Published on November 23, 1999
Design is the visual expression of thoughts and feelings, and combines rational and emotional conditions. In digital media the focus is shifted to functionality, primarily because the development is rapid and it takes a lot just to understand the options. This is as truer for users as it is true for designers. Once this phase is over and the standards are set, there will be a growing demand for more refined design solutions: projects that communicate and not just deliver information.
Rationality rules at the surface, anything that turns the focus of the users awareness to something specific happens earlier and the motivation comes from the deeper levels of the soul. The whole fuzzy composition is very influential before the content is clearly rendered, if it ever gets clear at all; Sites are in the same situation as billboards, they have to grab the attention of the visitor in the first moment without having him to think about something specific. In a more and more competitive environment there is always an alternative offer, so just the sheer existence is no longer enough, design must grab attention.
Being a form of communication, the visual has a vocabulary that changes over time. The style, the trend, the way of expression is as relevant as the message itself, it ads value by giving an extra layer of meaning. Design fashion helps to communicate belonging by using and adapting to visual terms and signals of a certain community. This is as truer for the highly commercial and refined communication of brands and enterprises, as it is true for subcultures and communities (take the techno movement or a soccer team for example). Style puts a project in a certain context that allows an understanding of the message before the consciousness starts to decipher the information. An aspect of communication that is important and relevant for the successful transmission of a message: Before the user starts to spend time with a digital product, he has to like it.
A similar development from emphasizing the functional to a more developed visual language has already happened in many other fields of applied arts, and is vaguely summarized under the term 'post-modern'. Digital design is about to enter this period which is more driven by fashion and style, than by clear signage and strict rules because customers get used to how digital products work. The world of physical objects is filled with examples where the appearance determines the value, not the perfectly rational and useful execution, take the VW beetle or the iMac for example.
Design fashion is the application of these phenomena in visual communications. The usability of a digital product goes far beyond the application of information design. The value of digital product design is more than its usability,; it is the hidden statement that lives in its style and fashion. Of course this is not a contradiction to usability criteria, it is a humanistic extension, the emotions of the users are in focus of the design, not his behavior.
To guarantee that a design project is working, a cascading set of criteria has to be fulfilled. Information construction is one of them, building the basis for a successful communication. But the design of information requires more, it is also about color schemes, readability, layout and many other issues that can not be dealt with in a scientific manner. The development of a signage that is consistent for example, the differentiation between display and transaction, the simple color- and typography rules to name just a few. The design of information is all about human behavior and for that reason can not only be derived from rational considerations.
There is a tendency to observe and question the user, leading to relevant insights about the status quo, but contrary to common belief this is hardly more than a hint when looking for new solutions; It is all about correcting mistakes and little about actually solving unknown problems. Construction is as much about inspiration as any other part of the design process, a well designed project doesn't have to LOOK like a functional web site, it has to function!
Understanding that the media change with accelerating speed and realizing the limited time and attention span potential viewers have, the single most important factor in the next phase will be design that stands out: Like it or not, designers are in the fashion business!