A response to “Some thoughts on beauty”

I had an interesting discussion with a friend of mine about my previous post which touched on what people find “beautiful” in web design. It started me thinking more about the standards and values by which the web design community measures its work, and how easy it is to be a bit blinkered about it.

My friend, who works in the public sector and comes into contact with a wide variety of clients, said:

Please, please do not hold up the gov.uk site as an example of what the web should be like.

The pictures you dislike help people with poor literacy skills or learning difficulties to find what they need – visual signposts if you like. I am therefore not a fan of text only sites for usability as well as aesthetic reasons.

I really, really dislike it.

She said that she finds the new gov.uk site “cold and unwelcoming”, “bland and nasty”, and that it doesn’t fulfil its function to non-smartphone users. To her, it appears that “has been designed for mobiles only” and aesthetically it feels like it’s not for viewing on a desktop machine, which is interesting as it’s a responsive site, designed to be viewed by all devices, but also worrying that a non-designer and non-smartphone user should see it like this and hence feel excluded.

I think it’s difficult for those web designers who are wrapped up in a passion for their work, who are excited by design and love pushing the technology forward to see what they do through the eyes of someone completely outside their world. It’s a bit like the difference between working as a jobbing printer, producing everyday leaflets and fliers and a printer of high-end quality art books. The product is aimed at a completely different audience and it’s quite easy to get – not to put too fine a point on it – snobbish about the aesthetic value of what you’re producing.

Everyone uses the web differently: as with reading, people don’t all read the same books in the same way but interact with a wide variety of content in a wide variety of ways. My friend described herself as being “a laggard with technology”, but she’s probably far more representative of the general population of users than website designers are.

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