Why Can’t The Boring Designer Have Style?

Are you the kind of designer who wants to show off your style as a designer or are you a boring designer who chooses the tried and true solution and tries to leave no trace of yourself in your work?

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Trent walton pointed me to an article by Cap Watkins called The Boring Designer. It made the rounds a couple of weeks ago so maybe you’ve seen it already. If not it’s definitely worth a read.

Coincidentally iOS developer David Smith (you might know him as underscore as in _DavidSmith) podcasted on this very same topic while I was working on this post. Also worth a listen if you’d like a different perspective.

The Boring Designer

In his article, Cap is championing the boring designer and says he looks for the boring solution, the one visitor’s already know and are comfortable using. He’s an advocate of the solution that’s known to work

The thing is, I’ve suggested the opposite at times. I’ve suggested it’s ok to add something of yourself to a design and I still think it’s true. Cap’s article points out five things about boring designers. They:

  • Choose obvious over clever every time—Boring designers prioritize user experience over everything else.
  • Rarely stand their ground—Boring designers are open to new ideas. They explore ideas to find the right idea and don’t get locked into their own idea.
  • Are Practical—Boring designers understand that time and budget are limited and they work within project constraints.
  • Value Laziness—Boring designers place no personal stamp on a design. They use style guides and value constraints. Modular design helps with their laziness.
  • Lead the team —Boring designers are trusted by others. This one isn’t relevant to me as a freelancer. I suppose I lead clients where the design is concerned.

Here’s a quote from the value laziness section of the article

The boring designer realizes that the glory isn’t in putting their personal stamp on everything they touch. In fact, most of the time, it’s about leaving no trace of themselves. The boring designer loves consistency.

The general idea is the boring designer focuses on usability. He or she puts the user first. I completely agree, but…

Why is it Obvious, Clever, or Nothing?

I have a question. Why are your choices limited to obvious, clever, or nothing? Why does something that does something different have to be about being clever? Can’t it be someone doing something different because they genuinely think the new way is better?

Very little is obvious the first time you encounter it. The obviousness comes through repetition much of the time. It can also come through affordances. You can design some things in a way that the object itself suggests how it should be used.

For example a door knob is circular and just looks like something you turn, certainly more than something you would push or pull, even though you might do either after turning. An emergency door on the other hand with it’s bar extending across is indicating it wants to be pushed.

Both are designed in a way that suggests how they work. Perhaps obvious isn’t really the right word and intuitive is the better word to use.

In this context I find it interesting that the recent trend away from skeuomorphism and toward flat design is the exact opposite of designing affordances. A button is a more intuitive design for something you click than different colored text or a rectangle with a background color.

Removing depth and detail reduces the intuitiveness and obviousness of design elements. Something tells me people who support boring design aren’t also calling for a return to skeuomorphism.

It’s ok. Most of the things that are obvious on web pages, things like clicking blue underlined text, are learned. They’re obvious because we’ve seen them so many times before. There was a point where it wasn’t obvious at all. That’s why the skeuomorphic aesthetic was used in the first place.

Someone had to be the first to put a collection of links in a list and make it a vertical menu. Someone was the first to turn the same list of links into a horizontal navigation bar.

Was a hamburger icon obvious the first time you saw it? Is it obvious now? It will be soon if it isn’t yet. It’s becoming synonymous for menu. It will eventually be obvious to most people even though it wasn’t at first and probably still isn’t obvious to the majority yet.

I don’t think it’s just trying to be clever to try something new and less than obvious. Trying something you think is a better solution is a good thing If you’re right others will adopt your practice and it will become obvious.

Taking web design further requires breaking from convention at times. It’s not only ok, it’s good to break from convention here and there. Not always, but sometimes. You should have a good reason for deviating from the standard.

Most of the time the obvious solution will be the best solution. However, you should understand being used a lot doesn’t automatically make it the best solution. It makes it a popular solution. It could be popular because it is a truly good solution, but it doesn’t have to be.

To say you can’t ever break from obvious isn’t good advice in my opinion. It’s too rigid. It’s good to make people think sometimes.

What’s Wrong with Style?

My other disagreement with the boring designer is the idea that there’s something wrong with your own style being present in a finished design. Why is that automatically a bad thing?

Even if you don’t think so, you definitely are adding something of your personal style into every one of your designs. It would be impossible not to.

You and I have different sets of skills. If we both design the same site, the site will look different. If we each design 10 sites, others will likely be able to tell which sites were designed by the same person.

As long as you add something consistent across designs you’ve added something of your own style. Maybe you code navigation bars the same way. Maybe you work similar set of colors or typefaces. These consistencies become your style.

Compare the portfolios of different designers. There will be a consistency across designs by the same designer. The sites won’t necessarily look the same, but there will be something consistent in them. It will be a different consistency than that of another designer. Each is that person’s style.

A personal style doesn’t mean you make everything about aesthetics. It means you have your own personal consistencies that carry across your work.

Let’s assume by style we mean something more than consistency. Maybe in this conversation we mean adding a little above and beyond just to get something of yourself in there.

I still think it’s fine as long as it doesn’t take away anything from the project. You can’t do whatever you want on a project. The goals of the project have to come first, but there are multiple ways to solve any design problem.

Your style shouldn’t be something you force on to a project, but as long as you’re solving the problem you’ve been hired to solve there’s nothing wrong with solving it in a way that’s more distinctly you than distinctly another designer.

My point is you can build usable, functional, reliable sites, with a focus on being practical and consistent with standards and still add something of yourself to the design. Don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

It’s something that will happen regardless of whether or not you think you’re adding your own style. As long as you don’t hurt the project it’s ok to add something of your personality to it.

Modular Design is Boring, but Does it Have to Be?

Obvious over clever means sticking to standards, the expected, what’s already known to work. That often means making things modular and repeating design and coding patterns from one project to the next.

Modular patterns also fit well with the idea of valuing laziness. It enhances consistency and doesn’t require doing the same work again and again.

Someone has to choose the patterns from which to build the obvious. Someone has to choose the constraints that lead to the patterns choices.

You might be familiar with the idea of a type palette. You pick a few typefaces that can serve your needs for text and display type. You pick a script font and slab serif and a serif, etc. You build a varied enough palette from which you can always choose typefaces that will work with your project. Your palette consistently used becomes part of your style.

You can have palettes for color and palettes for layout too. Your palettes (your constraints) will be different than the palettes of another designer so each becomes part of that designer’s style.

Whether you want to accept it or not there’s an arbitrariness to choosing items in a palette. You might objectively narrow down all possibilities to a few, but from there personal choice will find the items you place in your palette.

I’ve been trying to get across the idea that design is subjective for awhile. A certain amount of the decisions you make will be arbitrary. They won’t be as objectively determined as you want to believe. If you think all your decisions are 100% objective you aren’t paying attention to yourself or humanity.

If you stick with a palette and consistent design patterns then you are working lazy and choosing obvious over clever like a boring designer. You’re also injecting something of your personal style into every design you create.

If consistency and laziness are goals then you’re going to do the same things the same way across projects and whatever the consistency, it’s your style.

You shouldn’t try to make any specific project about you and your work and style. You should always be about the project first, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be in there too. You will be anyway. You might as well control your contribution.

You absolutely have to think project first and if it doesn’t belong in the project or it doesn’t enhance the client’s brand it doesn’t belong in the design. But accept that there is no single best solution to a design problem. There are many choices you make during a design and as soon as you start making what will be subjective and sometimes arbitrary decisions you’re injecting your style into your designs.

With these types of choices if you think project first and you stay consistent with certain things across projects, you develop a recognizable style that does nothing to detract from the projects you work on.

Do read Cap’s post about The Boring Designer and listen to the followup by David Smith. It may sound like I completely disagree with the every idea of the boring designer, but I don’t. There’s a lot to like in the article, even if I am disagreeing with parts of it.

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