A few thoughts on authenticity
I’ve been thinking about authenticity in design lately. What does that even mean? What does authentic design look like on the web? What’s this mean for designers in 2013? These questions keep me up at night and I don’t have the answers, none of us do; we’re all just figuring this out as we go. This is what I’ve come up with so far.
A few weeks ago Errol Morris asked a question on The New York Times blog, stating he was conducting a survey to determine if people were optimists or pessimists. Turns out the quiz was a cover for a larger experiment he was conducting: do typefaces affect peoples feelings, or more specifically, do certain fonts convey a feeling of truthfulness over others. To do this, a script ran that served the question to the viewer with a different typeface each time, including Times, Georgia, Helvetica, Baskerville, Comic Sans, Trebuchet, and Computer Modern. The result? Baskerville overwhelming conveyed a sense of belief:
Is there a font that promotes, engenders a belief that a sentence is true? Or at least nudges us in that direction? And indeed there is.
It is Baskerville.
I’m fully behind the notion that typefaces affect how people perceive information but I’m not sure one face can represent “truth.” A lot of the tools used by graphic designers – color, scale, shapes, typefaces – affect how a viewer perceives information but the reasons why are largely unknown. Why is blue more calming? Why is a triangle seen as powerful but upside down seen as unstable? Michael Beirut weighs in:
Once upon a time, regular people didn’t even know the names of typefaces. Then, with the invention of the personal computer, people started learning. They had their opinions and they had their favorites. But until now, type was a still matter of taste. Going forward, if someone wants to tell the truth, he or she will know exactly what typeface to use. Of course, the truth is the truth no matter what typeface it’s in. How long before people realize that Baskerville is even more useful if you want to lie?
“The truth is the truth no matter what typeface it’s in.”
Felt and Wire has an excellent interview with Michael Bierut on the new logo he designed for Mohawk paper. I love the way Bierut thinks about design and the purposeful approach he takes to his work. I nearly jumped out of my chair in excitement reading his thoughts on Paul Rand’s approach to logo design:
Paul Rand has written quite eloquently about how logos really are vessels for meaning. He says the best thing a designer can do is to listen carefully, and then create a vessel that’s the right shape to hold the meaning that can only be added to over time by the company that it’s representing. If the company does a good job with what their business is and what their enterprise is all about, the goodwill they generate will then accumulate in this vessel that starts empty but eventually is filled up with meaning — meaning that comes from real life and real experience, rather than from the reactions one has just to colors and shapes, which can be so subjective.
“Vessels for meaning.” I think I just found my new favorite design definition.
Khoi Vinh on the disconnect between talented editorial designers and interactive designers:
[W]e’re leaving an era where design operates in the narrative mode, in which its fundamental purpose is to create canonical, highly controlled visual stories. We’re now in an era — the digital era — where the new paradigm is designing for behavior: creating stateful systems that are responsive to user inputs and environmental inputs, where presentation is not just separated from content, but where presentation is volatile and continually changing by nature.
There are many talented designers working in interactive and there are many talented designers working in editorial but their are few designers who can successfully work in both simultaneous and Vinh posits this is why we have yet to see quality editorial work on the web. He coins a new term “editorial experience designers”, or “ed-ex” and suggests design education start funneling in this type of work to raise a new breed of designer.
(Photo Credit: Apartment Therapy)
I read an article a few weeks ago about an interesting element of Shaker design. Inside Shaker homes, a simple wooden strip with evenly spaced pegs spans every wall. We’ve all seen this idea; we often hang our coats on this peg rail system, but the Shakers have built an interesting system upon this framework. Since this is a common element among all the homes, the Shakers could build objects to fit into it. Nothing needs to be nailed into the walls because the only requirement to participate in the framework was a two-inch diameter hole.
I’ve been thinking about this idea for a few weeks now ever since I read the article almost to the point of obsession. It reminded me of an article I had written a few months ago about the idea that designing for the web is like creating a platform that promotes conversation. As the designer, we start the conversation but the user gets to contribute and add to the platform we create. I started to wonder if this idea wasn’t just limited to web design and if these ideas about frameworks could be applied to anything.
Platforms, Conversations and Design Surprises
I love it when I realize a concept I’ve thought about and written about for a few years can also be applied to something else. One of the principles in my manifesto is “The best work comes from the place between the known and the unknown.” When I wrote that, I was primarily thinking about tools and skill sets, meaning when your designs will be better when you are stretched to learn a new skill or tool because you will be more open to experiment, you will have a great chance of failing and thus, produce different results than if you stick to your usual tools, skills, and practices.
Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about this concept in regards to the designer and audience relationship. For years, design has been described as a narrative initiated by the designer, usually resulting in a one-way dialog—designer to audience. I believe this method of design is changing with the rise of interactive design and the design process is no longer one continuous narrative but a conversation between designer and audience.