoma Guide to Fine Cooking CD-ROM is a total crock!
There’s not even a hint of competition! We all know that CD-ROMs
are by their very nature competitive!” How ludicrous. Yet there
are still old-school usability experts saying, “Don’t they know
the web is about accessing information? Who cares what it looks
like? Where’s the content?”
I don’t think the web is going to turn into interactive TV, but
neither will it remain a forum for exchanging physics outlines.
And who wants it to, anyway? For all their statistics,
arguments, and lists, the usability experts are overlooking the
fact that we, as humans, are not all Martians. Indeed, there is
a little Venus in us all, and some of us are nothing but
Yes, I admonish all graphic designers to heed the few user interface experts who bother to
critique your flash layouts without blindly dismissing your
But usability gurus, heed ye the words of hippy sage Joni
Mitchell as she describes the mechanics of human interaction:
Rows and flows of angel hair,
Ice cream castles in the air,
Feather canyons everywhere,
I’ve looked at clouds that way.
now they only block the sun.
They rain, they snow on everyone.
many things I would’ve done
But clouds got in my way.
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,
From up and down and
It’s clouds’ illusions I recall.
I really don’t
know clouds at all.
Substitute “graphic design” for “clouds” and you get the idea.
Unless usability experts are willing to admit that a 250K
streaming flash file may indeed be the best solution for a
branding site’s core page, those same experts may find themselves
expounding in exile on Mars while the rest of us humans intuit
the neo-web experience.