Most people think that design is just one part in any creative process, something you use to change the look of your creation after you’ve already put in all the working bits. On a website, design means changing the typeface to something sexy, or adding a big photo to give a splash of color. In this way of thinking, design doesn’t have to do anything except look good, like Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. But this view of design is misguided (and perhaps a little dangerous)1.

Design is not one task among many, something you use to paint a facade on your working website. It’s a mindset, a framework through which the whole act of creating needs to be seen. Every decision is a design decision, and seen this way, the parts of your website need to do more than just add color. Changing the link color isn’t going to improve a list with too many elements. Adding a photo isn’t going to make users any happier about navigating a clumsy interface. And adding gradients certainly isn’t going to make up for a nonsensical taxonomy. The old idea that form (design) and function are in conflict is misguided. Form and function are two sides of the same coin; how something works and how something looks are intimately linked.

We build websites for users, but it’s hard to think of users when you parcel off design into an afterthought. If design is relegated to an aesthetic afterthought, then we distance ourselves and our website from our users by putting a ill-fitting veneer over a poorly built structure. Our users now have to muscle their way through a layer of questionable aesthetics even to get to the content of our site.

When libraries held a monopoly on information, we might have been able to get away with this disregard for our users. Where else were they going to go? But that time is a sweet memory, and we’ve lost the battle in trying to convince our users that if they just cut their way through the brambles and piles of garbage to get to the Very Expensive Database™ we provide for them, their research will be easier. It’s not easier, and even if the content inside that Very Expensive Database™ is more relevant and more trustworthy than what can be found on Google our users don’t see the point in wrestling with our poor design choices to get their work done.

  1. Marco Arment has summed up why this view is bad for users by looking at the role of design in Android phone development: “Nearly every usability detail appears to be an afterthought, as if ‘design’ is relegated to a coat of paint at the end of the development cycle rather than a deep-rooted philosophy throughout it.”