Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Design Showcase Pornography

December 13, 2005

I don’t like this website because it’s tits are too small. This website is okay, but baby ain’t got enough back. I wish this website would just take its clothes off and hand me a beer. I totally can’t masturbate to this website, …next!

Have you been to a standards-based design showcase recently? You know, something like Stylegala, CSS Vault or CSS Beauty? Have you read the comments to some of the showcase entries? If you have, did you gag or throw up?

Yes, I know that trolls are nothing new to showcase sites and that not everyone who comments is actually a designer. However, I have a concern that there is a horrible evolution occurring in the Web standards design community. Every day I see evidence that we are losing our ability to understand and appreciate effective design—trading our appreciation and understanding for fetish.

Actually, I believe this to be true of our entire Western culture in many ways, but in the context of the Web standards design community this trait is on display to an extraordinary degree. So often if a website is featured for its effective design in one of these showcases, but the site does not exhibit any new, novel or eye-popping graphic characteristics it garners comments like “not too exciting,” or “why is this even here?” or “not worth featuring in this gallery,” or some similar criticism. Conversely, when a site of mediocre design or layout possessing outstanding graphic elements is featured, it typically gets a curious and unfortunate amount of cheers.

So in the end I fear that too many “designers” are not learning design, but instead are merely jacking off to what they like and criticizing what they don’t like.

What’s going on here? I think I know and I think that it spells trouble for our segment of the community (and generally just pisses me off). My fear is that the somewhat insular qualities of our community make it increasingly easy to wallow only in our own ideas and ideals to the degree that we become incestuous in our work and (increasingly similar) individual tastes.

Now to be clear, I’m not referring here to a widespread penchant for drop shadows or gradients, or even 2-column layouts with header/footer. Stylistic preferences and conventions are simply going to develop and be governed by fads and fashion trends. Every art has had to deal with the waxing and waning of these cultural tastes and every art survives them. Rather, I’m talking about the increasing disregard for design fundamentals in favor of stylistic fetish. And that’s downright harmful.

Design is as much science as it is art. Grid is not a sideline to our endeavor. Composition is not just something peculiar to music. Eye flow into and through a layout is not governed entirely by viewer habit. User behavior is something designers have immense power over, not something we’re entirely subject to. Beauty does not equal quality. Coolness does not equal effectiveness. Art and design are entirely different endeavors (though design often utilizes art and its conventions)… These are just some of the important ideals and foundational components of design that seem to be ignored more and more in our community, at least as evidenced by comments in design showcases.

Perhaps I shouldn’t care, but I do care. I care when someone on a design showcase comments on an example of excellent design with something like, “where’s the pop?” or “this isn’t very good design in my book.” I’m concerned that these individuals may be professionals or working to become professional designers. I worry that they’re receiving crappy design educations and that they’ll one day soil the reputation of our profession – and more business owners will end up believing that all designers are irresponsible hacks.

So in the end I fear that too many “designers” are not learning design, but instead are merely jacking off to what they like and criticizing what they don’t like. In the mean time, young, impressionable future designers read their posts and get a skewed idea of what good design is and is not. Idiocy is the gift that keeps on giving.

I think that for every hour spent ogling over beautiful (but not necessarily effective) web site designs, designers should spend 3 hours analyzing magazine layouts, excellent brochure designs and landscape paintings (or perhaps even studying grammar and writing). I think we should concentrate on studying great design that we dislike. I think design showcases should do away with comment functions. I think we should be asking our design teachers and the most successful professionals what they think about various designs rather than engaging in incestuous comment-orgies.

Perhaps I have a distorted view of what these showcase sites are supposed to do. Perhaps they’re just for exhibitionism and voyeurism in the crudest sense, and for some to spout their ignorance. But I had the idea that one of their purposes was to expose us to excellence and to shine a light on work we should aspire to. What I am learning, though, is that, as with pornography, many among us are only interested in pursuits of fetish. And that’s disappointing.

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