Friday, January 19, 2007

Webpages and Warthogs

I was reading an entry by Josh Porter on his Bokardo blog asking "do MySpace users have bad taste?" and it reminded me of a few things.

The first thing that came to mind was experiences I've had teaching students in IT classes, where we would be looking at building something, multimedia presentations or perhaps databases using Filemaker Pro. And always someone would build something that was flat out ugly. Not just untidy or unbalanced or bland, but downright garish. And I would always ask, "Does that look good to you?" And the reply was invariably, "yeah, what's wrong with it?"

Now, I'm not asserting that my sense of aesthetics is highly refined or some such, I know it's not, but I understand exactly where Josh's question has come from. MySpace is replete with examples of ugly design, but it's not just MySpace where you can find such. The web is full of it. But why?

The comments on Bokardo are well worth reading (read also the comments to a follow-up post "Visual & Social Design") - the discussion of usability vs aesthetics is quite interesting, and poses some good questions about what really constitutes usability in a website. (I can forsee some interesting discussions in my senior classes.) But I don't think the discussion got near the root of why ugly is okay in MySpace (or other websites).

I particularly liked this comment:
I think MySpace inadvertently played in to the kids within us who want to build a rough & ready treehouse. Now, would you be happy enough to put your treehouse together yourself or would you want to get some high end feng shui designer in so you could impresses your teenage friends but lose a lot of the personalization?
This rings true to me, though I don't think it's the entire explanation. Others mentioned the fact that MySpace is predominated by teens, which reminded me of something else.

A few years back, a friend and I looked at the logo of certain organisation and felt it was rather poor. This wasn't just a general feeling on our part - we could clearly pinpoint some significant flaws in the design of the logo.

My friend is a qualified graphic designer, and he approached the organisation's directors and offered to design a new logo for them. They were nonplussed, but agreed to look at what he could come up with. He produced three new logos for them to consider. Several of our friends saw the new logos and were impressed by what they saw. Not so, the directors. They preferred the old logo.

My point? It's not just teenagers who seems to be blind to good design (or bad). So now I'm wondering if having an eye for design is one of those things that for most people requires training or at least significant exposure. Some people can't really tell the difference between a genuine home-cooked Italian meal and what they can buy prepackaged from the supermarket. Some people like instant coffee. And McDonalds. And maybe they always will.

My last point concerns warthogs. Most people will look at a warthog and think "ugly". But ask someone like David Attenborough, you'll get a different answer. (Yes, I have been watching a few documentaries of late - my daughter's becoming quite hooked on DA's stuff.) The thing is, once you've heard Attenborough talk about the warthog and why it appears as it does, you get a new appreciation for its appearance - 'ugly' is no longer the right word.

And of course, to the female warthog, there was never any doubt about the male's attractiveness, but then, she was able to appreciate the merits of his appearance from the start.