ornament and crime

Ornament, Crime & Function: Artifice in Web Design

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When developing a new website, I try to keep the design honest and true to its medium and message. Functional design is my thing: Modernism, the lessons of the Bauhaus — and no pointless decoration.

Kevin Goldman wrote an excellent post on the subject called Material Honesty on the Web. I’ll summarise his points:

As in Architecture, websites are bound by the rules of good design:

  • foundational honesty
  • stylistic honesty
  • decorative honesty

Web design is ripe for the discipline and rigour Kevin suggests. It is a hotbed for trends & fashion, with the design seen as something you graft onto your content, like decorative wallpaper with only surface qualities.

Today’s trend is tomorrow’s snore.

Fashion trends come and go, offering only fleeting advantage.

A website has a job to do – its your digital shop window; your doppelgänger. You want it timeless, like good architecture (see the intro).

Talking trends, the current design debate about flat vs skeuomorphic user interfaces is besides the point. We should rather ask “Which approach is best suited to the task at hand?”. The function of the page (or page element) should inform all design decisions.

First, some background.

Ornament and Crime, and Raumplan.

Adolf Loos was an Austrian/Czech architect from the early 20th century who introduced at least two hefty concepts into modern design thinking.

  • The Raumplan or ‘spatial plan’ – an interpenetrating arrangement of interior spaces i.e. ‘open plan’ as we know it today.
  • He was the first designer to reject the need for ornament in architecture and design. His theories are encapsulated in his 1908 essay Ornament and Crime“The evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects…” and “ornamentation can have the effect of causing objects to go out of style and thus become obsolete…”

Raumplan as a design technique was quietly disseminated and became a core ingredient in the vocabulary of Modern design. On the other hand, his stance on decoration was more controversial and did not catch on with the general public. His timing was unfortunate: he introduced these ideas when the decorative style known as Art Nouveax was at its peak, and then WW1 intervened…

Le Corbusier and other early Modernists ran with his ideas, transforming them into a canon of the Modern Movement: honesty in materials and form.

Decoration and artifice in web design.

It is often forgotten that Loos was not anti decoration per se – he just did not want it applied to “useful objects”.

A website is a useful object – even if it is all artifice1.

1 In essence, websites are all artifice, built on ones and zeros: all illusion. They live in that happy digital space where paradox rules and make-believe can co-exist with functional necessity.

Function is the key.

Websites function (or are useful) to:

  • convey relevant information (and sometimes gather relevant information)
  • formalise relationships through structure and categorisation
  • be found – their information structure needs to be machine-readable so that it can be indexed by search engines
  • impart “joy” or engagement in the user – to titillate.
    (This last point is the ‘slippery slope’ of design, but I’ll talk more about that later).

In turn, each website is comprised of discrete functional components:

  • Content
    • Text copy
    • Embedded content, be this an image, video or audio etc
  • User Interface
    • In-page widgets for orientation, getting around, branding enforcement
    • White space to aid visual organisation – Raumplan for web-pages.

When developing a website I regularly ask myself: this new element I’m adding to the page… what is its function? Is it vital to the make-up or meaning of the page? If I remove it, are any of the functionalities listed above compromised? If not, the element is decoration / cruft and can be safely left out of the design with no adverse effects.

‘All that is left’ is to style and position the element, which I won’t cover here as it is a subject unto itself. I found a handy article called Magazine design principles applied to web design which covers the essentials.

Decoration a no-no.

I don’t have an aversion to decoration, but more often than not I find myself discarding it as it tends to come up empty. Why bother with the extra complexity (more code to download by the web browser, more code to manage, more stuff…).

Dieter Rams nails it:

Good design is as little design as possible.
Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials.
Back to purity, back to simplicity.

Similarly, photography also has a useful lesson: when considering the composition of your image in the viewport, if an element can be removed from the scene without hurting it, it is probably a good idea to remove it.

A little Raumplan never hurts.

In the realm of web page layout, the opposite of decoration is negative space / white-space, the void, call it what you will – space for the page elements to breathe and eyes to rest.

Raumplan belongs on digital devices, too.

The slippery slope.

Earlier, I listed engagement of the user as a useful function for a website. Herein lies the slippery slope of web design (for that matter, of Design as a whole).

You see something. You like it. You want to use it. Talking website design, it may be a scrolling technique, or a flashy button hover effect. It is very easy to graft into your developing web page, and looks cool to fresh eyes. Should you use it?

I look to the content for answers. If the work on display is of a high calibre and represented by quality imagery, odds are the effect is surplus to requirements. If the effect contributes to the understanding of the content and does not comprise any other functionality inherent on the page, then it has a place in the design.

Frank Chimero in his book The Shape of Design offers this insight in closing:

The relationship between form and purpose — How and Why — is symbiotic. But despite this link, Why is usually neglected, because How is more easily framed. It is easier to recognize failures of technique than those of strategy or purpose, and simpler to ask “How do I paint this tree?” than to answer “Why does this painting need a tree in it?” The How question is about a task, while the Why question regards the objective of the work. If an artist or designer understands the objective, he can move in the right direction, even if there are missteps along the way. But if those objectives are left unaddressed, he may find himself chasing his own tail, even if the craft of the final work is extraordinary.