Award winning style is (still) not good design

July 11, 2012


There’s no one person I have to thank more for the kind of designer/developer/person who loves content and users that I am today than Jeffrey Zeldman. The quality of his work and his voice has been one of few constants in our industry. Today I reread an article he wrote for Adobe in 1999 and updated in 2005 (he mentioned it in 2010), called Style Versus Design, and I realized that the seeds of most of what he’s taught are present in that article.

The article came back to my mind today because I happened to look at some sites that had won, or had been nominated, for Webby awards. Now, I haven’t paid attention to the Webbys in six or seven years, I imagine, and had mostly forgotten that they exist. It’s fascinating, really, that they still have any importance at all. Most web folks I know are in the same boat I am, and most non-web folks don’t know that they exist at all. Like Java applets, maybe.

But when I looked at these sites, I was struck by how bad they all seemed. Not that they didn’t look pretty, or have cool animations and such, but that they were terrible web design. Often they were cheesy, but almost every one of them looked like it was created to win an award, rather than to help users do something. Doesn’t matter what it was people were trying to do; I couldn’t imagine anyone sitting through the sites long enough to do it (due to data like this).

Realizing that these sites with their percentage load counters(!), long animations before things happened, and overall presence of Flash and flashiness had still managed to win awards, I realized that the Webbys (and others like them) aren’t design awards; they are style awards, and they continue to give rise to the need for that distinction that Zeldman drew these several years ago. The problem with it, as he noted, is that this makes people confuse design with style, and either they emulate style thinking it is good design, or they reject design thinking it must all be cheesy style.

None of that is new, and it’s truly shocking that we still have to have these conversations in 2012. But here’s the thing: I think it’s more damaging when this stuff continues to happen than it was seven or thirteen years ago, and it’s because of mobile.

Many web folks see Luke Wroblewski’s data posts each Monday. This one, the most recent one, indicates that we’re already dealing with 400 million activated Android devices, 365 million iOS devices that have been sold, 227 million current generation game systems (that have web access) that have been sold, and 26.7 million eReaders that have been sold. This is compared with 1 billion Microsoft Windows PCs. The daily activation numbers of Android phones alone almost double Windows 7’s daily sales.

This would all be staggering in its own right, and I think it ought to be enough to make the Webbys rethink their criteria, if not their existence.

But that’s not the only thing. People who use these devices start to get different expectations for the web. They start expecting less clutter because they don’t have time to deal with it. They start expecting faster load times because they’re on slow 3G connections or spotty WiFi ones. They get annoyed with content that isn’t available on whatever type of device they’re using, whenever they’re using it. All of this data and more is present in a glorious fashion in Luke Wroblewski’s book, Mobile First, but it’s important to note that as these things happen they change the way people expect desktop sites to work as well.

That change is one reason that so many designers are so excited about the opportunities that are being given to us by the mobile explosion. We have more data than we’ve ever had to support our assertions that we shouldn’t treat users the way we’ve too often treated them over the web’s first twenty years, and if we keep doing it we won’t have users for much longer. It’s a beautiful change that has been too long in coming to us.

But it’s still going to take a while. There are still the Webbys.