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This category features articles on general design principles, Web design, typography, user interface design and related topics. It also presents design showcases and practical pieces on the business side of design. Curated by Alma Hoffmann.
In this article, I’d like to reacquaint you with the humble workhorse of communication that is the paragraph. Paragraphs are everywhere. In fact, at the high risk of stating the obvious, you are reading one now. Despite their ubiquity, we frequently neglect their presentation. This is a mistake. Here, we’ll refer to some time-honored typesetting conventions, with an emphasis on readability, and offer guidance on adapting them effectively for devices and screens. We’ll see that the ability to embed fonts with @font-face is not by itself a solution to all of our typographic challenges.
In 1992, Tim Berners-Lee circulated a document titled “HTML Tags,” which outlined just 20 tags, many of which are now obsolete or have taken other forms. The first surviving tag to be defined in the document, after the crucial anchor tag, is the paragraph tag. It wasn’t until 1993 that a discussion emerged on the proposed image tag.
Right there in the center of my boilerplate for design proposals is a section that I glare at with more resentment each time I complete it. It’s called “Deliverables,” and it’s there because clients expect it: a list of things I’ll deliver for the amount of money that I specify further down in the document. Essentially, it distills a design project down to a goods-and-services agreement: you pay me a bunch of money and I’ll give you this collection of stuff. But that isn’t what I signed up for as a designer. Frankly, I don’t give a damn about deliverables. And neither should you.
Case in point: for months now, I’ve worked consistently with a particular client for whom I do almost no work on actual design artifacts (wireframes, prototypes, etc.). Rather, I hold frequent calls with the main designer and developer to go over what they’ve done with the product (i.e. poke holes in it) and what they should do next (i.e. help prioritize). Some days, they hand me wireframes; sometimes, a set of comps; other days, live pages. Whatever the artifact, our purpose is always to assess what we have now versus where we need to get to.
Have you read Where the Wild Things Are? The storybook has fluidity of content and design figured out. It goes that one night, protagonist Max “wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind or another.” He hammers nails into walls, pesters a small dog. Author Maurice Sendak doesn’t explain these hijinks textually for the reader. The mischievous acts are illustrated on the right-hand pages. Readers make the narrative connections for themselves.
The words and pictures depend on each other for completeness. Web designers can employ the same complementary dependence of graphic and text in their own work. It encourages a sense of belonging and can create strong first impressions, which are often essential to effective Web design.
There are many ways to skin a redesign (I think that’s how the saying goes). On a philosophical level, I agree with those who advocate for realigning, not redesigning, but these are mere words when you’re staring a design problem in the face with no idea where to start. This article came out of my own questions about how to make the realignment philosophy practical and apply it to my day-to-day work — especially when what’s needed is more than a few tweaks to the website here and there.
I propose an approach to redesign through realignment, by using a framework adapted from Edward Tufte’s principles on the visual display of quantitative information. But first, a little context.
The country selector. It’s there when you create an account for a new Web service, check out of an e-commerce store or sign up for a conference. The normal design? A drop-down list with all of the available countries. However, when conducting a large session of user testing on check-out usability (which we wrote about here on Smashing Magazine back in April 2011), we consistently found usability issues with the massive country selector drop-downs.
Jakob Nielsen reported similar issues as far back as 2000 and 2007 when testing drop-downs with a large number of options, such as state and country lists. So, this past summer we set out to redesign the country selector. This article focuses on the four design iterations we went through before arriving at the solution (free jQuery plugin included).
If content sits at the top of the food chain, why do we spend so much time talking about the finer points of design? Every day we debate, experiment with and discuss topics that easily fall into the category of aesthetics, enhanced functionality and layout; in fact, relatively rarely do we talk about content. Nevertheless, even though we should concede that content is king in this realm, this doesn’t mean that design should be devalued.
It may seem logical that the user experience lives and dies by how the user relates on an emotional level to the content on a website. But this is not necessarily the case. From a design perspective, our job is to maximize the value of every visitor, whether they love the content or hate it. The role of a UX designer is not always to make everyone feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
It appears to be a reader’s market. More written content is freely available than ever before, accessible in just about every format you could imagine. If you want it on paper, you’ve got it. On screen? What size, friend? We can shrink, stretch and stitch it all together every which way because, really, we’re just talking about words here… Or are we?
As soon as I ask that question, several others quickly follow. Is content so flexible? Is content’s most basic unit the word? Or is it, perhaps, the message? In today’s reader’s market, what of the writers and the designers who make reading possible? And are we building tools that honor their work, too? These questions didn’t randomly pop into my head one day. Nor did a design problem get me thinking along these lines. It was while reading — for pleasure — that I noticed something was wrong.
Since the dawn of the Internet, the demand for good design has continued to skyrocket. From Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 and beyond, designers have remained on their toes as they define the trends and expectations of our online universe. The Internet is a great designer’s playground, and online businesses are growing more and more appreciative of what can be gained from a bit of well-executed eye candy.
Over the past two years, this fact has become the backbone of a growing trend in online marketing: the infographic. Infographics are visual representations of information, or “data viz” as the cool kids call it these days. The term “data viz” comes from “data visualization,” which implies that sets of data will be displayed in a unique way that can be seen, rather than read. This visualization should not be left up to interpretation, it should instead be designed in a way that provides a universal conclusion for all viewers.
You might consider yourself knowledgeable, but you’ve probably never heard of this powerful communication and design technique that I’m about to share. I’m sure you’ve seen it in practice but never knew it was working on you — that’s how good it is. I’m here to shed light on this technique so that you can use it as a approach to your design or writing.
See what I did there? I introduced you to dissonance by using the technique itself. If used correctly, it can enhance your approach to design and copywriting in certain projects. Welcome to designing with dissonance!