On Undesign…

01/26/2003

Much to my delight, there’s a picture of plasticbag.org in an article on “Undesign” in this week’s copy of Graphics International: Lo-fi Allstars. If you want to see the article in context complete with images, then you have to download the PDF. There’s something really nice about having your design genius recognised in a professional magazine, even if said genius is a tarted up hand-me-down from more serious and well-trained individuals. You know who you are.
Having said all that, there is something that I’d like to take issue with. The article seems to be conflating two completely different concepts of design, and in the process is doing a disservice to both. Firstly there’s the kind of design that is undertaken by someone like Jason in the design of his weblog – a form of design that he’s recently posted about. This kind of design derives from allowing the content to take centre-stage, simplifying the rest, cleaning away anything that isn’t necessary and leaving people with a simple and clearly branded content delivery system. Being flash with design, he suggests, rather misses the point. I totally agree with his strategy here (and so I should – I’ve ripped him off enough). It’s a strategy that reminds me very much of craftsmen, artisans and the like – a respect for your medium, a desire to do something clean and clear and elegant that fulfils its purpose practically and effectively. This is a school of undesign that is dripping in the craft of design. It’s almost ur-design or even deep-design, in the same way that people have searched for years for ‘deep’ grammatical structures in language. What it isn’t is slipshod, dirty or inelegant.
On the other side of the scale is the work done by Rob Manuel of b3ta in the promotion of a do-it-yourself, scrappy, “shit is good” aesthetic. I used to work with Rob and I know he feels very strongly – and again, I think, correctly – that the more polish you put on a visual joke then the more likely it is that the humour is lost. He aims for characterful and exciting pieces of work above all – get it done, get it out, if the joke’s good then it’ll thrive. It’s a design strategy that can only work in terms of content, though – not structure – and if you step back and look at how b3ta as a site is structured – both in terms of Information Architecture (if you can say something like that about b3ta without being slightly ridiculous) and overt navigation – then it’s a supremely elegant interconnected mesh of simple pages. And the design for the pages themselves concentrates – just as much as Jason’s work does – on being clear, non-invasive and well-branded.
So if you’re coming into this field fresh from the outside world, and you want to get involved in the new weblog-chic (yet again) then keep this in mind – a good site must necessarily be well-designed. It’s designed to be a clear and unobtrusive content-delivery mechanism with no sharp-edges and no confusing bits of functionality. It’s designed to clearly communicate the structure of a site and the nature of a brand. This takes work and is simply not the same thing as making something look pretty. It’s only in the content itself that you can play – and even then some content is perfect for ‘born sloppy’ approaches (humour and horror for example), while other content (news content, financial reports) still have to look authoratitative… [If you're interested in reading still more on this issue, I've had another stab at explaining myself over at marketingfix.com].