Some thoughts on beauty

Some time ago now I read a short review by Martin Belam of a presentation made at last year’s EuroIA conference. The presentation – On Beauty, given by Andrea Resmini and Eric Reiss – was described by Belam as “unbloggable”, but he gave a good description of their delivery of a visual essay on the nature of beauty and how information architects and web designers should address it.

Their argument was that the pursuit of usability and familiarity on the web has taken its toll on the individuality and aesthetics of websites. It started me thinking about what people find aesthetically pleasing in web design and in other areas, and then just three weeks later something else appeared that tapped into the same topic.

A lot of excitement was generated on Twitter around an interview with Bat For Lashes’ Natasha Khan on the Pitchfork website. A link to it popped up on my Twitter feed, accompanied by excited and enthusiastic praise for the site:

I had a look at it and indeed, it is a stunning piece of design. As you scroll down the page the stylish monochrome pictures are revealed and change alongside the text. It’s truly imaginative and eyecatching. However, this single page weighs in at 7Mb – seven megabytes! – which is a huge amount of bandwidth for something whose meaningful content is essentially just a few paragraphs of text. I had no hope of viewing on a mobile, even though I was browsing on a good wifi connection rather than a potentially intermittent roaming network. Not something that I want the whole internet to look like!

In absolute contrast, the same week saw the release of the new UK Government website. I wonder what Resmini and Reiss would have made of this? As plain as plain can be, simple clean type, few colours and no pictures or graphics except where really necessary (do you miss all those stock photos of people pointing at computers? No?). The links look like links used to look (blue, with underlines), and anything that looks like a button is a button, but without any skeuomorphic shaded clicky effects. I first took a look at it on my mobile phone, and it appears that it has been designed as a responsive site. It also looks like it’s been written and designed by geeks – and I use that as praise, meaning it looks like it’s been done by people who understand the importance of information design and don’t feel the need to dress it up with eye candy, which is as hard as creating something exciting and visually stunning, but without the glamour.

Of these two, which do I prefer? Would it sound disingenuous to say the site? It actually made me feel happy to browse it, made me feel that, if I wanted to find some information in a hurry I would have a chance of reaching it within a few easy clicks even if I was out and about. The Pitchfork site… it’s visually arresting and aesthetically stunning, but, well, that’s all. And it’s not to say that those things are unimportant to the delivery of a message, it’s just that it’s not a message that I’m looking for.

However, in the same way that high fashion uses techniques and designs that will never be worn by real people but which will percolate down and inform the way that everyday fashion changes, these beautiful and experimental websites are exciting and important in their own right. I just don’t want to see them as a model for conveying information to people who need it.

Edited for a typo in Andrea Resmini’s name.


4 March 2013

Eric Reiss

I'm glad that Andrea and I were able to inspire this wonderful post. And although I can't speak for Andrea Resmini, I agree with you that the site is FAR better than the Bat for Lashes interview. When Andrea and I speak of "beauty" we are not talking about glitz or eye-candy, but the personality of a site. The UK site suggests effectivity, which is not a bad signal for any government to send. The Bat for Lashes site, though, is a great example of creative masturbation. Pretty yes. But there are usability problems (particularly if you don't think to scroll). And as you point out, it takes up an incredible amount of bandwidth, with very little benefit for the user. "Concept" in the online environment represents function, not look and feel. Personality can be conveyed through design, tone of voice and other elements. But just making things look pretty for the sake of being different is a really, really bad idea.